Ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
While it’s difficult to rank coaches, this aspect of college football is arguably the most important to winning a national or conference title. No matter how much talent a program has, winning a national title is difficult if the coaching is questionable.
Wins are a telling and important statistic, but they don’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. A good coach can elevate a program. However, it’s easier for programs like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking assistant coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A good program is willing to spend big to keep its assistants. And a staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it’s reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire?
Considering how important coaches are to teams or even making preseason predictions, Athlon is taking a look at how all 128 college football coaches rank nationally and by conference.
Ranking the SEC’s College Football Coaches for 2014
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Record at Alabama: 79-15 (7 years)
Career Record: 170-57-1 (18 years)
Alabama’s Program Rank: (No. 2 in the SEC, No. 3 nationally)
Ranking coaches in any conference or nationally is a tough assignment, but there’s little doubt about which one ranks as the best in college football. Saban is at the top of his game and is easily the No. 1 coach in the nation. In seven years at Alabama, Saban is 79-15 and has claimed three national championships. The Crimson Tide has finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll in each of the last six years and only one of Saban’s seasons resulted in less than 10 victories. And as many around the SEC already know, Saban’s success isn’t limited to just Alabama. He recorded a 48-16 mark in five years at LSU, a 34-24-1 record in five seasons at Michigan State and a 9-2 mark in one year at Toledo. Saban is one of the nation’s top defensive minds, an excellent recruiter and also one of the best - if not the No. 1 coach - in college football at developing talent. As long as Saban is on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa, Alabama will be factor every season in the national championship picture.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Record at South Carolina: 77-39 (9 years)
Career Record: 219-79-2 (24 years)
South Carolina’s Program Rank: (No. 8 in the SEC, No. 19 nationally)
Spurrier needed a few years to build the talent level at South Carolina, but heading into his 10th season in Columbia, the Gamecocks are a consistent East Division title contender. Through his first five years at South Carolina, Spurrier posted a 35-28 record with zero appearances in the final Associated Press poll. But since 2010, the Gamecocks are 42-11 and finished No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll last year. Spurrier was successful at Florida from 1990-2001 using the pass-first Fun ‘n’ Gun offense. However, the veteran coach has adapted at South Carolina and has been winning with a strong defense and a balanced offense. With successful stops at Florida and South Carolina in the SEC, along with a 20-13-1 three-year stint at Duke, Spurrier is without question one of the top coaches in college football. And even though Spurrier will be 69 years old when the season starts, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Record at Auburn: 12-2 (1 year)
Career Record: 21-5 (3 years)
Auburn’s Program Rank: (No. 6 in the SEC, No. 15 nationally)
Malzahn has only been a head coach for two years on the FBS level, but he is already ranks near the top of coaches in the SEC. The Texas native was a successful high school coach before making the jump to coordinate Arkansas’ offense in 2006. Malzahn left the Razorbacks to be the offensive coordinator at Tulsa from 2007-08, before returning to the SEC as Gene Chizik’s play-caller from 2009-11. Malzahn was one of the key pieces in Auburn’s national championship season in 2010 and landed his first chance to be a head coach in 2012 at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves went 9-3 in his only year, as Malzahn was hired by Auburn to replace Chizik at the end of the 2012 season. The Tigers went 3-9 in 2012, but Malzahn provided a quick fix, leading Auburn to a 12-2 final record with an appearance in the national championship. Prior to last season, Malzahn was already regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. And after guiding the Tigers to a No. 2 finish in the final Associated Press poll, Malzahn deserves to be ranked among the top 10-15 coaches nationally.
4. Mark Richt, Georgia
Record at Georgia:
126-45 (13 years)
126-45 (13 years)
Georgia’s Program Rank:
Richt has experienced his share of ups and downs in Athens, but he has been one of the nation’s most consistent coaches since his hire in 2001. Over the last 13 years, Georgia has averaged 9.7 wins a season under Richt. Additionally, the Bulldogs have recorded three top-five finishes in the final Associated Press poll and claimed at least a share of the East Division title six times. The only thing missing on Richt’s resume is a national championship. The Bulldogs have not played in a BCS bowl since the 2007 season, but the new playoff format should help this team, especially with more spots in elite bowls open to the SEC. Also, the addition of former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is an upgrade over previous defensive play-caller Todd Grantham, which should bolster Richt's chances of winning a SEC title in the next few years.
