The SEC West represents the gold standard of college football. Between LSU, Alabama and Auburn, the division has won seven of the last 13 national championships. With the talent in the division, it shows no signs of letting up.
While a coach of Nick Saban’s caliber never has to worry about criticism, others are not as lucky. With Alabama down so many starters, it’s a year filled with expectations for many additional coaches. Struggling against stiff competition could eventually lead to disaster in this conference.
Here is what each SEC West coach needs to accomplish in 2016 to avoid the hot seat.
Nick Saban, Alabama
There is not a coach with more job security in college football than Nick Saban. The five-time national champion has made his mark as one of the greatest coaches in college football history. Saban has revitalized the ‘Bama program and changed the landscape of the sport since moving to Alabama in 2007.
Obviously, the expectations are sky high every season for Alabama. But even if the Crimson Tide were to go 0-12, Saban’s job would not be in any trouble. Having that kind of clout is unique in any level of sports.
Verdict: 6 wins
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Auburn was a popular pick to win the SEC last season after introducing QB Jeremy Johnson and returning several key pieces on both sides of the ball. Just two games into the season, that dream seemed to fall apart when the Tigers needed overtime to beat lowly Jacksonville State. In shocking fashion, that heralded Auburn team eventually finished last in the SEC West.
As learned with former national championship-winning coach Gene Chizik, Auburn fans place an extremely short leash on their coaches. Gus Malzahn led the Tigers to a championship game, but could soon follow Chizik’s fate should his team struggle again next season.
Verdict: 8 wins
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Arkansas has taken steps forward under Bret Bielema, but next year will be a rebuilding season. The Razorbacks lost almost every star offensive player, including QB Brandon Allen, RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Perhaps more worrisome, Arkansas lost multiple players from its elite offensive line.
Bielema coaches power run teams, so the pieces simply are not in place to compete in the SEC West at this point. He has helped turn the program around since arriving in Fayetteville, but this will be a tough season. However, if he can keep a bowl streak alive, that should be enough to keep Bielema around for a few more years.
Verdict: 6 wins
Les Miles, LSU
Les Miles is a survivor. Heading into the last game in 2015 against Texas A&M, many reported that Miles was set to be fired at the end of the season. Of course, Miles led the Tigers to a big win over Texas A&M and was promptly carried off the field.
While Miles bought himself more time with his antics, the critics will be watching closely this season. With a talented roster and the top running back in the nation playing in Baton Rouge, La., the expectations will be off the charts this year. Anything lower than No. 2 in the SEC West will be a disappointment for the administration.
Verdict: 10 wins
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
To say the least, Mississippi State is not known for its expectations. In the 104 seasons before Dan Mullen got on campus, the Bulldogs had been to 13 bowl games. Mullen has led Mississippi State to six bowl games in seven years as the head coach. Earning the No. 11 postseason ranking in 2014 was the best mark since 1940.
Mullen is the one with the leverage in this relationship. He has been courted by other teams at times, but has decided to stay put and continue to build in Starkville, Miss. Replacing All-SEC QB Dak Prescott will be a difficult test, but Mullen should get an opportunity to try.
Verdict: 6 wins
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze continues to bring elite talent to Oxford, Miss. Even though the program lost several key pieces from last season, the best one is back: QB Chad Kelly. The rising senior threw for over 4,000 yards in his first season as a starter. But around him, inexperience abounds.
The talent alone on this roster is enough to sustain Ole Miss, but the successes of the past few seasons will be enough to endear Freeze to the Rebels’ faithful. If he can stay middle of the pack, that should be enough to keep the critics away.
Verdict: 8 wins
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
The talent is in place, and excuses are running out for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. The former Houston coach has brought unprecedented talent to College Station, but the results have yet to show on the field.
Johnny Manziel changed the game for the Aggies, but no other Sumlin-coached team has reached anywhere near what Manziel’s team did in 2012. With an elite defensive line, deep wide receiver corps and young talent all around the field, Sumlin needs to show he can take advantage. If not, he could be out of a job sooner than many think.