We’re past the halfway point now in our pursuit of predicting the 2016 SEC football standings. The East and West offenses and defenses have been ranked, leaving coaching and X-factors for both divisions. Soon, we’ll tally it all up and pick the order of finish this fall.
But first, the series rolls on with a long look at coaches in the West — a group so accomplished it hardly seems fair to deem any of them the “worst.” But such is the nature of this behemoth of a division. Of the West’s seven big whistles, five have won SEC Coach of the Year, and the other two have won a conference coach of the year award elsewhere.
And one of those guys will finish last this season. More than one might be fired by December. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be SEC West coaches not named Nick Saban.
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Nick Saban’s hardware: 9 SEC West, 6 SEC and 5 national titles; 3-time SEC and 2-time National Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 1, No. 2, No. 1
Grading the coordinators: A+ (OC Lane Kiffin, DC Jeremy Pruitt)
Boy, this was a tough choice. Saban’s only won four national championships in the last seven seasons and posted an absurd 100-18 record at Alabama. It was a hit to lose defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, his right-hand man since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007. But just as Saban does in recruiting, he reloaded the staff.
Smart’s replacement, Pruitt, won two national titles coaching the Tide’s secondary and then a third as Florida State’s defensive coordinator. He was a 2013 finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant.
Kiffin was a finalist for that award in 2014 and, despite his odd-couple pairing with Saban, has had Alabama’s offense humming along the past two years. He’s produced a Heisman finalist (receiver Amari Cooper) and winner (running back Derrick Henry) and has another contender (receiver Calvin Ridley) entering this season.
Like IBM’s chess-playing Deep Blue, Saban is a machine programmed to win and, accordingly, keeps making all the right moves.
2. OLE MISS REBELS
Hugh Freeze’s hardware: 1 Sun Belt title, 2011 Sun Belt Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes: No. 8, No. 21, No. 19
Grading the coordinators: B+ (OC Dan Werner, DC Dave Womack)
Freeze has won, quickly, at every level. He went from a high school state title in 2004 to a 12-1 record at NAIA Lambuth in 2009 (his second year there) to a Sun Belt title at Arkansas State in 2011 (his only season there) to seven, eight, nine and 10 wins in successive seasons at Ole Miss. The Rebels last fall reached (and won) their first Sugar Bowl since 1970.
Freeze has turned former problem child Chad Kelly into a Heisman candidate. He has handed mighty Alabama its only regular-season losses the past two years. He has recruited talent the likes of which Oxford has rarely (never?) seen, including three players selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But there might be a catch, as now the NCAA is deep into an investigation (recently re-opened due to new information) of several alleged rules violations.
That could be a real problem in the long-term, but the immediate future still looks bright. Werner, who was part of three national championship staffs at Miami, was nominated for the Broyles in 2015 after Ole Miss’ record-setting offensive season. Womack, once fired after just two seasons running Georgia Tech’s defense, helped the Rebels lead the nation in points allowed in 2014.
If it can avoid the NCAA hammer, there is no question this staff can coach.
3. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Kevin Sumlin’s hardware: 2 C-USA West titles, 2009 C-USA and 2012 SEC Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes: No. 17, No. 10, No. 6
Grading the coordinators: A (OC Noel Mazzone, DC John Chavis)
Sumlin sure looked like the next big thing when he followed up a 12-1 swan song at Houston in 2011 with Johnny Football, a Heisman Trophy and a Cotton Bowl victory during his 11-2 Texas A&M debut in 2012. But just when the Aggies started literally building – half a billion bucks to expand the stadium and capitalize on their sudden success – the program began crumbling.
Johnny Manziel went off the rails. Three blue-chip quarterbacks transferred. One of them claimed there was a “culture” problem, saying the staff let Manziel and others get away with bad behavior because of their talent. A&M went 11-13 in SEC games the past three years. Then Sumlin’s staff decided to say a series of really foolish/wildly offensive things.
That’s a lot of bad news, but here’s some really good: Chavis made an instant impact on the defense in his Aggies debut last season. It jumped from 104th to 51st in yards allowed, 77th to 28th in points surrendered. Chavis’ smothering defenses helped Tennessee win a national title in 1998 and LSU get to a championship game in 2011, when he won the Broyles.
More good news: the arrival of Mazzone from UCLA should be a boost to that sagging offense. He’ll spread it out and play fast, and should help develop the depleted QB position. Mazzone coached Phillip Rivers at N.C. State and was nominated for the Broyles last year when Bruins true freshman Josh Rosen threw for 3,669 yards.
4. LSU TIGERS
Les Miles’ hardware: 3 SEC West, 2 SEC and 1 national title; 2011 SEC and National Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 5, No. 8, No. 2
Grading the coordinators: B (OC Cam Cameron, DC Dave Aranda)
If Saban wasn’t a monster truck treating the rest of the league like a row of rusty station wagons — mere props in his jaw-dropping exhibition of power — LSU fans probably would be pretty happy with Miles. And Miles would have more hardware. Alas, he’s coaching for his life again this fall.
