Attempting to rank the SEC’s coaches brings two things to mind pretty quickly.
The first is how few coaches in this league have a resume that’s even close to Alabama’s Nick Saban. This probably has always been true. But it seems especially true this season given the recent departure of a couple of the conference’s most accomplished coaches.
Steve Spurrier — who won a national championship and six SEC titles at Florida and then achieved unprecedented success at South Carolina — just retired, and Mark Richt — a winner of two SEC championships at Georgia — was dismissed after last season. Not to mention Gary Pinkel, who won the SEC East in 2013-14 at Missouri, who also retired. If these coaches were still active they’d all rank high on this list, and their absence leaves a significant void.
The second thing that’s apparent is that in the SEC — a league famous for its impatient fans and desperate administrations — the coaches on the so-called hot seat are not the ones you’d predict based on career accomplishments. It’s not the guys who are doing the worst whose jobs are most in jeopardy. The coaches at the bottom of this list have little chance of being fired any time soon. Instead it’s the coaches ranked just below Saban who are somehow most likely to get the boot.
This list considers the following criteria, presented in order of importance: national championships, conference championships, division titles, major bowl appearances, and overall win-loss record.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
What else can be said about Saban’s coaching tenure? His SEC dominance is so unquestioned that if his years at LSU (2000-04; one national championship and two SEC titles) were a separate career, Saban’s Alabama legacy would still deserve the top spot on this list and his LSU years arguably would be good enough to be ranked No. 2.
2. Les Miles, LSU
After another disappointing finish last year, LSU fans called Miles plenty of things, and “second-best coach in the SEC” probably wasn’t one of the most-used phrases.
That’s what he is, though.
Consider this: Miles is one of just five active coaches with an FBS national championship to his credit. Miles won his in 2007 and almost won another in 2011, which should give Miles’ critics something else to consider: If he’s fired for not being good enough, is his replacement really likely to do better?
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
I know what you’re thinking, but answer this: Who else is supposed to go here?
Malzahn won the 2013 SEC Championship. That might seem like a fluke in retrospect, but it did happen and Malzahn should be given credit for it. (Not to mention the national championship he helped the Tigers win as offensive coordinator.)
The reason that accomplishment matters more than his meager win-loss record in the subsequent seasons is the scarcity of the feat. The only other active SEC coaches who’ve won conference titles are the two men above Malzahn on this list.
4. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Freeze has been to a major bowl two years in a row — the Peach Bowl in 2014 and the Sugar Bowl last year. This gives him a strong claim to the No. 4 spot on this list. However, Ole Miss never came all that close to earning a berth in the SEC Championship Game in either of those seasons — which keeps Freeze firmly below Malzahn.
The bigger issue for Freeze is how those bowl appearances were obtained. Could he still have qualified for those attractive postseason destinations without providing improper benefits to his players?
5. Jim McElwain, Florida
McElwain is the only coach in the SEC East that’s ever won the SEC East. That strange fact seems more unusual when it’s remembered that a coach currently in the ACC Coastal Division (Richt at Miami) has won the East five times, and a coach in the Big Ten (Urban Meyer at Ohio State) won it three times.
He also won two national championships as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, and earned Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2014 while at Colorado State.
The potential rise of Tennessee and the emergence of Georgia under Kirby Smart might make it hard for McElwain to hold onto this position, but for now it belongs to him without dispute.
6. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mullen has compiled a 55-35 record in seven seasons with the Bulldogs and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl to conclude the 2014 season. He deserves credit for doing more with less than anyone on this list. Mississippi State is picked to finish last in the SEC West virtually every year. The fact that they never actually end the season there is perhaps Mullen’s finest accomplishment.
7. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
In Muschamp’s first stint as a head coach at Florida from 2011-14 he only went 28-21, but his Gators did end 2012 in the Sugar Bowl. That gives him more credentials than most SEC coaches before even including his prolific career as a defensive coordinator.
As he prepares to begin his career with the Gamecocks, he does so knowing he wasn’t South Carolina’s first choice (that was probably Houston’s Tom Herman) and he wasn’t second choice either (that might’ve been Georgia’s Kirby Smart). However, don’t be surprised if Muschamp turns out to be the right choice.
8.Bret Bielema, Arkansas
If conference championships are weighed heavily in this ranking, shouldn’t Bielema and his three Big Ten titles (2010-12) rate higher on this list? Umm … Big Ten championships don’t count for much in SEC Country.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin once looked like a genius. He led Houston to a 13-1 record in 2011 and parlayed that into a job in the SEC with the Aggies, whom he quickly rewarded for their faith by going 11-2 in his first season at Texas A&M in 2012.
There’s been a lot of regression since then, and Aggies fans shouldn’t be faulted for wondering: Is Sumlin still as smart as he used to be?
10. Butch Jones, Tennessee
This is a pivotal season for Jones. His Vols will either win the SEC East or they’ll produce a disappointment even greater than the four early losses of a year ago. Those are the only conceivable scenarios — which means Jones either will appear a lot higher on this list in the future, or maybe he’ll stop appearing at all.
11. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops’ 12-24 record isn’t impressive, but beating South Carolina two years in a row and playing Florida close in each of the last two seasons gives Wildcats fans reason for hope.
12. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Mason knows football, but can he recruit? The Commodores currently only have one commitment for the class of 2017 and none for 2018.
13.Kirby Smart, Georgia
Consider Smart the Drake of the SEC. He’ll “start from the bottom” in his first year with the Bulldogs and we’ll see where he goes from there. His success as Alabama’s defensive coordinator probably makes him more coveted than some of his more experienced colleagues, but status in this conference is earned, not assumed.
14. Barry Odom, Missouri
The good news for Odom is no one will mock him for being last on this list because no one even knows who he is.