In 2012, the SEC’s perceived dominance over the rest of college football was an unquestioned fact of life in the sport. Five years later, the conference with the most money, most fertile recruiting base and most passionate following looks like a shadow of its best self, reduced to Alabama and the 13 Dwarves. What the heck happened?
There are enough different answers to that to keep radio call-in shows in business for another five years. But a good place to start is on the sideline: Twelve of the SEC’s 14 teams have replaced their head coach in that span — all of them except Bama and Mississippi State — with underwhelming returns, to say the least. Meanwhile, the exponential inflation in coaches’ salaries has only thrown the mediocrity into high relief. At least five SEC coaches hired in the 2012-13 cycles (Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, Tennessee’s Butch Jones, and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin) are facing obvious make-or-break campaigns in 2017, with the implicit promise that not all of them can survive another year. Many of their colleagues are only a losing season or two from the chopping block themselves. With Les Miles’ ouster at LSU, the only remaining coach with tenure is Nick Saban.
To put that situation into context, we’ve ranked the eleven full-time SEC hires from 2012-16 alongside the rest of the hires in the Power 5 conferences in the same span, divided into seven categories based on their performance to date. One positive note for the conference: None of the most recent hires has been so disastrous that they’ve already been fired. By this time next year, though, that won’t be the case.
Nationally relevant with no end in sight:
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State (2012- ) Meyer picked up in his home state right where he left off at Florida: Five years in, the Buckeyes have the best overall winning percentage in the nation during his tenure and a national championship to show for it.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan (2015- ) The Wolverines came up a couple plays short of a playoff berth in Harbaugh’s second season, but the sense of forward momentum that accompanied his return to his alma mater is as palpable as ever. Even in a rebuilding year, which 2017 figures to be, the question isn’t so much if Michigan will break through in the foreseeable future, but when.
3. Chris Petersen, Washington (2014- ) Unlike most coaches making the step up from a mid-major program, Petersen was arguably taking a bigger gamble on Washington when he agreed to leave Boise State than U-Dub was on him. On the heels of last year’s playoff run, though, the move looks like a mutual master stroke: The Huskies are atop the Pac-12 pecking order for the first time in ages, and suddenly the national title shot that kept slipping through Petersen’s grasp in Boise looks like it could be within reach in Seattle on a regular basis.
4. James Franklin, Penn State (2014- ) Before Penn State’s late surge in 2016, Franklin was facing the very real possibility of entering Year 4 on the hot seat. Instead, the Nittany Lions return the vast majority of the lineup that stormed to the Big Ten title, with legitimate designs on reestablishing the program as a perennial contender.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn (2013- ) The head coach at Auburn is never more than a bad year or two from the chopping block (see: Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville, Gene Chizik), especially when most of the oxygen in the state of Alabama is being sucked up by the Crimson Tide. Sure enough, Malzahn faced legitimate questions about his future last fall before the Tigers hit their stride en route to the Sugar Bowl. Regardless of when or how the Malzahn era eventually ends, though, or whatever else happens to unfold in the meantime, the Kick Six-fueled run to the BCS Championship Game in 2013 will always be worth it.
On the right track, but yet to win big:
1. Bobby Petrino, Louisville (2014- ) Petrino’s second go-round in the Derby City hasn’t yet achieved the heights of his first, which included the only top-10 finishes in school history, in 2004 and 2006. But the Cardinals were well on their way last year, rising as high as No. 3 in the AP poll before losing the thread in mid-November. And as long as Lamar Jackson is in the fold there’s no reason they can’t still make good on that promise.
2. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin (2015- ) So far, Chryst’s Badgers look exactly like what we’ve come to expect from Wisconsin — efficient on offense, fundamentally sound on defense, overachieving athletically — which was precisely the goal.
3. Mike Leach, Washington State (2012- ) It took a little longer than expected, but with back-to-back winning seasons in 2015-16, Leach has fulfilled his mission of pulling Wazzu out of a decade-long tailspin. Whether he’ll ever have the talent at his disposal to seriously contend for a Pac-12 title is another question.
4. Larry Fedora, North Carolina (2012- ) Five years and 40 wins later, Carolina is on much sturdier footing than it was when Fedora arrived in the midst of a major NCAA investigation. Still, the eternal question remains: At what point will eight wins a year at a program with UNC’s resources no longer be enough?
5. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (2013- ) MacIntyre won as many games in his fourth year in Boulder (10) as he won in his first three years combined, a testament to the patience he was afforded along the way. Keeping the Buffs in the black after a decade-plus of futility may require just as much patience.
