Which SEC school made the best hire this offseason?
The SEC is college football’s toughest conference and only got better with the addition of new coaches Gus Malzahn, Bret Bielema, Butch Jones and Mark Stoops. All four schools (Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky) made solid hires, which should help each program get back to winning records and bowl games over the next few years.
Ranking the new hires is no easy task, but with the SEC’s head coaching carousel likely finished for 2013, it’s time to take a look at how the new coaches stack up in the conference for next year.
Ranking the SEC's New Hires for 2013
1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Previous Job: Head coach at Arkansas State
Pros: Malzahn certainly knows his way around Auburn, as he spent three seasons as the offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik from 2009-11. The Tigers ranked in the top 20 of scoring offense two out of Malzahn’s three seasons, and he was a key reason why Auburn claimed the 2010 national championship. Although he spent only one season at Arkansas State, the experience as a head coach on the collegiate level will greatly benefit Malzahn for his stint at Auburn.
Cons: Although the experience at Arkansas State is beneficial, Malzahn is still raw as a head coach. The Texas native has yet to build a program for the long haul on the collegiate level and isn’t inheriting a great situation. Auburn needs a lot of work on both sides of the ball, and Malzahn needs Kiehl Frazier to live up to his recruiting hype at quarterback.
Final Analysis: Malzahn certainly knows offense and now he gets a chance to build his own program at Auburn. He is piecing together a solid staff, which includes former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Although Malzahn needs to find a capable quarterback, this offense should be much better in 2013. Auburn’s hire of Malzahn seems to get lost in the shuffle but this appears to be the best fit of the four new SEC coaches.
2. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Previous Job: Head coach at Wisconsin
Pros: Bielema had a difficult assignment for his first head coaching gig, following Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. However, Bielema led the Badgers to a 68-24 mark in seven seasons, which included three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. Wisconsin also had three consecutive seasons of at least 10 victories under his watch. Bielema’s style of play isn’t flashy, but the run-first mentality fits very well in the SEC.
Cons: The biggest downside to Bielema is the lack of experience in the SEC. The Illinois native has spent all of his career in the Midwest, which included four years at Iowa as a defensive lineman. If Bielema was not a fan of Urban Meyer’s recruiting at Ohio State, he’s going to have a tough time surviving in the SEC. Recruiting to the nation’s No. 1 conference is a tougher grind, and Bielema needs to establish more connections in Texas and Florida.
Final Analysis: Bielema is a curious fit at Arkansas. However, he has a solid resume and is bringing a style of play that meshes well with other teams in the SEC. Considering Bielema did a good job of identifying and developing talent at Wisconsin, that same formula should work at Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t going to bring in top-10 talents every season, but Bielema can find a few hidden gems and develop those players into starters. It’s tough to say if Bielema can deliver multiple BCS bowls to Arkansas, but the Razorbacks should be in contention for a bowl every year under his watch.
3. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Previous Job: Head coach at Cincinnati
Pros: Even though Jones inherited two favorable situations at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, he has a solid 50-27 record and led the Bearcats to a share of the Big East title in back-to-back seasons. After struggling to find stability with its recent coaching changes, Tennessee shouldn’t have to worry about Jones bolting for another program. The Michigan native clearly wants to be in Knoxville and should help the Volunteers rebuild into a consistent winner. Jones should be able to use his recruiting connections from his time at Cincinnati to help lure some talent from Ohio to Tennessee.
Cons: Is Jones only a product of following Brian Kelly? That’s the big question surrounding his upcoming tenure at Tennessee. Even if Jones benefitted from following Kelly and Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, going 23-14 with a share of two conference titles isn’t easy to do. Jones certainly put his own stamp on Central Michigan and Cincinnati during his three seasons with each program. However, he needs to prove he can build a program for the long haul. Considering Jones has no SEC experience, it may take him a year to adjust to the style of play, as well as learn the nuances of the other teams in the conference. After missing out on Mike Gundy, Charlie Strong and Jon Gruden, it’s clear Jones wasn’t Tennessee’s No. 1 choice. Will the fan base rally around Jones or will this be an unpopular hire?
Final Analysis: Is Jones going to win multiple national championships at Tennessee? Probably not. However, he should keep the Volunteers in contention for the SEC East title, along with getting the program back into bowl games on a consistent basis. The Volunteers have good facilities to showcase, which should help Jones recruit at a higher level. Although the expectations are high at Tennessee, winning eight or nine games for multiple seasons would be a successful stint for Jones in Knoxville.
4. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator at Florida State
Pros: Before coming to Kentucky, Stoops was regarded as one of the nation’s best assistant coaches. Under his watch, Florida State’s defense emerged once again as one of the nation’s best. Stoops also has a solid resume from stops as an assistant at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston, Miami and Arizona. The Ohio native is assembling an impressive coaching staff, which includes former Florida State defensive assistant D.J. Eliot and former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown. Stoops doesn’t have any previous head coaching experience, but brought some much-needed energy into the program. Considering Stoops is from Ohio and built some connections in Florida from his time in Tallahassee, he should be able to boost Kentucky’s recruiting over the next few seasons.
Cons: Hiring someone without head coaching experience is always a risky proposition for any athletic director. However, first-time coaches have worked out well recently in the SEC, as Vanderbilt hit a home run with James Franklin and Will Muschamp is off to a good start at Florida. Until Stoops proves he can win at Kentucky, his lack of head coaching experience is going to be a concern.
Final Analysis: Even though he ranks fourth on this list, Kentucky made the right decision to hire Stoops. With his recruiting connections and background as an assistant coach, Stoops is the right fit to turn Kentucky into an annual bowl team. Picking up Neal Brown as the offensive coordinator was a huge acquisition for the Wildcats, especially since they need to run an offense that’s a little different from the rest of the SEC. All four SEC teams made good hires, so there’s really no shame in Stoops checking in at No. 4 on this list.
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