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Ranking the SEC’s coaches, best to worst

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Nick Saban is in a class by himself when it comes to the Southeastern Conference’s football coaching fraternity. Obviously.

But what about the other 12 coaches who are drawing seven-digit salaries to coach in the nation’s most dominant conference? We thought it might be fun to rank them, 1-13. (We’re not counting Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke, since he is not yet the school’s official head coach.) Some of the placements might surprise you. But, keep in mind: this list is ordered according to how coaches have performed and are performing in the SEC. Their accomplishments in other conferences aren’t taken into consideration. If they were, Kevin Sumlin and Bret Bielema might rank much higher, since they enjoyed success at Houston and Wisconsin, respectively, and now find themselves on the hot seat at Texas A&M and Arkansas. Hey, the SEC is a different world for coaches. It’s a pressure-cooker. Some thrive. Others, even good ones, aren’t cut out for it.

1.) Nick Saban, Alabama

What can you say about Nick Saban that hasn’t already been said? He’s 124-19 at Alabama since 2007, including four national championships. And to think he wasn’t Mal Moore’s first choice! Even with all the success he’s had so far — Bear who? — the current Crimson Tide team may be his most dominant team to date. We can debate whether Saban is good or bad for the league, and there’s a strong argument to be made either way. But one thing is for sure: he is the most dominant coach in the SEC. And it isn’t even close.

2.) Kirby Smart, Georgia

Ugh. We don’t like this any more than you do. Listing a coach as second-best in the SEC just five games into his second season? Hey, we reserve the right to be wrong. But Smart has Georgia trending in the right direction. Check that. Smart has Georgia trending quickly in the right direction. So quickly, in fact, that Nick Saban might be wishing he had offered Smart about $5 million per year more to remain his defensive coordinator. (It’s Alabama; they can afford it, or Saban could’ve easily sacrificed a million or three from his own salary.) The Bulldogs may be set to challenge Alabama for supremacy of the SEC in just Smart’s second year.

If Smart proves to be a flash in the pan, we’ll reserve the right to be wrong. But right now it looks like Nick Saban finally has a protege who can cut it in the big leagues. Well, one other than Jimbo Fisher. And it’s mostly because Smart is modeling Georgia after Saban’s formula for success in Tuscaloosa: a strong defense, a strong running game and a quarterback that is serviceable but by no means flashy. And did we mention a strong defense? Are you listening, Derek Dooley? (Will Muschamp, your defenses have never been terrible but it was the rest of the Saban model that you failed to recreate.)

Okay, so maybe the fact that Smart is No. 2 on our list speaks more to the rest of the SEC’s coaches than anything else. You wouldn’t be completely wrong to assume that. But let’s face it: Georgia is looking like the team to beat in the SEC East for the foreseeable future. And that should scare the pants off Jim McElwain and Butch Jones.

3.) Gus Malzahn, Auburn

How do you like this? Two months ago we were talking about Gus Malzahn being on the hot seat. Now we’re talking about him being in the upper echelon of SEC coaches. That’s how quickly things change in this conference, where a couple of wins makes the world go around. Okay, the truth is that Malzahn could wind up back on that hot seat again fairly quickly if things go sour down on the Plains. But it certainly isn’t looking like it right now.

You weren’t wrong to question Malzahn as this season began. He had been in the conference for four seasons and, aside from a trip to the BCS National Championship Game in Year 1, had precious little to show for his experience. He was 35-18 overall (23-16 if you throw out that first season) and just 1-3 in bowl games.

Then came Year 5, and it looks like Malzahn is finally starting to click as a head coach. His team is 4-1, the only loss being a 14-6 defeat at the hands of Clemson that is looking better and better all the time. Auburn’s offense is finally starting to click, and consider this: if the War Eagle offense we saw against Missouri and Mississippi State had been the War Eagle offense we saw against Clemson, we wouldn’t be talking about the potential for an Alabama-Clemson rematch in the College Football Playoffs. Combine the new Auburn offense, which has scored 100 points in the last two games combined, with the existing Auburn defense that is giving up less than 12 points per game this season and what do you have? Potentially, an Iron Bowl for the ages next month.

