Ranking the SEC coaching hires ... so far
To be clear, I realize I cannot predict the future.
Every hire that’s been made this week gets evaluated using current context. Tons of things will happen for each coach in a new place that’ll determine whether they have success at their new respective gigs.
So when I break down these hires, yes, a lot of it is based on what we’ve seen from them already. Why did it/didn’t it work at their previous stop? What are the hurdles standing in their way? What suggests they’ll outperform their predecessor?
All of these things are taken into account. I ranked 6 coaches — 3 head coaches and 3 notable assistants. Ranking someone “6” means I have doubts about how this turns out. Ranking someone “1” means it’ll be an obvious upgrade and the trajectory is pointing up.
Let’s dig into it:
6. Chad Morris, Auburn offensive coordinator
It’s not that I think Morris is a bad coordinator or even a bad offensive mind. Obviously what he did at Clemson was a major selling point for him to get a pair of FBS head coaching jobs. But seeing how much his quarterbacks struggled to grasp his offense in the past 2 years at Arkansas was alarming, as was the fact that SMU’s offense got better when he left, as did Clemson’s.
The other big elephant in the room here is that this is still Gus Malzahn’s offense. He’s not giving away play-calling duties. Obviously Morris knew that when the two parties were negotiating a contract following the departure of Kenny Dillingham. Their 20-year-old relationship will certainly help that, too.
But for what Malzahn is trying to build with Bo Nix, I don’t know how you could look at how much Arkansas’ young quarterbacks struggled and think that Morris is going to be the person to develop him. I’d worry about that. I’d also worry about the whole “too many cooks in the kitchen” deal. This is a different working dynamic than any they’ve experienced before, and it’s fair to be skeptical about it.
5. Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou head coach
Appalachian State had a special year and Drinkwitz was obviously a big part of that. He deserves credit for having a top 10 offense and more important, a Top 25 team. But Drinkwitz’s rise has been somewhat rapid. Consider the guy was a position coach at a Group of 5 school 5 years ago, the 36-year-old Drinkwitz certainly wasn’t anyone’s obvious choice when Barry Odom was fired.
Does that mean he can’t succeed? No, but I thought Mizzou was positioned well to go after a big-name candidate with a proven track record like Mike Leach, who got an extension that’ll pay him $4 million annually at Washington State … which is exactly what Drinkwitz is set to make. I thought Jim Sterk citing the declining ticket sales — with a $98 million stadium renovation — was going to put a little pressure on him to knock this hire out of the park.
Drinkwitz feels like a hire who is really going to need a staff loaded with connections across the Southeast. Recruiting in the St. Louis area isn’t as easy as it was a few years ago before Lovie Smith got to Illinois (that’s still a weird sentence to type).
I will say this: Drinkwitz certainly seems a bit more charismatic than Odom. And perhaps in a conference with defensive minds like Kirby Smart, Mark Stoops and Jeremy Pruitt, the goal is to be able to build an identity through the offensive scheme. I think that’ll take a bit with Drinkwitz.
4. Sam Pittman, Arkansas head coach
Mizzou didn’t even look like it took a swing at the big names. Arkansas, on the other hand, looked like it sat up at the plate and hacked without making contact for a month. To end up with a coach without any FBS experience as a coordinator or a head coach is telling.
But here’s what I like. This is an atypical situation. It’s a roster that’s in total flux after the failed Chad Morris era got young in a hurry. This is going to take a true blue-collar guy to go in there and build from the inside out. Pittman is unproven as a head coach, definitely, but he’s as proven of a recruiter as there is right now.
All three in-state commits plan to sign early after in-home visits with Sam Pittman this week. #WPS
— Nikki Chavanelle (@NikkiChavanelle) December 11, 2019
Pittman doesn’t speak in clichés and he’s blunt. Arkansas didn’t need someone who was going to put lipstick on a pig (see what I did there?). It needed someone who was all in to do the work needed to get the program back to relevancy. Pittman looks like a guy who is willing to do that.
Is it a risk? Absolutely, but for Arkansas, it was a risk that made sense.
3. Matt Luke, Georgia offensive line
Speaking of Pittman, what a perfect guy Luke is going to be to replace him. You have someone who’s motivated after the way that things ended at Ole Miss, who has been helping dial up game plans in the SEC for the better part of the past decade. That offense needs help.
Part of why Luke’s hiring was so beneficial was because of the aforementioned Pittman. Replacing someone who Kirby Smart valued so highly isn’t easy. Luke has the experience and offensive prowess to make his presence felt in Athens. Luke’s bread and butter is building up an offensive line. He’ll now be working with more talent than he ever has, and he’ll be able to recruit extremely well.
It’ll only be a matter of time before Georgia fans are calling for Luke to take James Coley’s job. Or perhaps that already started.
2. Mike Bobo, South Carolina offensive coordinator
Will Muschamp had to make a major move. He knew it. That’s why he went out and got Bobo with a $1.2 million per year price tag. Timing is everything. Muschamp was obviously desperate after the Bryan McClendon offense failed to set the conference ablaze as it was advertised a couple years ago.
By landing Bobo, Muschamp:
- A) Added someone with 14 years of coaching in the division
- B) Kept Georgia from adding him
- C) Got someone with proven NFL-caliber quarterbacks
- D) Addressed his team’s biggest weakness in 2019
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
The irony of Georgia wanting to bring back Bobo is rich considering how much he’d frustrate Bulldogs fans with his unimaginative play-calling. By the time his time was finished in Fort Collins, he probably frustrated plenty of Colorado State fans, too. Clearly, he realized he was better-suited to be a coordinator than a head coach.
So why does this make sense? Bobo’s job is simple — develop Ryan Hilinski and find some sort of running game. Bobo had a top 40 offense in 7 of 10 seasons at multiple FBS schools this decade. Those type of coaches don’t grow on trees. Muschamp needed someone who can overhaul an offense that ranked No. 121 in yards per play and scoring against FBS competition.
Running it back wasn’t going to work. Being willing to make a $2.5 million investment to address that issue seemed like a much better plan.
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss head coach
To be clear, “best” hire and “splashiest” hire are different. Kiffin just happened to check both boxes. To go from where Keith Carter was on Sunday after the regular season ended — after he surprisingly fired Matt Luke and reportedly had up to half the team threaten to transfer — to get thousands of people to show up for Kiffin’s welcome at The Pavilion 8 days later is darn impressive.
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) December 9, 2019
There’s a reason Ole Miss fans were so fired up about the move. It isn’t just that Kiffin is a name they recognize. It’s that what he did since he was left on the tarmac at USC showed he’s still an elite offensive mind. He rebuilt the Alabama offense for the 21st century, and then went to FAU and picked up a pair of conference titles in a 3-year stretch.
He showed that he could develop non-blue chip recruits. He showed that he can establish a brand that’s more than just gasoline on a message board fire. He showed that he’s committed to doing this right.
Ole Miss is the place where Kiffin decided to give the SEC another go. He’s got a renewed energy and a new purpose. Is it a guarantee that he’s the same relaxed, matured coach he was at FAU? Not necessarily, but I’m betting on seeing that version of Kiffin before betting on seeing a revert to 2009 Kiffin.
There were Rebels fans who were desperate to see the job open up so that the market could be tested for the first time since 2011. That was in hopes of luring a candidate like Kiffin.
They got what they wanted, and now, so will the rest of college football fans.