Grading every SEC head coach in 2021
Does anybody like getting a report card?
I’d guess that 98 percent of us really never looked forward to that. Even if you were a solid student, I can’t imagine you were ever excited to get your report card.
For head coaches, I’m sure that’s no different. Well, I guess it is. They’re all millionaires who will continue to be millionaires, regardless of what grade I hand them (shoutout to all the buyouts).
Still, grades are important. Grades are relative to expectations. We can’t have the same set of expectations for Clark Lea that we have for Nick Saban. Shane Beamer is getting praised for a 6-6 season, while Ed Orgeron and Dan Mullen are out of a job after their 6-6 seasons.
So then, what do we look at? Did your team rise above preseason expectations? Did your assistant hires work out? Did you handle in-season injuries well? That’s all part of it.
These are the 2021 grades I have for each SEC coach:
Alabama, Nick Saban — A
A few things here. Saban lost Steve Sarkisian, AKA the guy who led the 2 top scoring offenses in school history. Saban also lost 6 players in the 1st round of the NFL Draft, and 10 players overall. His team entered the season ranked No. 120 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production. So obviously, Alabama won another SEC title and is the No. 1 seed in the Playoff.
That’s all you need to know right there.
Arkansas, Sam Pittman — A-
I was high on the Hogs entering 2021, with a 7-5 projection. I had Pittman beating Texas and Texas A&M. Having said that, Arkansas rose above my preseason expectations. Pittman is probably an Ole Miss win away — on a failed 2-point conversion attempt that would’ve won it — from being SEC Coach of the Year. He has an outside shot at a top-15 finish, depending on how the Citrus Bowl goes.
The only slight knock on Pittman was that the Razorbacks again hit that midseason lull, especially on the defensive side with those Ole Miss and Auburn losses. But any Arkansas fan would’ve taken an 8-4 regular season with a sweep of Texas.
Auburn, Bryan Harsin — C-
The only reason Harsin doesn’t have a worse grade is because my preseason expectations were low. I had the Tigers going 5-7. He technically exceeded that low bar, and some will say the season fell apart once Bo Nix went down. But Harsin barely beat Georgia State at home, and if he hadn’t, his team wouldn’t be in a bowl game. Harsin then fired his receivers coach after just 4 games. And while the Tigers did get back on track with wins against LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas, the wheels fell off in November.
The OC he poached from South Carolina, Mike Bobo, is gone after failing to score a touchdown in the 3rd or 4th quarter in the final 5 games of the year. A “C-” might be the nicest postseason grade Harsin gets.
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Florida, Dan Mullen — F
In every way, Mullen failed. He brought back the wrong coordinator (Todd Grantham), he picked the wrong quarterback (Emory Jones) and he always said the wrong thing. Whether it was flashing a total yards stat after a loss to Kentucky or saying he wouldn’t talk about recruiting until December, Mullen couldn’t get out of his own way. That’s why he’s out of a job. His in-game decisions at the end of halves always seemed to bite him. Too conservative against Kentucky, too aggressive against Georgia. Whatever the case, he went 2-6 against SEC competition. It was bad enough to lose to Kentucky, Mizzou and South Carolina, but he got outrecruited by all of them, as well.
It’s December, so I can talk about that.
Georgia, Kirby Smart — A-
If you had asked me before the SEC Championship, I would’ve said Smart deserves an “A.” Maybe even an “A+”. But after his team got housed by Alabama in Atlanta, Smart has to get a slight knock. The quarterback situation is a massive question mark after Smart stuck with Stetson Bennett IV, and did so without giving JT Daniels the reps he should’ve gotten once he returned from injury. And once again, Smart’s defense got exposed against an explosive passing offense.
Having said that, Georgia had the best scoring defense through 12 games of any team since 1986, and it earned its 1st unbeaten regular season since the Herschel Walker era. It did that with Bennett at quarterback, and it’s even more amazing that his top 2 weapons were true freshman tight end Brock Bowers and the undersized redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey, who wasn’t even a top-1,000 recruit. Smart can get back to an “A” by winning it all.
