How I would rank SEC coaches heading into 2020
There are many factors to consider when ranking a college football coach. It’s easy to glance at the win-loss records and championships, but college football is such a unique sport that context can easily be lost when determining where a coach belongs on a list of this type.
Especially in the SEC.
How easy is it to compare Mark Stoops to Kirby Smart considering the massive advantage Georgia’s coach has had in terms of overall talent to work with?
How will Mike Leach’s success coaching the likes of Washington State and Texas Tech translate to coaching in the rugged SEC West? Has Lane Kiffin learned what it takes to lead an SEC program after being fired by USC but turning around FAU?
These questions and many more can all be debated to no end, but when ranking the SEC coaches for the 2020 season, the criteria I like to consider is which coach do I trust the most to win a game with a week’s worth of preparation?
This list isn’t a ranking of which coach is going to win the most games next season. It’s not a ranking of which coaches have accomplished the most in their careers. It’s a list of which coaches I trust to get a team ready to play and execute the team’s gameplan on Saturdays in the fall.
If every SEC coach had the same exact roster to work with this season, this is the order I would select them to lead my team to victory.
For a more in-depth analysis of these picks, check out the episode of “That SEC Podcast” featuring these SEC coach rankings.
14. Sam Pittman, Arkansas
Pittman’s hire might have stunned some SEC observers, but not those in Fayetteville. As soon as Chad Morris was out, former players started vouching for Pittman to get the job. After landing the job, it’s easy to see why Pittman’s former players were convinced the former offensive line coach was ready for his big promotion. The job Pittman has done in building his Arkansas coaching staff and recruiting has been masterful thus far and should be recognized as such. However, the reality is, until we’ve actually seen what he can do as a head coach, it wouldn’t be right to rank him any higher than No. 14. Pittman likely makes a big jump up this list in the years to come, but considering his lack of experience leading a program on game day, he has to cede position to the rest of the SEC coaches for the time being.
13. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
There’s no debating that Vanderbilt took a big step back in Derek Mason’s first year and while there have been signs of life over his 6-year stint — the Commodores have defeated Georgia on the road and Tennessee multiple times — there have been way too many lows for the few highs. The program’s defense, which was Mason’s calling card upon his hire, took a huge step back in 2019 and if that isn’t corrected immediately, the Commodores could be the next program to go 0-8 in conference play.
12. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Entering his 5th season in Columbia, you could make the case that Muschamp has the program right where it was when he arrived — albeit with more talent. There’s no debating Muschamp can recruit; the Gamecocks have signed 5 quarterback recruits rated as 4-star prospects and signed the top in-state prospect in 3 of the previous 4 recruiting cycles. Muschamp also has developed defensive players, but the same offensive failings have followed him from Gainesville to Columbia. The result: He’s sitting on arguably the hottest seat in the conference. After 4 years at the helm, the one thing Muschamp has proven is his teams are widely inconsistent. One week, the Gamecocks are beating the No. 2 team in the nation, 2 weeks later, they give up 24 unanswered 2nd-half points to a 3-5 Tennessee team to get blown out.
11. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri
Missouri’s first-year coach is tough to accurately grade as he’s only had one year of head coaching experience and he inherited an outstanding ASU program from Scott Satterfield. Be that as it may, Drinkwitz led Appalachian State to a win over Muschamp’s South Carolina program in Columbia last season. That game wasn’t a fluke, either, as the Mountaineers outplayed the Gamecocks. Winning 12 games in a season is something many coaches on this list cannot claim, but Drinkwitz can.
10. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
The Lane Train has brought enthusiasm back to Oxford. With an exciting brand of offense coming to Ole Miss, Rebels fans have reason to be optimistic, but based on Kiffin’s head coaching history, he can’t rate any higher on this list. It’s easy to fixate on the outstanding job he did in Tuscaloosa running the Alabama offense, but those Crimson Tide teams were loaded with talent. Those I’ve spoken with have indicated the same thing applied to Kiffin’s FAU squads: When it came to pure talent, FAU was unmatched in the East Division of Conference USA. Kiffin’s SEC experience could prove to be invaluable in building back up the program, but the Ole Miss coach rates in the bottom half of my list entering 2020.
9. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Pruitt has real potential to rise up this list immediately if his program truly turned a corner late last season and didn’t simply take advantage of the weaker portion of the schedule. Detractors will continue to point toward the latter and suggest Tennessee had an “easy” schedule to close out the year, but the reality is there are very few SEC contests and bowl games that are easy to win. Digging the Volunteers out of the 1-4 hole was one of the more impressive coaching jobs of the season, but that doesn’t mean we can simply overlook the reason Pruitt’s team dug itself in that hole in the first place. If his team were better prepared for the opener, the Vols likely would have been a 10-win team last season. Weighing all those factors, this is the best spot on this list for Pruitt and he’ll have the opportunity to prove himself as one of the biggest risers with a roster he built.
8. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
You have to give Malzahn credit for the length of his tenure on The Plains. Nick Saban is the only SEC coach who has lasted longer at his current program, and Malzahn has beaten Saban more than anyone else in the league. However, Auburn’s coach is far from elite. Malzahn’s 1-6 record against Georgia is tough to overlook, as is his 2-5 bowl record. How a coach can lead a team to victory over Saban’s Alabama program only to lose to the likes of UCF and Minnesota is hard to fathom. You could argue Malzahn isn’t even the best coach on Auburn’s staff these days, as Kevin Steele might be the most underrated assistant in the nation. For a coach who got the job because of his expertise on offense, you’d think that side of the ball would be better, but Malzahn’s unit seems to hold the program back more than push it forward.
7. Mike Leach, Mississippi State
The pirate has finally made his way to the SEC as a head coach and the results should be fascinating. Leach has already done a good job dispelling the notion that he won’t be able to recruit in the South as the Bulldogs have landed arguably the nation’s most coveted graduate transfer quarterback and a touted 4-star high school signal-caller to play in Starkville. Leach has consistently proven he can do more with less and while he should have more talent to work with than ever before, he’ll have to continue that trajectory if the Bulldogs are going to win at a high level in the SEC. Leach will be out to prove he belongs in the SEC and while immediate success might not be in the cards, he’ll turn the program’s offense around by the end of his first season with MSU.
6. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
The Aggies could very well be embarking on a huge season, but it’s been surprising to see so many rate Fisher as one of the SEC’s best head coaches. Fisher hasn’t led a team to a double-digit win season since 2016 and the last time we saw the Aggies in a conference game, LSU gave them a beating of a lifetime in a 50-7 loss. Great coaches don’t allow that to happen. Fisher is going to have to earn his way into the top 5 of this list and he’s simply not done that yet in College Station.
5. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops continues to squeeze every bit of talent his program has. And despite dropping a bit after winning 10 games in 2018, winning 8 games in 2019 without a quarterback for the final two months might have been even more impressive. The Wildcats lost several key players to injury last season but kept plugging along. With the talent slowly being upgraded on an annual basis, it won’t be a surprise if Kentucky upsets a few teams in conference play this fall and continues to finish higher in the final SEC standings than predicted in the preseason.
4. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Picking between Smart and Dan Mullen was a struggle. I initially had Smart over Mullen with the tiebreaker being their head-to-head results, but this is a list designed to look forward, not at previous seasons. Smart has done an outstanding job building Georgia’s program into an annual national championship contender, but he has made some costly coaching decisions during games and has failed to beat Alabama and LSU. He has stockpiled so much talent, I expect Smart to deliver a national championship to Athens one day, but when it comes to game day coaching, he falls a bit short of Mullen.
3. Dan Mullen, Florida
The best way to illustrate how good of a coach Mullen is? Look at the program he inherited and how quickly he turned it into an SEC contender. Add that with the fact that Mississippi State suffered an immediate dropoff upon his exit and has already moved on from Joe Moorhead while Mullen has the Gators as a popular preseason pick to win the SEC East heading into 2020. Mullen’s coaching effect has also been evident on his quarterbacks, and considering how important that position is, he deserves a boost for his ability to get the most out of his signal-callers more often than not.
2. Nick Saban, Alabama
Putting Saban anywhere other than No. 1 is certainly going against the grain, but it’s hard for me to ignore the trends I’ve seen from Alabama’s coach compared to Ed Orgeron. Alabama’s defense has not yet recovered from losing Jeremy Pruitt to Tennessee and while some fans are quick to blame Pete Golding, ultimately, it’s Saban’s defense that’s being run in Tuscaloosa. If Golding were that big of a liability, why did Saban hire him and why had he kept the assistant on staff? Alabama is going to out-talent nearly every opponent it faces, and that’s a credit to Saban’s outstanding ability to recruit, but when it comes to evenly matched opponents, Alabama has come up short several times in recent seasons.
1. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron’s transformation from one of the worst coaches in recent league history to arguably its best has been nothing short of miraculous. While many are going to be quick to credit the likes of Joe Burrow and Joe Brady for LSU’s unprecedented championship run last season, it’s easy to forget that neither had any cache before entering Orgeron’s LSU program. You have to give credit where credit is due and Orgeron has proven he knows which buttons to press, which players need to be pushed and which ones need an arm around their shoulders. Coach O has transformed from a caricature of the classic gung-ho, hard-headed coach to a coach willing to adjust his personnel and listen to the coaches and support staff surrounding him. If you gave me the option of picking any SEC head coach with only one week to prepare a team before a crucial matchup, I’m picking Ed Orgeron.