Who’s got the power? I mean, other than Nick Saban? Let’s have a look…
1. Nick Saban
(Ja Rule voice) It ain’t even a question.
2. Kirby Smart
I suppose you could argue that Saban is not the most creative or innovative coach in college football, but these days being a college football coach is as much about being the manager of a giant corporation as it is successfully installing a run-pass option. Saban runs a tight ship that prints money, and is able to focus on big picture stuff while he delegates responsibility for smaller things, such as the actual football, to people he has hand-selected, who can carry out his highly-honed vision of champion-ness.
3. Jimbo Fisher
I struggled with who to put here in the three spot, before eventually going with Jimbo, for two main reasons: 1) He won a title with FSU only six years ago, and 2) he’s getting paid $75 million over the next decade, which makes him the second-highest paid coach in the SEC after Saban. Jimbo went 5-3 last season in the mighty SEC West, and got A&M to a level where I think most neutral fans have to recognize that they are at the very least one of the league’s power squads. In some ways, I’m rewarding Jimbo here due to a lack of evidence—he hasn’t really won much at A&M, but then he hasn’t screwed everything up terribly, either. At least not yet.
4. Dan Mullen
I was texting with a Mississippi State alum over the weekend, and he said of the sloppy Florida/Miami game, “Anytime I can be reminded that Dan Mullen is no longer my concern, I’m happy.” Maybe the worst thing that could have happened for Mullen over the last few months was the new season starting. Everyone talked all summer about how Florida was coming in hot, having won their final four games last season and settling what was an at-times dicey QB situation. But then last week against a very young Miami team, the Gators looked flummoxed on offense, which is supposed to be Mullen’s strength. They ran the ball into the line for minimal gain time and again, and finished with 52 yards rushing on 27 attempts. Feleipe “Turkey” Franks, meanwhile, piled up 254 passing yards, but also had as many INTs (2) as TDs. Luckily he spent his time on the sidelines talking trash, to the fans, to the cameras, and threw a brutal late INT that elicited a wondrous side-eye from Steve Spurrier.
Florida sacked Miam’s quarterback ten(!) times! And they only won the game by 4 points.
5. Ed Orgeron
Do you think we sell Coach O short? He’s like a gruff troll who happens to understand zone blocking schemes, with that hilarious voice and lingo that’s part Cajun and part just plain hard to decipher.
I get the humor and enjoy him as anyone else. The thing is, he’s been a pretty good football coach at LSU, piling up 19 wins the last two seasons and fielding a team this year that has a bunch of returning players on both sides. He’s recruited really well, and I just think LSU is going to be better than most people have them pegged this season. You can laugh at Coach O, but I think he’ll be the one getting the last laugh.
6. Gus Malzahn
The SEC Network has been replaying ad nauseum a show where two guys (Marty Smith and Ryan McGee) interview each of the SEC coaches, on a set that looks like a cross between a Buffalo Wild Wings and “Little House on the Prairie.” These coaches know they’re on national TV and understand that recruits and boosters might be watching, so they put on their best suits and smile wide and drop some “aw shucks” homespun wisdom in there. It’s fascinating to watch, since it’s sort of a level playing field, and presents us viewers a chance to see what these coaches are like when they’re in full-time salesman modes.
During his segment under the SEC Network lights, Gus Malzahn reminded me of an associate pastor—smooth, poised and full of life experience, trying his best to be everything to everyone. With his rimless glasses and meticulous suit, he felt like someone who might sell you life insurance or try to talk to you about your long-term investing goals. Ever since his innovative run/pass option offense has basically been co-opted by every team around the country, I’ve wondered what makes Malzahn different, what sets him apart now? And I’m not sure we know the answer to that yet.
(Random aside since I mentioned the SEC Network: Why in the world would the ACC Network, which launched this week, make its debut during football season? Wouldn’t you wait a few months and launch it during basketball season? With, oh I don’t know, maybe a UNC/Duke game? Ah, what do I know, I’m sure people will tune in in droves to watch Georgia Tech and NC State square off on the football field.)
