For Lane Kiffin, Sam Pittman, Mike Leach and Eli Drinkwitz, improvement feels inevitable. Part of that is because their teams are subtracting 2 SEC games and adding 4 non-SEC games in Year 2. Consider that a weird byproduct of 2020. All 4 of those coaches, who finished between 3 to 5 wins in Year 1, could easily improve by multiple games.

Also inevitable? Some generalizations about what Year 2 improvement actually means for long-term success.

One might assume that Year 2 improvement — under normal, non-COVID circumstances — equates to long-term success. And one might also assume that Year 2 regression equates to a quick shelf life. History suggests the latter has a bit more truth to it than the former, though not by as much as one might think.

I went back and looked at all the SEC coaches who had a Year 2 in the SEC in the 21st century (that starts at 2012 for Mizzou and Texas A&M). The trend was that it was somewhat trend-less.

For every instance regarding a coach who improved significantly in Year 2 and went on to have great long-term success, there’s a Will Muschamp or a Bret Bielema case.

Three of the SEC’s 5 coaches who won national titles in the 21st century improved by at least 3 wins in Year 2. And on the flip side, more than half of the coaches who won the same or fewer games in Year 2 didn’t make it past Year 5.

The problem is that you can poke holes in those numbers. Easily.

I want you to tell me the common thread that links his group of SEC coaches together:

  • Les Miles, LSU
  • Chad Morris, Arkansas
  • Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt
  • Houston Nutt, Ole Miss
  • Sylvester Croom, MSU
  • Ron Zook, Florida
  • Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
  • Derek Dooley, Tennessee
  • Jim McElwain, Florida
  • Joker Phillips, Kentucky
  • David Cutcliffe, Ole Miss
  • Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
  • Joe Moorhead, MSU
  • Rich Brooks, Kentucky
  • Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Not entirely sure what that group of coaches represent? They all won the same or fewer games in Year 2. Now with someone like Miles, he should almost be exempt from this group because he went from No. 6 to No. 3 in the AP Top 25, despite the fact that his LSU squad won the same amount of games in Year 2 as it did in Year 1.

We all know how that ended for Morris and Moorhead after their Year 2 struggles, but what about McElwain? His team went to its second consecutive SEC Championship in Year 2. You couldn’t have assumed regression was imminent based on that. It was the weird postgame Outback Bowl comments that McElwain delivered that began a head-scratching sequence of events that led to his demise in Year 3.

And what about Sumlin? If you recall, Sumlin’s massive extension with A&M was announced the same day as the 2013 regular-season finale at Mizzou, which A&M lost with a banged up Johnny Manziel. Sure, maybe it was going to be difficult to live up to A&M’s 2012 season, but it was a noticeable step back and Sumlin was still given the “we can’t let him leave for the NFL” treatment. Year 2 regression was by no means considered an ominous sign for Sumlin.

There are a few potential takeaways from that group of SEC coaches who won the same or fewer games in Year 2:

  • How many of them got 7-plus years?
    • 4 of 15
      • But they were Miles (who actually improved), Johnson and Brooks, both of whom took over struggling programs that had limited rebuilding expectations, and Malzahn, who went to a national championship in Year 1
  • How many of them got 5-plus years?
    • 7 of 15 (Fisher will likely make it 8)
      • Miles, Johnson, Croom, Cutcliffe, Sumlin, Brooks and Malzahn
        • Of the non-Miles coaches listed, Cutcliffe and Malzahn were the only ones with a winning SEC season post-Year 2

Besides Malzahn, who skewed things a bit by playing for a national championship in Year 1, no SEC coach in the 21st century has won 3 fewer games in Year 2. For the rest, the line stops at -2, which belonged to Sumlin, Moorhead and Brooks.

Obviously no coach wants Year 2 regression or a Year 2 plateau, especially for the rebuilding programs. No two situations are exactly the same. Morris’ repeated win total was far different than Miles’, and Sumlin taking a slight step back was handled differently by his bosses than how MSU’s administration handled Moorhead.

But does that show that a Year 2 regression or plateau means the hay is in the barn for that coach? No. Not at all.

That’s the point of all of this. So many of these coaches have monumental post-Year 2 decisions that’ll help determine their futures. We didn’t know that Ed Orgeron would go out and hire Joe Brady to turn LSU into the most dangerous offense in the sport’s history. Some people thought Orgeron was heading for an Ole Miss-like demise.

Speaking of Orgeron, he’s a microcosm of why the “+1-2 wins in Year 2” group really doesn’t have much correlation:

  • Nick Saban, LSU
  • Butch Jones, Tennessee
  • Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
  • Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
  • Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss
  • Ed Orgeron, LSU
  • Dan Mullen, Florida
  • Mike Shula, Alabama

Good luck trying to figure out that group.

The Ole Miss version of Orgeron and Shula flamed out in a hurry while Mason’s ceiling at Vanderbilt proved to be extremely limited (some of that wasn’t his doing). And of course, champions of life didn’t keep Jones at Tennessee very long. But then you have 4 legitimate success stories with the LSU version of Saban, the South Carolina version of Spurrier, the LSU version or Orgeron and the Florida version of Mullen.

