Handicapping the SEC East by ranking the coaches
This week, we’ve been breaking down the SEC East by category with an eye towards projecting the 2016 standings.
Here are the two previous installments in this series:
Today, we’re going to look at the coaches. We’ll factor in the entire staff, but the head coach accounts for much of these rankings:
Most important assistant: Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel
Non-Coordinator: Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee
Barry Odom is an accomplished defensive coordinator whose ties to the program made him the ideal choice to follow Gary Pinkel as head coach at Missouri.
But his only head coaching experience was 14 years ago at (Columbia, Mo.) Rock Bridge High School, which forces us to slot him at the bottom of these rankings. He’s tabbed Josh Heupel, formerly of Oklahoma and Utah State to revive one of college football worst offenses in 2015. That looks like a low-risk, high reward hire.
DeMontie Cross, a St. Louis native and former teammate of Odom, will lead a defense with eight returning starters. The key man on the staff this season could be Elarbee, who’s charged with replacing four starters from last year’s offensive line.
Most important assistant: Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig
Non-Coordinator: Recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Gerry Gdowski
Derek Mason came to Vanderbilt from Stanford with a reputation as a strong defensive mind. That perception is alive and well, even with a 7-17 overall record in his first two seasons at the helm in Nashville.
While the defenses have been decent, the offenses have been anchored to the bottom of the SEC rankings — finishing 14th in 2014 and 13th last season.
Ludwig will try to develop sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur while leaning heavily on running back Ralph Webb in an effort to improve the offense this season.
Mason is talking up his team’s chances for a bowl game this fall, and if he’s right, he’ll be climbing on this list next season.
Most important assistant: Co-defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot
Non-Coordinator: Wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas
It’s striking that Mark Stoops, Mason and Odom share similar defensive-oriented backgrounds that led them to their first head coaching jobs. Stoops took over in Lexington after a stint as Florida State’s defensive coordinator and has gone 12-24 in his tenure — including back-to-back 5-7 marks.
While Mason serves as his own defensive coordinator, Stoops leaves that job to Eliot. His units have finished 13th, 11th and 12th in total defense.
If the Wildcats want to get over the hump and back into the postseason, the defense will need to climb a bit in those rankings. The offense is under new leadership, but that unit finished above East champion Florida last year in scoring.
Thomas comes over from Western Kentucky to work with a talented, but inconsistent group of receivers. Perhaps the former Miami Hurricane can help the unit cut down on the drops that cost them so dearly in 2015.
Most important assistant: Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney
Non-Coordinator: Offensive line coach Sam Pittman
Yes, this is Kirby Smart’s first head coaching job. But considering that he served under Alabama’s Nick Saban for 12 years and has four national championship rings in his jewelry box, he’s not your average fresh-faced coach.
His pedigree, and his strong hires in his short time in Athens, slot the Bulldogs in the middle of this list.
Chaney is a respected offensive mind who, after working with Drew Brees at Purdue, seems well suited to develop Jacob Eason as the team’s quarterback of the future (or present).
Mel Tucker comes over from Alabama with Smart to lead the defense, and getting Pittman from Arkansas may end up being a real boon for the program.
3. SOUTH CAROLINA
Most important assistant: Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper
Non-Coordinator: Running backs coach Bobby Bentley
There’s little question that Will Muschamp underachieved in his four seasons in Florida. But he did post a 28-21 overall record and win a Gator Bowl.
The perception that his tenure in Gainesville was such a failure comes from the high expectations. Before he took the job, he was in a similar place that Smart finds himself in now — the highly thought of defensive mind getting his first chance to run his own show.
He can still coach a defense, but the other side of the ball torpedoed his Florida teams.
Roper was the offensive coordinator for Muschamp’s last year in Florida, and he led an improvement of 50 yards and about 12 points per game. The pair will get the chance to start together in Columbia.
Bentley was a good hire because of his strong ties to the state, and the fact that his son, Jake, is a highly touted quarterback prospect.
Most important assistant: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier
Non-Coordinator: Associate head coach/linebackers coach Randy Shannon
Another branch from the Saban coaching tree, Jim McElwain wasted little time acclimating himself to life in the SEC last fall. He won the SEC East title, despite losing his starting quarterback midway through the season.
Nussmeier and McElwain spent the spring sorting through options at the position, and seem to have landed on Alabama and Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio.
Having an experienced coach like Shannon working with defensive coordinator Geoff Collins bolsters recruiting and adds invaluable experience to the coaching staff.
Long seen as a rising star in the coaching ranks, McElwain is definitely trending towards the top of this list.
Most important assistant: Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
Non-Coordinator: Offensive line coach Bob Mahoney
No SEC East coach matches the longevity and success of Butch Jones. He has two MAC and two Big East titles on his resume at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, respectively, to go with 71 career victories. And he’ll be hoping to add a championship this year with what appears to be (on paper, anyway) his best team at Tennessee.
Shoop, formerly of Penn State, looks to be a perfect fit to lead an experienced and talented defense in Knoxville. He’s not short on confidence, either, telling a radio host that “nobody will run the football on us.”
Mahoney coaches a veteran group of linemen with four returning starters and redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit Drew Richmond set to open holes for Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
This could be the year where Jones takes the step from good coach in smaller conferences to just good coach.