6. Jim McElwain, Florida (2015- ) Back-to-back SEC East titles speak for themselves. But McElwain’s teams haven’t made any apparent headway on Florida State or Alabama at the end of the schedule, and even within the division they’ve arguably lost ground to Tennessee. Until McElwain finds a quarterback he can trust, the Gators are just treading water.
7. Butch Jones, Tennessee (2013- ) The 2016 Vols were erratic, combustible, and resilient — often on the same afternoon — a combination that tempered disappointment with sheer exhaustion. The result was a missed opportunity in a watered-down division, but also a reminder of how far the Vols have come on Jones’ watch.
8. Bret Bielema, Arkansas (2013- ) It’s probably too soon to suggest Bielema is facing a make-or-break year on the heels of three consecutive winning seasons, especially given the post-Bobby Petrino turmoil he inherited. But simply maintaining the status quo isn’t going to keep the critics at bay, either.
9. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest (2014- ) The Demon Deacons quietly climbed above .500 in Clawson’s third season, finishing with their first winning record (7–6) since 2008. That’s all Wake has ever asked for in football, and any coach who can deliver on a semi-regular basis has a chance to be around for a good long while.
10. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (2014- ) Mason’s third season in Nashville included wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee and a berth in the Independence Bowl, which by Vanderbilt standards qualifies as a banner year. The Commodores aren’t going to repeat their historic success under Mason’s predecessor, James Franklin, anytime soon, but as long as they don’t feel permanently consigned to the SEC basement, Mason probably isn’t going anywhere, either.
11. Mark Stoops, Kentucky (2013- ) Stoops signed a two-year contract extension in March that will ostensibly keep him at Kentucky through 2022, a significant vote of confidence in a coach who looked like a dead man walking last September. If he actually manages to survive that long — a big if, given UK’s perpetual struggle against mediocrity and worse — it will make him the longest-tenured coach in school history.
Fledgling tenures off to a promising start:
1. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech (2016- ) Fuente struck an optimistic note in Blacksburg, erasing the mediocrity of the final years of the Frank Beamer era en route to 10 wins and an ACC Coastal title — Virginia Tech’s first since 2011.
2. Clay Helton, USC (2015- ) Helton’s debut ran the gamut, from the depths of a 1–3 September — including, most memorably, a 52–6 humiliation at the hands of Alabama in the season opener — to the heights of a nine-game winning streak following freshman Sam Darnold’s promotion to QB1. With Darnold entrenched in Year 2, it’s a safe bet that, a) the Trojans will be universally hyped (yes, again) as playoff frontrunners; and b) this time they’ll actually deserve it.
3. Mark Richt, Miami (2016- ) In the long run, a 9–4 campaign that ends in a Russell Athletic Bowl victory is merely a footnote. But Richt’s first season at his alma mater was a clear step forward, yielding Miami’s first top-25 finish since 2009. And it was arguably closer to a genuine breakthrough than the rest of the country realized: Three of the Canes’ four losses came in games in which they led or had a legitimate chance to win in the final two minutes.
THE THRILL IS GONE
Entrenched, but perhaps not for much longer:
1. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (2012- ) In retrospect, the initial enthusiasm of the Johnny Manziel years is beginning to look more like a curse: The lofty expectations (and even loftier recruiting rankings) that followed have fizzled in three consecutive 8–5 finishes, each one more deflating than the last.
2. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (2012- ) Freeze’s best seasons, in 2014 and ‘15, rank among the best at Ole Miss in decades. Was that run worth the subsequent NCAA sanctions that have left him hanging by a thread? Will the high of back-to-back wins over Alabama outlast the stigma of Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask?
3. Jim Mora, UCLA (2012- ) There’s no way to separate UCLA’s 4–8 flop in 2016 from the shoulder injury that sidelined quarterback Josh Rosen at midseason — the Bruins finished 1–5 in his absence — and it’s entirely possible that Rosen’s return will be enough to flip that record this fall. Still, after years of highly touted recruiting classes, there was no excuse for such a sudden, total collapse.
4. Dave Doeren, N.C. State (2013- ) The Wolfpack have settled into a reliably mediocre niche after bottoming out in Doeren’s first season, which might be just fine if “reliably mediocre niche” hadn’t been exactly what got his predecessor, Tom O’Brien, fired. Another .500-ish effort in year five will be one too many to justify a year six.
