These are the 4 most likely candidates to win 2021 SEC Coach of the Year
For a lot of conferences, “Coach of the Year” should be named “Surprise Coach of the Year.”
As in, the coach who most significantly surpassed expectations.
And to be fair, it kinda has to be that. If it just went to the coach who won the most games every year, it would be the same few coaches winning the award, even though it really wouldn’t reflect a masterful job if a team loaded with 5-star recruits only went 10-2.
In the SEC, however, “Coach of the Year” isn’t just reserved for the coach of the surprise team. Nick Saban won the award last year for Alabama’s unbeaten season. After won his first title in Tuscaloosa back in 2009, he only claimed the award twice (2016 was the other year). Saban won it in consecutive years back in 2008-09, but even when Alabama repeated in 2011 and 2012, he didn’t win in either year. So no, don’t expect Saban to win it this year.
History tells us that you need to either deliver historic success for your program — think 2018 Kentucky with Mark Stoops — or you need to be in position to play for a national title. Four of the last 5 winners had already earned Playoff berths with Stoops being the lone exception. Each of the last 10 winners all finished with double-digit wins, too.
Is it narrative-driven? A bit. Last year, all of the first-year coaches had moments where they looked worthy of winning the honor, but none of them finished with a winning record against SEC competition.
Still, tie goes to the story. Like in 2018, Saban was the leader of an unbeaten Alabama team that was 13-0 but was Stoops an obvious choice for delivering Kentucky’s first winning record against the SEC in 4 decades? Absolutely.
With that in mind, here are the top 4 candidates for 2021 SEC Coach of the Year:
Kirby Smart, Georgia
If Smart is leading a 13-0 or even a 12-1 Georgia team into the Playoff, he might be the obvious choice. A lot of that could depend on if he beats Clemson in that opener. If Georgia goes unbeaten against the SEC in the regular season, which seems perfectly realistic, it’ll be the first time since 1982. You’re always going to get national attention at Georgia if you’re doing something for the first time since the Herschel Walker era.
Smart won the award in 2017, and obviously, preseason expectations are sky high. That could prevent him from being the unanimous choice. Smart’s path to SEC Coach of the Year gets a whole lot clearer if he leads Georgia to a win against Clemson. A blowout win in the opener and that Georgia hype train will be moving like Smart trying to dodge a Gatorade bath.
Kirby Smart turned on the jets to avoid the Gatorade bath 😂 pic.twitter.com/96Ip0ksytm
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 1, 2021
The narrative for Smart would be beating Alabama in an SEC Championship. Remember that the award typically comes out a few days after that. If Smart can finally take down the master, he’ll be a no-doubter choice, regardless of whether he goes on to end the 1980 jokes.
Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
I think we should always be mindful of the likelihood of a program like Mizzou coming out of nowhere and having one of those “stop sleeping on us” seasons. Drinkwitz is that dude. Spend 5 minutes talking to him and you’ll see how much he fits that description. I thought there was a strong case for him to be SEC Coach of the Year until his team got smoked in the final 2 games. Even just going 5-5 as a new coach with such a bizarre offseason was a credit to Drinkwitz, who quietly adjusted his pro-tempo offense to fit that personnel.
So what would Drinkwitz need to do in order to surpass expectations again? I’d say 9-3 with a win against a team like Texas A&M or Florida. The last time Mizzou played in consecutive games as a Top 25 team was 2015. That means 66 of the last 68 games, Mizzou was unranked. In other words, I don’t think Drinkwitz needs to have Gary Pinkel-level success — he won the award in 2014 — in order to become a legit candidate.
Drinkwitz’s individual status as an offensive mind will fall largely on how Connor Bazelak looks, but if his new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks looks the part and the Tigers don’t take a step back in the first year of the post-Nick Bolton era, that could set the stage for a 2018 Kentucky-type season.
(No, Mizzou fans. I’m not saying your program’s history is the same as Kentucky. Yes, I know that people don’t talk about Chase Daniel and James Franklin enough.)
Sam Pittman, Arkansas
When Arkansas started 3-3, I was ready to give the SEC Coach of the Year award to Pittman. The guy inherited a team who hadn’t won an SEC game in over 1,000 days, and he got off to what should’ve been a 4-2 start (that Auburn game was a raw deal). But then injuries caught up to the Hogs and in a COVID season with limited roster depth to begin with, depth was severely lacking in the final month.
Even though Arkansas now has higher expectations, Pittman can still follow an SEC Coach of the Year path. It likely consists of beating Texas and having a winning record in SEC play to get to 9-3. That is, in my opinion, above the 2021 ceiling for the Hogs.
But then again, that’s sort of the point. Perhaps there’s a little regression to the mean with those closes losses after Arkansas went 1-3 in 1-score games. Maybe returning all but 1 starter on defense with Barry Odom will yield massive improvement. Who knows? KJ Jefferson could be the breakout star in the SEC.
KJ Jefferson to Treylon Burks for 68-yard touchdown.
Burks has been unguardable at times this season.pic.twitter.com/a2YtmFCC9Y
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) December 5, 2020
Usually teams with 100-1 odds to win the division aren’t good bets to finish with a winning record in conference play. Is there a path to an 8-4 season that could earn Pittman some SEC Coach of the Year consideration as a nod to his 2020 turnaround, as well? Absolutely. We’re still talking about a team who hasn’t been to a bowl in its last 4 seasons, during which it posted an 11-35 overall record. The bar is still relatively low for Pittman, and it’s not crazy to think he could exceed it again.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Some might say that 2020 was Fisher’s year to win. Historic success? Yep. A&M ended up with its best finish in the AP Top 25 in 81 years. Narrative? Yep. In Year 3, Fisher was written off by many (myself included) after the Alabama loss. That game was why Fisher didn’t win the award. Maybe it’s a different story if we were talking about a 7-point loss instead of a 28-point loss to the team who went on to win it all.
As for 2021, yes, Fisher can still win it. All he has to do is do what no Saban disciple has done — beat him. Easy enough, right?
A&M is +550 to win the West and +1200 to win the SEC. That’s for a team coming off a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory who has questions to answer on the offensive line but returns a wealth of skill position production. A&M should have a top-10 team in terms of talent — last year’s squad was No. 11 in 247sports’ talent composite rankings — and the schedule sets up well. Prior to the second weekend of November, the Aggies will only leave the state of Texas twice. That’ll be trips to Colorado and Mizzou, both of which A&M should be favored.
Does that mean 2021 is a cakewalk? Of course not. That’s why some are assuming A&M is due for a regression after it nearly clinched its first Playoff berth. But being the coach to end Saban’s perfect record against his former assistants would carry a momentous amount of pull in the “SEC Coach of the Year” discussion.
Dare I say, this might be Fisher’s best shot to do it.