Handicapping the SEC East: Ranking the coaches
In our latest ‘Handicapping the SEC East’ series in advance of the 2015 season, we’ll look at the league’s coaching staffs — from head coaches to top assistants — and attempt to rank them in order from most complete to questionable.
On Friday, we’ll compile divisional personnel group and coach rankings to project the 2015 standings. Here are the previous installments:
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Most Important Assistant: Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig
Non-Coordinator: Defensive line coach Frank Maile
A proven commodity as a defensive assistant, Derek Mason appears in over his head as the leader of an SEC program but it’s too early to label his tenure with the Commodores a complete disaster. His decision to fire longtime friend and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell in favor of new play-caller Andy Ludwig during the offseason could in fact save his job, but the Commodores must first find a quarterback if Mason wants to avoid the hot seat in November. Defensive line coach Maile was one of Mason’s top assistants during his first season last fall, directing a group that could be even more explosive in 2015.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Most Important Assistant: Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson
Non-Coordinator: Running backs coach Chad Scott
Will Mark Stoops convince the SEC he’s the right man for the job at Kentucky this season? He almost did so last fall after the Wildcats won five of their first six games and nearly ended a colossal losing streak to Florida, but the second half happened. The crushing blow of six consecutive losses took the wind out of Kentucky’s sails heading into the offseason. OC Neal Brown’s departure to Troy left a gaping hole in the Air Raid offense but Stoops responded with a home run hire of Dawson, who resigned from a similar role at West Virginia. He has weapons at his disposal and will work alongside Scott to ensure the Wildcats’ running game is a focal point this fall with Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp.
5. FLORIDA GATORS
Most Important Assistant: Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins
Non-Coordinator: Receivers coach Kerry Dixon
Jim McElwain’s building what he hopes is an SEC championship-caliber staff in Gainesville, beginning with former colleague Doug Nussmeier (during their Michigan State days from 2003-05) on offense and former Mississippi State DC Collins on the other side of the football. McElwain and Nussmeier share a near identical philosophy and will bounce ideas off each other while breaking in a new scheme this fall. At the time of his hiring, most didn’t believe McElwain was a sexy enough selection for Jeremy Foley post-Will Muschamp, but Gators have warmed up to the longtime offensive coordinator and former Colorado State head coach. Receivers coach Dixon was the last piece of the puzzle on staff and will try and develop other pass-catching options behind All-American candidate Demarcus Robinson.
4. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Most Important Assistant: Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord
Non-Coordinator: Passing game coordinator, receivers coach Zach Azzanni
An excellent recruiter who seems to have everything in place for the Vols’ return to national prominence, Butch Jones’ 1-17 career record (16 of those losses at Tennessee) against ranked teams keeps him in the middle of the pack as far as head coaches are concerned from an Xs and Os standpoint. He needs to prove he can beat the elites before he’s considered one of them. A colleague with a comparable track record would be Dan Mullen, who got over the hump last season with three wins over ranked competition after losing his previous 15 straight. Flanked by an above-average collection of assistants, Jones has the necessary tools to win the East this year.
DeBord’s handling of Tennessee’s most important player, Joshua Dobbs, during spring practice is a great sign considering the Vols’ offense will look somewhat different this fall following the departure of Mike Bajakian, who had been on Jones’ offensive staff the last eight years. Due to the timing of his exit to the NFL, Bajakian left Tennessee out to dry a bit in prep for what’s expected to be a breakout season offensively this fall, but Jones found a guy who has blended well within his coaching staff.
3. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Most Important Assistant: Co-Defensive coordinator Jon Hoke
Non-Coordinator: Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott
For the most part, the Head Ball Coach deserves the benefit of the doubt for last season’s demise as an Eastern division frontrunner on the heels of three consecutive 11-win seasons. Gamecocks fans, accustomed to mediocrity prior to his start in 2005, seemed spoiled by success and handed out superfluous criticism during a campaign that simply didn’t meet expectations and brought questions concerning Steve Spurrier’s future in Columbia. His track record speaks for itself as a seven-time conference champion (including one at Duke), but in a ‘what have you done for me lately’ landscape, Spurrier’s fire is beginning to cool.
Fans called for defensive staff changes in the offseason and the Gamecocks delivered, landing an important addition in Hoke. The former Chicago Bears defensive backs coach previously served as Spurrier’s former defensive coordinator at the turn of the century in Gainesville. He brings an attacking scheme to a unit void of game-changing plays and strength last fall. Building a relationship with veteran defensive assistant Lorenzo Ward and developing South Carolina’s non-existent pass rush is top priority.
2. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Most Important Assistant: Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt
Non-Coordinator: Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker
Mark Richt’s perceived ineptitude in ‘big’ games is well-documented and two SEC championships without a national title ring over the last 14 years between the hedges doesn’t sit well with Georgia fans, but Richt remains one of college football’s most under-valued coaches. He’ll choreograph a staff of top-flight assistants this fall including newcomer Brian Schottenheimer, who takes over Mike Bobo’s offense. Pruitt is Richt’s best assistant coach, but former Auburn pass rusher Rocker isn’t far behind. Defensive line is a position group to watch this season for the Bulldogs and Rockier believes his unit will be able to get extensive pressure with the help of Georgia’s talent-rich pool of outside linebackers.
National opinion says Richt racks up wins, but it’s not enough for most. The 2015 campaign will go a long way in determining his fate and whether or not he reaches the two-decade mark at the program. Equipped with the Eastern Division’s most talented roster from top to bottom, the time is now for Richt whose overall worth would benefit substantially from a Playoff berth.
1. MIZZOU TIGERS
Most Important Assistant: Defensive coordinator Barry Odom
Non-Coordinator: Defensive line coach David Kuligowksi
Considering how well Gary Pinkel’s developed sub-Top 25 talent (based on yearly recruiting rankings) during his time with the Tigers, you’d have to think the no-nonsense Ohio native could win big elsewhere at a national power. In three short SEC seasons, Pinkel’s directed Mizzou to consecutive Eastern Division titles and has consistently produced NFL talent. He’s won 10 or more games five times since 2007 — the Tigers had done it just once the previous 100 years. And he joins Spurrier as the SEC’s only active coach who holds the all-time wins mark at two different programs. An SEC title would cements his legacy as one of college football’s most underrated coaches of the 21st century.
Pinkel’s reputation as an influential program leader is proven by his long-term staff of quality assistants. Kuligowski is in his 24th season alongside Pinkel and turned down a co-defensive coordinator offer at Illinois to stay with the Tigers during the offseason. Odom has returned to Columbia, Mo. as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, replacing Dave Steckel who spent 14 seasons at Mizzou. Odum began his college coaching career at his alma-mater in 2003 and lasted until 2012. He’s back after three years at Memphis to direct a talented defense.