Alabama's Nick Saban ranks as the SEC's No. 1 coach
Alabama's Nick Saban is clearly the SEC's No. 1 coach going into 2019, but the conference has a solid second tier in place. Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher won a national title at Florida State, Georgia has emerged as an annual contender for a playoff spot under Kirby Smart, and Dan Mullen has Florida trending up after a 10-3 debut last fall.
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 a different variety or 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 career biography 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 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 2019
14. Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Luke – a former Ole Miss player – was promoted to head coach after Hugh Freeze resigned prior to the 2017 season. Navigating a late coaching change in the offseason is never easy, but Luke guided the Rebels to a 6-6 finish and defeated rival Mississippi State that year. The six-win season was enough for Luke to be awarded the full-time job at his alma mater. Ole Miss was banned from postseason play last season and finished 5-7 with just one victory in SEC action. Luke is 11-13 overall and 4-12 since taking over as head coach in Oxford. The former Ole Miss lineman took steps to move this program forward this offseason by hiring Rich Rodriguez as the offensive play-caller and Mike MacIntyre as the defensive signal-caller.
13. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
After successful stops as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama, Pruitt (after an extended search in Knoxville) was athletic director Phillip Fulmer’s pick to replace Butch Jones. As expected, Tennessee was a work in progress in Pruitt’s first year. The Volunteers finished 5-7 overall and seventh in the SEC East with a 2-6 mark in league play. While Tennessee missed on a bowl for the second year in a row, Pruitt led this team to upset wins over Auburn and Kentucky. There are no quick fixes available in Knoxville, which is why Pruitt hit the recruiting trail hard this offseason and landed a standout class to restock both sides of the ball. Pruitt seems to have this program going in the right direction, but the development of the offensive and defensive lines will be critical to reaching six wins and a bowl in 2019.
12. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
After helping Penn State’s offense become one of the best in college football from 2016-17, high expectations surrounded Moorhead’s debut in Starkville last season. The Bulldogs never seemed to find their rhythm on offense in 2018, finishing 10th in the SEC in scoring and 13th in total passing yardage. However, this program leaned on one of the nation’s top defenses to finish 8-5 overall and 4-4 within the SEC. Moorhead previously went 38-13 at Fordham from 2012-15 and is 46-18 overall counting his tenure at Mississippi State.
11. Chad Morris, Arkansas
Morris stepped into a program in need of major repair, so last year’s 2-10 mark wasn’t a total surprise. The only victories for the Razorbacks in 2018 came against Eastern Illinois and Tulsa, but the program also squandered late leads against Colorado State and Ole Miss. Despite the 2-10 mark, Morris and his staff reeled in a top 25 class and added two impact transfers at the quarterback position. While there’s a lot of work to do, Morris took steps to get this program back on track and progress should be noticeable in 2019. Morris stepped into a similar situation at SMU in 2015. After a 2-10 debut that year, the Mustangs jumped to 5-7 in ’16 and 7-5 in ’17.
10. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt has stabilized after a 7-17 start from 2014-15. The Commodores have won at least five games in each of the last three years and hold a 17-21 mark in that span. Vanderbilt finished with a 6-7 record in 2016 and ’18 and earned bowl trips in both of those years. Additionally, the Commodores have won three in a row over rival Tennessee. Mason is 24-38 overall since replacing James Franklin. The defense (Mason’s specialty) has to show improvement in 2019, especially with the offense replacing standout quarterback Kyle Shurmur.
9. Barry Odom, Missouri
Odom had big shoes to fill in replacing Gary Pinkel prior to the 2016 season. After a 4-8 debut that year, Odom is 15-11 over the last two seasons and has guided the program to back-to-back bowl trips. Missouri is also .500 (8-8) in SEC play in that span. As a former player at Missouri, Odom certainly knows what it takes to win in Columbia and seems to have this program on the right track after winning 15 games the last two seasons. Even though the Tigers are banned from postseason play, Odom’s team returns one of the SEC’s top offenses and should rank in the top 25.
8. Ed Orgeron, LSU
LSU’s decision to replace Les Miles with Ed Orgeron on a full-time basis prior to the 2017 season was met with plenty of skepticism. However, two years into Orgeron’s tenure in Baton Rouge, it’s clear he’s a different coach than the one that went 10-25 at Ole Miss from 2005-07. LSU went 9-4 and finished No. 18 overall in 2017 but offseason question marks meant low expectations for this team going into ’18. The Tigers exceeded most preseason predictions last fall, finishing 10-3 and 5-3 within the SEC. Orgeron’s team finished No. 6 nationally in the final Associated Press poll and beat UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. Of LSU’s three losses last fall, two came by eight points or less. In addition to his interim stint at USC in 2013 (6-2 overall), Orgeron is 41-36 overall as a head coach. Catching Alabama in the SEC West is still Orgeron’s top priority, and the hire of former Saints assistant Joe Brady to tweak the offense should help this team improve on that side of the ball.
7. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
South Carolina faces a brutal 2019 schedule, so even though Muschamp’s team could be better than it was last fall, it may not show up in the win column. The Gamecocks are 22-17 and have made a bowl appearance in all three years of Muschamp’s tenure. The program has made strides overall since his arrival in 2016, but South Carolina’s record in SEC play is just 12-12 since 2016. This is Muschamp’s second stint as a head coach in the SEC. He led Florida to three winning records and a 28-21 mark from 2011-14. He also has stops as a defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas prior to becoming a head coach. Can Muschamp elevate South Carolina with Georgia and Florida on the rise in the SEC East? That’s the big question looming in the next couple of seasons.
6. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Kentucky was the biggest surprise in the SEC last season, as Stoops guided the program to its first double-digit win total (10) since 1977. The 10-win campaign pushed Stoops’ overall record to 36-39 since taking over in Lexington prior to the 2013 season. The Wildcats have won at least seven games and played in a bowl in each of the last three years. After a 12-24 start to his tenure, Stoops is 24-15 since 2016. Kentucky is one of the SEC’s toughest jobs, but this program has made considerable strides since Stoops arrived. Despite the loss of running back Benny Snell and edge rusher Josh Allen, Stoops’ work on the recruiting trail and in player development should allow this team to get back to a bowl in 2019.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2019
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
High expectations surrounded Auburn going into last season, but the Tigers finished 8-5 overall and 3-5 within the SEC. Auburn needs to rebound to cool some of the pressure on Malzahn, but a tough schedule awaits this team in 2019. Malzahn is 53-27 overall since taking over in 2013. During the 2013 campaign, the Tigers won the SEC and played for the national championship. However, the program went 23-16 over the next three years and recorded only one winning mark in SEC action. Auburn rebounded by winning the SEC West title and finished 10-4 in 2017 but ended the year with back-to-back losses to Georgia and UCF. Malzahn led Arkansas State to a 9-3 mark in 2012, which places his overall record at 62-30 as a head coach.
4. Dan Mullen, Florida
Mullen made a huge impact in his first year on the job in Gainesville. The Gators finished 4-7 in 2017 but jumped to 10-3 and finished No. 7 nationally in '18. The offense (Mullen’s specialty) also showed marked improvement. After averaging 22.1 points a game and 5.2 yards a play in the year prior to Mullen’s arrival, Florida increased those totals to 35 points a contest and 6.2 yards a snap last fall. Mullen arrived in Gainesville after a successful nine-year stint in Starkville. At Mississippi State – one of the toughest jobs in the SEC – Mullen went 69-44 and led the program to eight bowl appearances. Additionally, the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history during the 2014 campaign. Mullen is 79-47 overall as a head coach at the FBS level.
3. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart has quickly elevated Georgia into contention for a spot in the CFB Playoff on an annual basis. After a successful run as Alabama’s defensive coordinator from 2008-15, Smart returned to his alma mater prior to the 2016 season. The Bulldogs finished 8-5 overall and just 4-4 in SEC play in Smart’s debut. However, this program took off in 2017 and came within a couple of plays of winning the national championship. Smart guided Georgia to an SEC title and a Rose Bowl win before falling in overtime to Alabama for the title that year. The Bulldogs had another strong 2018 season, as this team claimed the SEC East title and finished just outside the top four for the CFB Playoff. With Smart reeling in elite talent on the recruiting trail, combined with a loaded roster for 2019, Georgia should be in the mix to win it all this season.
2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Fisher’s first season in College Station was a success. Texas A&M lost by two to national champion Clemson in September and suffered road defeats against Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama in SEC play. However, an entertaining win over LSU in overtime, along with a Gator Bowl victory over NC State, capped a four-game winning streak to end 2018. The winning streak pushed Texas A&M to 9-4 overall and a No. 16 finish nationally. The No. 16 ranking marked the Aggies first finish in the top 25 since 2013. Fisher came to College Station after winning 83 games and a national championship during an eight-year stint at Florida State. He’s 92-27 overall and has Texas A&M on the rise going into the 2019 season.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban continues to build a resume that’s likely to be the best in college football history whenever he decides to retire. Through 12 years in Tuscaloosa, Saban has compiled an overall record of 146-21 and won five national championships. The Crimson Tide have not lost more than two games in a season since 2010 and have only six losses in SEC play since ’11. Additionally, Alabama has not finished below No. 7 nationally in the final Associated Press poll since 2011. The Crimson Tide are the only team to make the CFB Playoff in all five years since its inception in 2014. Saban arrived at Alabama after a two-season stint with the Dolphins in the NFL and previously had stops at LSU (48-16 with a national title), Michigan State (34-24-1) and Toledo (9-2). In 23 years as a head coach, Saban is 237-63-1 overall and has six national championship victories.
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