4.) Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

When it comes to SEC coaches, Dan Mullen is Mr. Consistency. He’s not a guy that fans of other schools often put at the top of their coaching wish list, but now in his ninth year at Mississippi State, he is second in the league in terms of longevity (trailing only Saban, of course). And he’s 64-44 . . . at Mississippi State! Cowbell U! Granted, he’s only 30-37 in league play, but, again, we’re talking about Mississippi State — hardly a coach’s paradise, if we’re being fair.

With the exception of 2014’s 10-3 season, which saw the Bulldogs finish second in the SEC West, Mullen’s team has never finished higher than fourth in the West, and has finished fifth five different times. But again let’s ask ourselves: if Dan Mullen can win consistently at Mississippi State (he’s won eight or more games four out of his eight seasons, and has only had a losing record once since his inaugural year at the helm), what might he do at a more prestigious program?

If you’re wondering where Mullen ranks, consider this: Mullen is third on Mississippi State’s all-time wins list…after just eight full seasons. Third! That trails only Jackie Sherrill and Allyn McKeen.

5.) Mark Stoops, Kentucky

So, yeah, he’s a fine defensive coordinator, and he’s Bob Stoops’ brother. But is that enough to translate into a head coaching role at a big-time program? It was a shaky start for Stoops, as his 2013 Kentucky team went 0-8 in conference play and won just two games overall. Tack on back-to-back 5-7 finishes (with just two conference wins each year) in 2014 and 2015, and Stoops was decidedly on the hot seat.

But things have changed. After an 0-2 start in 2016, Stoops’ Kentucky team won five of its next six, with the only loss coming at No. 1 Alabama. That paved the way for Stoops’ first bowl berth and a 6-6 finish overall.

While Stoops still wound up with a losing record for a fourth straight year after dropping the Taxslayer Bowl to Georgia Tech, it was enough to get him off the hot seat. And his 2017 Kentucky team is off to a fantastic start. The Wildcats choked away an opportunity to beat Florida, but are still 4-1 with games against Missouri and at Mississippi State looming ahead of Tennessee’s Oct. 28 visit to the Commonwealth. Throw in Ole Miss and Vanderbilt in the first two weeks of November, and it isn’t at all inconceivable that this Kentucky team could wind up with at least eight wins in 2017.

All of that to say this: It took him a few years, but Mark Stoops appears to have Kentucky trending in the right direction. And if he can win at Kentucky, he could probably win just about anywhere in the SEC.

6.) Jim McElwain, Florida

Okay, this one is unsettled. Jim McElwain is trending up on the SEC coaching list right now, but we’re not at all convinced he deserves to be this high. Frankly, his Florida teams have been a hot mess on the offensive side of the ball. And, yet, until someone beats him, it’s hard to knock him further down the list.

Florida fans aren’t particularly happy with the way the Gators have performed over the past couple of years. Yet they have won back-to-back SEC East championships in McElwain’s first two seasons. Perhaps that’s mostly a product of some down years in the SEC East…Butch Jones’ Tennessee team has under-achieved, and Georgia has been going through a coaching transition. Still, McElwain has been able to do what Muschamp was unable to do.

In fact, McElwain’s first team was 10-2 in the regular season, and his second team was 8-3. Throw in Florida’s 3-1 start to the 2017 season, and McElwain is not where we expected him to be at this point, which was on the hot seat. He needed pure luck (and coaching miscues on the other side of the field) to beat Tennessee and Kentucky, or the Gators would be 1-3. But he found a way to win, which seems to be the hallmark of his early coaching career. And his Florida team is improving, coming off a solid win over Vanderbilt.

7.) Butch Jones, Tennessee

Given the move that is currently afoot to fire Butch Jone, some Tennessee fans will grumble that Jones is ranked too highly. But who is there further down this list that has accomplished more than Jones has accomplished, relative to expectations?

