The calendar finally flipped into December over the weekend, which means yet another SEC football regular season is in the books. Since we started the season with an SEC Coach power poll, it’s only fair that as the season draws to a close, we re-power the coaches and see who’s managed to climb, hang on or get pushed down over the last few weeks…
1. Ed Orgeron, LSU (preseason rank: 5)
I know, I know. Putting anyone other than Alabama’s Nick Saban in this spot is considered heresy if one consults official SEC orthodoxy. But look at what’s happening on the field right now: LSU is the best team in the SEC. They scored 46 points against Saban’s Alabama squad. They played against four teams ranked in the top ten and beat all four of them. They have a prolific offense that has piled up 560 yards per game, and defensively they’ve been good enough to keep winning games. Their quarterback, Joe Burrow, has 44 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and will likely win the Heisman Trophy. LSU is undisputedly the best team in the SEC. And all of this happened on Orgeron’s watch.
Sometimes the world coincides to present the perfect time and place for someone to be successful. I believe this is what has happened at LSU with Ed Orgeron. After two decades as an assistant coach all over college football, Orgeron scored the head job at Ole Miss in 2005, promptly went 10-25, and got canned. But since being hired nine years later at LSU, for whatever reason Orgeron has gone 37-9. Tiger fans love him, and he genuinely loves the Tigers. I don’t know how long Orgeron can keep LSU at this level of play, but he’s not going anywhere, anytime.
I should also use this space to preview the upcoming SEC Championship Game, which will happen this Saturday, and which LSU has virtually no chance of losing. Seriously, LSU is so good, and Georgia is so banged up and out of sorts on offense, it would be considered a mild miracle if LSU somehow loses this game. LSU will win and cover and become the undisputed SEC Champs. And no, I’m not trying to jinx LSU at all.
2. Nick Saban, Alabama (preseason rank: 1)
It’s probably a bit unfair to drop Saban to the two spot, considering the Crimson Tide lost all of two games this season, which is incredibly the first time a Saban squad has lost two regular season games in a decade. It wasn’t altogether shocking that the Tide stumbled this season, considering they lost two starting linebackers to injuries and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was banged up all season, before he finally getting knocked out for good. If any other school had the same injury bug this season, a 10-2 finish would be welcomed, if not expected. But Bama isn’t any other school, as they’ve reminded us through the years. Alabama is supposed to be above all that, able to withstand injuries and tumult. And this season, they have not been able to overcome those problems.
For the first time in the Saban era, there are large, visible cracks showing in the Alabama program. They got blown out (by an ACC school, no less!) in last season’s championship game, didn’t even make the SEC championship game this season, and to add insult to injury, not only lost to archrival Auburn but Saban got outfoxed by Gus Malzahn. (Saban also got betrayed by his kicker, which is hilarious but not exactly new.)
Alabama is still loaded with five-star recruits and has the number one ranked class in the country coming in next season, but for everyone hoping to see Alabama finally lose their chokehold on the SEC West, perhaps their grip is finally, maybe, loosening just a little bit.
3. Kirby Smart, Georgia (preseason rank: 2)
Kirby Smart didn’t really do anything to warrant getting dropped a spot. Georgia won all the games they were supposed to win, with the exception of an embarrassing overtime loss at home against South Carolina. They finished the season with one loss, which is pretty amazing! But they never overpowered anyone, holding on late to win against several good teams (Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M). In an age of explosive offenses that score at will, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is like the guy who dismantles the bomb, a consummate game manager who wins games but has not been good enough to win the biggest games for UGA when they matter the most. Smart has consistently won the recruiting wars the last few seasons and Georgia is finally starting to show that depth, particularly on the defensive side. If they can ever develop an offense to match, watch out.
4. Dan Mullen, Florida (preseason rank: 4)
It wasn’t Dan Mullen’s fault that QB Feliepe Franks suffered a season-ending injury in week three. Franks had played well at the end of last season, and most people thought Mullen and Franks would help the Gators finally leapfrog UGA in the SEC East. They did not. Backup Kyle Trask stepped into the starting role and managed to lead Florida to their second consecutive 10-win season, but they still lost to UGA. Mullen’s creative play-calling is always entertaining, but until Florida can regularly run the ball (they finished 122nd out of 130 teams in rushing ypg) I’m not ready to buy in.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn (preseason rank: 6)
After an 8-5 season in 2018, Malzahn managed to hang onto his job, and even though he committed to starting true freshman QB Bo Nix, Malzahn eked out 9 wins this season, which would suggest good things are ahead. Next season, the Tigers will lose a lot of talent on the defensive side, but getting a win against Alabama buys Malzahn at least another year.
6. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (preseason rank: 3)
A) Jimbo Fisher is two years into a ten-year contract that pays him $75 million.
B) In his two seasons at Texas A&M, Fisher has a combined record of 16-9.
C) It does not seem like A and B can coexist for much longer. Junior QB Kellen Mond was fine, but Fisher has yet to transform the Aggies into the kind of team where the coach is worth over $7 million per season.
7. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (preseason rank: 8)
Man, I can’t believe it, either. Pruitt basically backed into the Tennessee job, drawled his way to a 5-7 record in his first season, spent a ton of money on questionable assistant coaches, then began this season with consecutive losses to Georgia State and BYU. Phil Fulmer was probably rolling in his grave. But then! After losing to SEC powerhouses Georgia and Florida by a combined score of 77-17, the Vols went friggin’ 6-1 down the stretch to finish a bowl-eligible 7-5. Sure, they only played one ranked opponent during that stretch, and they lost that game, but somehow the Vols have managed to unsink the Titanic. I don’t know if Pruitt can recruit well enough to get competitive with Georgia and Florida, but to his credit Pruitt finished this season above .500. Maybe he’s gonna make it after all.
8. Will Muschamp, South Carolina (preseason rank: 7)
The Gamecocks had the toughest schedule in college football, playing against three of the four best teams in the country (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia). They somehow beat Georgia, but they also lost to teams like Missouri, Appalachian State and Tennessee, on their way to a 4-8 record. In perhaps my favorite negative vote of confidence of all-time, South Carolina president Robert Caslen admitted in an interview that he had not reached out to Florida State to find out about the intricacies of financing a big buyout for a failing coach. However, he added, “but our athletic director (Ray Tanner) has. And they’ve got a whole lot more money in their athletic endowment than we do. I know that, for a fact.” He later said that his words had been “twisted,” but he didn’t say he’d been misquoted.
9. Mark Stoops, Kentucky (preseason rank: 9)
He is who we thought he was.
10. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State (preseason rank: 11)
Moorhead moved up a spot, but that is only because a coach ahead of him got kneecapped. And if an Ole Miss receiver had not pretended to urinate like a dog after scoring a touchdown, Moorhead would probably no longer be the coach at State, which is not a sentence I ever anticipated typing.
11. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (preseason rank: 12)
In six seasons at Vanderbilt, Mason is 27-47, with a 10-38 record in the SEC. A few weeks ago, Mason explained the situation at Vanderbilt: “Vanderbilt is always going to go on waves. It just is. There’s going to be cycles of bowl teams and opportunities. It’s not going to be an every year opportunity unless these guys get it young and we hit it hot. I mean, there’s going to be waves and cycles in this deal, and I’m just in a wave right now, just a wave and cycle where we’re not where we wanna be. We’ve just got to continue to keep pushing.” Just a wave and cycle, y’all.
The Departed: Barry Odom, Missouri (preseason rank: 10)
The good news was that he got Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant to jump to Columbus. The bad news was Bryant was hurt throughout the season and the Tigers finished 6-6. Missouri isn’t really a plum gig, but at least the SEC East isn’t as tough as the West, and an SEC job is an SEC job.
The Departed: Chad Morris, Arkansas (preseason rank: 13)
Morris could not have done much worse at Arkansas, compiling a 4-18 record over two seasons, including an incredible 0-14 mark in the SEC. The good news is that Houston Nutt is available.
The Departed: Matt Luke, Ole Miss (preseason rank: 14)
Luke was always a placeholder, a guy who kept the wheels on the program until Ole Miss could hire a new athletic director. They finally hired an AD a few weeks ago, and he fired Matt Luke almost immediately. Hugh Freeze left an unbelievable mess behind, but at least he won games. Whoever follows Luke has to win, as well.