5. Les Miles, LSU
Record at LSU: 95-24 (9 years)
Career Record: 123-45 (13 years)
LSU’s Program Rank: (No. 4 in the SEC, No. 9 nationally)
The Mad Hatter is a bit of a gambler when it comes to making on-the-field decisions, and is always a good sound byte for the media, but let’s not overlook the Ohio native’s on-field success in recent years. In nine years at LSU, Miles is 95-24 and has won at least 10 games in each of the last four years. The Tigers had a slight dip in wins from 2008-09, finishing just 17-9 during that span. However, Miles returned LSU back to SEC and national prominence, and the Tigers finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll in 2011. Miles’ success isn’t just limited to LSU, as he recorded a 28-21 mark in four years at Oklahoma State from 2001-04. There’s no doubt regarding Miles’ ability to recruit (four top-10 classes over the last five years), and he has one of the SEC’s top staffs with proven coordinators in John Chavis and Cam Cameron, along with regarded assistants in Jeff Grimes, Frank Wilson and Brick Haley.
6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Record at Missouri: 102-63 (13 years)
Career Record: 175-100-3 (23 years)
Missouri’s Program Rank: (No. 11 in the SEC, No. 31 nationally)
Much like Mark Richt at Georgia, Pinkel has been a consistent winner during his career at Missouri. The Tigers slipped to 5-7 in their SEC debut in 2012, but injuries – especially to quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey – were the driving factors behind the disappointing season. However, one year later, Missouri won the East Division and finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll. Under Pinkel, the Tigers have winning records in eight out of the last nine years, with four double-digit win totals since 2007. Prior to Missouri, Pinkel was a successful coach at Toledo, recording a 73-37-3 record in 10 years with the Rockets. It was easy for some in the SEC to write off Pinkel after the 5-7 record in 2012. But heading into 2014, Missouri looks like a contender for the East Division title once again, and Pinkel has the program on stable ground entering its third year in the SEC.
7. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Record at Texas A&M: 20-6 (2 years)
Career Record: 55-23 (6 years)
Texas A&M’s Program Rank: (No. 5 in the SEC, No. 13 nationally)
Armed with the SEC logo, facility renovations and Sumlin’s coaching, Texas A&M is poised to be a factor on the national scene for the foreseeable future. The Aggies went 11-2 and finished No. 5 nationally in the final Associated Press poll in 2012 but slipped to 9-4 and just .500 (4-4) in SEC play last year. Prior to his stint at Texas A&M, Sumlin went 35-17 in four years at Houston. Building a program into a consistent national title contender will take time. And sometimes it's necessary to take a step back before moving forward. Through two years in College Station, Sumlin guided Texas A&M through a difficult conference transition, produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) and has recruited back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. Without Manziel and standout receiver Mike Evans, the Aggies may take a step back in 2014. However, with all of the young talent on the roster, the future looks bright in Aggieland.
8. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Record at Ole Miss: 15-11 (2 years)
Career Record: 45-18 (5 years)
Ole Miss’ Program Rank: (No. 10 in the SEC, No. 30 nationally)
Freeze still has plenty to prove within the SEC, but there’s also a lot of potential. The Mississippi native has brought instant success to each of his three college coaching jobs, starting at Lambuth in 2008. The Eagles won seven games in the two seasons prior to Freeze’s arrival, but he went 8-4 in 2008 and 12-1 in 2009. Freeze served as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State in 2010 and was promoted to head coach in 2011. The Red Wolves won the Sun Belt title in Freeze’s only season, finishing 10-2 with a trip to the GoDaddy Bowl. In two years at Ole Miss, Freeze is 15-11 and 6-10 in SEC play. Those totals aren’t particularly overwhelming, but the Rebels finished 6-18 in the two years prior to his arrival. With two top-15 recruiting classes, the talent level is on the rise in Oxford. Freeze needs time to match the depth at Alabama, Auburn and LSU, but the gap is slowly starting to close.
9. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Record at Mississippi State: 36-28 (5 years)
Career Record: 36-28 (5 years)
Mississippi State’s Program Rank: (No. 13 in the SEC, No. 48 nationally)
Winning at Mississippi State is no easy task. Just how difficult? Counting Mullen, the last seven coaches in Starkville had a losing record in SEC play. Jackie Sherrill guided the Bulldogs to an appearance in the SEC Championship, but his final record in SEC contests was just 43-59-1. Considering how difficult it is to win at a high level at Mississippi State, it’s unrealistic for Mullen to compete for SEC titles every year. In five years with the Bulldogs, Mullen is 36-28 and has guided the program to four consecutive bowl appearances. Additionally, Mullen is 4-1 against rival Ole Miss. Closing the gap on the rest of the West Division will be challenging, but Mullen clearly has the program going on the right direction. Considering the challenge of winning at Mississippi State, a strong case could be made Mullen needs to rank higher on this list of SEC coaches.
10. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Record at Tennessee: 5-7 (1 year)
Career Record: 55-34 (7 years)
Tennessee’s Program Rank: (No. 7 in the SEC, No. 16 nationally)
In his first year at Tennessee, Jones had a similar overall record to his predecessor (Derek Dooley), but the Volunteers appeared to take a step forward in 2013. Tennessee lost to Georgia by three points in overtime and fell to Vanderbilt 14-10 in late November. The signs of progress were small, but Jones is recruiting at a high level and has a track record of success. From 2007-09 at Central Michigan, Jones went 27-13 and won two MAC titles. At Cincinnati, Jones recorded a 23-14 mark and finished with a 10-4 mark in the Big East over the final two years. Jones is unproven in the SEC, but all signs point to progress on Rocky Top heading into 2014.
11. Will Muschamp, Florida
Record at Florida: 22-16 (3 years)
Career Record: 22-16 (3 years)
Florida’s Program Rank: (No. 1 in the SEC, No. 2 nationally)
What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, Muschamp could have ranked in the top half of the coach rankings in the SEC. After 2013, he deserves to be ranked in the bottom four. In his debut with the Gators in 2011, Muschamp went 7-6 and defeated Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Florida went 11-2 in Muschamp’s second year and finished No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll. The Gators may have caught a few lucky breaks in 2012, especially with a turnover margin that was a +15 and an offense that averaged only 334 yards per game. Even if Florida was a tad lucky in 2012, it’s hard to understand why this team went 4-8 in 2013. Yes, there were injuries and the offense had its share of struggles. However, the Gators recruit at a high level and own one of college football’s best rosters. Simply, going 4-8 at Florida should not happen. But Muschamp has another chance to guide the program back in the right direction, and staff changes to the offense should help. Muschamp is still a bit of a mystery heading into his fourth season, and it’s clear he needs a winning season to avoid hot seat talk in November.
12. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Record at Arkansas: 3-9 (1 year)
Career Record: 71-33 (8 years)
Arkansas’ Program Rank: (No. 9 in the SEC, No. 25 nationally)
Bielema’s debut at Arkansas did not go well. The Razorbacks finished 3-9 and winless in SEC play. However, there were signs of improvement late in the year. Arkansas seemed to play better over the final three games of the season, taking Mississippi State to overtime and losing to LSU by just four points in Baton Rouge. While the final record was ugly, the late-season improvement is a good sign for 2014. Also, Bielema deserves some time to build the program, as he inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2012 and played that year with an interim coach. Bielema was a successful coach at Wisconsin, winning 68 games in seven years and leading the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. It’s easy to panic after one bad year of a coaching tenure. However, Bielema has a solid track record and should help Arkansas take a step forward in 2014.
13. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Record at Kentucky: 2-10 (1 year)
Career Record: 2-10 (1 year)
Kentucky’s Program Rank: (No. 12 in the SEC, No. 47 nationally)
Considering Stoops inherited a Kentucky team that had just four SEC wins in the three years prior to his arrival, it’s tough to judge him based on 2013. The Wildcats went 2-10 and winless in conference play in Stoops’ first season, but there were signs of progress. Kentucky lost two conference games by seven points or less, and Stoops signed another signing class filled with talent. The Wildcats ranked No. 34 nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings in 2013, but Stoops inked the No. 22 class in 2014. Prior to taking over at Kentucky, Stoops was a successful defensive coordinator at Florida State, and he also had prior stops at Arizona, Miami, Houston and Wyoming. It’s going to take Stoops some time to get the program on track. However, recruiting is going well, and the Wildcats showed signs of improvement last season. If Kentucky takes another step forward in 2014, it’s a good sign for Stoops’ long-term outlook in Lexington.
14. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Record at Vanderbilt: First Season
Career Record: First Season
Vanderbilt’s Program Rank: (No. 14 in the SEC, No. 49 nationally)
Mason takes over for James Franklin after a successful stint as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. The Arizona native has been on a steady climb through the ranks as an assistant, spending time at Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, New Mexico State and Ohio. In 2007, Mason joined the Vikings staff and spent three years as a defensive backs assistant in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh hired Mason at Stanford in 2010, and he was promoted to the co-defensive coordinator role in 2011, before taking over the sole play-calling abilities in 2012. Under Mason, the Cardinal finished first in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2012 and second in 2013. Additionally, Stanford’s defenses allowed less than five yards per play from 2012-13. As evidenced by his work under Harbaugh and David Shaw, Mason is a rising star in the coaching ranks and one of the top defensive minds in the nation. However, without any experience as a head coach, it’s hard to place Mason higher in the SEC coach ranks.