The SEC spent crazy money on new coaches, but did the conference get any better?
This has been a banner year for the SEC. Both Alabama and Georgia reached the College Football Playoff. It was also a down year. Florida and Tennessee cratered in the East. Much of the West struggled as well. What most years is the nation’s toughest conference was so shallow Alabama’s best argument for a playoff berth at 11-1 was Ohio State losing by 31 to Iowa.
This season has led to an eventful SEC coaching carousel, with six schools hiring new coaches. Multiple athletic directors have been fired. Schools have put forward dizzying amounts of money. Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida combined to spend about $40 million buying out coaches. Texas A&M made Jimbo Fisher college football’s best-compensated coach with a gobsmacking 10-year, $75 million contract. Arkansas, reportedly, was willing to offer Gus Malzahn north of $7 million per year to return home, before he signed an extension with Auburn.
The underlying question, though, has yet to be answered. Did these moves make the SEC any better? No team made a decisive move that suggests they are an imminent threat to Alabama/Auburn or Georgia. Let’s look at the four teams that are voluntarily changing coaches.
Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin after years of the team slowly drifting downward. He looked great when he had a Heisman caliber quarterback in Johnny Manziel, muddling and ineffectual after Manziel left. They hired Fisher, who has sort of the same track record.
Jimbo went 16-0 in the ACC in seasons where he had Jameis Winston. But, Fisher went just 32-17 in the ACC in seasons without him and is coming off a 5-6 overall year. Florida State, it should be noted, has a far stronger advantage over its conference competitors than Texas A&M’s non-existent one. Does he bring the Aggies any closer to winning their first conference title since 1998?
Florida missed out on Chip Kelly, who chose UCLA. The Gators reportedly looked at Mike Gundy before settling on a quite solid backup plan in Dan Mullen. Mullen did a great job in Starkville. He should offer UF the quarterback development and offense it needs. Will he do much better than Jim McElwain’s 13-5 in the SEC and two division titles over his first two seasons? Will fans view equaling that as progress?
Arkansas cast off Jeff Long and Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks went all-in with a massive offer on Gus Malzahn. Missing out on him, they moved on to Chad Morris. Morris does not have Arkansas ties, but he does have Texas recruiting ties and runs an exciting offense. Morris is also 8-16 in the AAC at SMU. The conference record does not say everything. Morris’ SMU team improved every year. This was the Mustangs’ best SRS season since the program’s death penalty. Morris’ resume at Clemson alone would have made him an exciting hire for Arkansas. Still, Morris faces an uphill fight. Bret Bielema arrived in Fayetteville with three conference titles on his CV, made some great assistant hires, and could not do it.
Then there’s Tennessee. We’d say the Vols were in the midst of what is, unequivocally, the worst coaching transition ever. But Arizona State just paid $12 million to swap Todd Graham with ESPN analyst Herm Edwards and a whole lot of branding mumbo jumbo.
“Grumors,” for whatever reason, got fans into a tizzy. Then, the Vols botched their initial hire of Greg Schiano, both choosing an unpopular candidate and bowing to public pressure once the decision was made. Mike Gundy and Dave Doeren turned down Tennessee. So did Jeff Brohm, currently coaching Purdue. Matt Campbell, the present coach at Iowa State, did not get involved in the process.
AD John Currie looked like he had saved the day bringing in Mike Leach. Then Tennessee recalled him to Knoxville the next morning and fired him. Now, former coach Phil Fulmer is in charge, and we are at the Les Miles vs. coordinator with no experience stage of the process. The eventual hire will be less impressive than Mississippi State swiftly moving to Penn State OC Joe Moorhead. Maybe that should be expected since Mississippi State has been a more relevant program the past decade.
Exciting hires from Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas A&M could have revamped a stale SEC. It’s early. But it’s hard to argue any of those programs made one.
Thrilling names such as Kelly and Gruden stayed away. So did many of college football coaching’s rising stars. No SEC school pulled the ripcord and hired Mike Leach or Bobby Petrino. The conference appears to have spent nine figures shuffling deck chairs on an unaffected boat.