5. Todd Graham, Arizona State (2012- ) The Sun Devils dropped seven of their last eight in 2016, yielding at least 37 points in all seven losses. Only one other FBS defense allowed more yards per play. When the status quo is that bad, even steep improvement might not be enough to keep Graham off the chopping block.
6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona (2012- ) Rich Rod achieved enough in his first four seasons in Tucson, including a Pac-12 South title in 2014, to write off last year’s 3–9 collapse as a mulligan. But certainly not enough to buy him another.
7. Steve Addazio, Boston College (2013- ) Addazio’s supporters can make the case that he’s stabilized a program that hit rock bottom under his predecessor, Frank Spaziani, and established an identity built around the defense; critics can argue that the Eagles are stagnant, having yet to top seven wins on Addazio’s watch, and remain painfully conservative on offense.
8. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech (2013- ) In one sense, at least, Kingsbury has done exactly what he was hired to do by cultivating an up-tempo, pass-happy attack that has the potential to threaten records every time it takes the field. Explosive as the “Air Raid” continues to be, though, the defense has been equally flammable, yielding at least 41 points per game in each of the past three seasons.
Fledgling tenures yet to move the needle either way:
1. Pat Narduzzi, Pitt (2015- ) Narduzzi appears to be settling in for the long haul at a program that had seen three other head coaches come and go in the previous four years, and his second season was highlighted by landmark wins over the eventual Big Ten champ (Penn State) and national champ (Clemson).
2. Kirby Smart, Georgia (2016- ) UGA fans were certainly hoping for more from Smart’s debut campaign than an uninspiring 8–5 slog, one that often felt like a rerun of the Mark Richt era at its worst. But the Bulldogs did finish strong and sustained the momentum into the new year by inking a top-five recruiting class.
3. Will Muschamp, South Carolina (2016- ) The Gamecocks arguably exceeded expectations in 2016 by eking out six wins, a clear step forward from the 3–9 debacle in 2015. Even better: The leading passer (Jake Bentley) and rusher (Rico Dowdle) were both true freshmen, and the top two wide receivers (Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards) are back as well.
4. Mike Riley, Nebraska (2015- ) The Cornhuskers seemed well on their way back to national relevance in Riley’s second year, climbing as high as No. 7 in the AP poll on the strength of a 7–0 start. From there, they endured blowout losses at the hands of Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee, ultimately failing to crack the final Top 25 for the fourth year in a row.
5. DJ Durkin, Maryland (2016- ) There’s not much to glean from Durkin’s first go-round as a head coach, a nondescript, 6–7 campaign without a victory over an opponent with a winning record and a handful of straight-up massacres against the Big Ten’s elite. But it was an improvement on Maryland’s 3–9 record in 2015, which if nothing else suggests the program is on a less obviously doomed path than it was before.
6. Gary Andersen, Oregon State (2015- ) Andersen’s decision to trade a high-profile gig at Wisconsin for the relative obscurity of Corvallis seemed like a bizarre move at the time, and his 6–18 mark in the meantime hasn’t exactly vindicated the choice.
7. Dino Babers, Syracuse (2016- ) The first two-thirds of Babers’ debut went well enough, highlighted by an out-of-the-blue upset over Virginia Tech en route to a 4–4 start. After a four-game skid to close the year, though, the end result was just another in a long line of forgettable Syracuse campaigns over the past decade.
8. Matt Campbell, Iowa State (2016- ) The Cyclones were more competitive in Campbell’s first season than their 3–9 record suggested, for whatever the distinction is worth. Even at Iowa State, “feisty in defeat” will eventually have to yield to some actual wins
9. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia (2016- ) Why did Mendenhall bail on a stable, decade-long tenure at BYU, in his home state, to take over a perennial also-ran on the opposite side of the continent? Money? A new challenge? Some combination thereof? Whatever it was, there must have been plenty of moments during last year’s 2–10 slog at UVa when he wondered the same thing himself.
10. Barry Odom, Missouri (2016- ) Not that anyone expected Odom to guide Mizzou back to the SEC title game in Year 1, but obviously a last-place finish in a watered-down East Division doesn’t lend itself to much positive spin.
11. Lovie Smith, Illinois (2016- ) Beleaguered Illini fans were ecstatic to land Smith, a longtime NFL vet who joined Jim Harbaugh last summer as the only active college coaches with a Super Bowl appearance on their résumés. But his first team was indistinguishable from the cellar-dwelling outfits that came before.
