By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
SEC Coach Rankings, Part II
Last week, SEC coaches ranked 8-14 were unveiled. Here’s a quick reminder of who came in where last week: 14, Matt Luke, Ole Miss; 13, Barry Odom, Missouri; 12, Ed Orgeron, LSU; 11, Kirby Smart, Georgia; 10, Butch Jones, Tennessee; 9, Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M; 8, Derek Mason, Vanderbilt.
This 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 is the top seven. Last year’s rankings are in parentheses.
7. Will Muschamp, South Carolina (10). This is Muschamp’s second stint in the SEC, and his South Carolina team surprised many during his first season in 2016. The Gamecocks were projected to finish last in the SEC East yet made it to a bowl game with a true freshman at quarterback. Muschamp had one great season at Florida before only winning 10 games over his last two seasons, but he has already rejuvenated South Carolina’s program and has it heading in the right direction. Don’t expect the Gamecocks to compete for the SEC East Division title just yet, but Muschamp’s team could play spoiler this season.
6. Mark Stoops, Kentucky (12). Entering the 2016 season, Mark Stoops probably had the hottest seat of any SEC coach. Stoops inherited a difficult situation, but 12 wins in his first three seasons put a tremendous amount of pressure on him. After the Wildcats lost to Southern Mississippi in the season opener and were dominated by Florida, 45-7, a week later, it appeared as if the writing was on the wall for Stoops. Instead, his team rallied and ended the season with a road win over No. 11 Louisville and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. The Wildcats finished 7-6, but making a bowl game and having a .500 record in conference play was exactly what Stoops needed to keep his job. Stoops and the Wildcats have the potential this year to be a dark horse for the SEC East title. As long as Stoops keeps going to bowl games, he will continue to have job security.
5. Bret Bielema, Arkansas (6). Deciding on which coach would be ranked fifth on this list was difficult, but there aren’t many coaches who have accomplished a great deal in the SEC. Bielema had plenty of success at Wisconsin, including three straight trips to the Rose Bowl, three conference titles and a 12-1 season. But that success hasn’t followed him to Arkansas. The Hogs haven’t been bad over the last three seasons with records of 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6, but they haven’t been in contention for the SEC West at any point during Bielema’s tenure. Bielema is 25-26 overall and 10-22 in the SEC during his four years in Fayetteville, and the Razorbacks likely won’t be in contention for the SEC West title in 2017. The pressure isn’t necessarily on Bielema yet as long as he keeps the Hogs playing in bowl games, but if they struggle in 2017, his job security will be worth monitoring.
4. Jim McElwain, Florida (5). McElwain’s first two seasons in Gainesville produced two SEC East titles. The Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game both seasons but were not predicted to reach Atlanta in either year. Florida isn’t picked to win the East in 2017 – that honored was bestowed upon Georgia – but it would not be at all surprising to see the Gators back in Atlanta for a third straight year. McElwain is an offensive coach but he still has not found a stable quarterback to run his offense. Florida isn’t ready to compete for a national title but the program is on the right trajectory with McElwain in charge.
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn (4). The expectations are lofty for Auburn in 2017, and Gus Malzahn is hoping his Tigers fair better than the last time they were predicted to contend for a title. Auburn was among the favorites to reach the playoffs in 2015 but the Tigers stumbled to a 7-6 finish. Last year’s 8-5 campaign ended with a loss in the Sugar Bowl but it was a nice bounce-back year after the Tigers were picked to finish sixth in the SEC West. Auburn was picked to finish second in the West behind Alabama this season, and many believe the Tigers have what it takes to contend for a national title. In the past, Auburn hasn’t faired well when they were projected to be contenders. Based on talent, Auburn should win nine or 10 games, if not more. Anything less than that and the blame will rest upon Malzahn.
2. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State (3). No, Dan Mullen hasn’t won an SEC title. He hasn’t even won the SEC West. But what he’s accomplished at Mississippi State, which is the toughest job in the West Division, has been remarkable. In a conference with extremely high coaching turnover, Mullen is the second-longest tenured coach in the league behind Nick Saban. He is entering his ninth season at Mississippi State and has qualified for a bowl game every year except for his first. Mullen’s teams have never finished solely in last in the West, and they likely won’t do so in 2017. The Bulldogs won’t win the division but Mullen will construct another competitive team that will be a tough out almost every week. Mullen is the only coach in school history to have three teams win nine or more games in a season. He’s a consistent winner and the best coach in school history.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama (1). Nick Saban is the best coach in all of college football and perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the sport. He was seconds away from capturing his sixth national championship overall and fifth with the Crimson Tide last season against Clemson, and his team will be picked to win it all again in 2017. Saban created a dynasty at Alabama that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The Tide loses several players to the NFL each season yet re-load and are contenders again the following fall. Alabama has not won less than 10 games in a season since 2007 is the only team to appear in all three College Football Playoffs. Saban is the best recruiter of any coach, as well as the best developer of talent. He’s 65 years old, but it’s hard to imagine him even considering retirement due to how much talent he will continue to have at Alabama. Bear Bryant won six national titles at Alabama, and it’s realistic that Saban surpasses him before the end of his career. The SEC is Saban’s league for the foreseeable future, and it’s unlikely anyone dethrones him or the Crimson Tide over the next several years.