Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn (left) shakes hands with Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban (right) prior to the game at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking SEC Coaches this Year

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With SEC Media Days underway, today we are ranking the SEC coaches from top to bottom. In a league of sharks that includes three coaches who have won national championships and another five who have achieved Top 5 finishes, this was a very difficult list to put together because everybody on the list could be good, and the top 11 definitely are. So since we had to nitpick, we based our picks on the coaches’ overall track records, even before they were in the SEC, and what they’ve done on the recruiting trail. Here’s what we came up with:

14. Derek Mason

If you thought the Vanderbilt job was hard before, it’s even harder now. Because James Franklin did the impossible, the impossible is now expected with the Commodores. That includes bowl games and Top 25 finishes. It’s not that Derek Mason will not do a good job, that’s still up for debate obviously, but he has to be at the bottom of this lists for right now because he’s completely unproven and taking on an impossible task. That he agreed to take a job at Vanderbilt already makes me question his decision making, but you never know. Maybe he’s another James Franklin.

13. Will Muschamp

Will Muschamp is a good 2012 season away from being dead last on this last on this list. Not only did he inherit a powerhouse program that won two national titles and had three Top 5 finishes in a five-year span before he arrived and then manage to finish two out of three years unranked and have a 4-8 2013 season, but he also inherited one of the easiest programs to recruit at and has not lived up. Seriously, you’re in the state of Florida, and right now he doesn’t have a Top 25 class for next year. Okay, that’s not fair because he had two straight Top 5 classes and three straight Top 10 classes before that. But it’s time to cash in because his seat is hotter than anywhere in Florida during the middle of the summer right now.

12. Mark Stoops 

Mark Stoops’s profile is not much to go on either, given he’s had one season with the Wildcats and went 2-10. But his recruiting the last two years, including the 17th class on Rivals for 2014, and taking into consideration the job he inherited, is enough to put him above Will Muschamp for now. I’m pretty sure Stoops will move up on this list if he keeps up what he’s been doing, but one of the sayings Derek Dooley got right is that the victory is not on Signing Day. It’s what you do with the players you picked up on Signing Day that counts, so Stoops is going to have to show he can win on the field. But for now, he’s technically exceeded expectations to this point as the Wildcats coach thanks to his job on the recruiting ground.

11. Hugh Freeze

Freeze’s recruiting classes at Ole Miss have been enough to win over fans, and he has the program going in the right direction after two winning seasons. Eventually he could move up on this list too, but the problem is everybody above him is pretty good. However, it’s hard to win at Ole Miss with the way the SEC west is, and it’s even harder to recruit well, but with a 7-6 and 8-5 season along with a Top 10 Rivals 2013 class and a Top 20 Rivals 2014 class, Freeze has done both. He definitely has the program on more solid ground that Houston Nutt did, and he’s a much better coach than Ed Orgeron, now the next step should be a Top 25 finish.

10. Dan Mullen 

Honestly, since he arrived at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has done as good of a job as you could do with the Bulldogs. He’s at a program with not a lot of prestige and has played in the toughest division to win in in all of college football over the past five years, yet he’s still managed four straight winning seasons. Once the balance of power shifts back to the SEC East, Mullen will have a chance to get a few more wins with the Bulldogs, but he deserves to be higher than the other guys simply because of his consistency in Starkville. I maintain Sylvester Croom got a raw deal and built up the program for Mullen, but it’s hard to maintain at a school like Mississippi State, and Mullen has done that so far and shows no signs of slowing down.

9. Butch Jones

When Butch was hired at Tennessee, he wasn’t the first or second choice for the program. Then he struggled to a 5-7 season out of the gate. Those two things in Knoxville are usually enough to already put you on the hot seat, but CBJ is far from it. The guy immediately won over the program with his willingness to embrace every Tennessee tradition and his dominance on the recruiting trail. He managed a Top 5 class on Rivals for 2014, and another one could be on the way for 2015. Although the team was 5-7 last year, an injury to quarterback Justin Worley along with playing the toughest schedule in the country in a rebuilding year takes a little heat off. At Central Michigan and Cincinnati Jones’s teams continued to get better each year, and as he always brings up, they involved four championships in six years. His track record there and recruiting at Tennessee has made analysts all but certain that he will restore the Vols to the dominance they once enjoyed. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t move up the list by next year.

8. Bret Bielema

I still think Bret Bielema made a dumb decision leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas. He was at a higher-profile program in Madison and playing an easier schedule, allowing him to win more. If you thought Arkansas was tough before, adding Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC has created a lot of recruiting competition for the Razorbacks. That and the fallout from Bobby Petrino’s hiring created a mess for Bielema, hence the 3-9 record. However, Bielema’s track record in Wisconsin is enough to prove he is a very good coach and can get this turned around, and with two straight Top 30 classes, he should be able todevelop a 6 or 7-win team this year.

7. Gus Malzahn

Gus Malzahn has a pretty good chance to move up on this list if he has another year like last year. The offensive genius showed at Arkansas State his system will work anywhere, and what he did with Nick Marshall last year was nothing short of phenomenal. He’s a little bit lower on this list than he should be because his rebuilding project was a little bit overrated last year, though. It’s not like Auburn didn’t have the talent, Gene Chizik just managed to utterly mismanage it. Malzahn’s offensive system and coaching ability was perfect for the Tigers, and as we know, it was like they didn’t miss a beat since he was there 2009 through 2011. He’ll continue to have the Tigers a consistent national power with some rebuilding years, but it’s hard to put him ahead of the other coaches on this list.

