Ranking the SEC's College Football Coaches
Nick Saban ranks as the top coach in the SEC.
By: Steven Lassan | 4/4/12, 7:21 AM EDT
Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference.
Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten
Ranking the Coaches: SEC
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches
Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the SEC:
1. Nick Saban, Alabama (5 years)
Alma Mater: Kent State (1970-72)
Record: 55-12 (2007-present)
Record: 48-16 (LSU, 2000-04)
Record: 34-24-1 (Michigan State, 1995-99)
Record: 9-2 (Toledo, 1990)
Overall: 146-54-1 (16 years)
There’s not much debate about this: College football’s top coach resides in Tuscaloosa. Saban has led the Crimson Tide to two national titles and four straight seasons of at least 10 victories. Saban’s track record is impressive, going 48-16 in five years at LSU, 34-24-1 in five seasons with Michigan State and a 9-2 mark in 1990 with Toledo. Saban is certainly one of the most demanding coaches in college football, but there’s no question he knows what it takes to succeed. Saban has returned Alabama to national prominence and has brought in some of college football’s best recruiting classes over the last five seasons. As long as Saban sticks around in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to be ranked among the top 10 teams every preseason. And after winning two titles in five seasons, expect the Crimson Tide to only add to that total in the near future.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (7 years)
Alma Mater: Florida (1963-66)
Record: 55-35 (2005-present)
Record: 122-27-1 (Florida, 1990-2001)
Record: 20-13-1 (Duke, 1987-89)
Overall: 197-75-2 (22 years)
It has taken some time, but Spurrier finally has South Carolina into contention for the SEC title. The Gamecocks won at least six games in each of Spurrier’s first five years, but have combined for 20 over the last two. Spurrier also led South Carolina to its first appearance in the SEC title game and a top 10 finish in most polls last year. Spurrier has had plenty of success outside of South Carolina, finishing with a 122-27-1 record at Florida and leading Duke to a 20-13-1 mark from 1987-89. Building a program into a consistent challenger for an SEC title is no easy task, but Spurrier seems to have South Carolina on the right path, and the Gamecocks are positioned for another run at the East Division title in 2012.
3. Mark Richt, Georgia (11 years)
Alma Mater: Miami
Record: 106-38 (2001-present)
The longest tenured coach in the SEC (tied with Gary Pinkel) has had one losing season in his entire head-coaching career. The Bulldogs, under Jim Donnan and Ray Goff, failed to realize an opportunity to grow into the SEC power in the 1990s. While Alabama and LSU toiled, Florida and Tennessee took advantage and won titles. Goff and Donnan claimed seven seasons of six wins or fewer and the program posted only two 10-win seasons from 1984 to 2001. Richt entered the game in 2001 and proceeded to win the programs’ first conference title in 20 years in 2002. Richt posted two conference titles, six 10-wins seasons in his first eight years and won two SEC Coach of the Year Awards. However, Dawgs’ faithful watched its team get worse four straight years from 2007 to 2011 while Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida were winning national titles and returning to national prominence in a big way. Richt adapted, though, by finally making sweeping coaching changes that have saved his job. Todd Grantham reinvented the Georgia defense and Richt got to his fourth SEC Championship game in 2011. He has his team poised to be the favorite to win the East once again this fall.
4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State (3 years)
Alma Mater: Ursinus
Record: 21-17 (2009-present)
In Athlon’s meeting to rank the SEC coaches, Mullen and LSU’s Les Miles were the most difficult ones to rank. Mullen is only 39 years old, so his best coaching years appear to be ahead of him. However, his overall record is just 21-17 and his only SEC West victories came against rival Ole Miss. While winning the in-state battle is crucial, the Bulldogs need to start beating some of the other teams in the division. Mullen has also led Mississippi State to back-to-back bowl victories and should be in position to reach the postseason once again in 2012. Considering the depth of the SEC, winning big in Starkville is no easy task. Give Mullen the resources of what Alabama or LSU has and he can take Mississippi State even higher. The Bulldogs have ranked higher than ninth in the SEC in recruiting only once in the last six years, yet have a better record over the last three seasons than Tennessee (18-20) — a team that consistently recruits better than Mississippi State. While the record suggests Mullen is only a .500 coach, expect him to continue pushing the Bulldogs to eight or nine win seasons, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he left for a better job in the next couple of years. An overall record isn't always a good judge of how effective some coaches are and Mullen is the perfect case, as he has helped to turn Mississippi State into a consistent bowl team in a very difficult SEC West.