Kentucky, Mark Stoops — A-
Here’s a question. How many times has Kentucky had a winning season in SEC play in the last 4 decades? Twice. Both were with Stoops. Most recently, it was this year. The program got off to its best start (6-0) since Bear Bryant’s squad in 1950. That included wins against Florida (the first one in Lexington since 1986) and LSU. Getting to a Florida bowl game with a shot at double-digit wins is darned impressive.
Even though the turnovers were frustrating and the secondary struggled against MSU and Tennessee, don’t lose sight of what Stoops did. He did a complete offensive 180 by bringing in a 1st-time FBS play-caller in Liam Coen. On top of that, Stoops added Will Levis and Wan’Dale Robinson via the transfer portal, which was what allowed Coen’s offense to take shape in Year 1. Stoops was rewarded with a new contract for again reminding the college football world that this ain’t your dad’s Kentucky team.
LSU, Ed Orgeron — D+
I feel like I should break this up into 2 categories — Orgeron before he was fired vs. Orgeron after he was fired. Before Scott Woodward pulled the plug on Orgeron in Baton Rouge, it was mostly a disaster. LSU got bullied in the trenches, and Orgeron’s big offensive coordinator hire, Jake Peetz, flopped. On the bright side? Daronte Jones was an upgrade from Bo Pelini … which isn’t saying much. Losses to UCLA, Kentucky and Auburn did Orgeron in. Orgeron needed Lane Kiffin — post-blowout loss — to tell him to change up his defense to finally start seeing results. That’s why LSU rallied to beat A&M, which ultimately got the Tigers to the postseason. Orgeron’s time at LSU got the end it deserved, and we were blessed with half a season’s worth of him acting as a lame-duck coach.
But let’s be honest. If Orgeron had avoided embarrassment in the 1st part of the season, he would’ve at least gotten to make a case to keep his job. Instead, he never even sniffed a bounce-back season.
Mississippi State, Mike Leach — B
This grade could’ve gone all over the place. If you had asked for midseason grades? Leach would’ve probably been around a “C-” or worse. But Will Rogers was phenomenal for most of November, and we ultimately got the Year 2 Leach bump. The offense improved by nearly 10 points per game, and the Air Raid actually looked like the Air Raid down the stretch. Wins at A&M and Auburn were impressive, and that N.C. State victory aged well. On top of that, Zach Arnett’s stock continued to rise after Leach kept him from leaving to become LSU’s defensive coordinator.
Leach gets knocked for coaching such a herky-jerky team for the majority of the season, and there’s something to be said for not raising more of a stink with the way the Memphis game ended. But he made some nice adjustments — he ran the ball more and brought in transfer portal receivers who could work in the Air Raid — to get MSU a winning regular season after a brutal Year 1.
Mizzou, Eli Drinkwitz — C
I wanted more. I wanted to see the Year 2 jump from Connor Bazelak. I wanted to see Drinkwitz’s intriguing hire of Steve Wilks work out. Most of all, I wanted to see Mizzou surprise us before the 2nd-to-last week of the regular season. None of those things happened. Drinkwitz did, however, get a better showing from his team down the stretch, especially on the defensive side.
The train-wreck run defense did improve — we’ll see how that looks against Army — in November. And Drinkwitz adjusted nicely by deciding to make Tyler Badie the focal point of the offense. Who are we kidding? Badie WAS the offense. That’s part of the problem. We didn’t see those transfer portal additions take off, and instead, we’re left wondering what the offensive identity will be in 2022. On the bright side, Drinkwitz beat Florida, got to a bowl game and lined up a loaded recruiting class.
Ole Miss, Lane Kiffin — A
It’s the best regular-season win total in program history. Of course Kiffin earned himself an “A.” He had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, he kept Jeff Lebby around for Year 2 and his staff made savvy moves in the transfer portal (especially Chance Campbell). Kiffin might’ve been criticized for some of his 4th-down calls, but 10-2 with an Egg Bowl win and a quarterback who stayed in the Heisman race into November? Yeah, that’s an ideal Year 2. His offense was pretty banged up for long stretches of the year, too, yet he still came out of it with just 2 losses.
