By Tommy Hicks
The SEC is going to look a lot different next football season, at least from a coaching viewpoint. The league has undergone a lot of change in the offseason, with coaches moving in and out and even one that swapped one SEC job for another.
In the West Division, you have the top-rated coach in the country in Alabama’s Nick Saban, the arrival of one of his former assistant coaches in Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who reportedly flirted with heading back to Arkansas. Former SMU head coach Chad Morris takes over the Razorbacks, Ed Orgeron survived at LSU, Joe Moorhead takes over at Mississippi State after a successful turn as a coordinator at Penn State and Matt Luke had the interim tag removed at Ole Miss.
In the East Division, another former Saban assistant, Kirby Smart, has the Georgia Bulldogs moving in fine form just two seasons in as head coach. In fact, he led his team against Saban’s Crimson Tide in the national title game, so things are good in Athens right now.
Dan Mullen returns to Florida, where he coached Tim Tebow as offensive coordinator for the Gators, this time as head coach. He had a successful run as head coach at Mississippi State. Tennessee finally found its man in former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and South Carolina is growing under Will Muschamp’s leadership. Barry Odom kept his job at Missouri with a strong finish to the season and Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt are also still in place.
So how would you rank the new lineup of SEC coaches heading into the 2018 season? Here’s one man’s opinion:
1. Nick Saban: Come on, this was the easiest pick of the group. He proved he’s the best college coach in the country in how he led Alabama to the national title this year. There should be no argument here.
2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: He has a national championship to his credit, he’s inventive on offense and he knows how to get and motivate players. It did a good job at FSU and this job will be a challenge.
3. Kirby Smart, Georgia: With the progress he has shown in a very short time and how quickly he not only won a SEC crown for the Dawgs put placed them in the national title hunt, Smart’s star is rising. Georgia’s too.
4. Dan Mullen, Florida: He took a tough situation at Mississippi State and turned the MSU program into a contender. Heck, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the country for a while. He’ll have more players, tools at Florida.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn: There have been moments when the Tigers have flourished under Malzahn … and there have been moments when that was not the case. This will be an interesting season ahead, for sure.
6. Chad Morris, Arkansas: He has some momentum to his career from his work at SMU and he represents a different approach for the Razorbacks from recent seasons. How he molds this team will be fun to watch.
7. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: OK, so he wasn’t the Vols’ first choice … or their second or third or, well, you get the picture. He may well turn out to be the right choice though. How he handles the top seat and Big Orange pressure will be key.
8. Will Muschamp, South Carolina: He probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves for how the Gamecocks have improved of late. The fiery head coach will be tested in a division that seems to be regaining strength.
9. Ed Orgeron, LSU: Without question, he’ll sign talent. The question is can he develop that talent and find the right assistants to help him make LSU a contender? That’s still to be seen and something he has to prove he can accomplish.
10. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State: he has proven himself as an assistant but now he has a tough act to follow in Mullen as head coach of the Bulldogs. Luckily for him, Mullen has not left the cupboard bare. But the West is a tough neighborhood.
11. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: He’s a tough guy in a tough job. There have been some positive steps made by the Commodores under Mason’s leadership but he has to make more forward progress to keep the job.
12. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: There may not be a tougher place to try and build a football program in the SEC than Lexington, based on the school’s tradition and passion for another sport. Stoops has had some success; he’ll need more.
13. Matt Luke, Ole Miss: Perhaps no one loves where he is coaching as much as Luke does, based on his and his family’s association to Ole Miss football. But there won’t be a lot of patience and he has to win quickly.
14. Barry Odom, Missouri: He could move up this list in a year, or be looking for another job. He seemed on his way out after this season but led a turnaround. That turnaround needs to become the norm if he wants to stay.
Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.