The most impressive win for each SEC head coach (at their current job)
Color me impressed.
Not all wins are created equal. If they were, all wins would be shown on the TVs when recruits are on campus. But if you’re someone like Florida, you make sure the 2020 Cocktail Party is showing and not that 2018 game vs. FCS Charleston Southern.
Impressive wins can come in a variety of forms. They can come in the form of a desperation, must-have game. They can come in the form of a stunning second half rally. Or, they can simply come in the form of beating a team that was considered a heavy favorite. No 2 wins are exactly the same.
I thought it’d be an interesting point to look at each SEC head coach’s most impressive win. And because this is a “what have you done for me lately” business, I decided to narrow it to what each SEC head coach did at their current job.
Yes, I realize that means the 4 first-year head coaches are excluded from this discussion. They’ll have their time to earn impressive wins. With 8 of the 14 SEC head coaches in Year 1 or Year 2, there are a lot who figure to have a different answer to the “most impressive win” question by the end of 2021.
For now, though, here’s each current SEC head coach’s most impressive win:
Dan Mullen, Florida
Most impressive win — Oct. 6, 2018: Florida 27, LSU 19
I didn’t go with the 2020 Georgia game because with all due respect to Stetson Bennett IV, I don’t think we can say a neutral-site win against him is a coach’s most impressive win through 3 seasons. I instead went with an instance that felt like a clear turning point in Mullen’s time at Florida. His SEC debut was a home loss vs. Kentucky, and LSU was the second SEC home game on the schedule. Joe Burrow’s 2018 LSU squad had its flaws (mainly a porous offensive line with a limited system), but heading into that Florida game, it was still a 5-0 team with 2 wins vs. top-10 teams away from home.
In a game that Mullen had to win to gain a bit of momentum, he got it. Todd Grantham’s defense did a lot of the heavy lifting — Burrow had 0 TDs, 2 interceptions and he was sacked 5 times — but Florida’s ground game took over. It produced 215 yards and it scored the go-ahead touchdown after Mullen called for a beautifully executed trick play that paid homage to Tim Tebow, who is in attendance getting inducted into the Florida Ring of Honor.
Brad Stewart’s pick-6 of Burrow put an exclamation point on the day, and in the process, it yielded one of the top in-stadium reactions in recent memory:
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) May 16, 2020
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Most impressive win — Jan. 1, 2018, College Football Playoff semifinal: Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (2 OT)
For all the heat that Smart takes for his decisions in big games, that Rose Bowl performance was something special. Georgia fell behind by 17 to Baker Mayfield and came back to win with a true freshman quarterback. Knowing what getting to a national championship meant to Georgia and all the “close but no cigar” moments of the Mark Richt era, nobody can ever take that game away from Smart.
The decision to let Rodrigo Blankenship kick a 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half instead of a somewhat hopeless Hail Mary attempt proved to be key. Smart’s defense got 2 overtime stops and held Oklahoma’s dynamic offense to just 3 points in the extra periods. In overtime, Mayfield was 3-for-4 for 9 yards. In a game in which there were over 1,000 yards of offense, that took incredible poise by that loaded UGA defense.
Any Georgia fan born after 1980 will probably tell you that the 2017 Rose Bowl will go down as their favorite game of their life. That wouldn’t have happened without Smart’s brilliant in-game adjustments.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Most impressive win — Sept. 8, 2018: Kentucky 27, Florida 16
Yes, it was the first game vs. an FBS opponent of the Mullen era, and Florida got better as the season progressed. But for Kentucky to go into The Swamp and win there for the first time since 1979 was still the top achievement of the Stoops era to date. Kentucky hadn’t beaten Florida anywhere since 1986. And the way it happened had to be satisfying for a defensive-minded coach like Stoops.
