Power ranking SEC coaches a little more than halfway through 2020
If I became the world’s most unqualified athletic director, what would I do?
That’s the question I use to approach power ranking SEC coaches. Well, it’s how I approach power ranking all coaches.
For today, we’ll stick to the SEC. With us now over the halfway point of this bizarre 2020 season, I thought it’d be a fitting time to revisit this subject. We’ve seen certain coaches thrive in this strange season (Sam Pittman) while we’ve seen others collapse (Ed Orgeron). That’s part of the ranking, though it’s not the entire ranking.
Career accomplishments are obviously part of the argument, but there’s no point in doing a ranking if it’s entirely based on most wins. It’s not just based on head-to-head results from this past year, either. Just because Coach X beat Coach Y a few weeks ago doesn’t necessarily make him a better coach. It could just mean he had a better day.
This is NOT just who has done the best job in 2020. This is a mix of cumulative and 2020 data.
Keep that in mind as you pick apart this totally subjective ranking of SEC head coaches:
14. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
For what it’s worth, Mason was dealt a crappy hand in 2020. It was bad enough that he had an all-SEC schedule to deal with. Even worse is that his team has played several games barely above the SEC’s 53-scholarship threshold. The Commodores just lost their most winnable game of the season, which means 0-10 looks more likely than not. As much as Mason deserves credit for getting Vandy to multiple bowl games, he won 19% of his SEC games to date.
This is Year 7. If it were a normal year, one would assume that Mason would have an automatic firing waiting at season’s end. In a pandemic, who knows how a school like Vanderbilt will approach the idea of paying Mason not to work (it’s unknown what his buyout is because Vanderbilt is a private university).
13. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Muschamp is a defensive coordinator, not a head coach.
That’s what his entire time in the SEC has confirmed. Good coaches don’t get blown out by mediocre teams and then come out of a bye week … only to get blown out at home again. But that’s Muschamp. He’s about to come up short of having a winning conference record for 3rd consecutive year and the 7th time in his 9 years as an SEC head coach, 4 of which were spent at talent-rich Florida.
Muschamp cleaned up the mess that Steve Spurrier left behind. There’s no question about that. But since that Outback Bowl win against Michigan, he’s 9-13 vs. SEC competition, 11 of those losses being by 14 points or more. That’s not including an 0-4 mark against Clemson in which his team has yet to keep it within 20 points. That’s a lack of progression for a coach who has done nothing but sign top-25 classes. I wouldn’t trust Muschamp to find the right offensive personnel, and I wouldn’t trust him to have any sort of sustained success.
12. Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
Yeah, give me Drinkwitz over Muschamp right now. Is part of that just the unknown? Yeah, but the guy already beat LSU and Kentucky as an underdog. He at least looks like he might have an ability to develop an offense, which is king in this era of college football. Sure, the sample size is small, even if you include his double-digit win season at Appalachian State last year. But here’s a question that’s worth asking as we talk about Drinkwitz in Year 1: Do Mizzou fans have any sort of buyer’s remorse when it comes to Drinkwitz? Like, any at all?
I don’t know what Drinkwitz’s ceiling is, but this seemed like it was going to be a really interesting year for his floor. He had a quarterback room with mostly guys he didn’t recruit, and he had to face an all-SEC schedule in Year 1 coming off an offseason in which he didn’t get spring football. The deck was stacked against him, and so far, he’s exceeded some rather pedestrian expectations.
11. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Speaking of buyer’s remorse, how many Tennessee fans wish that Pruitt hadn’t signed that extension a few months ago? I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks that Pruitt has very “Muschamp at Florida” vibes. That is, a former Nick Saban defensive disciple who got a big-time job as his first head coaching gig and showed promise as a defensive mind and as a recruiter, but ultimately peaked in Year 2 and mismanaged the quarterback situation. If that’s the path that Pruitt is on, there are many better options to build around.
Having said that, a month ago we’re talking about Tennessee looking like it had made the next step with a tie for the longest winning streak among Power 5 teams. It is possible that this wonky year couldn’t have happened at a worse time, and instead of somehow getting to one of those 3-5 or 4-4 SEC seasons, Pruitt’s team can’t stop the bleeding with an all-SEC schedule. Does that still reflect on a head coach not properly handling an adverse situation? Sure.
But to even think about putting Pruitt ahead of some of these other names, I’m gonna need to see him actually keep it within 2 scores against Alabama, Florida or Georgia. I’m not holding my breath on that.
10. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Recency bias suggests that Kiffin should be higher on this list. It’s true that you need to be able to scheme offensively to win in 2020 or else you don’t really have much of a shot. I’d argue that the Ole Miss defense hasn’t really allowed Kiffin’s offense much of a shot in some of these games, but that’s besides the point. The sample size is small, though you have to be encouraged by the early returns if you’re an Ole Miss fan.