In a game where recruiting is paramount to winning, Jones may be the SEC’s second-best recruiter. He inherited a program that was coming off its worst three-year stretch since it joined the SEC, and almost immediately put together back-to-back Top 5 recruiting classes. Granted, that success in February was partially assisted by the in-state talent and legacy recruits that were available in 2014 and 2015. But Jones currently has a class going that has been ranked at the top of the SEC through much of the summer and fall.

Jones has had two 8-4 seasons at Tennessee, winning bowl games each year for a final record of 9-4. His 2016 team was the first Tennessee team in 12 years to beat Florida and Georgia in the same season. He came within a goal line fumble of beating a heavily-favored No. 6 Georgia team in Year 1, and did beat a heavily-favored No. 11 South Carolina team in Year 2.

Ultimately, Jones’ 14-20 record in SEC play is what prevents him from joining the upper echelon of coaches in this conference, and it’s also what will do him in at Tennessee. But don’t under-estimate the job he did in rebuilding the Tennessee program.

8.) Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

Some folks mistakenly think Derek Mason is a defensive coach. Sure, Mason came to the SEC after a stint as Stanford’s defensive coordinator, but he’s coached almost everything. He began his coaching career with wide receivers at an Arizona community college, coached runningbacks at Idaho State, defensive backs at Bucknell, wide receivers at Utah, defense at St. Mary’s, then wide receivers at New Mexico State and Ohio from 2004 to 2006 before settling in as a defensive coach.

Mason’s four-year record at Vanderbilt is 16-26, but his Commodore teams have shown improvements each year with him at the helm. After a disastrous 2014 season that saw Vandy go winless in SEC play, the Commodores were 4-8 (2-6) in 2015, and 6-7 (3-5) in 2016, with a berth in the Independence Bowl after a 6-6 regular season.

That 2015 Vandy team was four points away from a 6-6 season, playing Western Kentucky and, more notably, No. 11 Florida, to just two-point losses. The 2016 Vandy team upset Georgia, 17-16, played No. 23 Florida to within a touchdown, and upset No. 24 Tennessee, 45-34. The Commodores also upset Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels, 38-17. They won four of their last six games to earn a berth in the Independence Bowl.

Can Mason continue his string of year-over-year improvement in 2017? The Commodores started the season 3-0, including an upset of No. 18 Kansas State. They’ve been exposed a bit the last two weeks, giving up 59 in a shutout loss to Alabama and giving up 38 to a hapless Florida offense. They’ll continue to be exposed this week, against No. 5 Georgia. But after that, each of Vandy’s last six games is winnable — Ole Miss, South Carolina, Western Kentucky, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.

If you don’t think Mason should rank this highly on this list, see us at the end of November.

9.) Will Muschamp, South Carolina

Will Muschamp’s 28-21 record in four seasons at Florida might not have been considered terrible at many schools, but he was following in the footsteps of national-championship-winning Urban Meyer, and his record was considered terrible at Florida. After an 11-2 finish in 2012, his Gators team finished just 4-8 in 2013 before a 6-5 season in 2014 that led to Muschamp being canned.

Muschamp, such a hot commodity when he was a defensive coordinator, got an opportunity at redemption when he was hired at South Carolina. His first team finished 6-6 and made a statement with a 24-21 win over No. 18 Tennessee. But the Gamecocks lost three of their last four, and were dominated by arch-rival Clemson, 56-7, in the regular season finale.

South Carolina is off to a 3-2 start in 2017 but has lost two of its last three after an impressive win over NC State to begin the season, which the Gamecocks followed up with a 31-13 win over Kentucky. Muschamp’s team was a single point away from being upset by Louisiana Tech. This week’s game against Arkansas will tell us more about whether Muschamp has the Gamecocks on the right track.

10.) Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

You may be looking at this and scoffing. How in the world is a guy like Kevin Sumlin, whose record at Texas A&M is 48-22, ranked behind guys like Derek Mason? Well, there may be no easier way to sum that up than this: Sumlin is likely to be out of a job after this season, while Mason will almost certainly still be employed at Vanderbilt.

