Dooley: There’s Saban, then there’s everybody else in ranking SEC coaches

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Alabama coach Nick Saban
Alabama coach Nick Saban. [Butch Dill/The Associated Press]

It was 2006 when coach Rich Brooks stepped to the podium at SEC Media Days wearing a sly grin. And then he cracked us all up by leaning into the mike to say, “I’m baaaack.”

It was a surprise Brooks was back for a fourth year given Kentucky’s awful record in his first three (9-25), but an even bigger surprise was that all 14 coaches were returning in the SEC. We found out what an offseason would be without a juicy firing, scandal or coach jumping to the NFL.

Boring.

That was the last time every SEC coach repeated at SEC Media Days. Until this year.

Then again, we haven’t made it to July yet.

Still, all 14 coaches who were in Atlanta at the College Football Hall of Fame last year are expected to be at the Hoover Wynfrey starting July 15 when Florida’s Dan Mullen kicks it off with whatever new kicks he’s bringing to the clambake.

That’s a rarity in a conference that has no tolerance for average. Does it mean that schools are showing a little more restraint, that they are realizing stability at the top is a major factor in having a consistent program?

Nah.

It’s circumstances as much as anything. Coaches on the hot seat won just enough to survive and — most importantly — there were six new head coaches last year (if you count Matt Luke being elevated from interim) and even this cannibalistic league allows for a grace period.

There are coaches who will be perceived as being on the hot seat after their first loss of 2019. Only their athletic directors know for sure.

The best thing about all of the coaches being back this year is we have a body of work at their current jobs. With some, it’s a small sample size, but it’s better than ranking coaches who have yet to coach a game.

So as we get closer to the unofficial start of football season in Hoover, Ala., and some great story-telling at the On Tap Sports Cafe across the street from the hotel, we continue with talking season and our annual ranking of the SEC coaches.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama.

Shocking, I know. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens at Alabama when he leaves, but it sure feels like he’s going to be coaching the Tide forever. Saban is the bar and every other coach in this conference is reaching for the untouchable.

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia.

Smart is the closest, but let’s not forget that he has only had three seasons, two of them good, but last year the Dawgs did end with a whimper. The way he is recruiting, Georgia is not going away.

3. Dan Mullen, Florida.

I think this is a big year for Mullen to show just how good a coach he is, but he won at Mississippi State (had he stayed he would have become the school’s all-time winningest coach this year) and won 10 games in his first Florida season.

4. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M.

You can certainly make an argument that he should be third. I saw The Sporting News ranked him second in the league. But in his first year in the SEC, he won only one road game. Points deducted.

5. Ed Orgeron, LSU.

Reluctantly. He does seem to know how to get the best out of his players. But he also finds a way to lose a lot of big games. If you want good, he’s your guy. Great may not be in his DNA.

6. Mark Stoops, Kentucky.

Every year under Stoops, the Wildcats have improved. The big question is whether or not they peaked last year.

7. Gus Malzahn, Auburn.

Go ahead and call me a hater, but I’m just not impressed with Arthur Gustavo Malzahn. He has had two 7-1 seasons in conference play and is 14-18 in the other four at Aubie. That’s hardly consistent.

8. Will Muschamp, South Carolina.

This is a big season for Muschamp, who is slowly building a team that could contend for, well, the Citrus Bowl.

9. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State.

Maybe this is low for a coach who won eight games in his first season. But that team was loaded. This will be an interesting season for Moorhead because a lot of the talent Mullen left him has departed.

10. Barry Odom, Missouri.

Didn’t like the hire when it happened, but he has surprised me. Especially in November when he is 10-2 in three seasons. Now about those other two months and the bowl games.

11. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt.

Two bowl games in five years at Vandy isn’t bad, but zero winning seasons isn’t good anywhere. Definitely a hot seat candidate.

12. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee.

There is no way this ranking will be this low next year. But all we have to work with is six games where the Vols allowed at least 38 points under a defensive-minded coach. If this is your 12th best coach, you have a great league of coaches.

13. Matt Luke, Ole Miss.

With what he has had to deal with NCAA-wise, it’s difficult to be too critical. But he is 4-12 in the SEC.

14. Chad Morris, Arkansas.

He inherited a mess and seems to be righting the ship in terms of culture. But as a head coach at Arkansas and SMU, he is 16-32 and someone has to be last.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Saban is great but lost to Clemson. If returning the conference is part of it that has to ding his ranking. While I appreciate what Saban has done is doing he has lost a few that I can’t help but feel were games that shouldn’t have been lost. I’m not saying CDM should be one either gotta prove it first. KS has been good recruiting but has lost some that shouldn’t have. I do think the conference is getting even stronger which will make it harder for one to stay on top if all things are equal (there is a intended meaning in equal). I don’t think the gap is that wide. JF has to prove himself too he walked into a sweet deal at FSU that was starting to slide when he left. Needs to prove it wasn’t a weak ACC something that’s benefiting Clemson currently.