5. Les Miles, LSU (7 years)
Alma Mater: Michigan
Record: 75-18 (2005-present)
Record: 28-21 (Oklahoma State, 2001-04)
Overall: 103-39 (11 years)
Inexplicably, LSU, a program with as many built-in advantages as anyone in the nation, laid dormant for three decades. LSU won two conference championships from 1971 to 2000 and only three bowl games from 1971 to 1995. However, the name atop this list of SEC coaches entered the picture in 2000 and reestablished the Bayou Bengal brand. Nick Saban won more games in his first year (8) than LSU had won the two previous (7). He had LSU back in the SEC title game by 2001, giving the Tigers their first outright conference title since 1986. By his fourth season, Saban had returned the Tigers to the promised land by delivering their first national title since 1958. Enter Les Miles. The Hat has maintained an elite level of success with four 10-win seasons in six years, including the 2007 National Championship. He brings energy, intensity and an internal rallying cry to his locker room. The players love him, and he is certainly an entertaining character. He is a fantastic recruiter who has assembled arguably the best roster in America. However, he has also developed another reputation based on bizarre eating habits, poor end-game management, vocal gaffes, and now, the worst BCS performance in the series’ 14-year history. Questions about his teams’ mental focus, discipline and overall ability to adjust were beginning to subside after the 13-0 romp through the regular season last fall. However, those issues resurfaced after the most under-prepared, poorly game-managed title game of the BCS era. Miles and Saban will be eternally linked the annals of SEC football, and relatively speaking, Miles is one of the better coaches in the nation. But in the Southeast, the stakes — and standards — are higher (sometimes unfairly so), and after LSU became the first and only two-loss team to win a BCS title, Saban has been the far superior coach. Miles has lost 12 games to Saban’s six since 2007, and with what could be perceived as the best roster in the nation, three losses per season isn’t getting it done.
6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri (11 years)
Alma Mater: Kent State
Record: 85-54 (2001-present)
Record: 73-37-3 (Toledo, 1991-2000)
Overall: 158-91-3 (21 years)
Not many people can say they started their football careers rooming with Jack Lambert and playing with Nick Saban while learning from Don James. But that is how Pinkel broke into this business when played tight end at Kent State under James. He spent nearly twenty years, most of it under James at Kent and Washington, before landing his first head coaching job in 1991 at Toledo. He earned one MAC championship, three MAC East Division titles and the 1995 MAC Coach of the Year honor before the Mizzou Tigers came calling. In his 11 years since, Pinkel has led Missouri to unprecedented heights of football success. His 85 wins are third all-time in school history. From 1983 to 2001, the Tigers went to two bowl games. Since Pinkel landed in Columbia, MU has eight bowls in 11 years, winning four of them. Prior to the former MAC guru tenure, Missouri posted two 10-win seasons in 111 years of football. He has won at least 10 games three times in the last five years. Eight of the Tigers nine top scoring teams have been ruled by Pinkel. He now has accomplished arguably his greatest achievement in Tigers football history by ushering his program into the nation’s best conference. There will be a major adjustment period, but for the SEC’s longest tenured head coach (tied with Richt), this has to feel like a juicy opportunity to continue the Tigers rise up the college football food chain.
