Nick Saban is once again the unquestioned No. 1 coach in the SEC, but the debate begins at No. 2. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, Florida’s Jim McElwain and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn each have a case to earn the No. 2 spot, with Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Tennessee’s Butch Jones rounding out the next tier of options. As evidenced by the names in the mix, the SEC has a significant drop in coaching talent after Saban. Adding to the uncertainty in the league is a second-year coach at Georgia (Kirby Smart), and Ed Orgeron’s promotion to the top spot at LSU.
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 conferences. Here are the results for the SEC:
Ranking the SEC's College Football Coaches for 2017
14. Barry Odom, Missouri
Odom had a difficult assignment in replacing Gary Pinkel – Missouri’s all-time winningiest coach – prior to the 2016 campaign. And as expected, Odom’s debut had its share of ups and downs. The Tigers started 2-2 but lost five in a row to enter November with a 2-7 mark. Victories in two out of the last three games helped to close out the 2016 campaign on a high note and prevent a winless season in SEC play. While Odom’s debut resulted in the fewest wins for the program since 2001, there’s optimism for 2017. The offense returns nearly intact, and the defense played better after Odom assumed play-calling duties late in the season. Prior to taking over for Pinkel, Odom helped Memphis’ defense improve significantly from 2012-14 and also worked as an assistant at Missouri from 2009-11 and again in 2015 as the coordinator. Can Odom’s team build off a promising close to the 2016 season?
13. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron is getting a second chance as a head coach in the SEC after a solid 6-2 stint as LSU’s interim coach last season. LSU is a dream job for the Louisiana native, and the Tigers are banking on Orgeron filling the CEO role, with well-paid coordinators Matt Canada (offense) and Dave Aranda (defense) essentially serving as head coaches on their side of the ball. The offense was a weakness under former coach Les Miles, but this unit played better after Orgeron loosened the reins last season, and the addition of Canada should pay immediate dividends. Orgeron’s first tenure in the SEC (2005-07) at Ole Miss did not go well. The Rebels were just 10-25 under his watch and won only three SEC games in that span. However, after a 6-2 run as USC’s interim coach in 2013, along with the stint last season, it seems Orgeron has learned a lot since the three-year run at Ole Miss. Orgeron should be better prepared for this stint at LSU, but is he the right hire to help the program close the gap on Alabama?
12. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart was hired to elevate Georgia into an annual contender in the SEC, and the former Alabama assistant has plenty of work to do after an 8-5 debut in 2016. The Bulldogs finished 4-4 in SEC play last season, which was the program’s first non-winning record in conference action since 2010. However, Smart’s team wasn’t too far removed from double-digit wins. Georgia lost three of its games by three points or less, including a one-point defeat to rival Georgia Tech. After coaching in the shadow of Nick Saban at Alabama for nine seasons, Smart landed the opportunity to coach at his alma mater after Georgia parted ways with Mark Richt. Smart is regarded for his work on defense, but his ability to land elite recruiting classes (No. 3 nationally in 2017) will help the Bulldogs quickly replenish the roster. After one season, plenty of questions remain about Smart and whether or not he can elevate Georgia in the national conversation. However, the work on the recruiting trail, along with the returning talent this season, should provide better insight into this tenure in 2017.
11. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt got off to a rocky start with a 3-9 record in 2014, but the Commodores have showed marked improvement over the last two years. The program finished 4-8 and snapped an 11-game losing streak in SEC play by defeating Missouri and Kentucky in 2014. The Commodores took another step forward in 2016 by finishing 6-7 and picking up victories against C-USA champion WKU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. The six-win campaign allowed Vanderbilt to snap a two-year bowl drought with a trip to the Independence Bowl. Mason came to West End regarded for his work at Stanford on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s no surprise Vanderbilt finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense last season. The Commodores appear to have turned a corner under Mason and enter 2017 with momentum and an opportunity to earn a winning record and bowl trip.
10. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
After showing small signs of progress through Stoops’ first three seasons in Lexington, Kentucky had a breakthrough year in 2017. The Wildcats finished 7-6 last fall and earned the program’s first bowl bid since 2010. Additionally, Kentucky recorded its first non-losing mark in league play since 2006 and snapped a five-game losing streak against rival Louisville. After four years, Stoops is 19-30 overall and 8-24 in SEC action. With a solid roster foundation in place, along with the momentum from last season, Kentucky should be able to take another step forward in the win column in 2017.
9. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Muschamp’s first head coaching job in the SEC resulted in his dismissal, but he’s off to a good start after one season at South Carolina. The Gamecocks finished 6-7 in Muschamp’s debut – a three-game improvement from 2016 – and earned a trip to the Birmingham Bowl. The emergence of talented true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley was a big reason why South Carolina played better in the second half of last season, and his development is a cornerstone for Muschamp to build around. From 2011-14, Muschamp went 28-21 at Florida and was only 17-15 in SEC play. Additionally, he’s had stints as an assistant at Auburn, Texas and LSU. Considering Muschamp’s pedesterian tenure at Florida, his hire at South Carolina was met with plenty of skepticism. He’s just one year into the job with the Gamecocks, but all signs suggest Muschamp has the program trending in the right direction.
8. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin hasn’t matched the initial success from his first two years in College Station, but Texas A&M has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons. In Sumlin’s first year (also the program’s first in the SEC in 2012), the Aggies finished 11-2 overall and finished No. 5 in the Associated Press poll. The emergence of Johnny Manziel certainly helped to ease Texas A&M’s transition into the SEC, and the program finished 9-4 in a solid second trip through the league in 2013. But equaling the initial success has eluded Sumlin over the last three years. Despite winning eight games each season, the Aggies have not recorded a winning mark in SEC play or a top 25 finish. Sumlin is 44-21 at Texas A&M and 79-38 overall in his coaching career. Is 2017 a make-or-break year?
7. Butch Jones, Tennessee
High expectations surrounded Tennessee last season, and while the Volunteers fell short of winning the SEC East, the program recorded a 9-4 record and a No. 22 finish in the Associated Press poll. Contending for the East Division is certainly a fair and yearly expectation in Knoxville, but Jones has guided the program to back-to-back nine-win seasons. The 18 victories over the last two years are the most in Tennessee history since posting 19 from 2006-07. Despite falling short of preseason expectations, it’s clear Jones has helped this program take a step forward. He’s 30-21 overall in four years, and the Volunteers have recorded three consecutive bowl victories for the first time since 1994-96. Prior to Tennessee, Jones finished 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan and went 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati. He’s had just two losing records in 10 years as a FBS coach.
6. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
The 5-7 record by Ole Miss last season was the first losing mark in Freeze’s coaching career. Of course, there were a couple of factors that contributed to the five-win season, as injuries to starting quarterback Chad Kelly and a couple of other key players hindered the quest for another winning mark. While last year’s record was a disappointment in Oxford, Freeze and his staff are dealing with a bigger concern: An ongoing NCAA investigation. A cloud of uncertainty is likely to hang over this program in 2017, but Freeze has compiled an impressive 39-25 mark over five years in Oxford. The 19 wins from 2014-15 were the most in a two-season span since 1961-62 at Ole Miss. Additionally, Freeze guided the Rebels to a No. 10 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2015 and has two trips to New Year’s Six bowl games. Freeze was previously the head coach at Arkansas State for one season (2011) and at Lambuth for two years (2008-09). He’s 69-32 overall in his coaching career.
5. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Bielema took over in Fayetteville under less-than-ideal conditions in 2013. The program was reeling from the dismissal of Bobby Petrino prior to the 2012 campaign, and the Razorbacks slumped to 4-8 under John L. Smith that season. And as expected with the turmoil from 2012, Bielema’s first year at Arkansas was essentially a reset or transition year. The Razorbacks went 3-9 and winless in league play in 2013 but showed marked improvement in 2014. Arkansas rebounded to 7-6 and ended a two-year postseason drought, followed by a 15-11 mark over the last two years. Bielema previously recorded a 68-24 record during a stint at Wisconsin (2006-12) and has only one losing season in his career as a head coach.
4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn set the bar high for his tenure on the Plains after guiding the program to a 12-2 mark, an SEC title and an appearance in the national championship in 2013. But the Tigers haven’t matched that initial success, setting up a critical 2017 campaign for Malzahn. After the 12-2 season, Auburn is 23-16 over the last three years and has only one winning mark in SEC play (2016) during that span. After a 2-6 record in conference action in 2015, the Tigers took a step forward with a 5-3 mark last year. The addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham should give Auburn’s offense some much-needed balance this fall. Will that be enough for the Tigers to return to double-digit wins?
3. Jim McElwain, Florida
McElwain has emerged as one of the SEC’s top coaches after just two seasons in Gainesville. The former Alabama assistant landed his first head coaching gig in 2012 at Colorado State and quickly transformed the Rams back into one of the Mountain West’s top teams. After a 4-8 debut in 2012, Colorado State improved its win total by four games in 2013 (8-6) and finished 10-2 in the 2014 regular season. With McElwain’s previous SEC experience working under Nick Saban, combined with his success at Colorado State, the Montana native seemed like the right fit to get Florida’s program back on track after Will Muschamp went 28-21 in four years. And so far, McElwain has pushed all of the right buttons over the last two seasons. The Gators are 19-8 under McElwain and have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles.
2. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
While Mississippi State is the SEC West’s toughest job, Mullen has carved out a consistent and successful stint in a brutal division. The Bulldogs are 61-42 under Mullen’s eight years and have earned seven bowl trips in that span. Additionally, Mississippi State’s 19 wins from 2014-15 were the most in a two-year stretch in program history. The Bulldogs also grabbed the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 2014, while earning the top spot in the first CFB playoff rankings that season. Last year’s six wins were the fewest since 2009, but 2016 was expected to be a transition year after quarterback Dak Prescott expired his eligibility. However, with 10 returning starters and the continued development of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State will be a dark horse team to watch in the SEC this fall.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban continues to build a resume worthy of earning the honor as the best coach in college football history. Since Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide are 119-19 and have claimed four national championships. The program has not finished lower than 10th in the final Associated Press poll since 2007 and has just two seasons of three or more losses. Alabama also has six SEC West titles under Saban’s direction and has lost only five conference games over the last six seasons. Saban’s ridiculous track record of success continues with a 48-16 mark at LSU from 2000-04, along with a 34-24-1 record at Michigan State from 1995-99. He also went 9-2 at Toledo in 1990. At 65-years-old, Saban is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. With a recent contract extension to 2024, Saban is going to have plenty of time to add to his growing list of accomplishments in Tuscaloosa.