The SEC East experienced a rebuilding year in 2016. Coaching mainstays at South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri were replaced. Two of the replacements had never coached a game before being hired.
But despite the turnover, six of the seven division teams qualified for a bowl game. Vanderbilt and Kentucky each earned spots for the first time in multiple years. However, with success comes increased expectations.
Here is what each SEC East coach needs to accomplish in 2017 to avoid the hot seat.
*Note: These records do not include potential bowl games
Jim McElwain, Florida
McElwain won the SEC East each of the past two seasons, but it’s hard to say whether last year’s title was convincing. It took Tennessee falling apart down the stretch to reach the SEC title game.
However, the conference titles buy McElwain time if nothing else. The jury is out on his ability to run a program, as his offenses have yet to develop. However, the early returns are good enough that pressure will not build too high if there are some growing pains on defense.
Verdict: 8 wins
Kirby Smart, Georgia
After becoming the most hyped hire of the offseason in 2016, Smart’s Bulldogs limped out to a 7-5 regular season record. Granted, beating TCU in the bowl game helped end on a good note, but the returns were slower than expected during Smart’s first season.
Many of the issues came from trying to reinvent the offense on the fly. Smart tried to build a power offense without the requisite linemen on campus. An improved recruiting wave should make things better immediately. Of course, Georgia fired Mark Richt to bring Smart in. Richt averaged 9.7 wins per year over 15 seasons. Smart had better get close to that soon.
Verdict: 9 wins
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Two games into the 2016 season, Kentucky fans were raising money through GoFundMe to buy out Stoops’ contract. Now, the youngest Stoops brother earned a contract extension after leading the Wildcats to a surprising 7-5 record and a win over arch rival Louisville.
It was the first bowl game since 2010 for Kentucky. Now, the Wildcats return 17 starters, including highly-touted running back Benny Snell. The roster should take a step forward. As long as there are noticeable gains, Kentucky fans will hold Stoops in high regard.
Verdict: 7 wins
Barry Odom, Missouri
Everyone knew Barry Odom had a total rebuild ahead of him once he got on campus. The former Mizzou linebacker was a first-time head coach and had to reinvent a roster in turmoil after Gary Pinkel’s untimely pressured retirement.
Mizzou experienced expected growing pains during his first season, but also showed flashes. The offense was the most improved in all of college football last season. Odom is still a year or two away from pressure as long as the product on the field continues to improve.
Verdict: 4 wins
Will Muschamp, South Carolina
The first year of the Muschamp era at South Carolina was a success after an inexperienced Gamecocks roster reached a bowl game. Now, South Carolina has true sophomore stars at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
Most expected a slower rebuild in Columbia, but it would be a disappointment to take a step back in 2017. Making it back to a bowl game would keep fans satisfied as the roster continues to accumulate top talent.
Verdict: 6 wins
Butch Jones, Tennessee
Last year was meant to be the culmination of years of recruiting and development. Between injuries and disappointing play, the Volunteers topped off at nine wins for the second straight year. Unfortunately, Tennessee proceeded to lose almost every one of its top play makers on both sides of the ball.
Tennessee fans expected an SEC East championship last season, and really should have had it. Now, the expectations will be the same, only with a depleted roster. Jones needs whichever quarterback starts to be excellent right away, or he might be looking for work next January.
Verdict: 9 wins
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
James Franklin broke expectations at Vanderbilt. Bringing the Commodores back to a bowl game is a big deal. Before Franklin arrived, Vanderbilt earned just four bowl trips in program history. The success deservedly earned Mason a contract extension.
However, getting back will be difficult. Vanderbilt lost Zach Cunningham, one of the most impactful defenders in the nation. The Commodores also play non-conference games against Kansas State, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. None of them will be easy. As long as the program doesn’t take too far a step back, Mason will have support.
Verdict: 5 wins