Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’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. It's always easier for programs 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 coaches: How well are the assistants paid? 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 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 knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 leagues. Here are the results for the SEC:
Ranking the SEC’s Football Coaches for 2016
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
With three national championships over the last five years, the rest of college football is chasing Alabama and Nick Saban. Under Saban’s direction, the Crimson Tide have won 105 games since 2007 and are the only team to make the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Alabama has only lost more than one game in SEC play once since 2008 and has not finished outside of the Associated Press top 10 since 2007. There’s no question the bar is set high at Alabama and maintaining this level of success isn’t easy for any program. However, Saban is the unquestioned No. 1 coach in the nation and continues to reel in elite talent every year.
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 for 2016
2. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Over the last few seasons, no team in the SEC West has improved its standing nationally more than Ole Miss. Freeze is a big reason for the improvement, as he came to Oxford with a track record of success. Freeze went 20-5 in two seasons at Lambuth and finished 10-2 in his only year at Arkansas State (2011). It didn’t take long for Freeze to generate improvement at Ole Miss, as the Rebels increased their win total by five games in his first year. And after an 8-5 finish in 2013, Ole Miss continued its rise with a 9-4 record in 2014, followed by a 10-3 mark in 2015. The program has recorded back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl appearances and finished No. 10 in the Associated Press poll last year. While three NFL first-round picks must be replaced in 2016, Ole Miss is equipped to handle the transition with four straight top-20 recruiting classes.
3. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Bielema inherited a program in need of repair after a 4-8 mark under John L. Smith in 2012. Establishing a foundation for success took a year, as the Razorbacks went 3-9 in Bielema’s debut, but there were signs of progress late in the 2013 season. Arkansas used that momentum to finish 7-6 in 2014, which included a 31-7 Texas Bowl blowout over Texas. And the Razorbacks took another step forward in 2015, finishing 8-5 and 5-3 in conference play and just outside of the top 25 in the final Associated Press poll. Considering how difficult the SEC West is, going from 0-8 in conference play (2013) to 5-3 (2015) is quite an accomplishment for Bielema. Entering 2016, it’s clear Bielema has this program trending up and on stable ground.
4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mississippi State is the toughest job in the SEC West, but the program has made steady progress under Dan Mullen’s watch. The Bulldogs have recorded six consecutive winning seasons and set a school record with 19 victories over the last two years. Additionally, Mullen has guided Mississippi State to six straight bowl games after the program recorded just one postseason trip from 2001-09. The Bulldogs also spent time as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff committee rankings in 2014. Despite losing quarterback Dak Prescott and a couple of other key contributors in 2016, Mullen won’t let Mississippi State slide too far in the SEC West.
5. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Tennessee has made steady progress over the last three seasons and is poised to win the SEC East in 2016. Jones is the driving force behind the improvement, as the Volunteers have increased their win total by two games in each of the last two years. Tennessee went 5-7 in Jones’ first season (2013) but rebounded to 7-6 in 2014 and finished 9-4 in 2015. Last year’s nine wins were the most for this program since a 10-win season in 2007. The Volunteers are also recruiting at a higher level, inking three consecutive top-15 classes after recording a No. 24 finish in 2013 and a No. 20 rank in 2012. Tennessee isn’t the first successful coaching stop for Jones, as he went 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan (2007-10) and finished 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati (2010-12).
6. Les Miles, LSU
Miles might be the toughest coach to rank in the SEC. He’s won 112 games in 11 seasons, guided LSU to the 2007 national championship and a No. 2 finish in 2011. However, Miles was nearly fired at the end of 2015 and the Tigers have not finished higher than No. 13 in the Associated Press poll over the last four years. That’s not ideal for a program that has the No. 4 roster in the nation and averages a 6.2 finish in signing classes over the last five seasons. Additionally, LSU is just 14-10 in SEC play in the last three years. With Leonard Fournette and a strong defense returning, the Tigers could win it all in 2016. However, after last year’s bizarre coaching drama and recent finishes, LSU – just like its coach – is one of the hardest teams to figure out this offseason.
7. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn started on a high note with a 12-2 record and an appearance in the national championship. The Tigers fell short of winning it all in 2013, but all signs seemed to point to this program as one on the rise. However, that hasn’t been the case. Over the last two seasons, Auburn is just 15-11 and needed a win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl to avoid a losing record (7-6). Additionally, the 2-6 mark in SEC play last year was the program’s lowest win total in conference action since 2012. Another problem spot for Malzahn was his side of the ball - the offense. The Tigers averaged 5.4 yards per play – the lowest of Malzahn’s tenure as head coach. With a declining win total in each of the last two seasons, 2016 is shaping up to be a critical year for Malzahn.
