By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
SEC Coach Rankings, Part I
The SEC has the best coach in college football in Nick Saban, but the coaching depth around the league has diminished in recent years. Only one other head coach in the league – Gus Malzahn – has won an SEC championship other than Saban, and a handful of coaches are entering the 2017 on the dreaded hot seat.
For the last few seasons, the league has been carried by Saban and Alabama. Last year, Auburn was arguably the second best team in the SEC. The Tigers finished 8-5 with a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Can the once mighty SEC rebound and regain its status as the best conference in the country? Or will 2017 be yet another year where it’s Alabama and everyone else? Other conferences – namely the ACC and Big 10 – have caught up to the SEC because of coaching and quarterback play. The latter should be vastly improved around the league in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether coaches not named Nick Saban can step up their game and produce a threat to the Crimson Tide.
The following list of coach rankings is mostly subjective, and recent success is heavily considered when determining where each coach lands. Achievements (or the lack thereof) at previous coaching gigs is also considered, but this is a “what have you done for me lately” league, and this list weighs the merits of both recent and past successes.
Here are coaches 8-14 on the list. The top seven coaches will be unveiled next week. Last year’s rankings are in parentheses.
14. Matt Luke, Ole Miss (not ranked). Hugh Freeze announced his resignation as the head football coach of Ole Miss late last week after the school discovered a “pattern of personal misconduct” from Freeze since 2012. It was a shocking end to Freeze’s meteoric rise, and he left behind a program filled with turmoil stemming from an NCAA investigation. Luke, who for the last five seasons has been the team’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, was promoted to interim head coach. The former Ole Miss offensive lineman has a talented offense returning but has inherited a disastrous situation in Oxford.
13. Barry Odom, Missouri (14). Odom’s first season at his alma mater culminated in a 4-8 record and a last place finish in the SEC East Division, but the Tigers did end the season on a positive note. Missouri won two of its final three games, including victories over Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Odom has an explosive offense returning, and the Tigers should improve enough to make a bowl game. If not, Odom will be feeling the pressure entering 2018.
12. Ed Orgeron, LSU (not ranked). Orgeron is entering his first full season as the head coach of LSU after filling in on an interim basis following the mid-season firing of Les Miles in 2016. This is Orgeron’s second stint as an SEC head coach, and his first coaching job in the conference was a catastrophe. Orgeron was the head coach of Ole Miss from 2005-2007, and his three-year tenure resulted in a 10-25 record. That’s right; 10 wins in three seasons. Since the Rebels fired him, Orgeron has been an interim coach on two separate occasions and had far more success in those stops. The first was at USC when he took over for Lane Kiffin, and Orgeron led the Trojans to a 6-2 record. Last season after he took over for Miles, Orgeron guided LSU to a 6-2 record and a bowl win. The Tigers return a wealth of talent this season, but there won’t be pressure on Orgeron to produce an SEC champion this year.
11. Kirby Smart, Georgia (13). Smart led Georgia to an 8-5 record during his inaugural season as head coach in Athens. His first season at his alma mater was inconsistent but promising. Losses to SEC East rivals Tennessee and Florida were somewhat excusable last season, but the home loss to Vanderbilt was the low point of the season. Georgia is picked to win the SEC East this year and is loaded on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs have a tough schedule, and the pressure will be on Smart in his second season.
10. Butch Jones, Tennessee (9). Last year was supposed to be the year for Tennessee. The Volunteers had made steady improvements over Butch Jones’ first three seasons in Knoxville, and UT was picked to win the SEC East. The Vols didn’t necessarily have a bad season in finishing 9-4 for the second year in a row, but Jones didn’t get his team to the SEC title game. Now Tennessee is replacing several key starters, and it’s possible the Vols missed their window to reach Atlanta. If Tennessee slides back to the middle of the pack or worse, new athletic director John Currie might look to bring in his own coach next offseason.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (8). The alarming trend for Texas A&M over the last four years is how it finished the season. The Aggies have been two totally different teams during each half of the season. The September Aggies are as good as any team in the country, while the October and November Aggies fall apart. Sumlin’s teams have produced three straight 8-5 seasons, and now the pressure is on entering 2017. If Texas A&M wins eight games or fewer, Sumlin will be sweating entering the offseason. The schedule doesn’t do Sumlin any favors, especially with an inexperienced quarterback leading the offense.
8. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (11). Mason is 11 games under .500 as a head coach, but he also has the toughest job of any coach in the country. Winning at Vanderbilt isn’t easy, and Mason has steadily improved the Commodores during his three seasons in Nashville. A 6-7 season 2016 might not be impressive to some, but wins over Georgia, Tennessee and Ole Miss were a big step forward for both Vandy and Mason. The Commodores’ schedule is challenging this season, so making a bowl game will be difficult. But if Mason gets Vanderbilt back to a bowl game, the Commodores might have a hard time keeping him around another season.