There's no way the 2021 season will yield major SEC coaching turnover ... right?
Let’s get this out of the way.
I wrote before the 2020 season that I thought SEC teams would avoid making major decisions on head coaches. There were so many moving pieces, and with finances up in the air because of a pandemic, there could’ve been some rare mercy for SEC head coaches.
Then, 4 SEC head coaches were fired, reminding everyone that if it doesn’t just mean more, it certainly means a lot. Two of those coaches agreed to receive an 8-figure buyout while another is in a legal battle to get his 8-figure buyout.
Just another year in the SEC, I suppose.
This might sound like a bit of a double down on a bad prediction, but whatever. Here goes nothing.
The 2021 season won’t yield major SEC coaching turnover.
How could I say that? Is that just a contrarian take meant to stir the masses? No, it’s actually not when you think about it.
While the SEC doesn’t follow conventional wisdom when it comes to things like “patience” or “fiscal responsibility,” it does only have so many teams. Dating to when Chad Morris was fired near the end of the 2019 season, we watched 8 (!) SEC programs fire head coaches (Arkansas, Auburn, MSU, Mizzou, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vandy). Each of the last 2 years, 4 SEC coaches got canned at season’s end. That means in 2021, more than half the league (57%) will have coaches in Year 1 or Year 2.
Now, how many coaches were fired the offseason before that streak began? Zero. When the SEC began the 2019 season without a new head coach, it marked the first time that had happened since 2006. During that stretch, 37 SEC head coaches were fired (excluding interim head coaches). That’s an average of roughly 2.5 coaches per year who got fired.
If there’s an over/under if SEC coaches getting fired after the 2021 season, it’s certainly closer to 2.5 than 4. Why? Since 1990, Keith Gilbertson (Washington), Willie Taggart (FSU) and Morris were the only Power 5 head coaches who were fired for performance-based reasons before the conclusion of Year 2. Even though Joe Moorhead was fired at the end of Year 2, it’s still extremely rare for teams to punt on a head coach after 2 seasons. Just 9 times did that happen at Power 5 programs for performance-based reasons in the last 30 years.
Using that logic, 8 SEC coaches should (probably) be safe in 2021. That group of Year 1 or 2 SEC coaches doesn’t include Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Stoops and Ed Orgeron, all of whom had buyouts north of $23 million in 2020. The other 2 coaches? Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart, both of whom are the only SEC head coaches riding active streaks of 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl berths.
That doesn’t exactly set up for an active offseason on the SEC coaching carousel.
Again, though. It’s the SEC. Like, the conference that just had a program fork over a $21.45 million buyout after a coach went 6-4. It’s the league with teams that agreed to pay more than $175 million in head coaching buyouts since the end of Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa in 2007.
For all I know, we’ll watch 2 of those 8 coaches in Year 1 or 2 get fired and we’ll see 2 other SEC coaches get fired with buyouts the size of Malzahn’s.
It’s funny because it’s when the SEC doesn’t have a coaching change that the rest of college football should really be worried. The SEC’s quiet offseason before the start of the 2006 season was followed by the conference winning each of the next 7 national titles. The SEC’s quiet offseason before the start of the 2019 season already yielded 2 SEC national champs, and they were arguably 2 of the best teams in the sport’s history.
Does the SEC’s lack of coaching turnover heading into the 2019 season mean the conference is about to embark on another 2006-12 run of national titles? Not necessarily. But when even the SEC is content to stand pat, boy, look out.
I refuse to make the prediction that we’re in for a 2019 or 2006 repeat of zero SEC coaches getting fired, or that there won’t be any turnover. If I were a gambling man, I’d bet on at least 1 happening. The league is too competitive and the stakes are too high to assume everyone is safe for another year.
That could be anything. Maybe the Mullen-Scott Stricklin relationship totally sours, or perhaps Orgeron can’t bounce back in 2021 and Scott Woodward opts to make his first change since arriving in Baton Rouge. Crazier things have happened. Nobody would’ve assumed Jeremy Pruitt’s time would be up after Year 3 when that extension was announced the week of Tennessee’s 2020 opener. Until it was announced, it still seemed likely that Auburn would avoid paying the richest buyout in SEC history and not fire Malzahn.
These things happen in a hurry. They don’t always require an entire offseason of showing up on hot-seat lists. There might not be 1 coach who will earn a frequent spot on one of those annual preseason staples. Weird. Somebody might have to throw Malzahn or Muschamp on there for old times’ sake.
Eight new hires later, these would appear to be new times in the SEC. Dare I say, they might actually be here to stay for a bit.