8. Jim McElwain, Florida
An argument could be made for McElwain to rank higher on this list after leading the Gators to a SEC East title and a 10-4 record in his first season in Gainesville. McElwain’s first year came with its share of obstacles, as Florida lost starting quarterback Will Grier to a midseason suspension and struggled on offense in the second half of 2015. Despite the offensive woes, the Gators still managed to hold onto the East title and head into 2016 as a projected top 25 team. Prior to Florida, McElwain went 22-16 at Colorado State, increasing his win total each year after a 4-8 debut in 2012. One area for McElwain to work on - recruiting. Florida has ranked No. 13 (2016) and No. 21 (2015) after three top-10 finishes from 2012-14.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin has slipped on this list over the last few seasons, and 2016 will be an important year for the fifth-year coach. After an 11-2 finish in 2012, Texas A&M went 9-4 in 2013 and recorded back-to-back 8-5 campaigns. Additionally, the Aggies are just 11-13 in SEC play over the last three seasons and have not finished in the top 25 over the last two years. Sumlin’s program also suffered a setback with the departure of two talented quarterbacks – Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen – prior to last season’s bowl game. Graduate transfer Trevor Knight alleviates some of the concern under center, but the Aggies are also breaking in a new offense behind coordinator Noel Mazzone. Sumlin took a step forward by hiring John Chavis to coordinate the defense last year, and now it’s up to Mazzone to provide stability on offense.
10. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart patiently waited for his first opportunity to be a head coach, and the former Georgia defensive back lands at his alma mater after nine seasons at Alabama. While Smart is back at his alma mater, there’s plenty of pressure to win right away. After all, he’s replacing a coach (Mark Richt) who won 145 games in 15 seasons. The challenge for Smart is simple: Elevate Georgia into contention for playoff berths and be a consistent SEC title contender. That’s something that has eluded the Bulldogs in recent years, as the program’s last SEC title was in 2005. Smart certainly has the right background and experience to win big. However, this is his first opportunity to be a head coach and it comes at one of top 10 jobs in the nation.
11. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Muschamp was fired at Florida after a 28-21 four-year stint from 2011-14, but he’s getting a second chance in the SEC. After one season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Muschamp was hired at South Carolina to replace Steve Spurrier. While Muschamp is certainly familiar with life in the SEC, he’s inheriting a program that needs major repair after a 3-9 2015 campaign. And it’s no secret the challenges of winning at Florida and South Carolina are different. Muschamp hired a good staff and is known as a good recruiter, but the access to talent is different at South Carolina. Muschamp will be better in his second stint as a head coach in the SEC. However, this job is more challenging than the one in Gainesville.
12. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops is making progress at Kentucky, as the Wildcats have recorded back-to-back 5-7 finishes after a 2-10 record in 2013. However, while 2016 isn’t necessarily a make-or-break year for Stoops, getting to a bowl game is a reasonable expectation. The roster talent has improved over the last four years, with Kentucky recording four straight top-40 signing classes. Additionally, Stoops upgraded his staff with the addition of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. With three winnable SEC games in Lexington, getting to 6-6 isn’t out of the question for Stoops in 2016. The fourth-year coach isn’t on the hot seat, but the pressure is starting to build.
13. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
After a rough 3-9 debut in 2014, Vanderbilt showed improvement in Mason’s second season with a 4-8 finish. The Commodores also went 2-6 in SEC play after a winless conference record in 2014. Mason’s decision to assume play-calling duties on defense helped to spur the improvement in the win column, as Vanderbilt limited opponents to 21 points a game and 5.2 yards per play. With the defense on track, Mason’s next goal is to generate more improvement out of an offense that managed only 15.2 points a game last season. If the offense takes a step forward, Vanderbilt could push for a bowl game in 2016.
14. Barry Odom, Missouri
Odom has the tough assignment of following Gary Pinkel at Missouri. Pinkel finished his career in Columbia with a school-record 118 victories and guided the program through a transition to the SEC. While Odom has big shoes to fill, he’s certainly up to the task. He’s a former Missouri player (1996-99) and later worked in Columbia as an off-field assistant with Pinkel from 2003-08, before coaching safeties from 2009-11. In 2012, Odom was hired at Memphis as the defensive coordinator and helped the Tigers engineer significant improvement on that side of the ball. Odom was hired as Missouri’s defensive signal-caller last year and led this unit to a No. 2 finish in the SEC in scoring defense. There’s no question about Odom’s ability to coordinate a defense. However, this is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.