Good thing he can really coach. Don’t let that grass-eatin’, dice-rollin’ Mad Hatter fool you. Oklahoma State went to one bowl game in the dozen years before him, then three straight (including a Cotton Bowl) under him. Miles has led the Tigers to a pair of national championship games and recorded at least nine wins in nine of 11 seasons. He’s won 112 games, lost 32.
The last two seasons have been a disappointment, sure, but losing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and gaining Aranda looks like an important upgrade. Aranda is a rising star — top-15 defenses each of the past four years — who earned Broyles nominations at each of his past two stops, Utah State and Wisconsin.
The key is Cameron, a longtime former NFL assistant who has so far underwhelmed in three seasons at LSU. But Leonard Fournette.
5. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Bret Bielema’s hardware: 3 Big Ten titles, 2006 Big Ten Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 32, No. 25, No. 29
Grading the coordinators: B+ (OC Dan Enos, DC Robb Smith)
Wisconsin won 10-plus games in four of Bielema’s seven seasons and made three consecutive Rose Bowls (after an 11-year absence). Now he’s getting it rolling in Fayetteville, jumping from three to seven to eight wins, including consecutive bowl victories. Back-to-back road wins at ranked Ole Miss and LSU last season signaled a breakthrough.
Hiring Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos — who bolted that job before he could be fired — to run the Razorbacks’ offense last fall seemed odd. But then the Hogs ranked second in the SEC in yards and points per game, with a 3,400-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher and the nation’s top tight end. Enos was nominated for the Broyles Award.
The year before, Smith, who’d spent most of his career as a position coach, transformed Arkansas’ defense. The Hogs jumped from 76th and 89th nationally in total and scoring defense in 2013 to top-10 in both during Smith’s first season as coordinator. He, too, was nominated for the Broyles. Looks like Bielema has an eye for talent.
Bonus points for taking up the mantle as Mouth of the South now that Steve Spurrier is gone, and for getting his own reality show, “Being Bret Bielema,” this summer.
6. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Dan Mullen’s hardware: 2014 SEC Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes: No. 25, No. 16, No. 38
Grading the coordinators: C (OC Billy Gonzales/John Hevesy, DC Peter Sirmon)
Urban Meyer’s former protégé, who helped mold Heisman winner Tim Tebow at Florida and No. 1 pick Alex Smith at Utah, Mullen has built the Bulldogs into a consistently competitive program in the brutal SEC West. After winning two national titles as a Gators assistant, he’s guided MSU to a school-record six straight bowl games.
The high-water mark came in 2014, when Dak Prescott was a Heisman contender and the Bulldogs climbed all the way to No. 1 in the rankings (a first) on their way to the Orange Bowl. Credit Mullen with turning Prescott, a far less-hyped recruit, into Tebow 2.0 and the best Bulldog ever. But …
That glorious season is the only time State has finished higher than fourth in the West under Mullen, who has an overall losing league record. He has no doubt raised the bar in Starkville, but most of his West competitors can clear that mark without breaking a sweat.
How good are his coordinators? Who really knows? Gonzales and Hevesy take a back seat to Mullen with the offense, which frankly didn’t scare anyone before Prescott came along and could struggle mightily without him this fall. Sirmon, a former NFL linebacker, comes from a name program (Southern California) but with zero experience as a defensive coordinator.
7. AUBURN TIGERS
Gus Malzahn’s hardware: 1 Sun Belt, 1 SEC West, 1 SEC title; 2010 Broyles Award, 2013 SEC and National Coach of the Year
Last 3 recruiting classes (Rivals): No. 9, No. 7, No. 9
Grading the coordinators: C+ (OC Rhett Lashlee, DC Kevin Steele)
Malzahn is an offensive wizard who rose from high school coach in 2005 to Auburn coordinator when Cam Newton won the Heisman and national title in 2010 to head coach as the Tigers played for another BCS championship in 2013. But meteors, by nature, burn up.
The last two seasons have been a grind — a combined 15-11 record — with that vaunted offense plummeting all the way to 94th nationally in total yards in 2015. Quarterback play was the primary problem, and that position is coached by Lashlee, a record-setting high school QB for Malzahn who has followed him up the coaching ladder.
Auburn’s defense wasn’t great in one year under Will Muschamp last fall, but replacing him with Steele is a downgrade. Clemson ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense the year before he took over and 81st in his final season as coordinator. Last year, his only at LSU, the Tigers dropped from No. 4 to No. 41 in scoring defense.
The shine is off Malzahn, and there isn’t much that inspires confidence heading into a make-or-break season.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.