Ranking the coaching hot seats heading into 2016
First off, let’s get one thing straight. I don’t like seeing coaches get fired. I never root for guys to get the boot and I never push for those things to happen. I’m more of a glass half-full guy and I know how hard it is to do what they do.
Plus, I’m used to coaches being around forever. The two college programs I’ve spent the most time around in my lifetime are Indiana basketball (Bob Knight, 29 years) and Florida State football (Bobby Bowden, 35 years). So, no, I don’t have a problem with coaches sticking around awhile.
But in sports, especially in a competitive conference like the SEC, coaching moves are going to happen. There are winners and there are losers, and the losers have bosses to answer to. We’ve got three coaching vacancies already and there may be more movement soon.
So, heading into next year, here’s the order of coach’s hot seats in the SEC:
No. 1 – Mark Stoops, Kentucky: When you have high hopes to start a season and then get off to a 4-1 start, it makes a five-game losing streak all the more painful. But nothing ripped a dagger through Wildcats football hearts more than blowing a 21-point lead to arch-rival Louisville the final week of the season. That might be hard to overcome. It’s bowl game or bust next year for Stoops, especially as bad as the SEC East is. He needs to show progress immediately.
No. 2 – Les Miles, LSU: What, you say? Les at No. 2? Sure, and here’s why. Look, LSU was ready to pull the trigger on his firing last week and only a last-minute reprieve from a few powerful higher-ups stopped it from happening. This year the Tigers cruised all the way to Week 10 unbeaten before meeting Alabama, but what if they start losing before the Nov. 5 Alabama game next year? They open on the road against Wisconsin (in Green Bay), have to play at Auburn and at Florida and home against Ole Miss all before seeing the Crimson Tide. A few losses and the boosters will be passing around the collection plate again. Guaranteed. And this time the buyout will be much cheaper.
No. 3 – Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: Mason is heading into his third year at Vandy, and administrators surely don’t want to find a fourth coach in this decade already. Mason has done some good things, especially on defense. But that offense was horrible this year, bordering on unwatchable. That needs to get fixed, and fast. In their first seven losses this year, they only scored 59 points, just an 8.4 points-per-game average. That can’t continue. If it does, three years might be all Mason gets.
No. 4 – Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Sure the SEC West is the best division in college football, but finishing dead last is never good, even if you did just play in a national championship game two years ago. Malzahn has built up a lot of goodwill at Auburn, so another dead-last finish might not get him fired in 2016, but he’d be at the top of next year’s hot-seat list. At least he won’t have to worry about underachieving so much next year. There will be no preseason No. 6 ranking for the Tigers in 2016. Shouldn’t have been this year either, really, but that’s a story for another day.
No. 5 – Bret Bielema, Arkansas: Bielema might have been at the top of the September version of this list after the Razorbacks got off to such a bad start this season. But what was impressive about the Arkansas turnaround this season was that Bielema never panicked. He stuck to the plan and kept on working. So did his players, and this season turned out alright. It’s safe to say Arkansas folks have faith in him to keep this program trending upward. Let’s not forget the mess he inherited. And he’s got a track record that can’t be overlooked.
No. 6 – Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: There’s going to come a time where just being in the middle of the pack of the SEC isn’t going to be enough in College Station. Sumlin has done some great things for the Aggies and if A&M ever fired him, he’d have another job in about five minutes. But what’s going to warm up his seat – and probably pretty soon – is that he keeps bringing in great recruiting classes but doesn’t have anything to show for it yet. The toughest label for a coach to shake is that his players don’t get better. Is that happening with Sumlin?
No. 7 – Butch Jones, Tennessee: Much like Bielema, Jones’ place on this list sure looked a lot different six weeks ago. And there’s this guarantee: This is the slot where most commentators are going to disagree with the list. There are a lot of Jones haters out there, and they don’t think he’ll ever be able to win a big game. I’m not part of that group. The SEC East is there for the taking right now and Tennessee probably goes into 2016 as the favorite. Jones is going to get the job done. Many will disagree, but there’s plenty to like in Knoxville right now.
No. 8 – Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Mullen’s seat isn’t hot from the perspective of State wanting to get rid of him, but it’s going to be interesting to see how much Mullen will stay bound to Hail State. With Dak Prescott graduating, he might be looking for greener pastures, which is too bad. He’s done nice things in Starkville and made Bulldogs football fun again. Is it possible the seat gets hot only because his bosses might get tired of him flirting with a few prettier girls?
No. 9 – Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: Freeze has proven he can get top-flight recruits to Oxford and there’s something to be said for being the second-best team in the SEC this year. That fluke loss to Arkansas kept them out of the SEC Championship Game for the first time ever. Had that happened, this seat would be an Egg Bowl ice sculpture. Chill.
No. 10 – Jim McElwain, Florida: McElwain was brought in to clean up the mess left behind by Will Muschamp and all he did in his first year was get the Gators to the SEC Championship Game. They haven’t particularly looked good doing it lately, but he’s certainly on the right track and is getting plenty of love in Gainesville. He’ll need to catch up with Florida State eventually, but he’ll get the time to do that.
No. 11 – Nick Saban, Alabama: He’s the best coach in college football and Alabama is lucky to have him. If there’s an ice-cold seat in college football with a 0.00 chance of getting fired, it’s Saban’s.
12-through-14: Whoever gets hired at Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri should probably be safe in their first year. So we won’t worry about them for now. All three will have huge shoes to fill, certainly, when you consider that Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier and Gary Pinkel won a combined 564 games as college head coaches (Richt 145, Spurrier 228, Pinkel 191).