With Year 1 in the books, how should SEC teams that had first-year coaches feel about the future?
Let’s go back to 2013.
Gus Malzahn was all the rage in college football after inheriting a team that didn’t win an SEC game and leading it to the BCS National Championship. If you could’ve polled Auburn fans on a scale of 1-10 about their excitement level, it would’ve undoubtedly been a 10. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Little did they, or anyone, realize that Malzahn would suffer at least 4 losses in every season thereafter and his contract/buyout would be discussed far more than reaching a national championship. That’s not to say Malzahn flamed out. He was an SEC head coach for 8 years. That’s extremely rare during the Nick Saban-Alabama era. By the way, among active head coaches, Malzahn still has the most wins against Saban’s Alabama teams with 3.
But did that “10” after Year 1 gradually decrease? Absolutely.
Consider that a reminder that Year 1 rarely defines a coach. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart both struggled in Year 1 at their respective schools and both lost 5-plus games. Dan Mullen won a New Year’s 6 bowl. Kevin Sumlin had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and a top-5 team.
So take today’s grading of Year 1 coaches for what it is — a reaction to a small sample size of data.
In 2021, the SEC had 4 new coaches. Bryan Harsin (Auburn), Clark Lea (Vanderbilt), Shane Beamer (South Carolina) and Josh Heupel (Tennessee) all inherited wildly different situations. That’ll be considered with each of their grades.
Well, let’s not call them “grades.” It’s a 1-10 scale. A “1” is a dumpster fire that already has the fanbase already looking up buyout numbers and wondering if there will be a Year 3. A “10” is a roaring success that already has the fanbase thinking new heights are possible in the not-so-distant future.
Spoiler alert; no coach on this list was a “1” and no coach was a “10.” Here’s how each SEC team should feel about its Year 1 — and soon to be Year 2 — head coach:
Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Grade — 6
What I liked — If you watched Vandy in November, you saw a team that bought in. No, that didn’t show in the win column. But I thought on both sides of the ball, an overmatched Vandy squad didn’t take plays off. It didn’t necessarily feel quite as bad as 2020 when the Commodores struggled mightily with having enough scholarship players to take the field. Lea made the right switch to go with Mike Wright at quarterback after Ken Seals struggled behind a porous offensive line. And off the field, Lea helped Vandy launch its $300 million “Vandy United” plan to address the long overdue athletic facility upgrades. That’s probably more important than any Year 1 win total. Surely that helped Lea sign the No. 32 class in the country, which was ranked higher than any class signed by Derek Mason.
What I didn’t like — The blank jerseys thing was a bit corny in my opinion, but I can move past that. It was weird to see Lea announce that passing game coordinator Joey Lynch took over as the offensive coordinator after the first game. I suppose that’s par for the course when you fail to score a touchdown and lose by 3 scores to an in-state, directional FCS school. Wright provided a nice late spark, but it was still pretty ugly on offense. Vandy was dead last among Power 5 teams in scoring with just 15.8 points per game, and it was No. 124 in FBS with 4.52 yards per play. It would’ve been nice to see Vandy cash in on the transfer portal instead of that being a mostly 1-way street.
Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Grade — 3
What I liked — In that Georgia State game, it really could’ve gone downhill for Harsin. Bo Nix was benched, his team looked uninspired and without some top-10 recruiting class locked in, Harsin was in need of a turnaround. To Harsin’s credit, he pushed the right buttons with his team in that critical juncture. That allowed Auburn to go into November with a narrow Playoff path. Harsin was in the SEC Coach of the Year discussion after Nix began to play the best ball of his career. Amidst the brutal final month (more on that in a minute), Auburn gave Alabama everything it could handle. Harsin also had a nice late surge with his 2022 class.
What I didn’t like — Oh man. Where do we start?
