From Josh Heupel to Kirby Smart, how we view race for SEC football coach of the year
Kirby Smart reloaded after 15 players from Georgia's national championship team departed via the NFL Draft. Josh Heupel has Tennessee in playoff contention in his second season. LSU won the SEC West in Brian Kelly's first season, a rapid ascent considering the Tigers' makeshift roster as recently as January.
These three coaches form the shortlist of candidates for SEC coach of the year.
No. 1 Georgia (10-0, 7-0 SEC) will face No. 7 LSU (8-2, 6-1) in December in the SEC Championship.
No. 5 Tennessee (9-1, 5-1) beat Alabama for the first time since 2006 and remains positioned to claim a playoff spot, if TCU stumbles.
On this edition of "SEC Football Unfiltered," a podcast from the USA TODAY Network, hosts Blake Toppmeyer and John Adams debate the merits of each candidate before making a selection (subject to change, of course, based on how the next few weeks unfold.)
Here's the pitch for the three leading candidates:
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After Georgia beat Alabama to win the national championship in January, many of the Bulldogs' stars headed for the NFL. Given Smart's persistently elite recruiting, Georgia remained the favorite in the SEC East. It was expected to contend for a playoff spot. But to be favored for a repeat national championship come mid-November? That was not expected. Aside from playing possum in a narrow October victory against Missouri, the Bulldogs haven't just beaten opponents. They've crushed them. They dominated Oregon and Tennessee, and Smart has made the departure of so much star power from 2021 look like a small hurdle.
Less than two years ago, Tennessee's program was a mess. The Vols fired Jeremy Pruitt for cause amid an NCAA investigation. Players were streaming for the transfer portal. Insert Heupel, and the Big Orange regained a roar that had been silent for more than a decade. Heupel combined an up-tempo spread offense with brilliant development of quarterback Hendon Hooker to build a scoring machine. The Vols exorcised demons against Florida, whipped LSU on the road, then set off pandemonium by toppling Alabama. Many projected this to be a breakout season for Heupel's Vols. But the real possibility of a playoff bid? It's a stunning ascent.
Kelly inherited some talented pieces from predecessor Ed Orgeron, but the Tigers were thin on depth, and they needed cohesion within the program. Kelly went to work. He plundered the transfer portal. He challenged the team's returning players, including star wideout Kayshon Boutte, to up their game. His team has shown resilience since the season opener, and the Tigers steadily improved after the Kelly era debuted with a one-point loss to Florida State. Transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels developed under Kelly's tutelage, and the defense ranks among the SEC's best. Against Alabama, everything came together, and Kelly capped the 32-31 overtime upset with an excellent play call on a two-point conversion. In a down year for the SEC West, Kelly positioned LSU to take advantage.
Our pick: Josh Heupel
Hard to argue with any of these candidates, but for Tennessee to be positioned to make the CFP and go 11-1, just two years after Pruitt went 3-7 and was fired amid an NCAA investigation, is a remarkable accomplishment thanks to Heupel's program transformation.
Later in the episode
– After debating their three SEC Coach of the Year candidates, the hosts supply a couple of names for consideration for SEC "Turkey of the Year." Jimbo Fisher and Mark Stoops top the list.
– In the aftermath of Ole Miss' 30-24 loss to Alabama, some media types opined that Lane Kiffin has hit his ceiling with the Rebels and needs to job-hop to Auburn. Not so fast. Auburn would be wise to pursue Kiffin, but Toppmeyer and Adams rebuff the idea that Kiffin has reached his Ole Miss ceiling.
– Week 12 picks against the spread, as Toppmeyer retains his narrow lead!
Florida (-14.5) at Vanderbilt – Adams: Florida; Toppmeyer: Florida
Georgia (-22.5) at Kentucky – Adams: Georgia; Toppmeyer: Georgia
Western Kentucky at Auburn (-6.5) – Adams: Auburn; Toppmeyer: Auburn
Tennessee (-21.5) at South Carolina – Adams: Tennessee; Toppmeyer: Tennessee
Ole Miss (-3) at Arkansas – Adams: Ole Miss; Toppmeyer: Ole Miss
Southern Cal (-2.5) at UCLA – Adams: USC; Toppmeyer: USC
Lock of the week – Adams: San Diego State (-14.5) at New Mexico; Toppmeyer: UAB at LSU (-14.5)
Records – Toppmeyer: 30-37-2 (5-3-1 last week); Adams: 29-38-2 (5-3-1 last week)
Where to listen to SEC Football Unfiltered
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. John Adams is a senior columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. You can subscribe to their podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or check out their SEC Unfiltered newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox.