Alabama's Nick Saban ranks No. 1 among SEC coaches
Nick Saban is the unquestioned No. 1 coach in the SEC for 2018, but the league's depth at the top has improved since last season. Georgia's Kirby Smart makes a big jump to No. 3 after nearly guiding the program to a national title in his second year in Athens. Texas A&M landed Jimbo Fisher from Florida State this offseason, and Dan Mullen left Mississippi State to take over at Florida. Auburn's Gus Malzahn rounds out the top five, with South Carolina's Will Muschamp and Kentucky's Mark Stoops leading the next tier.
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.
How did we compile the rankings for the SEC coaches? For starters, it's an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. 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.
Every team has different built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the overall body of work to this point 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 have 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 SEC:
Ranking the SEC's College Football Coaches for 2018
14. Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Luke is the ideal coach to lead the Ole Miss program and landed the full-time job after guiding the Rebels to a 6-6 record as the interim last fall. He's a native of Gulfport, Miss., played at Ole Miss from 1995-98 and worked as an assistant in Oxford from 2002-05 and again from '12-16. In between those stints as an assistant for the Rebels, Luke coached at Tennessee (2006-07) and Duke (2008-11). After a successful 2017 season as the interim coach, Luke was promoted to the full-time role following Ole Miss' victory over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The Rebels won three games in SEC play and lost two others by a touchdown or less. After a successful stint as the interim coach, can Luke successfully make the difficult transition to the full-time leader?
13. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Pruitt is the fourth former Nick Saban assistant now serving as an SEC head coach entering the 2018 season. The Alabama native comes to Knoxville after two successful years as the defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide. Under Pruitt's watch, Alabama's defense led the SEC in fewest points allowed and ranked first nationally in yards per play allowed in 2016-17. Prior to his stint in Tuscaloosa, Pruitt worked under Mark Richt at Georgia from 2014-15 and for one season at Florida State (2013). He also worked for three years as Alabama's defensive backs coach in 2010-12 and worked in an off-field role with the Crimson Tide from 2007-09. Pruitt has assembled a strong resume from three different stops at the FBS level, is regarded as one of college football's top defensive minds and has worked under three of the nation's best coaches -- Saban, Richt and Jimbo Fisher. Pruitt is also regarded as a good recruiter and has extensive ties to the high school ranks in Alabama. Pruitt doesn't have any previous head coaching experience, but his ability to recruit and develop talent should help Tennessee take a step forward.
12. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Mason enters his fifth season at Vanderbilt looking to rebound after a disappointing 5-7 record. The Commodores appeared to be on track after finishing 2016 by winning four out of their last seven games and earning a trip to the Independence Bowl. However, they slipped to 1-7 in SEC play, losing five conference games by 20 or more points. Additionally, Vanderbil's defense (Mason's specialty) allowed 43.3 points and 6.9 yards a play in SEC contests. Mason addressed the defense by adding former Stanford and NFL assistant Jason Tarver to take over the play-calling duties. Since taking over on West End, Mason is 18-31 overall and is 6-26 in SEC play. Prior to Vanderbilt, Mason had a successful run as Stanford's defensive coordinator (2012-13) and also had stints with the Vikings, Ohio, New Mexico State, Utah and Bucknell.
11. Barry Odom, Missouri
Missouri was arguably one of college football's most improved teams during the course of the 2017 season. The Tigers started 1-5 but finished by winning six out of their next seven games. During that stretch, Missouri scored at least 45 points in every game, helping the offense finish first in the SEC by averaging 37.5 points a contest in 2017. The Tigers' 7-6 record last year represented a three-game improvement from Odom's first year. In 2016, Missouri finished 4-8 and won just two SEC contests. Prior to taking over as the head coach in Columbia, Odom worked for a year under Gary Pinkel as Missour's defensive coordinator and also had a three-year stint in the same role at Memphis from 2012-14. Can Odom build off the promising second half from 2017? With quarterback Drew Lock returning, the Tigers have enough firepower to exceed last year's seven wins. However, the defense -- Odom's side of the ball -- has to improve after giving up at least six yards a play in SEC contests in each of the last two years.
10. Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron's first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge had its share of ups and downs last fall. LSU started 3-2, including a 37-7 road loss to Mississippi State and a 24-21 defeat to Troy in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers rebounded to win six out of their last eight games. In Orgeron's interim stint in 2016, LSU went 6-2 and finished No. 13 in the final Associated Press poll. The 15-6 start at LSU is a big improvement from the 10-25 mark Orgeron recorded at Ole Miss from 2005-07. However, question marks remain about the direction of this program. LSU is still looking for the right answers on offense and has yet to close the gap on Alabama. In addition to stints as a head coach at Ole Miss and LSU, Orgeron worked as USC's interim coach in 2013, recording a 6-2 mark over eight contests. He also worked as an assistant at Miami, Syracuse, Tennessee and in the NFL with the Saints. With a tough schedule and a lot of turnover on offense, the 2018 season is critical for Orgeron as he looks to move the program forward and return to the top of the SEC West.
9. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
Moorhead's resume reads a lot like the coach (Dan Mullen) he replaces in Starkville. Just like Mullen, Moorhead is a Pennsylvania native and has an extensive background on offense. Moorhead's ability to direct an offense was on display over the last two years at Penn State. He inherited an offense that averaged 23.2 points a game in 2015 but improved to 37.6 in '16 and 41.1 in '17. Before calling the plays in Happy Valley, Moorhead went 38-13 as the head coach at Fordham from 2012-15. The Rams went to the FCS Playoffs three times under his watch and won 23 games from 2013-14. Moorhead also has previous stops at Akron (2004-08) and UConn (2009-11). Mullen leaves big shoes to fill in Starkville after guiding the program to eight consecutive bowl trips. However, Moorhead has been a successful head coach and is one of college football's top minds on offense. This hire should work out well for Mississippi State.
8. Chad Morris, Arkansas
Bret Bielema guided Arkansas to three consecutive bowl games from 2014-16, but a 4-8 '17 season signaled it was time for the program to hit the reset button. Morris arrives in Fayetteville after a successful stint at SMU. After inheriting a team that won just one contest in 2014, Morris brought gradual improvement to the program. The Mustangs finished 2-10 in 2015 but improved to 5-7 in '16, followed by a 7-5 regular season mark in '17. Prior to taking over as SMU's head coach, Morris worked as Clemson's offensive coordinator from 2011-14. He also had a brief stop at Tulsa (2010) and went 169-38 as a high school coach in Texas from 1994-09. Morris appears to be the right fit at the right time for Arkansas. Considering Arkansas won't outrecruit Alabama, Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M, a switch to a wide-open offense will help to level the playing field. Also, his extensive ties to the state of Texas can help attract talent to the program. Morris will need a year or two to transition Arkansas to new schemes on both sides of the ball. However, that patience will pay off for the program over the next five seasons.
7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Kentucky has made steady progress under Stoops. The Wildcats are 26-36 since 2013 and have not won fewer than five games since a 2-10 debut. Additionally, Kentucky has played in back-to-back bowl contests and has recorded at least a .500 mark in SEC play in each of the last two years. Prior to taking over in Lexington, Stoops worked as the defensive coordinator at Florida State and Arizona. He also had a stint at Miami (2001-03) and spent time at Houston, USF and Wyoming. Kentucky has to break in a new quarterback, but another bowl trip and a potential .500 record in SEC play are within reach.
6. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
There were plenty of doubts about Muschamp's ability to lead a SEC program after his stint at Florida. Under Muschamp, the Gators went 28-21 overall and were just 17-15 in SEC play from 2011-14. However, Muschamp is off to a strong start at South Carolina. The Gamecocks went 3-9 in the year prior to Muschamp's arrival but finished 6-7 in his first season (2016). South Carolina showed marked improvement last fall, recording a 9-4 record and finished second in the East Division. In addition to stints as a head coach at South Carolina and Florida, Muschamp has worked as a defensive coordinator at Auburn (2006-07, '15), Texas (2008-10) and LSU (2002-04). He also worked for one year with the Dolphins in 2005. With a promising quarterback in Jake Bentley, along with the return of receiver Deebo Samuel from injury, the Gamecocks could match last year's nine wins in 2018.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Thanks to regular season victories against Georgia and Alabama last year, Auburn was on the doorstep of reaching the CFB Playoff. However, a loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game dropped the Tigers to the Peach Bowl (and an eventual loss to UCF). While Auburn fell short of the conference title and playoff berth, last season's 10 victories were the most for the program since 2013. Malzahn guided Auburn to the SEC title and an appearance in the national championship in 2013 but went 23-16 from '14-16 and had only one winning record in conference play during that span. Prior to taking over as Auburn's head coach, Malzahn spent the 2012 campaign at Arkansas State, guiding the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record during the regular season. He also called the plays for the Tigers during their 2010 national championship and had stints at Tulsa (2007-08) and Arkansas (2006). Malzahn is one of college football's top minds on offense and heads into 2018 armed with a new seven-year, $49 million dollar contract.
