With the coaching carousel near a halt, these 5 SEC assistants could become FBS head coaches next year
Dare I say, it appears the coaching carousel has stopped spinning. At least for a minute.
Now that Gus Malzahn is on board at UCF, there are no more FBS head coach openings left to fill. For now. Of course, there’s no guarantee that remains by August.
But for now, let’s treat this as if we know what the coaching situation looks like for 2021.
This offseason, we watched 3 SEC assistants get FBS head coaching gigs. All of them were from Alabama (Steve Sarkisian, Charles Huff and Butch Jones). That means of the 15 FBS openings, 20% of those schools just plucked one from Nick Saban’s staff.
History suggests that a handful of SEC assistants will get opportunities to become FBS head coaches. Not all of them will go the route of Kirby Smart and earn big-time Power 5 jobs, and not all of them will go the route of Sam Pittman and earn a Power 5 job after essentially being a lifelong position coach. Each could follow a unique path to get there.
Here are 5 SEC coaches who could become FBS head coaches by this time next year:
Jeff Lebby, Ole Miss OC
If I were a betting man, I would’ve lost some money. Why? I thought Lebby was the clear favorite to get the UCF job. Malzahn, however, made a major impression on Terry Mohajir and the rest is history. Lebby is one of the top young offensive minds in the sport having dialed up looks for consecutive top-15 offenses at UCF in 2019 and at Ole Miss in 2020.
And if you’re of the impression that Lebby simply got credit for Lane Kiffin’s work, explain why the Ole Miss offensive coordinator got a 71% raise at season’s end. You don’t shell out $1.2 million for a coordinator unless he provides immense value. Lebby has had an incredibly successful track record working with 3 different quarterbacks (McKenzie Milton, Dillon Gabriel and Matt Corral). That’s the name of the game in the 2020s.
Lebby just turned 37, and he doesn’t have any experience as a head coach. If there’s one thing that’ll prevent him from getting offered a Power 5 head coaching job so soon, that’s it. Still, though. The fact that Lebby was considered such a serious target for a quality job like UCF was telling.
If and when Ole Miss lights up scoreboards again with a loaded offense, another 71% raise might not even be enough to keep the Broyles Award semifinalist in town.
Mickey Joseph, LSU WRs
Last year, Joseph had an opportunity to leave for Nebraska and become the passing game coordinator. It would’ve been a promotion … to go to his alma mater … where he played quarterback.
Instead, he stuck around in Baton Rouge and delivered a remarkable year despite what LSU’s final record indicated. Even though he lost Justin Jefferson to the draft and Ja’Marr Chase opted out, Joseph helped Terrace Marshall become one of the nation’s top wideouts — before he opted out — and he helped Kayshon Boutte become a star in Marshall’s absence. Boutte was a 5-star true freshman who Joseph recruited.
Joseph finished as the No. 4 recruiter in the 247sports rankings for 2021. There’s no denying his value to Ed Orgeron’s staff. He could absolutely become a coveted candidate for a Group of 5 opening next year, especially if Boutte develops into an All-American and the LSU passing game has a top-20 season. Orgeron might be able to make it worth his while to stay if it’s anything less than an FBS head coaching job.
Zach Arnett, MSU DC
Usually, I wouldn’t put a 34-year coordinator with essentially 1 year of autonomy on 1 side of the ball. Arnett is certainly a rising name after he rose above some low expectations in Year 1 at MSU. The run defense ranked No. 23 nationally despite the fact that it didn’t enter the season in the top 100 in percentage of returning defensive production.
Arnett was reportedly a candidate for the LSU defensive coordinator job, though that didn’t end up happening. Arnett got an extension after 1 year there, which shows that MSU understands his worth. He might actually be a few years away from getting an FBS job, but there’s a scenario that would make a lot of sense. Arnett, with a defense that returns 85% of its production, could have a top-25 unit. If a job in the Mountain West were to open up, Arnett would be a popular candidate after he spent 9 years working alongside Rocky Long at San Diego State (or if Brady Hoke had a collapse in Year 2 at San Diego State).
The more likely scenario? I’ll have Arnett on this list for the next 2-3 years until he inevitably gets his first FBS head coaching gig.
Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC
So after Elko’s first year at Texas A&M, there was a scare that he’d leave to take the same position with the Cincinnati Bengals. Given what Jimbo Fisher did to poach Elko from Notre Dame, I thought there was actually a good chance Elko stayed at A&M for several years after he was at his third school in as many seasons. Sure enough, Elko did just that. And yeah, getting paid north of $2 million helps. That’s why Elko taking a Group of 5 head coaching job seems like a lateral move financially (Gus Malzahn is only getting $2.3 million per year at UCF).
So why do I have him on this list? Because I think there will be a market for Elko, who has immensely improved a defense that was a disaster for most of the Kevin Sumlin era. That’s the key. Elko’s ability to shut down the run (No. 2 in FBS) helped A&M have its best AP Poll finish in 81 years.
There’s going to be a market for him at some of the lower-level Power 5 openings. Four years at A&M could lead to Elko looking for a new opportunity if he cranks out another one of the league’s top units. He’s in the category of a Dave Aranda, who waited longer than some expected to make the jump to head coach, but still left after Year 4 at LSU. Even though Elko doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of “offensive-minded,” he’s been too successful at a high level not to covet that interest.
Derek Mason, Auburn DC
I think Mason gets another crack at being a head coach. I think there’s a Group of 5 team that will look at his situation at Vandy and chalk up his struggles to being in a nearly impossible situation. They won’t fault him for not living up to the James Franklin standard, which was established when the East was much more up for grabs. Mason could lead a top-30 defense at Auburn and get some interest on the West Coast to lead a Group of 5 program, where he has recruiting ties from the 4 years he spent at Stanford.
Mason never really experienced that during his coaching rise, which seems strange considering his personality is suited well for that kind of a grind. Who knows how much Mason aspires to become a head coach again. If he succeeds at Auburn, there’s no doubt that Bryan Harsin would give him whatever raise/extension needed to sweeten the deal and prevent a potential 1-and-done scenario. It could depend on how quickly Mason wants to hop back into the head coaching arena after a frustrating end at Vanderbilt.
And a thought on Barry Odom
I know Arkansas fans spent the first part of 2020 wondering if Odom was going to be 1-and-done at Arkansas after his defense surpassed some pedestrian expectations. I actually think he could be at Arkansas for 3 years. Sam Pittman said that Odom had more lucrative offers at season’s end, but that he truly enjoyed the year he had in Fayetteville and that he wanted to see it through with all of that production returning.
Odom has already gotten 2 raises at Arkansas and he’s only been there for a year. That tells you all you need to know about how much that staff values him. Pittman will do whatever he can to keep Odom in Fayetteville. That much we know. Odom is now making $1.75 million annually. Only 6 FBS coordinators made more than that in 2020. As long as he’s at Arkansas, he’s going to be near the top of that list. That suggests Odom’s odds of leaving for another coordinator job aren’t likely.
Will he get the itch to become a head coach again? He would probably have to get a Power 5 opportunity to leave, and that might still be tough to come by with the way things ended in anticlimactic fashion at Mizzou.
In other words, Pittman just overcame a massive hurdle by keeping Odom, and I wouldn’t expect him to pack his bags as soon as some might think.