I cannot and will not fault Kiffin for telling us to “get our popcorn ready” before the Alabama game. This is exactly why we needed Kiffin back in the national spotlight:
“Get your popcorn ready.” – Lane Kiffin 🍿 pic.twitter.com/ZDdr60cjuj
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 2, 2021
South Carolina, Shane Beamer — B+
Beamer inherited a 2-win team that was No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production. That’s why Vegas’ regular-season over/under win total was 3.5. On top of that, Beamer lost his starting quarterback before the start of the year and was forced to start a grad assistant (not a grad transfer) at the game’s most important position. And all Beamer did was lead South Carolina to a bowl game thanks to wins against Florida and Auburn. That’s darned impressive for anyone, much less a 1st-time head coach.
Beamer still has to find his team’s true offensive identity, and that group will lose some key pieces defensively. But he’s in position to potentially sign a top-15 class. He already showed he could overcome some low expectations. Gamecocks fans have to be feeling good about Beamer’s potential after Year 1.
Tennessee, Josh Heupel — B+
I had Tennessee projected to go 2-6 in SEC play, so Heupel absolutely surpassed my expectations. He did exactly what he had to do. He put together a top-15 offense, he found a stud at quarterback in Hendon Hooker and his defensive coordinator hire (Tim Banks) withstood some major roster attrition to a unit that held its own. That’s a Year 1 success. Tennessee doesn’t look like a dumpster fire by any stretch, which seems important for attracting a certain Arch Manning.
If there’s a knock on Heupel, it’s not that the Vols’ 3 rivals all beat them (that Alabama game was a 1-score game in the 4th quarter). It’s that he started Joe Milton in the 1st part of the season. That decision might’ve cost UT the Pitt game, wherein Hooker came in and ultimately became the guy soon thereafter. And eventually, it’d be nice to see Heupel script 50 plays so that his team doesn’t have such a noticeable drop-off in the 2nd quarter. But for Year 1, that season was much better than it could’ve been with the Jeremy Pruitt fallout.
Texas A&M, Jimbo Fisher — C+
It was a roller-coaster year in College Station. On the one hand, Fisher became the 1st former Saban assistant to ever take down the master, and he did so with his backup quarterback. That’s a moment Aggies fans won’t soon forget. Nobody can take that from Fisher. But on the other hand, this is one of the best defenses in school history, and with an offensive-minded head coach, the Aggies couldn’t even post a winning record in SEC play.
Losing to Arkansas for the 1st time in a decade hurt, as did squandering golden opportunities against MSU and a 6-6 LSU team. Even with a backup quarterback, A&M should’ve been able to put up better than 25 points per game against Power 5 competition. It felt like Fisher wasn’t willing to simplify the game plan and run the ball more when it would’ve benefitted a young quarterback with a young offensive line. That was a dynamic group of skill players, and as well as Fisher is recruiting, there’s no guarantee that all develop into All-SEC players like the ones he had in 2021. If Fisher doesn’t win the Gator Bowl, he’ll see those Kevin Sumlin comps in spades.
Vanderbilt, Clark Lea — C
I know I sound like I’m putting lipstick on a pig, but I watched Vandy a good amount in November. That team played harder than it had in any point in the last 3 seasons. It didn’t have the wins to show for it, but that was the biggest thing for Lea in his 1st year as a head coach. Yeah, maybe taking away the numbers on the jerseys was sort of corny, but it really was just about figuring out who wanted to be there and who didn’t.
Lea eventually made the switch to Mike Wright at quarterback, who brought some juice to an offense that needed it. Badly. I wouldn’t expect many people to take Vandy as a threat to win a few games in the East next year, but I also wouldn’t rule it out if Lea can work a little magic in the transfer portal.