Ranking coaches in any league is far from easy. In the SEC, where programs are willing to invest as many millions as is necessary to develop a consistent winner, it’s especially difficult.
The difference between special seasons and the unemployment line is amazingly razor-thin. With the business side of college athletics becoming more critical, the stakes for coaches winning now are at an all-time high while patience is at an all-time low.
Here is our list for the top coaches in the nation’s most reputable league.
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban has won more BCS national championships (four) than any program since the BCS’ inception in 1998. And that’s with him having taken two years off to try his hand in the NFL. Three of the past four seasons have ended with Saban hoisting the BCS National Championship crystal ball. He also led LSU to a national title in 2003. Saban has everything rolling at Alabama. Because of Saban’s tireless work, the Crimson Tide generally cherry picks whichever recruits it wants and churns out products to the NFL in record numbers. There is no better coach in the game today and a strong argument can be made for Saban being the best college football coach of all-time.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
While Spurrier hasn’t reached his level of SEC dominance he did at Florida, he has elevated South Carolina into an annual contender in the SEC East race. The Ol’ Ball Coach even guided the Gamecocks to the SEC Championship Game in 2010. Turning around South Carolina was not the same as inheriting national championship-caliber talent and winning with it. Spurrier had to suffer through six- and seven-win teams on his way to leading the Gamecocks to consecutive 11-win campaigns. South Carolina is in a position to potentially represent the East in Atlanta again, which is a testament to what Spurrier has accomplished over his eight years in Columbia.
3. Mark Richt, Georgia
The SEC’s longest-tenured coach finished oh-so-close to his first shot at a BCS National Championship Game appearance as a head coach last season. Georgia has played in three Sugar Bowls and three Capital One Bowls during Richt’s 12 years. He has led the Bulldogs to at least eight wins in all but one season. During that season – a 6-7 abnormality in 2010 – fans started calling for Richt’s job, perfectly illustrating the inanity of today’s college football culture. Georgia fans seem to have tired of Richt’s ability to put the program into the national championship conversation but inability to put them in the big game. Of course, competing against all-time great coaches Saban, Spurrier and Urban Meyer (previously in the SEC East at Florida and now at Ohio State) might have something to do with that. Georgia has won at least 10 games eight times under Richt and has at least split the division title six times.
4. Les Miles, LSU
Watching Miles coach is a bit like taking a cab: You might not always know how he’s trying to get to the destination, but he seemingly always finds a way to get there. “There,” in this case, is 10-plus wins – a plateau Miles has hit in six of eight seasons in Baton Rouge. Miles is living proof that college football coaches should be required to pass video game clock management tests in order to get and/or keep a job. He’s also proof that coaches can take different routes to arrive at the same result. The refreshingly unique Miles is obviously comfortable in his own skin based on what he says in interviews. He also lets show an oddball streak that sometimes leaves him wondering how grass tastes. But beneath Miles’ idiosyncrasies is a coach who has an uncanny ability to connect with his players and attract world-class talent. Miles has a BCS National Championship to his credit and led the Tigers to another title game two years ago.
5. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin is probably the most difficult coach to rank for two reasons. For starters, he inherited a very talented team that redshirted last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and simply could not close out games in 2011. Secondly, Sumlin has enjoyed two consecutive tremendous campaigns, but doesn’t have the lengthy track record of many other SEC coaches. In this case, a lack of experience probably benefits Sumlin because there aren’t as many years to pick apart and downgrade the sum of his career. Sumlin nearly led Houston to an undefeated season during his last year as Cougars coach before injecting new energy and emotion into Texas A&M. The Aggies were a break or two away from playing in the BCS National Championship Game a year ago and they delivered a welcome gift to SEC fans by walloping Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. What Sumlin and his staff have already accomplished on the recruiting trail is a testament for how good he appears to be.
6. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
All Bielema did in his last three seasons at Wisconsin is lead the Badgers to three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowls. Granted, the last of the three came from an 8-5 team that won its division because the top two teams – Ohio State and Penn State – were ineligible for postseason play. Bielema’s hard-nosed demeanor overflows into his team’s attitude and play. Arkansas made a major splash when it lured Bielema, a virtual Big Ten lifer, away from mentor (and current Wisconsin AD) Barry Alvarez. That’s not to say Bielema will enjoy immediate success in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks seemingly face an uphill battle in what appears to be on paper the best division in the country.
7. James Franklin, Vanderbilt
Like Sumlin at Texas A&M, Franklin doesn’t have a long track record. Leading Vanderbilt to back-to-back bowl games, however, will attract attention no matter how long one has been a coach. Last year Franklin led the Commodores to their first nine-win season since World War I. Detractors of the Vanderbilt program will say it overachieved in 2012, but that, of course, reflects well on the leader of said program. Franklin’s offensive prowess has helped the Commodores enter the realm of relevancy in the nation’s top conference. Even if Vandy regresses back into the pack of the SEC East, it’s difficult to put that all at Franklin’s feet considering it has been the least competitive – and seemingly the most disinterested – program in the conference for seemingly decades at a time.
8. Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Year 1 in the SEC proved a brutal jolt to Pinkel and the Missouri program, which watched its brazen confidence devolve into delusion in 2012. The Show-Me-Staters got taken down a peg or two, managing just two league wins in their foray into the SEC. It’s easy to write last year off as an aberration for Pinkel, though. That’s because the 12th-year coach has seen his fortunes rise and fall with the talent level of his quarterbacks. QB1 James Franklin struggled with injuries (there are questions whether he was ever healthy in 2012) and never looked right. Pinkel and the coaching staff made the patient decision to stick with QB2 Corbin Berkstresser rather than pull the redshirt off promising freshman Maty Mauk. Pinkel has guided Mizzou to eight bowl games and two Big 12 Championship Game appearances – achievements considered highly improbable (at least) when he took over in 2001. If Missouri struggles this year, there will be loud calls for his job. That’s a shame because of how far he has lifted the Tigers in the college football landscape.
9. Will Muschamp, Florida
In just his second year as a head coach, Muschamp helped propel the Gators back into the national championship picture. Florida endured a 7-6 season in 2011 but bounced back in a big way last season. Muschamp’s team, powered by a tough run game and a punishing defense, went 11-1 during the regular season with wins over South Carolina and Florida State. The Gators finished one great play by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Jones away from an undefeated regular season. Though the team took a beating from Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, Muschamp has Gators fans confident the program is back. Muschamp made a name for himself as an intense and wildly successful defensive coordinator. What he lacks in head-coaching experience he makes up for in resume, having coached under Nick Saban, Mack Brown and Tommy Tuberville.
10. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
The rise to prominence from Freeze has been remarkable to watch. In just four seasons, he has parlayed success as an NAIA head coach into an offensive coordinator position at Arkansas State, where he later became head coach, and later into the head-coaching job at Ole Miss. Once Freeze, a Mississippi native born in Oxford, made his homecoming, he immediately penned another chapter to his journey. Admittedly, a BBVA Compass Bowl hardly constitutes a successful season for any SEC team. But Freeze has energized the Ole Miss fan base, giving it a level of hope and optimism it has sought for quite some time. Freeze has only added to the goodwill from his fan base by crushing rival Mississippi State and, in 2013, helping the Rebels sign an amazing recruiting class.
11. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
What Mullen has done in four years at Starkville is fairly incredible. The former Florida offensive coordinator has lifted the Bulldogs into the ranks of the respectable. They have won at least seven games in each of the past three seasons, which have all featured bowl game appearances. The knock against Mullen is that he has been unable to beat the SEC’s big boys – a ceiling he seemingly broke through last year before Auburn turned out to be so brutally terrible. Of course, losing to LSU and Alabama is nothing outside the ordinary. State fans are hungry to see their program reach the next level, though, and the intensity will ratchet up in Starkville until the Bulldogs can prove they haven’t reached a plateau. Losing to Ole Miss in blowout fashion won’t do Mullen any favors, either.
12. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Another new face in the conference, Jones makes his way to Tennessee after a successful stint with Cincinnati. Jones led the Bearcats to at least a share of the Big East championship in each of his final two seasons there. He also won two MAC titles while at Central Michigan. One advantage Jones had at those two stops, though, was the ability to follow Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who has proven himself to be among the best in the nation. Jones’ job in Knoxville will be to rejuvenate a program that has fallen into the depths of obscurity over the past five seasons – a task he has yet to encounter.
13. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn boomeranged back to Auburn after leading Arkansas State to a Sun Belt championship during his only season in Jonesboro. The architect of a Tigers offense that led Auburn to a national championship and Cam Newton to a Heisman Trophy in 2010 returns to the Plains this season. Malzahn received more credit for that season than the man who hired him as offensive coordinator, Gene Chizik. Few will write off Malzahn and his potential to help Auburn bounce back immediately this season. However, in a league full of outstanding coaches, it’s difficult to rank a highly successful coordinator with one year of head-coaching experience any higher than here. Excitement has returned to Auburn, evident by fans shattering the spring game attendance record.
14. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops will be the only SEC head coach to be in the position for the first time in 2013. He comes to Kentucky from Florida State, where he helped Jimbo Fisher restore a Seminoles program back into the national picture. Kentucky fans obviously have rallied around Stoops and his staff, showing up with more than 51,000 fans for the spring game. Placing Stoops last on this list is not an indictment of him or his skills, but rather a product of his inexperience as the focal man of a program.
Topics: Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Kentucky Wildcats, Louisiana State Tigers, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Missouri Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels, SEC, South Carolina Gamecocks, Tennessee Volunteers, Texas A&M Aggies, Vanderbilt Commodores