12. David Beaty, Kansas (2015- ) Beaty knew full well what he was getting into when he accepted one of the most thankless jobs in big-time college sports, and nothing about his 2–22 record so far suggests he’s on his way to escaping the cycle of futility that has defined Kansas football for decades.
13. Chris Ash, Rutgers (2016- ) Ash’s first season ended on a nine-game losing streak in which his team was outscored by more than 30 points per game. At least there’s, uh, nowhere to go but up?
Respectable but brief tenures cut short by better offers:
1. Bill O’Brien, Penn State (2012-13) O’Brien managed the immediate fallout of the Sandusky scandal, holding the line just long enough to make a respectable handoff to James Franklin when the Houston Texans came calling two years later. Eight starters in last year’s Rose Bowl signed on to play for O’Brien.
2. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin (2013-14) Andersen’s abbreviated run in Madison went just fine, yielding 19 wins in two years, but the Badgers certainly aren’t lamenting his absence — Wisconsin is still winning under Paul Chryst while Andersen is struggling to get Oregon State out of the Pac-12 basement.
3. Paul Chryst, Pitt (2012-14) So far, Chryst’s departure from Pitt for Wisconsin looks like a win-win on that end, too: He gets to oversee a stable program at his alma mater, and the Panthers have won more games in each of Pat Narduzzi’s first two seasons than they did in any of their three years under Chryst.
The not-so-dearly departed:
1. Mark Helfrich, Oregon (2013-16) Helfrich won 33 games in his first three seasons, mentored Marcus Mariota and brought the Ducks to the cusp of a national title — a good run, all in all, even if the high points have already been retroactively credited to the foundation laid by Helfrich’s old boss, Chip Kelly. But whatever remained of that foundation was reduced to rubble in 2016.
2. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota (2015-16) Claeys assumed coaching duties from Jerry Kill when health concerns forced Kill into retirement, and it’s debatable how much job security he ever really had. It’s not debatable, however, that Claeys’ first full season was among the Gophers’ best in decades, yielding a 9–4 record, or that he almost certainly would have kept his job if not for his tone-deaf response to the suspension of multiple players for the Holiday Bowl as part of a university investigation into sexual assault.
3. Sonny Dykes, Cal (2013-16) Dykes left Cal in better shape than he found it, which isn’t saying much given what he inherited in 2013. After three losing seasons in four years, the decision to pull the plug in December felt mutual. Dykes will be more at home this season in his native Texas, working as an analyst for TCU.
4. Charlie Strong, Texas (2014-16) Strong wasn’t the Saban-caliber star UT boosters assumed would be leaping at the opportunity to succeed Mack Brown. But the talent on hand wasn’t what it used to be, either, and had a bad habit of playing down to the likes of Texas Tech, Iowa State, and — Lord help them — even Kansas. Three consecutive losing seasons at Texas are three too many.
5. Randy Edsall, Maryland (2011-15) Edsall lasted four-and-a-half seasons, posted a pair of winning (7–6) records in 2013-14, and helped oversee the Terps’ transition from the ACC to the Big Ten. A few years from now I’m not sure even Maryland fans will remember any of the above.
6. Scott Shafer, Syracuse (2013-15) The Shafer era started promisingly enough, with a 7–6 campaign in 2013, before turning sour. His three-year tenure is the shortest at Syracuse since 1948.
7. Darrell Hazell, Purdue (2013-16) Hazell recorded nine wins in three-and-a-half years, only three of them coming in Big Ten games; four of the other six came at the expense of FCS opponents. The Boilers never achieved an identity beyond “doormat.”
8. Steve Sarkisian, USC (2014-15) Sarkisian coached just 18 games at USC before his apparent alcoholism overwhelmed his job. The Trojans are on more solid footing today under Clay Helton, and hopefully Sarkisian is, too, as the new offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons.
9. Charlie Weis, Kansas (2012-14) Weis gambled on an infusion of junior college recruits to upgrade the Jayhawks’ talent level, lost that bet and was shown the door in short order, leaving the depth chart in even more dire straits than it was before. At least he was paid handsomely!
10. Tim Beckman, Illinois (2012-14) The Beckman era was defined by a dismal record on the field (12–25) and an even worse record off it, ending in scandal when a university investigation found he forced some injured players to practice and pressured medical staff to clear others more quickly. When you leave your fan base nostalgic for Ron Zook, you come in at the bottom of the list.
Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.