The Nick Saban “coaching tree” wields plenty of influence in the SEC these days, with numerous assistants and proteges occupying prominent roles throughout the conference.
This is especially true at South Carolina, UGA and Florida, where Will Muschamp, Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain — three big branches from the so-called Saban Tree — serve as the respective head coaches.
SEC Country offers a unique look at the prospective tasks ahead for Muschamp, Smart and McElwain, with a different staff writer — Knox Bardeen (South Carolina), Brandon Adams (UGA) and Jay Clemons (Florida) — making statistical and anecdotal assessments of each program, while projecting which coach might enjoy the most success in the SEC.
The difference between new South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and Alabama behemoth Nick Saban is less than one game … and Muschamp has the advantage.
Let that sink in for moment, but study the thought as well. Like advanced calculus, this idea won’t be easily grasped. But just as finding the limit of a function algebraically can eventually become straightforward, so too can the comparison between Muschamp’s and Saban’s humble beginnings.
A quick glance at Muschamp’s first and only stint as a head coach – a Florida roller-coaster-like adventure with far more dips then rises – reveals a 28-21 record over four seasons and only one real feather in his cap … an 11-2 year where the Gators rose all the way to No. 3 in the AP poll at one point.
Muschamp’s meager seven wins per season led dramatically to his ousting in 2014. Saban averaged 6.8 wins per annum at Michigan State, his first Power 5 gig … his 9-2 season at Toledo in 1990 won’t be considered here, because let’s face it Toledo, Michigan State and Florida are much different animals.
Neither coach lit the world on fire in his first big-time coaching gig. And Saban’s 34-24 record led him to the SEC and a primo LSU job. Muschamp, while he averaged two-tenths of a win more, was unceremoniously cast back to the ranks of coordinator.
To bring this analogy to a close, just allow the thought that both Saban and Muschamp had similar starts, but Muschamp will now be forced to continue his coaching legacy on a second chance while Saban’s time with the Spartans was more of a slow, locomotive start that gained steam at LSU where he could grow, not rebound.
But Saban is no stranger to second chances. Alabama gave him one after his 15-17 record in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins led him to jump back into the college game. The Crimson Tide – from faithful fan to decision-making university front-man — seem happy with how Saban’s second chance has gone.
Will the Gamecocks feel the same way in nine years about Muschamp?
That could very well depend on how much Muschamp learned from his humbling experience with the Gators.
Hands off the offense
One of the smarter hires Muschamp made once he got to Columbia, S.C. was bringing Kurt Roper on as offensive coordinator. That may sound silly, considering Roper was with Muschamp in Florida in 2014 when the Gators’ offense was troubled … but really, this makes sense.
Muschamp, at his core, is a defensive mastermind. Need proof? In four years at Florida, Muschamp’s teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense each year. By contrast, his best offense ranked 96th nationally (367.6 yards per game) and the other three seasons landed anywhere from 104th to 115th. That jaunt toward respectability came in 2014 when Roper came to turn things around.
The problem: Roper was saddled with the wrong personnel and too many leftover issues from offensive minds of the previous few years. It was like a butcher coming to cook in a vegan restaurant … nothing tasty can come from that.
If Muschamp is going to show he’s learned his lesson and he can evolve as a coach, he’ll give Roper carte blanch to run the offense he wants, and Muschamp will go recruit the players Roper needs.
The defense is where Muschamp should live and breathe, and it’s definitely going to be where he earns his salary. If South Carolina’s defense starts to resemble what he was building in Florida – and not what happened last season while Muschamp was running Auburn’s defense – and Roper turns the Gamecocks’ offense into lookalike of the Duke units he ran from 2008 to 2013 … particularly the passing attacks that ranked near the top 30 nationally from 2009 to 2012 … South Carolina could really bounce back.
Recruiting will be key
The only way South Carolina can return to SEC relevancy is for Muschamp to turn things around on the recruiting trail. If his first five weeks are an indicator, he’s on the right path.
Muschamp has had more wins than losses in his early Gamecocks days, but more so than winning his first few battles, he has to set South Carolina up to win wars … and to do so over and over again.
Pulling from neighboring North Carolina and Georgia will be crucial. Muschamp was smart to add Roper for his offensive prowess, but that also lays some groundwork into the Tar Heel State. Muschamp also brought on Travaris Robinson, who may be one of the best recruiters in the SEC.
Another hotbed recruiting state is Florida … also known as a recruiting holy land. While Muschamp’s time with the Gators didn’t go as planned, he laid a foundation for him and his South Carolina staff to compete in the Sunshine State for high school talent.
Now that recruiting nearby states might not be as big an issue, Muschamp must find a way to take back the Palmetto State, and that won’t be easy with Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers on an unprecedented run of late. Muschamp should thank his old boss, since Saban’s Alabama troops held on Monday to beat Clemson in for the national championship. Swinney will still be able to talk about the trip to the title game on the recruiting trail, but he won’t be able to fly that national champion banner on his car to every living room in the state.
Names like A.J. Green, Albert Haynesworth, DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney were home-grown in South Carolina. As was one of the most famous local state treasures in William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Muschamp will quickly need to assemble this elite South Carolina talent and make it an enviable right to choose the Gamecocks.
Don’t cook on high
Muschamp and company need to avoid the “Top Gun” mentality out of the gate. Maverick and Goose felt “the need, the need for speed,” but South Carolina needs to be rebuilt, not restarted. Success needs to be realized quickly, but the Gamecocks don’t need to be thinking championships in 2016.
Anyone that’s ever been to South Carolina and been awestruck by a good mustard-based barbecue sauce knows that that meat was slow cooked to perfection. The Gamecocks football program needs to be treated like great barbecue.
It’s time to slowly bring the Gamecocks up to title contention.
The Gamecocks’ schedule is favorable in 2016. Texas A&M and Mississippi State will be their crossover games … arguably the only two conference teams in worse quarterback shape next season than South Carolina. Muschamp won’t have to contend with Leonard Fournette and LSU or his old boss and the national champion Crimson Tide.
South Carolina also plays an important five-game stretch at home versus the Aggies, Georgia, UMass, Tennessee and Missouri. Five consecutive games in a friendly confine with a bye week in the middle is fantastic for the Gamecocks.
But while all this sets up nicely for 2016 success, Muschamp needs to treat this favorable schedule like a mini bonus … an extra hour of sleep when the time changes or an empty HOV lane during rush hour. Slowly build during the 2016 season, don’t use the relative ease to set the bar too high.
Muschamp must also remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and the SEC East has turned into a young man’s race. The average age of SEC East front men is just younger than 45 years old. Saban at 64 and Miles at 62 years old pushed the SEC West average age up to just greater than 50. If Muschamp can use his next few seasons to slowly build South Carolina up from the bowels of last year’s three-win campaign, he’ll be in a place to wreak havoc when Alabama and LSU go through changes of the guard in a few years.