Mullen’s offense was confused all night. Josh Allen did everything and looked every bit like an All-American and future top-10 pick. As a 2-touchdown underdog, Kentucky dominated on the ground with over 300 rushing yards thanks to Benny Snell and Terry Wilson, while Stoops’ defense held Feleipe Franks to 45% passing.
At the time, we didn’t know that Kentucky was about to embark on its best season in 4 decades, but that night set the wheels in motion for a historic year.
Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
Most impressive win — Oct. 10, 2020: Mizzou 45, LSU 41
Let’s call it what it was — Drinkwitz dunked on Bo Pelini all day. A game that was switched from Baton Rouge to Columbia ended up being one of the top shootouts of the year. In his first start in Drinkwitz’s offense, Connor Bazelak threw to wide-open receivers and Mizzou put up 406 passing yards. Drinkwitz’s pro-tempo system also produced 5.5 yards per carry.
LSU was a 2-touchdown favorite in what was deemed a must-win game to avoid a 1-2 start. The LSU offense played much better than it did against MSU, but in the all-or-nothing play with their backs on the goal line on 4th down, Mizzou stood tall and broke up the potential game-winning touchdown. Instead of getting off to an 0-3 start and potentially losing the team in a herky-jerky season, Drinkwitz picked up his first win in epic fashion.
Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Most impressive win — N/A, first-year SEC head coach
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Most impressive win — N/A, first-year SEC head coach (but UCF’s 2018 beatdown of Cincinnati would be it)
Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Most impressive win — N/A, first-year SEC head coach
Nick Saban, Alabama
Most impressive win — Jan. 8, 2018, College Football Playoff National Championship: Alabama 26, Georgia 23 (OT)
There are a million ways you can go with this. The 2008 Blackout Game at Georgia? Sure. The 2009 SEC Championship vs. senior Tim Tebow and the Gators? Definitely. The 2011 LSU rematch? Absolutely. There are a host of others you could choose for Saban (2015 vs. Clemson is also up there), but why not go with the remarkable comeback that got him ring No. 6?
The halftime move to pull Jalen Hurts in favor of true freshman Tua Tagovailoa will go down as one of the gutsiest decisions we’ve ever seen on that stage. Saban baffled Kirby Smart’s defense by doing that. Lost in the shuffle of that decision and “2nd-and-26” was the job Saban did to refocus his team after the missed 36-yard field goal at the end of regulation. People forget that immediately after that, the Tide got a huge stop to start overtime and Rodrigo Blankenship had to connect from 51 yards just to get Georgia on the board in the extra frame.
In terms of in-game coaching, it’s perhaps the signature moment of Saban’s career.
Sam Pittman, Arkansas
Most impressive win — Oct. 17, 2020: Arkansas 33, Ole Miss 21
Even though this became known as Grant Morgan’s “one-armed bandit” game leading Barry Odom’s defense, Pittman still deserves a ton of credit for beating Ole Miss. His team was one step ahead of an Ole Miss team who nearly put up half a hundred the previous game against Alabama. Six interceptions against Matt Corral told the story of the day, but what was most impressive was how well Pittman’s team responded to getting a raw deal in that Auburn game the previous week. There was no hangover. Instead, there was a 20-0 halftime lead.
Pittman out-dueled Lane Kiffin and started to get national coach of the year buzz less than a month into the season. Considering the gauntlet schedule that Arkansas was up against after an unprecedented offseason, that was a monumental accomplishment.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 17, 2020
Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Most impressive win — N/A, first-year SEC head coach (but Boise State’s 2014 Fiesta Bowl win vs. Arizona would be it)
Ed Orgeron, LSU
Most impressive win — Nov. 9, 2019: LSU 46, Alabama 41
Ed Orgeron’s tenure as LSU’s head coach was always going to be defined by whether he could end the Alabama losing streak. For all the good that LSU did leading up to that top-3 showdown in 2019, it all would’ve been for naught if an unbeaten Alabama squad once again spoiled the Tigers’ national title hopes. And for Orgeron, who watched LSU score a combined 10 points in his 3 previous matchups vs. the Tide, 2019 had to be different.