Why don’t I have Kiffin ahead of Pittman? Well, Arkansas beat Kiffin’s squad, and Pittman certainly inherited a much more challenging situation. Advantage Pittman on that. Long term, you could absolutely make the case that Kiffin is going to have a higher ceiling once he gets a defensive coordinator like Pittman has. But for now, I’m still in wait-and-see mode in terms of Kiffin’s ability to sustain success at a Power 5 program, which is why he’s behind guys like Mike Leach, Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops.
9. Sam Pittman, Arkansas
He’s the SEC Coach of the Year so far, and I’m not sure it’s that close. Pittman has outperformed all of the first-year SEC coaches so far. Shoot, he beat 2 of them. That was after Arkansas entered the season without an SEC win in over 1,000 days. That was after anonymous coaches said that it looked like Pittman had a roster that was “hit by NCAA sanctions.” That was after his predecessor struggled to even beat Group of 5 teams.
So yes, Pittman deserves a ton of credit for the job he’s done so far. To think that the Razorbacks should be 4-2 right now is astounding. He made excellent personnel hires in Year 1, and clearly, that team loves playing for him. That’s sustainable. If his miraculously salvaged Year 1 recruiting class was any indication, Pittman isn’t going to have any problem getting more talent to Fayetteville, either.
The only reason he isn’t higher on this list is obviously the sample size. We haven’t seen how his team handles legitimate expectations and not being the fun underdog story.
8. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
I always say this, so I apologize if I sound like a broken record — Malzahn is incredibly difficult to rank. On one hand, he’s the only guy on this list who has multiple wins against Nick Saban. Malzahn is 1 of 5 SEC coaches who has been to a national championship game, as well. That’s worth something, even if it was 7 years ago. If this was a list of “most accomplished coaches,” you could make a case that Malzahn is in the top 4.
But it’s not. If you’re building a program, it’s hard to ignore the lack of quarterbacks that Malzahn has developed. It’s also hard to ignore that Kevin Steele’s defense has been doing most of the heavy lifting for the last 4 years. Sure, Malzahn gets credit for hiring him keeping him on The Plains. Don’t take that for granted. Still, Malzahn has had consecutive winning seasons in the SEC just once. Coaches who get $49 million extensions should probably be better than 12-10 in conference play after they get that kind of money. A $21.5 million buyout will keep Malzahn at Auburn even if his team fizzles out down the stretch.
7. Mike Leach, MSU
Don’t get me wrong. This year has been brutal. I’m sure people are looking at this ranking wondering how in the world Leach could even be at No. 7 when his offense is so awful. Leach hasn’t exactly wiped away the skepticism about how he’d handle an SEC job with higher expectations. It’s a bad look to have such prominent players like Kylin Hill opt out midseason. I get that.
But to a certain extent, this was always going to be the case for Leach in Year 1. With his Air Raid system, he was going to stick with it, whether he had the Year 1 personnel to run it or not. He doesn’t have that personnel. It’s the same story we saw from him when he started at Texas Tech and Washington State, where he went a combined 4-13 vs. Power 5 competition in Year 1. Still, this is someone with 12 seasons of 8-plus wins in 18 years as a Power 5 head coach at 2 historical bottom feeders.
As long as Leach can show progress in Year 2 with a roster more suited to what he wants, I think we’ll get more reminders of his offensive track record.
6. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Yes, I like Stoops more than you. I don’t care. Yes, 2020 has been a bit of a disappointment. I don’t care. Did you know that despite that frustration, especially on the offensive side of the ball, Kentucky still has the No. 1 scoring defense in the SEC? Shocking, I know. That’s a credit to a defensive-minded head coach. Stoops definitely deserves criticism for the lack of offensive adjustments so far. There’s no doubt about that. How he addresses that moving forward could determine whether his program peaked at the end of the 2010s.
Still, if we can not get totally caught up in recency bias, Stoops led the program to its:
- First win vs. Florida since 1986
- First win at Tennessee since 1984
- First winning season in SEC play since 1977
- First season with double-digit wins since 1977
- First 3-year stretch with 25 wins since 1951
These things matter. No, Stoops doesn’t have a division title or multiple seasons win double-digit wins yet like others ahead of him. You cannot treat a program like Kentucky, who was in rough shape before he arrived, the same as programs like Florida or Georgia. Stoops has a higher floor in Lexington than many care to admit, and if he stays there, he’ll continue to rewrite the record books.
5. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
There’s something different about this 2020 A&M team compared to the previous 2 that Fisher coached — it has an offensive identity. With a dominant offensive line, a veteran quarterback in total control and skill players who are a nightmare to tackle in space, the Aggies are legitimate. They have totally surpassed my lackluster expectations with how dominant they’ve been since the Alabama loss. Fisher deserves credit for tweaking his team after it was gutted with loss after loss at the wide receiver position.