So does that mean every SEC coach should strive to improve by 1-2 games in Year 2? It’s certainly more promising than Year 2 regression, but why not shoot for a 3-game improvement?

Well, in case you haven’t realized yet how Year 2 improvement doesn’t really equate to long-term success, check this group out. This is the group of SEC head coaches who improved by 3-plus games in Year 2 in the 21st century (Year 2 win improvement also listed):

  • Lou Holtz, South Carolina: +8
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn: +6
  • Nick Saban, Alabama: +5
  • Guy Morriss, Kentucky: +5
  • Mark Richt, Georgia: +5
  • Kirby Smart, Georgia: +5
  • Bret Bielema, Arkansas: +4
  • Urban Meyer, Florida: +4
  • Tommy Tuberville, Auburn: +4
  • Dan Mullen, MSU: +4
  • Will Muschamp, Florida: +4
  • Will Muschamp, South Carolina: +3
  • James Franklin, Vanderbilt: +3
  • Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: +3
  • Bobby Petrino, Arkansas: +3
  • Barry Odom, Mizzou: +3
  • Mark Stoops, Kentucky: +3

Confused? You should be. Again, for every case of Saban or Meyer, there’s a Muschamp or a Muschamp.

Yes, the fact that Muschamp appeared in the “+3 in Year 2” group on 2 separate occasions should tell you a lot. Chizik couldn’t build off his Year 2 push to the same way that Smart did, and Bielema couldn’t sustain his rebuild the way that Stoops did.

It’s interesting to note that of all the SEC head coaches who got a Year 2 in the 21st century, a whopping 41% of them improved by 3-plus wins in that second season. It’s more common than some might think. Of those 17 coaches, only 5 of them got 8-plus years (that’s not including Smart, who is entering Year 6).

Four of the 17 coaches were fired for performanced-based reasons before getting a Year 5 (not including Petrino’s scandal or Morriss and Franklin leaving for other Power 5 jobs). In addition to Pruitt, the aforementioned Chizik and Muschamp, Odom was part of that unfortunate group. Odom is the ultimate head-scratcher here. He’s 1 of the 5 coaches who followed up a +3 season in Year 2 by once again improving his win total in Year 3. Here’s that group with their Year 3 win improvement:

  • Nick Saban, Alabama: +2
  • Bobby Petrino, Arkansas: +2
  • Barry Odom, Mizzou: +1
  • Lou Holtz, South Carolina: +1
  • Bret Bielema: +1

Much more common in the “+3 in Year 2” group of coaches? Regression in Year 3. More than half (9 of 16) of those coaches saw their Year 3 win totals drop by at least 2 games:

  • Will Muschamp, Florida: -7
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn: -6
  • Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: -5
  • Urban Meyer, Florida: -4
  • Kirby Smart, Georgia: -2
  • Mark Richt, Georgia: -2
  • Tommy Tuberville, Auburn: -2
  • Will Muschamp, South Carolina: -2
  • Dan Mullen, MSU: -2

I’d argue that Pruitt, Muschamp and Chizik were the coaches who didn’t rebound from their Year 3 regression. Still, though. That’s not a definitive barometer.

Getting back to just the “+3 in Year 2” group of coaches, it was more common among those 17 coaches to get fired or leave by the end of Year 4 (7 of 17) than to stay 8 years at that school (5 of 17).

OK, now I know you’re confused.

What all of this proves is that you can spin Year 2 any way you want. If you want to tell yourself that Drinkwitz improving by 3 games in Year 2 means he’s destined for long-term success, you can find a comp. If you want to tell yourself that Kiffin having the same win total in Year 2 means he’s going to be fine, you can find a comp for that, too.

Or, you could do the flip side. If your buddy tries to tell you that Leach’s +3 improvement in Year 2 means he’ll be in Starkville for a decade, you can burst his bubble with 1 word — “Muschamp.” Or if you see someone on Twitter say that Pittman’s +4 improvement means he has nothing but success in his future, you can drop a “Bielema.”

(For what it’s worth, I’m a believer in all of the SEC’s Year 2 coaches. Just trying to play devil’s advocate here.)

Year 2 success means whatever you want it to mean. For the vast majority of coaches, it’s not a fork-in-the-road season. There are a few exceptions to that. We remember the special Year 2 jumps for Saban, Meyer and Smart. But we hold them in such high regard because of what they did to back that up, which isn’t always a guarantee.

And at the same time, does not making that massive Year 2 push mean coaches can’t win a title? Of course not. Orgeron and Miles both won their rings in Year 3. Is it now impossible for Fisher to ever win another ring because he regressed in Year 2 at A&M? Of course not.

This should serve as a reminder that no 2 paths to success (or failure) are exactly alike. All 4 of the SEC’s Year 2 coaches are in completely different situations. There are only 2 definitive things we can say that apply to all of them.

One is that all of them would prefer to see some Year 2 improvement in the win column.

The other? We won’t be able to use Year 2 as a full-proof barometer for their respective futures.

No matter how badly we want to.