How hot are the seats for the SEC's head coaches after three weeks?
College football coaches – especially the 14 coaches from the SEC – are always under pressure to win. And five weeks into the 2017 season, it’s clear the SEC could have some significant changes in its head coaching ranks by the end of the year. While it’s early and a lot can change by December, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Tennessee’s Butch Jones, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Missouri’s Barry Odom headline the list of coaches whose future could be on the line.
As a conference, the SEC didn’t have a banner year on the field in 2016. While Alabama is the clear No. 1 team in the league, the second tier of the conference is in flux. Outside of the Crimson Tide, only Georgia is ranked inside of the top 10 from the SEC in the latest Associated Press poll following Week 5 action. A big reason why the league has slipped in its on-field product? Coaching hires. And if the trends from the start of 2017 hold up, the SEC could be looking at a busy offseason of changes.
Ranking the SEC's Coaches by Hot Seat for 2017
Tier I – Scalding Hot
1. Butch Jones, Tennessee
The Good: Jones inherited a mess of a program from Derek Dooley. After a 5-7 record in 2013, the Volunteers improved to 7-6 in 2014 and won 18 games from 2015-16. The 18 victories were the most in a two-year span since 2006-07. Tennessee’s roster talent also is trending up. The Volunteers have inked four consecutive top-20 classes and have averaged a 13.2 national finish over the last five years.
The Bad: Has Jones hit a ceiling in Knoxville? Yes, there has been improvement, but Tennessee expects to win the SEC East. The Volunteers were picked as the preseason favorite in the division last year but fell short. Jones is 14-19 in SEC play, 1-4 against Florida and 2-2 versus Georgia and Vanderbilt. Tennessee could have easily lost to Georgia Tech in the opener, fell to Florida on the last play of the game and was dominated 41-0 by Georgia in Week 5. With a 3-2 record through five games - and remaining contests against Alabama, LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina - just getting to seven victories is a tough assignment. The Volunteers are struggling to find answers on offense, averaging just 5.2 yards per play after five games.
What’s Next: The loss to Florida was an early setback to SEC East title hopes, but things got a lot worse for Jones after the 41-0 defeat to Georgia. Improving the offense is priority No. 1 for Tennessee over the bye week before the matchup against the Gamecocks. Barring major improvement, it's tough to see Jones returning in 2018.
2. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
The Good: Texas A&M won 20 games in its first two seasons in the SEC, and under Sumlin’s watch, quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012. The Aggies have won at least eight games under Sumlin’s direction. After losing the opener to UCLA, Texas A&M has rebounded with four wins in a row, including victories against Arkansas and South Carolina.
The Bad: Since the 11-win campaign in 2012, Texas A&M has watched its win total slip to nine in 2013 and to eight in each of the last three years. Additionally, the Aggies have not finished with a winning mark in league play in each of the last four seasons.
What’s Next: Talent isn’t the issue at Texas A&M. The Aggies have averaged a No. 11 finish in recruiting ranks. Also, a recent stadium renovation has only added to the pressure to produce teams capable of winning the SEC West. After blowing a 44-10 lead at UCLA in the opener, Sumlin started 2017 squarely on the hot seat. Four consecutive victories have quieted the situation a bit in College Station, but the next two months are critical to his future.
3. Barry Odom, Missouri
The Good: It’s early, so there is an opportunity to improve. Missouri’s offense has been dynamic in non-conference games, and the firepower is there to make an impact in SEC matchups. Odom guided Missouri to wins in two out of its last three games in 2016.
The Bad: Gary Pinkel guided Missouri to 10 winning seasons in his 13 years as the program’s head coach. It’s no secret the SEC is a tougher conference than the Big 12, but Odom is just 5-10 through 15 games and went 4-8 in his debut last fall. The Tigers are once again off to a slow start, losing to South Carolina in the SEC opener and being thoroughly dominated by Purdue in Week 3. Missouri didn't fare much better in its second SEC game, as Auburn dominated 51-14 in Columbia. Odom’s team also gave up 43 points to FCS opponent Missouri State in Week 1. Prior to taking over as the program’s head coach, Odom was regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator at Missouri and at Memphis. However, the Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC in points allowed last season and rank last through four contests in 2017.
What’s Next: As a former player and second-year coach, how much leeway does Odom have? The current athletic director (Jim Sterk) did not hire Odom. There are few guaranteed wins left on the schedule, and Missouri still has to play at Georgia, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Odom can’t afford more performances like the one the Tigers had at home against Purdue or against Auburn.
Tier II – The Seat is a Little Warm
4. Ed Orgeron, LSU
The Good: Orgeron is in his first full season as LSU’s head coach, and it’s safe to assume he probably learned a couple of things after the disastrous stint at Ole Miss. The Tigers went 6-2 under Orgeron’s watch last year and inked the No. 7 recruiting class in February. The addition of Matt Canada as coordinator should help the offense, and Dave Aranda is one of the best defensive play-callers in the nation. LSU also has a host of promising young defenders playing in prominent roles this year.
The Bad: LSU recruits at a high level – the No. 3 roster in the nation – yet struggled to meet expectations under Les Miles, and Orgeron is just 4-3 in SEC play since taking over. The Week 3 performance at Mississippi State was not a step in the right direction for this program, and LSU lost at home to Troy on Sept. 30. The Tigers are just 3-2 after September and still have to play Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The offense is still looking for the right mix under Canada, and injuries have hindered the development of this team on both sides of the ball.
