Ranking the SEC's offensive play-callers for 2020
After ranking the Southeastern Conference head coaches for the upcoming season a few weeks back, we thought readers would appreciate a rundown of the best offensive minds in the league heading into the 2020 college football season.
Keep in mind, this list set out to rank the 14 coaches who will be calling the vast majority of the plays in the fall. Many of the league’s head coaches have a hand in game-planning and might even call plays from time to time, but these are the 14 coaches who will be making most of the calls on Saturdays. That’s why there are some head coaches listed below along with several offensive coordinators.
Without further ado, here’s how we rank SEC’s offensive play-callers for 2020:
No. 14 Jeff Lebby — Ole Miss
We all know Lane Kiffin will have a heavy hand in the offense in Oxford, which leads me to believe the Rebels will have a quality offense before long, but Lebby will be the one calling plays this fall. Lebby is an up and coming assistant who received some SEC interest before joining Kiffin’s Ole Miss staff. The former UCF OC ran one of the best offenses in the American Athletic Conference in recent seasons and his stock is one expected to quickly rise in the years to come.
No. 13 Todd Fitch — Vanderbilt
Louisiana Tech ran an efficient offense under Fitch in 2019 (the unit ranked No. 1 in 3rd-down conversion rate and 2nd in scoring in Conference USA), but the main reason for ranking Vanderbilt’s new offensive coordinator so low has to do with the fact the Commodores completely turned over their quarterback room this offseason. Nobody has experience. There’s a chance true freshman Ken Seals starts under center, and losing NFL draftee Ke’Shawn Vaughn is likely going to make for a rough season of offense for Vanderbilt.
No. 12 Chad Morris — Auburn
The legendary career of Deshaun Watson continues to prop up the coaching achievements of Morris, despite the fact the former Clemson offensive coordinator left Dabo Swinney’s program before the quarterback accomplished anything of significance in college. We are all well aware of the struggles experienced at Arkansas in recent seasons, but if you dive a bit deeper into Morris’ SMU program, you’ll see that quarterback Ben Hicks broke several school passing marks while with the Mustangs. That looks good on paper, but in reality, Hicks regressed during his college career and proved to be a bust last season in Fayetteville after leaving SMU to reunite with Morris at Arkansas. If Auburn is going to take a step forward this season, Morris will have to do a better job with Bo Nix than he ever proved capable of doing with Hicks.
No. 11 Eli Drinkwitz — Missouri
Drinkwitz’s quick rise in the coaching ranks is due to his offensive acumen and if he can quickly get that side of the ball rolling in Columbia, there’s an outstanding chance Mizzou will return to a bowl game immediately this season. The biggest question I have for Drinkwitz is how much production can he get out of a quarterback room without much college experience and a receiving corps likely to be led by a 3-time transfer in Damon Hazelton Jr. If Drinkwitz struggles to manufacture a passing game, Mizzou’s opponents will be quick to stack the box and force the Tigers to beat them through the air. We’ll quickly find out how creative Missouri’s head coach proves to be and if he can handle both the play-calling duties and head coaching responsibilities in the SEC.
No. 10 Todd Monken — Georgia
Considering how eager Dawg Nation has been to kick offensive coordinators to the curb, it’s been surprising to see how many Georgia fans called out this ranking for Monken after I posted it on Twitter. Those fans might prove to be correct, as I’ve not watched enough NFL games to get a great read on Monken’s offensive system in recent seasons. However, putting Georgia’s OC in the bottom half of this list has more to do with the situation he’s inheriting than anything else. There have been plenty of analysts quick to anoint Jamie Newman as the next great college quarterback, but when you consider all the moving parts around him, I’m not ready to go there. Georgia has all the talent necessary to succeed, but until we see the offense run effectively in Athens, I’m not yet ready to give Monken a higher ranking than No. 10.
No. 9 Steve Sarkisian — Alabama
Sarkisian is a difficult play-caller to grade as he’s had arguably more talent to work with than any coach in the country in recent seasons. Lane Kiffin has even joked that his son could call the plays in Tuscaloosa and the Tide would roll. Sark shouldn’t be downgraded simply because he’s had a ton of great players to work with, but we do know that his Washington and USC programs got better after he left and the Atlanta Falcons offense got much worse when he took over as offensive coordinator.
We’ll never know how Alabama would have fared had Kiffin been around to call the plays in the 2016 National Championship Game but many believe the Crimson Tide would have won that game. This fall should give us a much better indication of the caliber of play-caller Nick Saban has running the Alabama offense after losing several key players to the NFL.