    • I don’t think Smart should be at 2. He’s up there if this is all about recruiting, but as far as coaching goes, I don’t think he’s worthy of that spot. There’s a lot of head coaches that could win as many games as he has simply by having the talent he has. I truly believe if Mullen stepped into the UGA job when Smart did and with the talent he inherited, then he’d have a championship already. He wouldn’t have folded against Bama in that title game. He certainly wouldn’t have made the boneheaded decisions Smart made in last years SEC Championship game. I don’t think Smart could’ve stepped into the position Mullen did last season and won 10 games. He couldn’t even do that his first season at UGA with better talent. When Mullen brings the talent level up to par, he’s going to coach circles around Smart.

      • Well said Joe. Richt was solid at UGA just couldn’t win in the clutch. You are very right there are a lot of coaches given a talented roster can be good. That’s why we see some coaches leave with a disaster and another coach come and make something of them. Look at our history Zook recruited talent but couldn’t seem to coach the team. UM with assistant CDM came in and took that talent and made something of them. In the horse world there are horse trainers and people trainers can’t have the great riders without great horses. There are thousands of possibly great horses but relatively few great horse trainers many potentially great horses miss because they don’t have great training. I think some of the players are thinking about what happened here last year. A winning coach has arrived and appears to be building with his assistants the team that dreams are made of.

  2. ”(Jimbo Fisher) in his first year in the SEC… won only one road game.” Welcome to the SEC, Jimbo! As far as Coach Saban goes, it’s his TENTH YEAR (2009) since he dethroned Florida in the ATL (SECCG). Therefore I’ll bet anyone, (Lord willing we all long enuff) that Saban does NOT go another 10 years at ‘Bama. The million dollar question is how many does he have left ”in the tank” (pardon the pun, 65) and who replaces him (if anyone). Nothing last forever, nothing, Tide fans! Well actually, Gators have been around a long time… so…

  3. Nicky Saban is now facing an undefeated opponent who has turned every man he ever faced from kings to conquerers into worm food: Father Time. He had hip replacement surgery this year, and as his body crumbles his mind will follow. With the SEC improving, the losses will become more frequent, and in his enfeebled state he will not be able to handle the pressure. For now, he is on top, but his fall is coming and coming soon. He can dye his hair all he wants, but it won’t do him a bit of good when his insides are falling apart.

    As for the rest of the rankings, not much to argue with. I’m not sure why people are so high on Pruitt. Finebaum is always singing his praises as well, but he didn’t even make a bowl game and lost to Vanderbilt. The results don’t support all the gushing praise. Ogreloon did better than I expected, but LSU still couldn’t do anything on offense against Bama and LSU fans expect titles. Just ask The Mad Hatter.

    It will be interesting to see how Year 2 goes for Jimbo. He had a good first year, but like Ogreloon he was hired to win titles, and that means he needs to start by winning the West. Can he do? No one seems to think so. Are expectations too high? Not when you look at what he’s getting paid.

    • I’m keeping my eye on A&M since they’re literally next door and I’m kind of a fan, but I sincerely don’t think this is their year. They don’t have as far to go as Texas (if you set aside all the Longhorn hype, although I should note that AustinGator disagrees and is in fact a tad closer to those marxist-socialist-commie-pinko goons down there 😎). Now, if TAMU could ever get Texas to schedule games with them again, the beatings would surely enhance Jimbo’s recruiting significantly. As it is, give him three years and he’ll be knocking on the door, just like our Gators, and don’t be surprised if we meet them again in Atlanta.

      • Touche Gator-6. Austin is really a great city. And I am sure there are some really rational, patriotic, conservative folks here…somewhere…well, I’ll let you know when I find one lol. Seriously, I really do like it here in Austin. Despite the fact that I moved from south Florida to somewhere with hotter weather…who’d have thunk it! Some clarification on my projection for the Longhorns: I think Herman is a really good coach and he has (rather quietly) recruited well. But the egg in my prognostication basket is Ellinger…he is a very tough and talented young man who reminds me a lot of Tebow.

  4. did kirby or cdm win a national championship? no way jimbo sb anything but #2. no way champ is in top ten. . did coach o get to a national championship game? no, then how is he ahead of malzone. in fact this whole rating is off. can we get back to facts in the articles and away from opinions. heres a fact: in spite of the newspaper calling the program dying, the gators signed a few more recruits and a high status offensive assistant. thats deserving of more time than yet another article overpraising champ

    • I agree MexiGator. One can point to this or that and make an argument, but if one looks objectively at recent accomplishments coupled with longer term, where it exists, this assessment is reasonable. So since I can’t argue with it, I will make some predictions for what this list might look like at this time next year. 1. If Saban has two losses or less, I think it would be premature to bump him down the list (I don’t see more than two losses happening, yet). 2. Smart and Mullen will swap places. 3. Fisher will drop at least two spots. 4. Mason and Luke will no longer be SEC head coaches. 5. Pruitt will at best be on the hot seat. 6. Morris will rank at least 11. My confidence in these predictions is boosted by the prediction that one year from now, you will all have forgotten I made them.