6. Kevin Sumlin 

Walking into Texas A&M, Sumlin in his first year was about to take a struggling program into the SEC. Talk about a death sentence. But then he landed Johnny Manziel, and together they took the Aggies to an 11-2 season and upset of the top ranked Alabama Crimson Tide that year. But we know that story. I’ve got Sumlin high on this list and expect him to rise in the next few years because as good as Johnny Football was, we can’t ignore Sumlin’s ability to develop quarterbacks and adapt to their style of play. Sure he had Manziel, but before arriving in College Station, he had Case Keenum, who set all kinds of passing records at Houston and was more of a pocket passer. I’m still of the mindset that Sumlin is simply brilliant at tailoring offenses around his quarterbacks, and his track record at Texas A&M and Houston to go along with the incredible recruiting job he’s done shows that he’s turning the Aggies into a national power, and they’re not going anywhere. Doing that right as you’re entering the SEC is an incredible job.

5. Mark Richt

Mark Richt might be the most under-appreciated coach in the SEC. He was the coach who managed to take the Georgia Bulldogs to the next level, finally breaking through and winning two SEC championships. I know he doesn’t have a national championship yet, but I think that’s more to do with bad breaks than bad coaching. Remember Florida in 2002 and the injury to D.J. Shockley in 2005? There was also the fluke play that cost them Georgia in 2012, in one of the great coaching jobs for a losing team. With a 126-45 record, the dean of SEC coaches has everything on his resume except for a national title, which would solidify his legacy. However, he’s still a great coach who has managed seven Top 10 finishes in 13 years and three Top 5 finishes.

4. Gary Pinkel

After struggling for one year in the SEC, the veteran coach took the Tigers to the Eastern Division title and a Top 5 finish. Gary Pinkel’s track record over a 23 year span can’t be ignored, and if you think he’s too high on the list, I think you’re crazy because I’m still debating with myself if he’s too low. Pinkel’s success at Missouri and Toledo before that, where he followed Nick Saban, gives him one of the most proven track records of anybody on this list. He’s the real deal, and Missouri might be here to stay in the SEC thanks to him. If you want to look at a classic case of having a great system and finding the right guys to fit it, Pinkel’s program is where you look. He has a 175-100 career record with five Top 25 finishes despite spending 10 years at a school, Toledo, that you would never expect to be ranked. Then he rebuilt Missouri twice, first when he arrived and second when he had to prepare them for SEC play.

3. Les Miles

I’m still taking the mad-hatter over any coach in college football when it comes to making in-game decisions and coaching based on the flow of the game. Go look at Les Miles’s track record and then tell me if you can find a more successful coach over the past 13 years at Oklahoma State and LSU that has faced more criticism. Miles has proven it all, from rebuilding a program with the Cowboys to maintaining a national power with the Tigers to winning a national title. He may be a bit crazy, and his clock management might be off, and I’m not sure if he’s the best overall at simply running a program, but if it’s fourth and five in the fourth quarter at midfield in a 5-point game, I trust the guy to make the right decision. Two SEC championships, a national championship, five Top 10 finishes, and four Top 5 finishes in nine years is pretty good success, wherever you’re at. Miles is always mentioned with Saban as coaches to measure your program against if you’re in the SEC.

2. Steve Spurrier

I said I’ll take Miles over anybody for in-game decisions, but if I need a coach for one game, I’m taking Spurrier. One of the greatest coaches in college football history, Spurrier’s showed no signs of slowing down. I can make the case that the job he has done at South Carolina is more impressive than anything he ever did at Florida, but one thing that holds true for Spurrier: if you hire him, he’ll accomplish something your school’s never accomplished before. Remember Florida had no SEC titles or national titles before Spurrier got there. Then they won six SEC crowns in 12 years to go along with the 1996 national championship. Now he’s got South Carolina following up three straight 11-win seasons and Top 10 finishes, which has never before been done at the school, and before that he won the SEC East for the first time since the school joined the conference. If that’s not enough, would an ACC title at Duke in the 1980s be? Everywhere Spurrier’s been, he’s won. He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of SEC coaches, and he’d be No. 1 in any other conference, but he’s in the SEC, which has…

1. Nick Saban

True, Spurrier’s won everywhere he’s been. So has Nick Saban. And he’s got three more national championships. While I’ll take Miles for in-game decisions, Spurrier to coach a full game, I’ll take Saban to run a program. The Bill Belichick protege managed to rebuild Michigan State after the school was rattled with probation, then he managed to rebuild LSU from a historical middle of the pack SEC team to a regular powerhouse, then he resurrected Alabama from the ashes and is now competing with Bear Bryant for the greatest coach in the school’s history. If there is something that seems impossible to do, Saban can do it, and he’s not slowing down. Loaded with No. 1 recruiting classes, Alabama has another one coming in August and is on track to have the No. 1 2015 class. Nobody has built a more rock solid program that Saban has built, to the point that when he leaves, you will actually have to work at it to tear it down.

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Tags: Bret Bielema Butch Jones College Football Dan Mullen Derek Mason Feature Gary Pinkel Gus Malzahn Hugh Freeze Kevin Sumlin Les Miles Mark Richt Mark Stoops Nick Saban SEC Steve Spurrier Will Muschamp

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