The Nick Saban “coaching tree” wields plenty of influence in the SEC these days, with numerous assistants and proteges occupying prominent roles throughout the conference.
This is especially true at South Carolina, UGA and Florida, where Will Muschamp, Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain — three big branches from the so-called Saban Tree — serve as the respective head coaches.
SEC Country offers a unique look at the prospective tasks ahead for Muschamp, Smart and McElwain, with a different staff writer — Knox Bardeen (South Carolina), Brandon Adams (UGA) and Jay Clemons (Florida) — making statistical and anecdotal assessments of each program, while projecting which coach might enjoy the most success in the SEC.
Nick Saban won his fifth national championship on Monday night. Clearly his way of coaching works, but does it translate to other programs? More specifically: Can his assistants transfer Saban’s coaching methods to their new teams once they become head coaches?
That’s what a few SEC programs are trying to find out right now as Florida, South Carolina, and UGA have recently hired former Saban assistants to lead their programs. Jim McElwain —Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2009-11 — just finished his first year at Florida. Will Muschamp — Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU from 2001-04 and an assistant with Saban with the Dolphins in 2005 — was hired at the end of the 2015 season to replace Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, and Kirby Smart starts this week as full-time UGA coach after concluding his eighth season as Saban’s defensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide.
Which of these coaches is most likely to duplicate Saban’s success and win a national championship of his own as a head coach?
There are convincing arguments to be made for both McElwain and Muschamp, but Smart is the best answer when compared to the other Saban disciples in the SEC.
It starts with talent
Smart just has a lot more to work with at UGA than Muschamp has at South Carolina. According to 247Sports the last four UGA recruiting classes have finished sixth, eighth, 12th, and eighth, respectively. Conversely, South Carolina’s classes have had an average ranking of 19th over that same span. As Smart told DawgNation.com on Tuesday, the key to success in college football is “getting good players.” UGA just has better players than South Carolina and that’s not changing anytime soon.
Yet while UGA may have a talent advantage over South Carolina, the same thing cannot necessarily be said about UGA in comparison to Florida. The Gators’ and Bulldogs’ rosters are actually pretty similar, with the exception of one spot. It can be assumed that UGA has a big edge at quarterback with incoming freshman Jacob Eason.
Speaking of the quarterback …
The advantage provided by Eason isn’t just proven by the recruiting rankings, although those rankings do count Eason as a better prospect than anyone on Florida’s roster — including the Gators’ own highly touted recruit, Feleipe Franks. Eason’s actual value is demonstrated by how Florida acted when it thought it had a chance to steal Eason from UGA.
Shortly after UGA parted ways with former coach Mark Richt, Florida secured an official visit from Eason and brought him on campus, even though Eason had been long-committed to UGA and even though Florida had its own longstanding commitment from Franks. Presumably McElwain knew he couldn’t possibly sign both quarterbacks, and that getting too close to Eason had the potential of angering Franks, yet McElwain took a chance and met with Eason anyway. McElwain was ultimately unsuccessful at convincing Eason to change his mind, but the lingering effect of his attempt to lure Eason is to assume that even Florida thinks UGA has the brighter future at quarterback.
Of course, coaching careers can last much longer than the eligibility of a single player, but it would be a mistake to assume that either Smart or McElwain’s best chance at winning a national title will come later rather than sooner. Of the last 12 coaches to win the national championship — including Saban at both LSU and Alabama and Urban Meyer at both Florida and Ohio State — only Mack Brown, who led Texas to a national title in 2005, won his first at a school after being on the job for more than four years.
In other words, if either Smart, Muschamp or McElwain is capable of winning a national championship, it will likely proven early in their coaching tenures, and Smart will have the upper hand over his competitors if Eason proves to be as good as anticipated.
Smart also has the past on his side
Smart’s task is aided in that UGA has been close before. The Bulldogs finished with 10 wins again this season. That was the third time in the last four years UGA accomplished that feat. By comparison, Muschamp inherits a South Carolina team that lost nine times in 2015, and the Florida team that McElwain took over lost a total of 13 games combined in the two seasons prior to his hire when Muschamp was the Gators’ head coach.
Which is not to say Smart’s job will be easy. After all, there’s a reason UGA had a coaching vacancy in the first place, but there’s also a reason that vacancy was coveted by so many. Smart steps into an enviable situation in Athens, Ga. — even compared to other desirable jobs like the one Muschamp has at South Carolina and McElwain’s at Florida. Smart will have every imaginable resource at his disposal to win at the highest level, and in a few years it shouldn’t be surprising to see Smart emerge as the true heir apparent to Saban in the SEC.