7. James Franklin, Vanderbilt (1 year)
Alma Mater: East Stroudsburg
Record: 6-7 (2011-present)
There hasn’t been this much energy on West End in, well, maybe ever. Recruiting is at an all-time high, the roster is dripping with offensive skill talent and one could argue that Franklin, in his first season, should have actually won MORE. And his six wins marked only the second time since 1982 that Vandy reached the plateau. The Dores scored 347 points last fall. It was the first time the Commodores had topped the 300-point mark since 1974 and it is the highest scoring Vanderbilt offense since 1915. The loss to rival Tennessee was crushing but it is clear that Franklin has brought an attitude to Vanderbilt football that has been lacking for decades. And while Bobby Johnson deserves a lot of credit for building up the talent, the Dores showed in the second half of the season that they are only getting better. If only they hadn’t fumbled against Arkansas.
8. Gene Chizik, Auburn (5 years)
Alma Mater: Florida
Record: 30-10 (2009-present)
Record: 5-19 (2007-08)
Overall: 35-29 (5 years)
What a difference two years can make. Chizik was not the most popular selection when he was chosen as Auburn’s coach at the end of the 2008 season. In two years at Iowa State, Chizik posted a disappointing 5-19 record and won only two Big 12 games. Although it’s not easy to win at Iowa State, the Cyclones didn’t show much progress under Chizik and went 7-6 in the year after his departure. Chizik previously coached at Auburn from 2002-04 as the team’s defensive coordinator, before departing to work at Texas for two seasons in the same capacity. There’s no question that Chizik is a solid defensive mind, but there are some holes in his resume. Takeaway the 14-0 season in 2010 and Chizik’s career record is an underwhelming 21-29. The Tigers had a lot of young players stepping into key roles last season and there could be some transition as two new coordinators take over in 2012. Chizik has made the right moves at Auburn, but it may be another year or two before the Tigers are back into SEC West title contention.
9. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M (First Season)
Alma Mater: Purdue (1983-96)
Record: 35-17 (Houston, 2008-2011)
After four so-so seasons under Mike Sherman, Texas A&M made a tremendous hire bringing Kevin Sumlin back to College Station. Sumlin will be charged with leading the Aggies through a difficult transition, as Texas A&M is moving from the Big 12 into the SEC. Sumlin has built a solid resume as a coach, making stops as an assistant at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota, Purdue and Oklahoma. He also coached at Texas A&M from 2001-02 as the team’s offensive coordinator. Sumlin comes to Texas A&M after spending four years as the head coach at Houston. The Cougars went 35-17 under his watch and made three bowl appearances. Sumlin certainly understands what it takes to win at Texas A&M and built a solid coaching staff to guide the Aggies into the SEC. If Sumlin turns the Aggies into a consistent eight or nine-win team in the SEC, expect to see him move higher on this list in 2013 and beyond.
10. Will Muschamp, Florida (1 year)
Alma Mater: Georgia
Record: 7-6 (2011-present)
The track record is pretty prestigious for Muschamp. He won a National Championship as the architect of the LSU Tigers 2003 defense that allowed more than 19 points only once all season. He then followed head coach Nick Saban to the NFL for one season before landing as Tommy Tuberville’s DC at Auburn. He landed in his second national title game as Mack Brown’s defensive guru in 2009. He was named Texas’ head coach in waiting, but quickly realized Brown wouldn’t be stepping down any time soon. So after one of the most decorated assistantships in college football, Muschamp was given the keys to a Rolls-Royce of programs. Yet, with one of the most talented rosters in the nation, the Gators once again struggled on offense — try an unheard of 105th in the nation — and Muschamp was left without an offensive coordinator and without a quarterback. He closed his first recruiting cycle with the No. 3 class in the nation, but anyone should be able to recruit to Florida. The jury is still out on his coaching ability, but Muschamp was out-coached in the Cocktail Party and he can’t afford to lose games like that in 2012 — not with one of the most talented defenses in the nation.
11. Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2 years)
Alma Mater: Virginia
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)
Record: 17-20 (Louisiana Tech, 2007-09)
Overall: 28-34 (5 years)
Dooley entered his first big-time coaching gig at one of the worst situations in SEC history. Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin did little to maintain the storied Big Orange tradition leading into Dooley’s tenure. However, Dooley has done little to distinguish himself in a league loaded with superstars stalking the sideline. At Louisiana Tech, he took a 3-10 team and turned it into an eight-win team in two seasons. Yet, he finished his Bulldogs career with a less than stellar 4-8 campaign at a program that has had plenty of success relatively speaking. In Knoxville, Dooley has proven to be an affable CEO who has finished strong on the recruiting trail in the face of coaching defections. However, he has yet to deliver a signature victory in two seasons. Other than the last two games of the 2011 season, a win over Vanderbilt and an pathetic showing in Lexington, Tennessee has won and lost every game it should have in two seasons. Dooley needs to prove he can be a great leader by reuniting a once-divided locker room, or his last name and end-game gaff in Baton Rouge will be his only claim to fame.
12. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss (First Season)
Alma Mater: Southern Miss
Record: 10-2 (Arkansas State, 2011)
Record: 20-5 (Lambuth 2008-09)
Overall: 30-7 (3 years)
Freeze has experienced a quick ascension in the coaching ranks. He was a successful coach at Briarcrest High School from 1995-04, before jumping to work as an assistant under Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss in 2005. After Orgeron was fired at the end of the 2007 season, Freeze became the head coach at Lambuth for two years, compiling an impressive 20-5 record. After his stint at Lambuth, Freeze worked as the offensive coordinator for Arkansas State in 2010 and was promoted to head coach for one season (2011). Freeze brought instant success to Arkansas State, improving the Red Wolves from four victories in 2010 to 10 and a Sun Belt title in 2011. Freeze has a difficult task ahead of him in 2012, as the Rebels were the worst team in the SEC West and have a lot of holes to fill on the roster. Although Freeze has been an instant winner at each of his stops, don’t be surprised if the Rebels show slow progress in 2012, before contending for a bowl in 2013.
13. Joker Phillips, Kentucky (3 years)
Alma Mater: Kentucky
Record: 11-14 (2010-present)
Fair or not, Phillips enters his third season in Lexington squarely on the hot seat. He deserves most of the credit for engineering one of the most successful offenses in program history while serving as the offensive coordinator for his alma mater from 2004-2009. The architect of the Wildcat offense saw names like Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson carry Kentucky to four straight bowl games (2006-2009) for the first time in school history. However, the Cats have not improved on a win total since the 2005-2006 jump from three wins to eight. In fact, Phillips has watched his win total drop three consecutive years. And his once potent offense has fallen flat on its face. Kentucky scored 190 points in 2011 – or 285 fewer points than the powerful 2007 squad. It was only the second time (2004) that Kentucky has scored fewer than 200 points in a season since Hal Mumme took over in 1997.
14. Taver Johnson, Arkansas (interim)
Alma Mater: Wittenberg
Record: First Season
Johnson has been placed into a very difficult situation, as he was promoted to interim coach after Bobby Petrino's firing in April. Johnson is regarded as a solid defensive mind, but he has no head coaching experience and is just in his first season with the Razorbacks. The big question in Fayetteville is whether or not Johnson will serve as the team's coach for 2012 or an outside hire will be made. Athletic director Jeff Long has indicated Arkansas will conduct a search for a full-time coach, but it's very difficult to find a replacement in spring practice.
2012 SEC Spring Previews
Alabama's 2012 Spring Preview
Arkansas' 2012 Spring Preview
Auburn's 2012 Spring Preview
Florida's 2012 Spring Preview
Georgia's 2012 Spring Preview
LSU's 2012 Spring Preview
Missouri's 2012 Spring Preview
South Carolina's 2012 Spring Preview
Tennessee's 2012 Spring Preview
Texas A&M's 2012 Spring Preview
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