In the SEC East, stakes are high. Keeping a job is so difficult in this conference that no current coach has completed even four seasons at his respective school.
The competitiveness means the coaching talent in the conference continues to explode. The number of highly-regarded SEC East coaches continues to rise, with no sign of slowing down. However, just one disappointing season or stretch can spell doom for even the most respected of coaches.
That said, each program’s definition of success is different, especially considering all of the new faces present. Here is what each coach needs to accomplish in 2016 to avoid the hot seat.
Jim McElwain, Florida
Florida experienced a strong resurgence in Jim McElwain’s first season as coach. The Gators won 10 games last season, almost as many as they won the final two seasons under former head coach Will Muschamp. But after quarterback Will Grier was lost to suspension, Florida’s offense fell apart.
Grier is gone to transfer, so McElwain will have to find a new player to step into the role. The still-suspended Treon Harris will reportedly move to wide receiver after a disappointing couple of seasons at signal-caller, so a few new faces have fought for the position. However, the defense should still be set with elite players recruited under Muschamp. If there is a significant step back, McElwain’s seat could begin to warm ever so slightly.
Verdict: 8 wins
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Perhaps no new hire has ingratiated himself among the fans quicker than Kirby Smart. After spending the last eight years at bitter rival Alabama, the former Bulldog defensive back has returned to his alma mater. Right off the bat, Smart secured the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation, headlined by five-star quarterback Jacob Eason.
But when the lights go on and fans fill Sanford Stadium, everything changes. Georgia fired longtime coach Mark Richt, the second-winningest coach in program history, to hire Smart. Bulldogs fans became displeased with mediocre performance in one of the marquee jobs in the nation. The expectation, fair or not at this point, is that Smart will consistently get Georgia back into the biggest games, and win them. Anything short will be a disappointment.
Verdict: 8 wins
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
It’s hard to deny the kind of talent that Mark Stoops has brought to Kentucky, but results have not yet followed in Lexington. The Wildcats have not qualified for a bowl game since the 2010 season, Previously, the Wildcats qualified for five straight bowl games under coaches Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips.
Now, it’s time for Stoops to get the Wildcats back to the postseason. Kentucky returns almost all of its top offensive playmakers from a team that came just one game shy of bowl eligibility. Kentucky has three “gimme” non-conference games against Austin Peay, New Mexico State and Southern Miss. If Stoops cannot find three additional wins, he could be in trouble.
Verdict: 6 wins
Barry Odom, Missouri
Last season was a disastrous one in Columbia, Mo. The Tigers were plagued with off-the-field problems and struggled mightily to move the ball on offense. Longtime coach Gary Pinkel is gone after announcing his resignation while he fights lymphoma.
Now, longtime Missouri assistant Barry Odom will try and put his stamp on the program. Odom has served many different positions at Mizzou, from grad assistant to director of football operations to defensive coordinator. Unfortunately, 2016 might be a tough season for the Tigers. But with his familiarity around the program, Odom will have a long leash to help rebuild his alma mater.
Verdict: 4 wins
Butch Jones, Tennessee
Tennessee has been “young and building” for the last few years under coach Butch Jones. With senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs and elite running back Jalen Hurd leading an experienced squad, now is the year Tennessee has to produce results.
The Vols looked like real title threats last season, as well, but struggled to finish against the top teams in the nation. Tennessee went 1-3 against AP top 25 teams. Three of the team’s four losses were against ranked teams — Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida, who defeated Jones’ squad by a combined 13 points. If Tennessee can’t capitalize and win the SEC East, Jones’ seat could get warm quickly. That is the price of being the longest-tenured coach in the division.
Verdict: 9 wins
Will Muschamp, South Carolina
South Carolina’s hiring of Will Muschamp was one of the most scrutinized moves of the offseason. In his only prior head coaching stop at Florida, Muschamp finished his with an uninspiring 28-21 record despite fielding some talented rosters. It was a somewhat surprising leap of faith for the Gamecocks to take a chance on him so soon after his dismissal.
Without question, all eyes will be on Muschamp as the season starts. South Carolina does not have the benefit of an easy non-conference opener, as the Gamecocks play three of those four matchups in the latter half of the season. Even tougher is the fact that three of the Gamecocks’ first four SEC games are on the road. If Muschamp gets out to a slow start, the critics will come calling again.
Verdict: 5 wins
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt made strides in Derek Mason’s second season as coach, winning its first two conference games during his tenure. Vanderbilt brings back most of its roster, and will re-introduce highly-touted quarterback Kyle Shurmur into the mix.
The Commodores won a pair of SEC games last season, part of a four-win campaign. Despite the unimpressive record, there was clear improvement from the previous season. If Vanderbilt can continue to make progress, it should win three non-conference games with relative ease. If Mason can win one or two SEC games on top of that, he should earn himself more time.