I came into this year arguing that Fisher hadn’t done anything of note in his last 3 seasons, and that he couldn’t still be considered one of the nation’s best coaches for something that happened 7 years ago. He had a 3-year stretch that was awfully similar to Stoops, who had much less to work with in terms of resources and talent. But this pivotal year for Fisher has put him back into that upper echelon nationally.
If he can finish with a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory and A&M’s second top-10 finish of the 21st century, it’ll start to make that $75 million contract look a bit less insane.
4. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Before you tell me that 2020 confirmed how Orgeron caught lightning in a bottle last year, find me another program in all of college football dealing with roster attrition like what he had. LSU was ranked No. 128 of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning offensive production before JaMarr Chase opted out. That didn’t include losing Myles Brennan, who could be out for the season. Offensively, LSU has still collectively been above average despite the fact that Terrace Marshall is essentially the only meaningful contributor left from last year’s team.
But defensively? Yeah, Orgeron’s philosophy backfired. Completely. Repeatedly saying that the defense would be “much better” this year under Bo Pelini blew up in Orgeron’s face. It’s a bigger hiring whiff than Matt Canada, and it’s not really close. There’s no excuse for an LSU defense with that much talent being ranked 2nd-worst among Power 5 defenses against the pass. Orgeron deserves blame for that because of Pelini.
Orgeron is still the owner of the best season in college football history, which nobody can take away from him. Even in 2018, he took a daunting schedule and led LSU to its first New Year’s 6 Bowl in 7 years. That matters. His stock definitely took a hit with this 2020 mess, but it doesn’t totally wipe away an extremely solid body of work to start his LSU tenure.
3. Dan Mullen, Florida
I said coming into 2020 that there weren’t 5 coaches in all of college football who I’d rather have instead of Mullen. I stand by that take, which only strengthened when he got over the Georgia hump. That’s huge.
So why isn’t he ahead of Kirby Smart? While I do believe offense is king in 2020 and you don’t have a chance if you don’t have a team that can put up 40 points in its biggest games of the year, I don’t want to let recency bias totally vault Mullen over Smart. One game didn’t change the fact that Smart had dominated Mullen before Saturday, and it’s Smart who ripped off 3 consecutive division titles and a national championship berth. Mullen hasn’t hit either mark yet, though he could be well on his way.
Florida is in great hands with Mullen. The guy became the first coach to ever start with consecutive New Year’s 6/BCS Bowl victories, and Year 3 is shaping up to be perhaps even more impressive if the Gators can win the East and play for an SEC crown. Equally impressive would be if Mullen helped get Kyle Trask, AKA the lowest-rated guy in Florida’s 2016 class, a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Mullen’s stock is rising before our eyes.
2. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Do I think Smart needs to be willing to adjust in order to maximize Georgia’s potential? Yes. You can no longer bank on your defense holding elite teams to 17 points and winning with a suspect offense. Football has changed. Until Georgia can produce an offense like that, it’ll be on the outside looking in at season’s end. No amount of 5-star recruits will change that.
The good news is that while the quarterback play has been frustratingly awful, Smart did make the right long-term move to modernize his offense with Todd Monken. Once Georgia gets a quarterback, there’s potential that this thing can really take off. I’m more convinced now than 2 months ago that Jamie Newman would’ve been a difference-maker in this offense. Smart, once again, has no shortage of talented options moving forward to run his offense. The question is how he’ll manage it.
In the meantime, the guy who has 3 consecutive top-7 finishes and who played 45 consecutive games as a top-10 team (that streak will come to an end this Saturday), including a national championship berth, is still one of the elite coaches in this sport.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
For all the talk about rings and whatnot, there are 2 Saban stats that truly blow me away. Remember that 2010 loss to South Carolina? That was the last time Saban lost to an SEC East team. It was also the last time Saban lost to a non-top 15 team. That’s stunning. Alabama gets everybody’s best shot. For over a decade, every non-top 15 team has built up Alabama to be its Super Bowl. Even coming off Alabama’s most disappointing season in 9 years — that was a lowly 11-win campaign — the Crimson Tide still kept that streak intact.
At the midway point of the season, Saban has Alabama at No. 1 for the 13th consecutive year. That’s not a typo. Think of how many programs would consider 1 week at No. 1 as their golden era. Mississippi State? Texas A&M? Shoot, even Georgia fans still talk about starting at No. 1 in 2008, and that was before any games were played. Of course at Alabama, seasons are defined by rings. That’s the standard Saban has set. Going 2 seasons without one is deemed a failure.
But fear not. After losing his best quarterback in program history, and now being without 3 of last year’s 4 receivers with Jaylen Waddle sidelined, Saban has the best team in America with the clearest path to the Playoff.
That’s why he’s the G.O.A.T.