Harsin firing his receivers coach after 4 games was strange. The November collapse was equally baffling. Blowing a 28-3 lead at home against MSU was a tough look, as was going the final 5 regular-season games with just 1 touchdown in the 3rd and 4th quarter. Hence, why Harsin’s splashy hire of Mike Bobo was 1-and-done. TJ Finley didn’t develop, a loaded secondary went to waste and Auburn got hit hard by the transfer portal with 14 players out the door since the Iron Bowl (including JJ Pegues who is reportedly in the portal). Harsin addressed his quarterback situation by adding Zach Calzada, who struggled with a more talented roster in non-Alabama matchups as A&M’s starter for 10 games. If Harsin struggles with another losing SEC record, there will be a whole lot of Auburn fans looking at that buyout number (it’s $15 million).
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Grade — 8
What I liked — Tennessee had the No. 7 offense in America. Let me repeat that because I feel like we need to be talking about that more — Tennessee had the No. 7 offense in America. Like, the program who didn’t finish better than No. 98 under Jeremy Pruitt. As in, the team who had finished in the top 25 in FBS just twice in the post-Phillip Fulmer era. Hendon Hooker was a revelation in Heupel’s offense, which posted more games with 45 points than any team in school history. Here’s all you need to know about how much more explosive the Vols were. Here’s the breakdown of Tennessee’s plays of 70-plus yards by year (via Bill Martin):
- 2013 — 0
- 2014 — 0
- 2015 — 1
- 2016 — 2
- 2017 — 0
- 2018 — 2
- 2019 — 2
- 2020 — 1
- 2021 — 5
Heupel did exactly what he needed to do in Year 1. He had a fun, dynamic offense unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory in Knoxville. To inherit a roster with those limitations from the Pruitt fallout and deliver the No. 3 offense in school history was darn impressive. Also impressive? Heupel’s biggest hire, defensive coordinator Tim Banks, helped keep the Vols’ defense afloat despite major roster attrition. The Vols were a forward progress call away from winning 8 games, which was no small feat considering how ugly it looked at this time a year ago.
What I didn’t like — I think Heupel could score against the ’85 Bears on an opening drive. It looks that good. But in the second quarter, man, it’s a totally different story once the pre-game scripted plays are gone. In 10 games against Power 5 competition, the Vols were outscored 120-74 in the second quarter. Adjustments weren’t always Heupel’s strong suit, especially in those 3 rivalry games when Tennessee was outscored 69-17 in the second half. And should we be alarmed by the fact that he picked Joe Milton as his starter out of camp given how stark the difference was between him and Hooker? Perhaps that’s just nitpicking. Overall, it was still about as good of a year as Tennessee fans could’ve hoped for.
Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Grade — 9
What I liked — Let’s go back to the moment when Shane Beamer was in danger of falling to 0-3 in SEC play unless his grad assistant could come in and put together a game-winning drive at home against a Vandy team who was (and is) without an SEC win in the 2020s. Fans were calling for Marcus Satterfield’s job, the quarterback situation was a disaster and the offensive line and ground game were in shambles. But Beamer’s team bought in. Even with 3 different starting quarterbacks in 2021, the Gamecocks beat 3 teams who spent time in the top 15, each of which were impressive in their own right. South Carolina finishing with a winning record was a testament to Beamer, who inherited a 2-win team who ranked No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, Beamer’s postseason included a mayo bath and dipping into the transfer portal to land former projected No. 1 overall pick Spencer Rattler. Beamer also signed a top-25 class in his first full cycle. There’s a different type of energy in Columbia, and it’s perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen since the end of Steve Spurrier’s run. Not bad at all for a guy who didn’t have any FBS coordinator/head coaching experience prior to 2021.
What I didn’t like — That start was troubling. Beamer got his offensive coordinator poached by Auburn, and basically until November, the offense was a disaster. Part of that was a lack of depth at quarterback, but it didn’t help that the offensive line play was a major weakness. Beamer’s team has yet to win consecutive games against FBS competition, and he criticized how they handled success after the Florida game. Now, Beamer is a national darling and his team figures to start as a borderline Top 25 team with Rattler on board. That’s a lot for a team who was -63 in SEC play who didn’t beat a Power 5 team on the road (the Mayo Bowl was a neutral site game).
But hey, if your biggest knock is that you generated too much speed on the hype train, you’re doing something right. Beamer clearly did that in Year 1.