4. Dan Mullen, Florida
After a successful run at Mississippi State, Mullen was picked to help Florida return to a spot among the nation's best. And there's no shortage of familiarity in Gainesville, as Mullen spent 2005-08 working under Urban Meyer at Florida, and former Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin now works in the same role with the Gators. Mullen finished his tenure at Mississippi State with a 69-46 overall mark and a 33-39 record in SEC play. Those marks are even more impressive when you consider Mississippi State is the toughest job in the SEC West, and Mullen had only one season of fewer than six victories (2009). Additionally, prior to Mullen's arrival, the Bulldogs had 13 bowl trips in program history. Under Mullen, Mississippi State went to eight postseason contests. The program also ranked No. 1 in the first CFB Playoff rankings in 2014. The Pennsylvania native also has stops on his resume from stints at Notre Dame (graduate assistant from 1999-00), Bowling Green and Utah. At Florida, Mullen will have better access to talent and is taking over one of the top 10 jobs in college football. Considering his level of success at Mississippi State, that should translate well in Gainesville.
3. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart makes a huge jump in the coach rankings following a successful 2017 season. In his first year at the helm in 2016, Georgia finished 8-5 overall and 4-4 in SEC play. However, Smart's second team was only a couple of plays away from winning the national championship, falling 26-23 in overtime to Alabama. The Bulldogs finished 13-2 overall, claimed the SEC title and dominated rivals Georgia Tech and Florida by a combined score of 80-14. Georgia is also winning on the recruiting trail. After finishing with the No. 7 class in 2016, the Bulldogs inked the No. 3 haul in '17 and claimed the best class by the 247Sports Composite this cycle. Smart was one of the nation's top assistant coaches at Alabama prior to his arrival in Athens and is one of college football's top defensive minds. After two years, it's clear he's on a fast track to a place among the top coaches in the nation and has Georgia (his alma mater) poised to contend for a playoff spot once again in 2018.
2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Texas A&M aimed high and successfully landed its top coaching target of the 2017-18 carousel, as Fisher left Tallahassee for a 10-year, $75 million dollar deal in College Station. As the contract indicates, the Aggies want to be a serious player in the SEC West. With standout facilities and fertile recruiting territory, Fisher should have no trouble helping this program move forward in the SEC over the next few years. Fisher had a tough assignment at Florida State, replacing legendary coach Bobby Bowden in 2010. After going 19-8 over his first two seasons, Fisher guided the program to three consecutive ACC titles (2012-14) and a perfect 14-0 season in 2013 to claim the national title. Injuries derailed Fisher's final year in Tallahassee, as Florida State finished 7-6 overall. However, Fisher's career mark at Florida State was an outstanding 83-23. It's no secret the SEC West will present new challenges for Fisher. However, he's already off to a strong start on the recruiting trail and there's enough talent to be a top 25 team in 2018.
Related: SEC Football 2018 Predictions
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban is the easy pick as the SEC's No. 1 coach and there's really no debate about his place in the hierarchy of college football coaches in 2018. With five national titles in nine seasons at Alabama, the West Virginia native continues to set the bar high for the rest of college football. In addition to winning national championships, Saban has lost only 12 games over the last nine years and has not won fewer than 10 games during that span. Remarkably, Alabama has only one season of more than two losses (2010) since 2008. Prior to taking over in Tuscaloosa, Saban went 48-16 with a national championship at LSU from 2000-04, compiled a 34-24-1 mark at Michigan State (1995-99) and went 9-2 at Toledo in 1990. He also had a two-year stint with the Dolphins, finishing 15-17 overall from 2005-06. At age 66, Saban doesn't show any signs of slowing down. He's one of the top defensive minds in the nation, continues to reel in elite talent and produces teams capable of winning the national title every year. Whenever Saban decides to retire, his resume is likely to be the best of any coach in college football history.