Ranking coaches in the SEC West was tough, because who among them isn’t a high achiever? Ranking coaches in the SEC East turned out to be a chore for the opposite reason. All of them still have something to prove — and in many cases, a lot.
But that’s why we get the big bucks, to make the tough choices and provide a totally unscientific model for predicting the 2016 league standings. We’ve now ranked offenses, defenses and coaching for both SEC divisions, and after we rate East and West X-factors, we’ll tally it up to forecast the order of finish this fall.
RANKING COACHES: SEC West
First, a long look at leaders in the East, where there are two first-time head coaches, two coming off consecutive losing seasons and one who was fired by a divisional rival in 2014. The other two, not shockingly, are widely expected to battle for a spot in the SEC title game.
1. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Butch Jones’ hardware: 2 MAC, 2 Big East titles; 2011 Big East Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 15, No. 5, No. 5
Grading the coordinators: A (OC Mike DeBord, DC Bob Shoop)
Jones is objectively the most accomplished head coach in this division. He went 21-3 in MAC games at Central Michigan, 10-4 in Big East games his last two seasons at Cincinnati and jumped from five to seven to nine wins in his first three years at Tennessee. He’s been to seven bowl games in nine seasons as head coach.
Already a winner before he arrived in Knoxville, Jones has since answered any question about whether he could recruit at an elite level. All that’s left now is to finish the job against the big boys. If not for blown fourth-quarter leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama last fall, Jones might already have a statue outside Neyland Stadium.
The addition of DeBord last year paid off, as the Vols increased their scoring by nearly a touchdown per game and vaulted from 13th in the league in rushing to second. DeBord was offensive coordinator for Michigan’s 1997 national championship team and spent four years each as a college head coach (Central Michigan) and five as an NFL assistant.
Shoop looks like another home-run hire after Jones somehow stole him away from James Franklin in January. He’d followed Franklin from Vanderbilt to Penn State, where the Nittany Lions ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense in 2014 and Shoop was nominated for the Broyles Award (college football’s top assistant). He’s had a top-25 defense all five seasons as an FBS coordinator — and top-10 his last two as an FCS coordinator (William & Mary).
2. FLORIDA GATORS
Jim McElwain’s hardware: 1 SEC East title; 2014 Mountain West and 2015 SEC Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 14, No. 23, No. 8
Grading the coordinators: B (OC Doug Nussmeier, DC Geoff Collins)
Hey, look, more branches from the Saban Coaching Tree. McElwain helped Alabama win a pair of national titles as the offensive coordinator there from 2008-11, then got his first head-coaching shot at Colorado State. He was replaced by Nussmeier, who helped the Crimson Tide win yet another championship.
Out west, McElwain led the Rams, who’d posted three straight 3-9 seasons, to a bowl game in his second season and 10 wins in his third. He made even quicker work of the Florida job in his debut last fall, guiding the Gators to 10 wins and a surprise SEC East crown. But a power outage on offense kept them from an even bigger year.
Nussmeier, a former NFL quarterback, has been a coordinator for eight seasons — previously at Fresno State, Washington, Alabama and Michigan — but has never produced a top-25 offense (in yards per game). He followed up a 2013 Broyles Award nomination with units ranked 115th and 112th nationally in total offense the last two years.
Collins, though, has earned back-to-back Broyles nominations, at Mississippi State in 2014 and Florida last fall. The Gators ranked tied for fifth in sacks, eighth in yards allowed and 11th in points surrendered in 2015. That defense carried the team to Atlanta.
3. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Kirby Smart’s hardware: 2009 Broyles Award, 2012 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 11, No. 6, No. 7
Grading the coordinators: B+ (OC Jim Chaney, DC Mel Tucker)
Smart counts three Hall of Fame coaches — two current, one future — among his mentors. He was a player and graduate assistant under Jim Donnan at Georgia, a GA for Bobby Bowden at Florida State and spent 11 of the last 12 years learning alongside Nick Saban, following him from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama.
Smart’s suffocating defenses helped Saban win four national titles in the last seven seasons. Over that span, the Crimson Tide had an average national ranking of third in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed — finishing No. 1 in both categories twice. Has any first-time head coach ever been better groomed for the opportunity?
He’s surrounded himself with veteran assistants, too. Chaney coached Drew Brees at Purdue and has run offenses at Tennessee, Arkansas and Pittsburgh. The Vols ranked top 25 nationally in points and yards his last season there, while the Razorbacks improved by over 11 points per game in Year 2 under Chaney.
Tucker is another Saban disciple, having started as a GA under him at Michigan State, coaching defensive backs for him at LSU and following Smart from Alabama after last season. Tucker also worked as an NFL defensive coordinator for the Browns, Jaguars and Bears.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Will Muschamp’s hardware: 1 co-SEC East title; 2012 co-SEC Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 27, No. 19, No. 17
Grading the coordinators: C+ (OC Kurt Roper, DC Travaris Robinson)
Remember when Muschamp was one of the hottest names in coaching? When his LSU defense was the best in college football and helped Nick Saban win the 2003 national championship? When he was a finalist for the 2007 Broyles Award after another dominant season as Auburn’s coordinator? When he helped Texas get to the BCS title game after the 2009 season and was named Mack Brown’s successor? When he won the SEC East and reached the Sugar Bowl in 2012, his second season as a head coach at Florida?
