Power ranking the SEC's head coaches heading into 2020
It’s never been more difficult to rank SEC coaches. Period.
I know. You don’t feel bad for me. You instead hate the fact that I didn’t give your coach enough love. I’m sorry. It’s really hard.
That’s because when you add the likes of Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin, it changes things. You now have 2 more elite offensive minds who will be able to recruit their style at non-SEC powers.
But ranking SEC coaches is based on who I’d want to run my program if I had to hire a new coach tomorrow to lead me to victory in the 2020 season. Résumé is part of it. It’s not, however, all of it. This is based on who maximizes talent and has shown they can handle some in-season curveballs.
So with that, let’s rank some coaches heading into 2020:
14. Sam Pittman, Arkansas
It’s not personal, but he’s unproven as a head coach. I wrote that I liked how Arkansas was willing to go out of the box, and how I think you need someone with his mindset given the state of the program. But as Pittman knows, running a program is totally different from being a recruiter. I’m interested to see how he draws up game plans, how he handles the media and what he does to clean up the mess in Fayetteville.
13. Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
Drinkwitz gets the notch above Pittman because even though he’s totally unproven as an SEC recruiter, the guy did just lead Appalachian State to a 12-win season. He’s won everywhere he’s been, which certainly bodes well for him as a relative unknown. How long will it take for Drinkwitz to establish his offensive identity at Mizzou? That remains to be seen. For now, though, he’s in the back of the pack as a 36-year old coach with 1 year of head coaching experience at the FBS level.
12. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
This past year was a tough look for Mason. That team had too much talent to be that bad. In a year in which Vanderbilt returned arguably its most promising trio of skill players in program history, the team fell apart. It doesn’t completely take away from the fact that he took Vandy to multiple bowl games, but it definitely made me question if he really will be in Nashville for a decade. You can’t be a defensive-minded coach and have a unit play that poorly and undisciplined. This is a pressure-packed year for Mason.
11. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Dead man walking? Perhaps. Muschamp might already be gone if not for that Georgia win. The question now is whether he can move on from consecutive disappointing seasons and save his job. In a division that looks like it has a solid 4-5 programs ahead of South Carolina right now, another bowl-less season won’t cut it. Muschamp might have been saved by his buyout in 2019, and perhaps a defense that showed signs of promise, but last year confirmed the belief many had about him being better suited to be a coordinator than a head coach.
10. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
I’m going conservative on Pruitt here for a couple of reasons. Don’t get me wrong. What he did to turn around Tennessee’s season — and maybe even save his job — was remarkable. The Vols were fantastic down the stretch. They have the nation’s 2nd-longest active winning streak, which you’ve heard a lot by now. But I want to see how Pruitt handles the offseason buzz. And not like a “we’re gonna win 7 games” kind of buzz. His defensive identity is all over this team. Can he use the latter half of 2019 as a building block? Or are the Vols still several years away from competing with Florida and Georgia? Pruitt will rise in a hurry if he can do those things in 2020.
9. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Is this too low for Kiffin? Maybe if you’re an Ole Miss fan. After all, he’s an elite offensive mind who will recruit well and have a fun offense. Why only No. 9? Part of that is that like I said earlier, the conference is loaded. It’s loaded with coaches more proven than Kiffin, who went 35-21 (21-16 in conference play) as a Power 5 head coach. Despite his winding journey to Oxford, he’s still trying to prove that he can build and sustain success at a program. As much hype as there is, that’s still what Kiffin is desperate to show.
8. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn is always tricky to rank because if we’re going purely résumé, the guy is in the top 4-5. But this isn’t just about what Malzahn did 7 years ago. He’s one of the sport’s better offensive minds, and he’s coming off a 9-win season against a brutal schedule. He gets credit for that. He continues to crank out top 10 recruiting classes. But that defense was the backbone of Auburn’s success in 2020, and going forward, it’s fair to wonder if the Tigers can live up to a likely preseason top 15 ranking with all of those pieces to fill. I’d have far more faith putting someone like Dan Mullen or Mike Leach in the position Malzahn is in entering 2020.
7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Ya know, I wanted to put Stoops even higher. I believe he’s a top 15 coach in America right now. This season was a perfect example of it. While everyone wrote off Kentucky after the 10-win season and especially after the 2-4 start, all he did was put all his chips on Lynn Bowden. That bet paid off. But Stoops also led a top 15 defense yet again. The dude develops talent in ways that few Power 5 coaches in his position could.
And hey, check out this side-by-side comparison of Stoops and Jimbo Fisher the past 3 years:
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I’d argue doing that at Kentucky is a bit more challenging than at Florida State and Texas A&M, too.
6. Mike Leach, Mississippi State
I don’t think the average fan realizes that Leach, for all the entertainment he provides, is in Starkville because he has 12 seasons of 8-plus wins in the 21st century. That was obviously at places where those seasons were once hard to come by. His programs take his identity, and as a result, Leach elevates them. He took the likes of Texas Tech and Washington State to bowl games in 16 of 18 seasons, and he cranks out top 10 passing offenses in his sleep. What’s holding Leach back from joining the upper echelon? Besides the fact that he’s yet to have success in the SEC, he’s still searching for his first trip to a New Year’s 6/BCS Bowl. That’ll be no small feat if he can accomplish that at a place with 1 winning conference season in the 21st century.
5. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Fisher isn’t an easy guy to rank. Some look at the ring and say that automatically makes him a top 3-5 coach in America. I’m not there with Fisher. Don’t get me wrong. It helps, but I have a hard time considering him one of the conference’s top 2-3 coaches with those aforementioned past 3 years. He hasn’t taken A&M to SEC contender-level yet. I’m not saying that makes him a subpar coach, but it wasn’t long ago that we were having a debate about whether Fisher or Dan Mullen would have significant success first. Fisher’s new goal in Year 3 should be to have a year as successful as either season Mullen had so far.
4. Dan Mullen, Florida
Wait a minute. Didn’t I lay out why Mullen is a top 5 coach in America right now? Yes. He is. I just think you could make the case that 3 in the SEC and Dabo Swinney would be slightly more favorable given that all of them have at least been to a national championship in the past 3 years. But I think the list of coaches who could have won 11 games after watching their team’s starting quarterback go down in mid-September is small. That’s partially why I’d take Mullen ahead of Fisher, who experienced a similar situation in 2017 at Florida State. Even though Mullen’s year didn’t yield that coveted win against Georgia/SEC East title just yet, showed me why Mullen is top 5 worthy.
Oh, and the fact that Mullen took over a 4-win team and then became the first coach in the BCS/Playoff era to start at a new place with consecutive BCS/New Year’s 6 bowl victories is nothing short of remarkable.
3. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Did this Georgia team live up to my expectations? No, but it was still a top 4 season (the 2nd in 3 years) with a 3rd consecutive SEC East title. The guy is 17-1 against the division the past 3 years, and he’s been to 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowls. He still just ripped off the program’s best 3-year run since Herschel Walker. That’s not nothing. Would I trust him making better decisions within a game than Mullen? No. But Smart still has a significant head-to-head advantage and overall advantage that’s impossible to dismiss … for now.
2. Ed Orgeron, LSU
You win a national title and it changes things. A lot. Ever since he showed up on every hot seat list in America before the 2018 season, Orgeron:
- Beat Alabama
- Went 25-3 (13-3 vs. SEC)
- Beat 11 top 10 teams (not a typo)
- Beat 5 top 5 teams
- Won 3 New Year’s 6 Bowls (including a national title)
By the way, only Clemson won more games in the past 2 years than LSU. That’s a tough pill for the Orgeron skeptics to swallow. Lord knows they’ve been waiting to pounce since the start of last season. Now, that number has to have dwindled significantly. Some will question how LSU deals with the departure of Joe Burrow and Joe Brady, but betting against Orgeron seems foolish these days. I’d say 34-7 overall and 19-5 in SEC play in a 3-year stretch shows that LSU’s success is far more than just an all-time great season from a quarterback or a wunderkind assistant.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Before you pronounce the dynasty dead, show me the list of active coaches who won 11 games in 9 consecutive seasons. It’s Saban. George Bush was president the last time that Saban didn’t have a top 10 season. I know résumé isn’t everything, but I’m not predicting his demise just yet. Thirteen months ago, Alabama was in the conversation for having one of the all-time great seasons … and then Clemson happened. I think given all the injuries Alabama had in the front 7, Saban actually deserved credit for getting to 11 wins this past year. In the transfer portal era, depth isn’t necessarily what it used to be at big-time places like Alabama.
Is the program the unstoppable force that it was at points during the 2010s? Nope. But I’m not taking another coach over Saban as long as he’s on that Alabama sideline.