By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Clemson and Alabama have alternated the past four national championships and have been head and shoulders above the rest of college football the last four seasons. Despite losing several key pieces, both teams are expected to reach the College Football Playoffs again. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney are perhaps the two best coaches and recruiters in the sport, and there’s a sizeable gap from those two to the next group of coaches.
However, that next group of coaches looking to uproot Saban and Swinney includes several in the Southeastern Conference. Alabama has dominated the league throughout the last decade and they are prohibitive favorites to win the conference this time around. Nevertheless, several schools in the SEC have recruited elite coaches in an effort to challenge the Crimson Tide. No one is on that level yet, but there should be more competitive balance across the league this year and beyond.
14. Matt Luke, Ole Miss (last season’s rank: 13). The Rebels finished 5-7 in Luke’s second season as head coach and were mired by an abysmal defense. After the season concluded, Luke added two former Pac-12 coaches to his staff. Former Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, who guided the Buffaloes to their first-ever Pac-12 South title in 2016, was brought in as defensive coordinator. Luke also hired Rich Rodriguez to run the Ole Miss offense. The Rebels are eligible to return to a bowl this season after serving a bowl ban for NCAA infractions, and this team has the talent to win six or seven games despite the difficulty of the SEC West Division.
13. Chad Morris, Arkansas (last season’s rank: 11). Arkansas was the worst team in the SEC in Morris’ first season, but that was to be expected given the talent on the roster. Morris turned SMU around from being a laughingstock by his third season, but Razorback fans undoubtedly will want to see progress in Year 2. The Hogs do not necessarily have to make a bowl this season, but Morris at least needs to prove the program is headed in the right direction.
12. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State (last season’s rank: 12). Moorhead’s first season culminated with an 8-5 record but it never felt like the first-year coach maximized the talent on the roster that Dan Mullen left behind. The Bulldogs were loaded on defense and had a veteran offensive line and quarterback but struggled offensively throughout most of the season. There were no bad losses (Alabama, LSU, Florida and Kentucky), but Mississippi State only won two games over a quality opponent, and both were at home (Texas A&M and Auburn). Moorhead’s team is projected at about eight wins this season, but the roster will feature several new faces at key positions.
11. Barry Odom, Missouri (last season’s rank: 10). Since starting the 2017 season 1-5, Odom has won 14 of his last 20 games at Missouri.Back-to-back winning seasons were enough to take Odom off the hot seat, though that certainly could change if the Tigers fall to the bottom of the SEC East again. Former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant is taking over for Drew Lock, and the Tigers will be expected to return to another bowl this season.
10. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (last season’s rank: 14). A 5-7 inaugural campaign might not seem like an accomplishment, especially considering six of those seven losses came by 25 points or more. However, the 2018 Volunteers looked like a tougher team, evidenced by their shocking 30-24 upset over Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Perhaps Pruitt simply has Gus Malzahn’s number, but the trajectory over the program still seems to be pointing upward. Pruitt will be expected to have Tennessee back in a bowl game this fall.
9. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (last season: 9). Mason guided the Commodores to a bowl game in two of the last three seasons. Before James Franklin took over, the Commodores had only been to one bowl game in the previous 25 years. Vanderbilt is by far the toughest job in the conference, and Mason has done a very solid job in keeping the Nashville squad competitive in the SEC.
8. Will Muschamp, South Carolina (last season: 6). Muschamp dropped a couple of spots this year after a mediocre season from the Gamecocks a season ago. South Carolina wasn’t expected to contend for the SEC East last year, but many believed the Gamecocks could win nine or 10 games. South Car-olina finished 7-6, however, and the season ended with an embarrassing 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl. South Carolina should be a solid team on paper, but the Gamecocks have one of the toughest schedules in the country. Muschamp is not on the hot seat but it could be a long year for Gamecock fans.
Next week: rankings seven through one.