What’s Next: It's unlikely Orgeron will be fired based upon 2017. After all, he's got a significant buyout on his side. But until he proves otherwise, there will be doubts about his tenure because of the Ole Miss record. Canada’s offense needs to get better over the course of the season, and running back Derrius Guice has to return to full strength for this unit to improve. Road trips to Florida, Alabama and Tennessee should determine just how far LSU climbs – and how successful Orgeron’s first year is. Orgeron's seat is getting hotter, but a change at the end of the year is unlikely.
5. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
The Good: Bielema inherited a program in need of repair. After Bobby Petrino was dismissed prior to the 2012 season, John L. Smith went 4-8 in his only year at the helm. Bielema needed time to rebuild the depth chart, recruit and implement his schemes. After a 3-9 finish in 2013, the Razorbacks jumped to 7-6 in '14 and 8-5 in '15.
The Bad: Things seemed to be trending in the right direction for Arkansas after 2015. However, the Razorbacks slipped to 7-6, losing leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech to end the 2016 season on a down note. Arkansas opened 2017 with a win over Florida A&M but lost to TCU in Week 2 and fell in overtime to Texas A&M. Under Bielema’s watch, Arkansas is 10-23 in SEC games and has yet to beat Texas A&M. The defense ranked last in the SEC in yards per play allowed from 2015-16. This unit seems to be making progress under new coordinator Paul Rhoads. However, the offense has its share of concerns now, especially up front (usually a strength for Bielema-coached teams).
What’s Next: With a $15.4 million buyout, it seems Bielema is secure for 2018. Of course, nothing in college football’s coaching world is totally safe. However, with one of the league’s best quarterbacks (Austin Allen), a deep backfield and an improving defense, a bowl game should be a reasonable goal for the Razorbacks in 2017. Regardless of the final record this year, it’s clear the next eight games are critical for Bielema’s future in Fayetteville.
6. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
The Good: Malzahn guided Auburn to an appearance in the national championship game in 2013 and is 39-19 over the last five seasons. The Tigers finished second in the SEC West last year and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl. New quarterback Jarrett Stidham is the most talented passer Malzahn has worked with at Auburn. After the 2016 offense led the SEC in rushing, the addition of Stidham should provide some needed balance. The Tigers are off to a strong 4-1 start and appear to be Alabama's biggest challenger in the SEC West.
The Bad: While the trip to the national championship game was a good start, Malzahn’s record since 2013 is just 27-17. Additionally, the SEC mark in that span is 13-13. The Tigers have not finished higher than No. 22 in the final Associated Press poll over the last three seasons. Malzahn was regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football when he arrived at Auburn. In SEC-only games, the Tigers averaged just 26.3 points per game in 2016 and 22.1 in '15.
What’s Next: Auburn was picked second in the SEC West by most this preseason. Can the Tigers live up to that expectation? The offensive line remains a concern, but the offense seems to be getting better each week. The defense has allowed only 55 points through five games. A 9-3 finish should be good enough to avoid hot seat talk for Malzahn. Things are cooling off for Malzahn at Auburn.
Tier III – No Danger for 2017
7. Jim McElwain, Florida
Florida’s loss to Michigan and overall play on offense stirred grumblings in Gainesville early in the year, but McElwain has still guided this team to back-to-back SEC East titles. He’s 22-9 since taking over in 2015 and has lost only three conference games. McElwain’s recruiting needs to improve – averaged 14.7 nationally over last three years – and he has to find an offense while rebuilding a defense that lost several key players from the last two seasons. However, the third-year coach isn’t in any danger.
8. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
After a disappointing stint at Florida, Muschamp’s second tour of duty in the SEC seems to have South Carolina trending in the right direction. The Gamecocks went 6-7 last year – a three-game improvement from 2015. With promising sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley leading the way, South Carolina should make a bowl game once again in 2017.
9. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Kentucky is coming off its first winning season since 2009 and its first bowl trip since '10. Stoops went 2-10 in his debut but went 5-7 in back-to-back seasons before last year’s breakthrough 7-6 campaign. The Wildcats are 4-1 and looking to to improve upon 2016's record.
10. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart is regarded for his work as a defensive coordinator at Alabama and on the recruiting trail, but his 8-5 debut at Georgia last season was a slight disappointment. However, thanks to a shutdown defense and the play of running back Nick Chubb, the Bulldogs are the favorite to win the SEC East in 2017. Smart's second team has made marked improvement and cracked the top 10 of the Associated Press poll after beating Mississippi State.
11. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
After a 3-9 debut in 2014, Mason has brought consistent improvement to the program. The Commodores finished 4-8 in 2015 and went 6-7 last year with a trip to the Independence Bowl. Vanderbilt is off to a 3-2 start this season, and this team could be the best of Mason’s four-year stint.
12. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mullen is the SEC’s No. 2 coach behind Nick Saban. He’s won 64 games at Mississippi State – the toughest job in the SEC West - since 2009 and has guided the program to seven consecutive bowl games. Additionally, the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff poll in 2014 and made an appearance in the Orange Bowl that season.
13. Nick Saban, Alabama
Four national championships, nine consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins and three consecutive SEC titles. The expectation level is always high at Alabama, but the temperature on Saban’s seat is ice cold.
Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Luke was promoted to head coach after Hugh Freeze resigned this summer. Since he’s an interim (and auditioning for the job) coach for 2017, Luke was not ranked among the 13 full-time head coaches.