Ranking the SEC’s head coaches entering spring practice
What have you done for me lately?
That’s unfortunately how head coaches are ranked in this wild college football landscape.
With LSU removing the interim tag on Ed Orgeron, every SEC head coach is returning. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee all suffered coordinator changes that will surely positively or negatively impact teams.
The landscape around the SEC has certainly changed over the past few years, and a major reason the Big Ten and ACC are catching up is coaching. Both the Big Ten — Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh — and the ACC — Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher — boast at least two elite head coaches. The SEC? It boasts one in Nick Saban.
Here’s how the SEC head coaches rank heading into spring practice:
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
No wonder no other elite head coaches want to coach in the SEC. Nick Saban’s 10-year career at Alabama has produced crooked numbers, championships and win totals. Five SEC Championships; four national championships; seven consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes. There’s never a rebuilding; it’s just reloading. He’s on a whole other level. Although the Tide will lose several players to the NFL Draft, Saban’s club will reload and will be the 2017 preseason favorite. Why? Saban. He’s 114-19 at Alabama and counting.
A … distant No. 2
2. Jim McElwain, Florida
While there are questions regarding Jim McElwain’s recruiting prowess, you can’t argue with his on-the-field results. McElwain has led the Gators to back-to-back SEC East division crowns in his first two years. Sure, the SEC East is weak, but Mac hasn’t had a difference-maker at quarterback for a year and a half. The recent staff hires and the National Signing Day finish have Florida fans becoming increasingly optimistic that he’s finally starting to get it in Gainesville. Now, it’s time to develop a starting quarterback.
Egg Bowl coaching rivalry
3. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
4. Dan Mullen, Miss State
Before you start complaining that Hugh Freeze is ranked No. 3, just take a look at his career at Ole Miss. He finished with 7 wins, 8 wins, 9 wins and 10 wins, respectively, in his first four seasons. Remember, Freeze has beaten Saban two of the past three seasons, won a Sugar Bowl and proven he’s an elite recruiter. When the dust settles in Oxford from the NCAA’s cloud, I’d be willing to bet Freeze’s program will begin to build momentum again.
Say what you want about Dan Mullen, but the guy can coach some football. He has a long history of developing stellar quarterbacks. While several are saying Mullen may have missed the window for “getting out of Starkville,” you can bet he’ll put a quality product on the field no matter the perceived lack of talent on the roster. The cigar-toting, Yeezy-wearing Mullen has an overall record of 61-42 in Starkville, and he took the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the country in 2014.
Middle of the pack
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
6. Butch Jones, Tennessee
7. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
8. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Here’s where things get weird. Gus Malzahn is 23-16 in his past three years, and his lack of developing quarterbacks is puzzling. The 2013 championship run was largely made with Gene Chizik’s players. He’s had two years to find and develop a quarterback and build the offense the way he wants. That hasn’t happened, and it’s fair to ask if it ever will.
Butch Jones is the champion of lame cliches, but he can win a living room and sell his product; give him that. However, he’s going to have to eventually win the SEC East if he wants to keep fans happy. The loss to Vanderbilt just left an ominous feel to the program, but had the Vols been able to stay healthy throughout the year, things could have been different. Is a nine- or 10-win Tennessee team the ceiling under Jones?
Kevin Sumlin is in an interesting situation. He has one of the most talented rosters in the league, but his teams can’t put together a championship run, especially in November. Over the past three years, the Aggies have finished just 5-10 starting Nov. 1. Sumlin can put together an offense, and he can recruit. Now, it’s time his program took the next step. …
The 2017 season could be a make-or-break year for Bret Bielema. A lot has happened since he started at Arkansas in 2013. Alabama has won another national championship. Auburn played for a national championship. Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Meanwhile, Bielema is 25-26 overall, including his not-so-stellar 10-22 SEC record, and he’s just not getting it done … yet. Fans are starting to get restless.
A newby duo
9. Kirby Smart, Georgia
10. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Kirby Smart is the toughest coach to rank of the 14. He can certainly recruit, and we know he can coach defense. He’s a Saban disciple, and we’re convinced he knows how to prepare. But like Muschamp, the offensive side of the ball is the weakness. UGA will likely open the 2017 season as the SEC East favorite, and Athens is a pressure cooker of a job. I would venture to say that Smart will be a good head coach, but on-the-job training is tough at a program that demands 10 or more wins per season.
Ed Orgeron is saying all the right things. He’s learned under Pete Carroll, Les Miles and, uh, Lane Kiffin. All kidding aside, we know Orgeron will put elite talent on the roster, but what we don’t know is if he and his staff can put them into a position to succeed. But there’s no doubt his team was night-and-day different than Les Miles’. You could just see the pulse the program had after he took over. Now, it’s time to build upon that.
An interesting trio
11. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
12. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
13. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
It’s amazing what a QB will do for you, isn’t it? My stance all along is that Will Muschamp will be a good head coach at some point in his career. He’s an elite defensive mind, and he can recruit with anyone in the country. The lack of development of offensive players has been a concern, but with a firm starting quarterback in Jake Bentley returning, there’s a positive trend. Leading South Carolina to a bowl game in 2016 was no joke; that defense looked lost at times, and the offense struggled early. But after Bentley took over, the team rallied and finished strong. Everyone likes Muschamp, and he’s in a place where he can continue to grow, develop and hone his head coaching skills.
Hello, Mark Stoops. Don’t look now, but Kentucky will contend for the SEC East next season, again. Stoops just beat Louisville and signed his best recruiting class ever, and thanks to improved quarterback play with Stephen Johnson, the Cats are trending up. But before we get carried away, Stoops is still 19-30 overall and 8-24 in SEC play.
Derek Mason earned respect in 2016 by leading the Commodores to a win over rival Tennessee and clinching a bowl berth. That marks improvement that had to be made. Mason can coach a defense, but if the Commodores are going to contend in the East — like James Franklin’s Commodores, the recruiting has to improve.
Bringing up the rear
14. Barry Odom, Mizzou
Barry Odom’s Mizzou team has to show a pulse. Not only does the on-the-field product have to improve, but the recruiting does, too. Thankfully, the Show-Me State has a nice crop of very talented players in the 2018 recruiting cycle, a nice change from the past few cycles. Odom needs to somehow get to a bowl game this coming season.