After an 11-2 finish in his debut season, Sumlin has failed to win more than eight regular season games in his four follow-up seasons, and that has patience wearing thin in College Station. In bumping Sumlin further down the list, we’re considering the talent he has had to work with, as well as his late-season collapses. The Aggies lost their last two games in 2013 to slide all the way to fourth in the SEC West, lost five out of seven in 2014 after a 5-0 start that had them ranked No. 6 in the country and chasing a potential national championship, lost five out of eight in 2015 after a similar 5-0 start that had them ranked No. 9 in the country, and lost five out of seven last year after a 6-0 start that had them ranked No. 6 in the country.

Sumlin has looked like a Top 3 SEC coach in September, but he has looked like a bottom-tier SEC coach in November. His Aggies are off to a 4-1 start this season, but if they can’t win November, Sumlin will be out of a job.

11.) Bret Bielema, Arkansas

After a 3-9 debut season that saw Arkansas go winless in the SEC in 2013,  Bret Bielema has not had a losing season with the Hogs. He finished 6-6 in 2014, 7-5 in 2015 and 7-5 again in 2016. But patience is starting to run out in Fayetteville. Last year’s Arkansas team lost five of their last eight after a 3-0 start that included an upset win at No. 15 TCU. Part of the stench that clung to that disappointing finish was just how lopsided some of the losses were. Another part was losing to Missouri. That’s what you aren’t supposed to do at Arkansas, and Bielema is just 1-3 against the Tigers.

The bottom line? Bielema is 27-28 overall at Arkansas, and just 10-23 in SEC games. That won’t get it done…even if you did win three straight Big Ten titles.

12.) Barry Odom, Missouri

Betcha Missouri wishes Gary Pinkel hadn’t left. Pinkel, the winningest coach in Missouri’s history (for that matter, the winningest coach in Toledo’s history, as well) was probably the most underrated coach in the SEC. When he retired upon disclosing that he has non-Hodkins lymphoma at the end of the 2015 season, Mizzou chose to hire from within, promoting Pinkel’s defensive coordinator — and former Missouri player Barry Odom — to the top job.

But in a season and a half, Odom has had a dreadful start. His 2016 team went just 4-8, Missouri’s worst season in 16 years. A 28-24 win over rival Arkansas in the season finale was a nice way to end it, but prior to that the Tigers had lost six out of seven games, and had given up 63 points to unranked Tennessee just a week before. The Tigers gave up point totals of 31, 35, 40, 42 and 51 during that span, in addition to the 63 scored by the Vols.

The 2017 Missouri team is riding a three-game losing streak into this weekend’s trip to Kentucky. The losses included a 51-14 debacle against Auburn last time out, and an embarrassing 35-3 loss to Purdue the week before that. The worst part of it? All three losses were at Faurot Field.

13.) Ed Orgeron, LSU

Someone said it like this: “LSU fired Les Miles because he couldn’t beat Alabama, and replaced him with Ed Orgeron, who was fired by Ole Miss because he couldn’t beat anybody.”

It’s true that Orgeron’s three-year tenure at Ole Miss back in the mid 2000s was dreadful. The Rebels went 3-8, 4-8 and 3-9, and were 3-21 in SEC play. Ouch.

After a successful eight-game stint as USC’s interim coach in 2013, after Lane Kiffin was shown the door, Orgeron went 6-2 over eight games as LSU’s interim in 2016, after Miles was canned. The two losses were close ones (10-0 to No. 1 Alabama, and 16-10 to No. 21 Florida), and he upset No. 15 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. It was enough to earn him the permanent job.

But Orgeron’s 2017 season is a hot mess. After wins over BYU and Chattanooga to open the season, the Tigers have lost two of three. The 37-7 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville on Sept. 16 was embarrassing, but a 24-21 home loss to Troy on homecoming night at Tiger Stadium was even worse. Way worse.

Less than halfway through his first season as the official head coach at LSU, and Orgeron is already on the hot seat. That might be surprising to some, but only to those who don’t remember his tenure at Ole Miss a decade ago.

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