It was. Completely.
LSU’s takedown of Alabama was everything Tiger fans had been desperate for — an offensive-minded statement with clutch play after clutch play. Burrow was the best version of himself and Clyde Edwards-Helaire delivered an all-time performance for a college running back (180 all-purpose yards, 4 touchdowns). Against an Alabama team who was the preseason favorite to win it all, LSU’s storybook run of dominance continued through Tuscaloosa and opened the door for a national title.
Orgeron went viral after the game for his leaked postgame comments, which might’ve come back to bite him in 2020, but on that day, LSU celebrated one of its biggest regular season wins in program history.
Mike Leach, MSU
Most impressive win — Sept. 26, 2020: MSU 44, LSU 34
There were 2 major questions going into the 2020 season-opener. The first was how the defending national champions would respond after losing more production than any 21st century title winner. The second was whether Leach’s version of the Air Raid offense would translate to the SEC.
Boy, did we get quite the answer to both of those things on that afternoon in Baton Rouge.
To call MSU’s performance “stunning” would’ve been a massive understatement. K.J. Costello went into Death Valley and set the SEC’s single-game passing record with 623 yards (!) against an LSU defense that simply had no answers, especially without last-minute scratch Derek Stingley Jr. The Air Raid exploded onto the scene in the loudest possible way, and perhaps, it set the bar a bit too high against Bo Pelini’s porous defense, which somehow finished the season ranked dead last against the pass.
For a solid week, Leach was riding as high as any first-year coach could’ve asked for.
Mike leach after beating LSU:
“We played LSU because New England, Green Bay, and the Chiefs already had somebody scheduled”
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) September 26, 2020
Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Most impressive win — Jan. 2, 2021, Outback Bowl: Ole Miss 26, Indiana 20
If we’re just talking most impressive game* instead of most impressive win, you could make a pretty good case that Kiffin leading his offense to a 48-point showing against Alabama would be the top choice. But in Year 1 in Oxford, no win was more impressive than the Outback Bowl.
Even though Kiffin’s offense was relatively limited by its own high standards — Ole Miss still put up nearly 500 yards of offense — it was a complete win. John Rhys Plumlee’s 44-yard catch set up the go-ahead score, and in a stunning turn of events, the Ole Miss defense came up clutch with a stop on Indiana’s final drive. Yes, Indiana was playing a backup quarterback, but Tom Allen was the National Coach of the Year for a team that many thought was worthy of a New Year’s 6 bowl bid.
It was the perfect way for Kiffin to cap off his eventful Year 1 and an ideal way to get all sorts of offseason momentum heading into Year 2.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Most impressive win — Oct. 4, 2020: Texas A&M 41, Florida 38
If there was a turning point for A&M under Fisher, that early-afternoon win against Florida was it. A week removed from another drubbing at the hands of Alabama, the Aggies welcomed a top-4 Florida team that was off to a historic offensive start. A “reduced capacity crowd” witnessed a win that was even bigger than the 2018 LSU game with 7 overtimes (and a few controversial calls that went A&M’s way).
Did A&M get a lucky bounce with the Malik Davis fumble on Florida’s late drive? Perhaps, but I’d argue that there were still several impressive aspects of that win.
For starters, people don’t talk enough about Isaiah Spiller putting the truck stick on Ventrell Miller to pick up that 4th-down conversion and scamper into the end zone for that huge 4th quarter touchdown. Caleb Chapman was torching Florida, and he went down with a torn ACL on his game-tying touchdown. Without Chapman on that last drive, A&M still had to find a way to make that Davis fumble count, and it did that by running the ball 6 of the next 7 plays to set up the game-winning field goal.
Fisher might not have gotten the Playoff berth his team deserved, but his program did earn its best Associated Press Top 25 finish in 81 years. The impact of that Florida win could be felt for years to come.