Funny how fast the shine wears off. The Gators went 10-13 in his final two years and Muschamp was fired. Suddenly, the former golden boy found himself drawing a tepid reception in December when the Gamecocks tapped him to replace the legendary Steve Spurrier — at a time when all the Head Ball Coach built was already crumbling.
His new coordinators didn’t inspire enormous confidence either. Roper had a nice run (2008-13) at Duke, helping the Blue Devils win an unlikely ACC Coastal Division title in his final season there, but his subpar offense (12th in the SEC in total yards) also helped get Muschamp fired at Florida in 2014. To hire Roper again seems an odd choice.
Robinson, a former Auburn and NFL safety, coached defensive backs at Texas Tech, Florida and Auburn (under Muschamp last season), but he’s never been a coordinator. There’s no doubt his boss will help with that, but there is serious doubt now about whether the one-time prodigy can get his groove back as a big whistle.
5. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Mark Stoops’ hardware: None
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 29, No. 34, No. 18
Grading the coordinators: B- (OC Eddie Gran, DC D.J. Eliot)
Stoops arrived three years ago as one of the nation’s top defensive minds and has recruited better — at least on paper — than any Kentucky coach in the modern era. He oversaw arguably the greatest secondary in college football history (five future NFL first-rounders) on Miami’s 2001 national title team. As a coordinator, he helped Florida State win an ACC title and was nominated for the Broyles in 2012 after he completed a climb from 42nd in total defense to No. 2 in three seasons.
Entering Year 4 of his first head-coaching gig, Stoops has clearly upgraded the talent in Lexington, but consecutive late-season collapses and 5-7 finishes have opened the door for criticism. Finally settling on an offensive coordinator he trusts (he’s on his third in three years) should help.
Gran was OC at Florida State for the same three seasons Stoops ran the defense there. He also coached running backs at Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee — developing a long line of NFL draft picks — and most recently was coordinator at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats ranked sixth nationally in both passing and total yards last season.
On the other side, Eliot has followed Stoops to five schools and helped develop winning defenses everywhere but here. The UK secondary (Stoops’ specialty) has improved dramatically, but the front seven remains a serious concern. This is an important season for the first-time coordinator to prove himself.
6. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Derek Mason’s hardware: None
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 54, No. 45, No. 51
Grading the coordinators: B+ (OC Andy Ludwig, DC Derek Mason)
The SEC is not an ideal environment for a new head coach to cut his teeth. Too many already sharp incisors waiting to chew you up and spit you out. Mason has the 7-17 record his first two seasons to prove it. But the struggle offered valuable lessons — and a healthy respect for James Franklin’s consecutive nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt before he bolted to Penn State.
Mason is hopeful a shakeup last fall will pay off this year. The former Stanford defensive coordinator and Broyles finalist, whose 2012 unit led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, started calling his own plays again. The Commodores jumped from 91st to sixth in third-down defense and 106th to 22nd in scoring defense.
Now if they could just make a similar leap on offense in Year 2 under Ludwig, who was a Broyles finalist in 2001 after his Fresno State attack produced No. 1 pick David Carr and became the first in NCAA history with a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. More recently, Ludwig helped Wisconsin set a school record for total offense in 2013, and he helped running back Melvin Gordon rush for the second-most yards in NCAA history in 2014.
These guys can coach. There’s just one fairly significant problem: Mason and Co. have not recruited nearly as well (on paper) as their predecessors in Nashville.
7. MISSOURI TIGERS
Barry Odom’s hardware: None
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 46, No. 27, No. 35
Grading the coordinators: C (OC Josh Heupel, DC DeMontie Cross)
Before 2009, when he was hired to coach Missouri’s safeties, the 39-year-old Odom had never been a full-time college assistant. Now he’s an SEC head coach, replacing the program’s all-time wins leader. It’s what the players wanted after Gary Pinkel’s abrupt departure for health reasons last fall, but it’s quite a jump just four years after Odom got his first coordinator gig.
And he’s not taking over the team that went 23-5 during back-to-back SEC East title runs in 2013 and 2014, rather the depleted group that went 5-7 in 2015. Odom can run a defense, though, evidenced by Memphis ranking 11th nationally in points allowed his last season as coordinator and Missouri ranking top-10 in passing, total and scoring defense under him last fall.
In hiring his own coordinators, Odom went with a pre-realignment Big 12 legends theme: Cross set the Missouri record (since broken) with 415 career tackles, while Heupel led Oklahoma to a BCS title at quarterback and won AP National Player of the Year in 2000. Both are a bit of a gamble in their current roles.
Heupel was the quarterback coach for Heisman winner Sam Bradford, which offers hope he could help blue-chip Tigers QB Drew Lock shake off a rocky freshman season, but he also eventually got fired by his former coach in 2014. Heupel’s Utah State offense ranked 93rd in yards per game last fall. Cross spent five years as an NFL assistant and the last three coaching linebackers (including All-American Paul Dawson) at TCU, but this is a new challenge.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.