By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky (last season’s rank: 8). Kentucky has been patient with Mark Stoops, and that patience paid off in Stoops’ sixth season. After back-to-back 7-6 campaigns, Stoops led the 2018 Wildcats to a 10-3 record, including their first win over Florida since 1986 and upsets over Mississippi State and Penn State. It was a remarkable season for Kentucky, which won 10 games for the first time since 1977. Even if the Wildcats take a step back this season, Stoops has accomplished more than enough already, and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt as he aims to put together a contender in the SEC East.
6. Ed Orgeron, LSU (last season’s rank: 7). In his second full season as head coach, Orgeron guided the Tigers to a 10-win season, including impressive wins over Georgia, Auburn, UCF, Miami and Mississippi State. LSU struggled mightily against Alabama, however, and lost to Texas A&M in a memorable 74-72 seven-overtime classic. There’s some playoff buzz surrounding the Tigers entering the 2019 season, so the pressure will be on Coach O to deliver a big season in Baton Rouge.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn (last season’s rank: 5). Gus Malzahn is entering his seventh season at Auburn, and fans and analysts are still split as to whether he’s the right coach for the job. The Tigers finished 8-5 last year, and the offense sputtered during the five losses. It was the fourth season Malzahn has won seven or eight games at Auburn, which many consider to be underwhelming considering he’s the fifth-highest paid coach in the sport. It’s worth noting that Malzahn has led Auburn to two division titles, a SEC championship and an appearance in the national title game, but that is not enough for many Auburn fans. The Tigers are projected to be a very good team in 2019 but the Tigers face one of the toughest schedules in the country. The season opener against Oregon will set the tone for the year and potentially Malzahn’s future on The Plains.
4. Kirby Smart, Georgia (last season’s rank: 4). Smart is 24-5 over past two years in Athens, but it might take everyone a while to forget the laughable fake punt decision and meltdown in the SEC title game against Alabama. Georgia should have won the title game and made the playoffs but finished the year with back-to-back losses to Alabama and Texas. The Bulldogs are national title contenders again this season and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future considering Smart’s recruiting prowess.
3. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (last season’s rank: 2). There’s no question that Fisher has the Aggies trending in the right direction. They probably won’t be a contender in the West Division this season but they made strides in Fisher’s first season in 2018. Texas A&M ended the year on a four-game winning streak, including the aforementioned 74-72 win over LSU. That was the first time the Aggies had beaten the Tigers since joining the SEC in 2012. Fisher drops one spot in this year’s rankings, but that has more to do with how things are at his previous job. Florida State was 5-6 in Fisher’s last season and went 5-7 a season ago. That doesn’t reflect well on Fisher, but he’s still one of the best coaches in the game when he’s motivated. Luckily for the Aggies, Fisher has the program in great shape entering his second year.
2. Dan Mullen, Florida (last season’s rank: 3). Mullen jumps into the No. 2 spot after doing what he does best – exceeding expectations. Mullen’s Mississippi State teams consistently outperformed expectations, and he led the Gators to a 10-win season in his first year in Gainesville. Florida won four games the previous season. All three losses (Georgia, Missouri and Kentucky) were by double digits, so there’s still plenty of work to be done. Also, Florida has much higher annual expectations than Mississippi State. But Mullen is the right man for the job, and it won’t be long before his teams are annual contenders for the SEC title.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama (last season’s rank: 1). Despite the embarrassing loss to Clemson in the national title game, Saban is still clearly the top coach in both the conference and the nation. Dabo Swinney has elevated Clemson to the same level as the Crimson Tide, but the sustained excellence of Saban’s team is unparalleled in college football history. It’s easy to forget how dominant Alabama was in the regular season in 2018, as they cruised through virtually every opponent before the thrilled comeback victory over Georgia in the SEC title game and the shootout win over Oklahoma in the playoffs. Saban will have UA right back in the playoffs this season, because he’s mastered his profession. He claims to have several years left in the tank, and Alabama will be a national title contender every year he roams the sidelines.