No. 8 Steve Ensminger — LSU
This ranking is likely going to cause outrage from LSU fans, but I can’t put Ensminger much higher until he proves last season wasn’t an outlier. If you study his career as a coordinator, that’s exactly what 2019’s results appear to be. Outside of last fall, Ensminger’s units have been middle of the road against quality competition. If Myles Brennan lives up to the hype this fall, Ensminger will rise up this list in a hurry, but until we see the LSU offense without Joe Burrow and Joe Brady leading the Tigers’ passing attack, this spot fits for Ed Orgeron’s coordinator.
No. 7 Mike Bobo — South Carolina
After what feels like a dozen offensive coordinator hires during his head coaching career, Will Muschamp might have finally found the right fit by hiring Bobo. The Gamecocks have not lacked quarterback talent during Muschamp’s tenure but have failed time and again to develop it. On the other hand, Bobo helped develop Aaron Murray, a quarterback lacking elite traits, and turned him into one of the most productive passers in SEC history. While it’s accurate to note that Bobo always had talent to work with under Mark Richt, Georgia’s offense never recovered from his departure and it ultimately led to Richt’s dismissal. Now that he’s back in the league, Bobo might manage to save his new boss’ job.
No. 6 Kendal Briles — Arkansas
Briles’ ability to get his offenses up to speed immediately is impressive. That characteristic should have Razorbacks fans excited for the coming season after 2 seasons of failures on that side of the ball. There aren’t many coaches who could have jumped from Baylor to FAU to Houston to FSU in consecutive seasons and experienced the level of success Briles had at the first 3 programs before the Willie Taggart era came to a screeching halt in Tallahassee. Things didn’t go according to plan for Briles last season, but if he can work around an average offensive line in 2020, the Razorbacks have enough firepower to make some noise on offense next season in Fayetteville.
No. 5 Jimbo Fisher — Texas A&M
This selection might surprise many for being too low, but I don’t see why some rate Fisher as 1 of the 3 best head coaches in the league. Certainly not based on anything he’s done since 2014. In my view, he’s not even been one of the better play-callers in the league since his arrival. That’s not to say Texas A&M won’t reach new heights under Fisher, but I’m not giving him the benefit of the doubt until he actually proves it. Kellen Mond didn’t play any better as a junior, which is also a red flag to me. If Mond isn’t one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC in 2020, it might be time to stop considering Fisher one of the best developers of the position in the SEC.
No. 4 Eddie Gran — Kentucky
It’s impossible to ignore the job Gran has done in recent seasons running Kentucky’s offense. Right now, there are coaches from across the country cutting up film of his running schemes and studying how Kentucky has had success running the ball in the nation’s toughest conference with little to no threat of a passing game. Kentucky didn’t crater after losing every passer on the depth chart last season. Instead, the team flourished after starting 2-3, and finishing 6-2 with Lynn Bowden under center is a credit to the coaching in Lexington and might not be an achievement we see again in the SEC for some time. Last season’s results came after the Kentucky staff helped develop Benny Snell into the school’s all-time leading rusher and scorer in just three seasons of play.
No. 3 Jim Chaney — Tennessee
Outside of Dan Mullen, no offensive-minded coach has been as consistent in recent SEC history as Chaney. There’s a reason he’s one of the highest-paid assistants in the nation, he is very adaptable to his personnel and has produced at a high level far more often than not. Many Georgia fans learned last season how valuable an assistant Chaney proved to be when the Bulldogs offense took a step back following his departure to Rocky Top. Butch Jones experienced the same thing during his run in Knoxville. Under Chaney’s guidance, several college quarterbacks have played their best football, and considering the importance of that position, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator deserves a spot in the top 3 on this list.
No. 2 Dan Mullen — Florida
There has not been a more consistent offensive mind in the SEC over the past 15 years than Mullen. The Gators reached the pinnacle of college football during his first run in Gainesville and he was the driving force of the best run in Mississippi State history before returning to Florida and immediately fixing the mess inherited from Jim McElwain. There might not be a better argument for Mullen’s offensive prowess than the careers of recent SEC quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald and Feleipe Franks. How those QBs performed, in addition to the entire offense around those players, with Mullen as their coach compared to their careers without him shows how big of an impact a great coach can have on a unit.
No. 1 Mike Leach — Mississippi State
Detractors will be quick to say Leach has proven very little in the SEC, which isn’t even accurate — he served as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator and helped develop Tim Couch into the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. But after a few decades of calling his own plays, it’s safe to say there aren’t many offensive minds at any level of football that are better than Mississippi State’s coach. We’ll see how quickly the Bulldogs can adapt to the new offense in Starkville without having the opportunity to iron out the wrinkles during spring camp and likely starting a quarterback who just arrived on campus, but if any coach can get his players up to speed in a hurry, it’s Leach.