7. Will Muschamp
Muschamp has always reminded me of a puffy Christian Bale, perhaps a Bale who put on some muscle for an important role. At this point Muschamp is as close as it comes to being an SEC lifer: He played at UGA, was an assistant coach at Auburn and LSU, and has been the head ball coach at Florida and now SC. He’s always been pretty good — had one double-digit win season — but mostly just flirted with a record around .500. He doesn’t scream youthful energy or new ideas, but compared to his two immediate predecessors at SC, Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz, Muschamp is a bottle of Geritol. He still feels more like a program caretaker than an aggressive threat to challenge in the SEC East.
8. Jeremy Pruitt
I wrote an entire column last season about “The Jeremy Pruitt Show,” which last season served as a forum for public flagellation for Pruitt as the Vols stumbled through a rebuilding season. This year they seem to have settled on a QB (Guarantano) but are starting two true freshman on the offensive line, which I’m not sure is a great strategy considering their quarterback’s injury history. They also brought in a new offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney from UGA, who’s great if you want to run a bunch of wide receiver sweeps on third-and-short. I think Tennessee will be better this season than they were a year ago, when they played a killer schedule, but I think we can agree that the jury is still out on Pruitt. I can’t wait for “The Jeremy Pruitt Show” to return, though.
9. Mark Stoops
We are heading into the 7th season of the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky, which feels wild to me. In this day and age of instant gratification, Stoops lasting seven years at UK either says something about the patience of Kentucky’s athletics department, or about the apathy of Kentucky fans toward the football program. To his credit, they’ve made some strides, going from 0-8 in the Conference his first season to posting three straight winning seasons and bowl visits. Last season, the Wildcats finished 10-3, and it seemed like maybe they had finally turned a corner. But with Benny Snell graduating and this season the team relying more on QB Terry Wilson, who finished dead last in the SEC last season in passing yards per game, I’m not so sure last season wasn’t a one-year wonder. And hey, basketball starts in just a few months!
10. Barry Odom
I still have a hard time thinking of Missouri as an SEC school — those helmets make them look like a CFL team, and geographically they’re kinda outside the zone. The Drew Lock era may be over, but I think Kelly Bryant is going to be terrific. The Clemson transfer was one of the best quarterbacks in the country, winning 16 of the 18 games he started. He lost the starting job not because he wasn’t adequate, but because he got beat out by Trevor Lawrence, who is arguably the very best college quarterback in the country. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Tigers get their bowl ban lifted and start the season 8-0, which is very likely considering their schedule. They could be this year’s Kentucky, in that way.
11. Joe Moorhead
I got nothing for you here.
12. Derek Mason
It feels like Derek Mason could have the Vandy job forever if he wanted it. Nobody expects Vandy to win a title, ever, so as long as you keep it competitive and occasionally steal a game against a Conference big shot and don’t get the school in trouble, you can keep making millions. He’s 14 games under .500 during his Vanderbilt tenure, which got him a 5-year contract extension a few years back. I guess it’s important to keep someone around who comes up with motivational sayings such as this…
13. Chad Morris
If you’re a football coach, you most likely want to coach in the SEC, right? It’s the best conference in the NCAA, with quality teams from top to bottom and passionate fanbases. The thing is, there’s only 14 schools, so you only have so many chances to get your foot in the door. Which explains why Chad Morris would take the Arkansas job. Not that it isn’t a good job—it’s the only SEC school with Jerry Jones backing it— but Morris had to come in and pick up the pieces of Bret Bielema’s tenure, which won’t be easy for anyone to do. And after a 2-10 season a year ago, things don’t seem to be trending upward anytime soon.
14. Matt Luke
A couple of weeks ago on The Chris Vernon Show, I picked Luke as the SEC coach most likely to be fired during the season. Luke’s an Ole Miss lifer, which I suppose buys him some goodwill around campus, but he’s 11-13 in two seasons after taking over when the Hugh Freeze era melted down, and Luke is probably going to have an even tougher challenge this season. If they lose to Memphis right out of the box? That’s going to be a tough one from which to bounce back.