SEC Football: Ranking the SEC Head Coaches
After ranking every position in the SEC, it's time to move on to the sidelines and rank all 14 head coaches in the SEC.
While the talent on the field is largely considered the reason that the SEC is the nation's premier conference, the talent roaming the sidelines is probably a bigger reason why the SEC has won six straight crystal footballs.
SEC lead blogger Barrett Sallee ranks the SEC's head coaches in this slideshow. As is the case every year, the first-year SEC head coaches always bring up the rear unless they've been in the SEC before.
14. Hugh Freeze: Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze replaces Houston Nutt at Ole Miss after posting a 10-2 season at Arkansas State in 2011—his first as a head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.
Freeze is perhaps best known for being the real life head coach of former Ole Miss offensive lineman Michael Oher, whose story was the inspiration for The Blind Side.
Freeze will install his version of the spread offense at Ole Miss, but he won't be working with much. The talent level deteriorated tremendously during the end of the Nutt era, and to compound issues, Nickolas Brassell—the Rebels' top playmaker, recently decided to transfer after not cutting it academically.
Freeze is a good recruiter and has the ability to turn things around in Oxford, but it will take some time and patience.
13. Kevin Sumlin: Texas A&M Aggies
If there's a coach who could fly up this list in the next few years, it's first-year Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Sumlin is part of the offseason of transition in College Station and will install his version of the air-raid offense that made Mike Leach famous.
In four years as the head man at Houston, Sumlin amassed a 35-17 record, including a 12-1 record last season with Case Keenum taking the snaps.
But that was Conference USA, and Keenum isn't walking through that door in College Station.
Sumlin plays in a rough neighborhood in the SEC West, so it might be a rough ride for him in 2012. He was able to have his way with opposing defenses at Houston, but in the SEC, he's going to have to adjust to the speed of the front seven and adjust more than he ever has as a head coach.
12. John L. Smith: Arkansas Razorbacks
John L. Smith has a bad reputation considering he went 14-21 during his final three seasons at Michigan State, but the 79-65 career record still features some successful seasons, particularly a 20-5 stretch in 2000-01 at Louisville.
Reputations aside, you really can't compare anything that Smith has done in the past to his current role as Arkansas' head coach.
Smith was brought in to be a caretaker after Bobby Petrino was unceremoniously fired following an affair and coverup. His responsibilities are simple: Give good press conferences, let the coordinators coordinate and stay out of the way.
He's got the press conference part down, as proven by his appearance at SEC Media Days in July. He stated at Media Days in the Internet/radio room that he is going to stay out of the way and let his assistants do their job.
That's easier said than done. If he does it, Arkansas will contend for the crystal football.
11. Joker Phillips: Kentucky Wildcats
Joker Phillips waited a long time to become the Kentucky head coach, but so far, his time on top has been nothing short of a disappointment.
A win over Tennessee for the first time in 26 years to close out the 2011 season cools his seat a little bit, but Rich Brooks built that program to a point where bowl eligibility is expected. Simply put, an 11-14 record won't cut it at Kentucky, even if one of those 11 is a win over the Vols.
Judging from his appearance at SEC Media Days, Phillips is approaching this critical year of his tenure the season with confidence.
"I'm not sitting down right now," Phillips jokingly said, "So there's nothing hot."
Something will be if Kentucky doesn't figure things out on offense. The Wildcats finished last season ranked 118th out of 120 FBS teams in total offense, averaging just 259.75 yards per game.
10. Derek Dooley: Tennessee Volunteers
Derek Dooley enters 2011 on the hottest seat in America.
That's a bit unfair considering that the Vols lost its best playmaker Justin Hunter and starting quarterback Tyler Bray for a significant amount of time last year. I don't care who you are, it's hard for a head coach to work around that type of roster attrition.
Perception is reality in college football, and there's no question that the pressure is on Dooley. Tennessee expects excellence, and back-to-back losing seasons coupled with a 4-12 SEC record in two seasons is nowhere close to excellent.
Dooley didn't inherit the best situation in the world, but the Vols still have to perform well early, or things could spin out of control in a hurry. With three of their first five games at home against NC State and Florida and at Georgia before a bye week, we will know a lot more about the Vols and the future of the coaching staff before the leaves change colors.
9. Dan Mullen: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen has built a reputation for himself as a "coach on the rise."
For the life of me, I can't figure out how.
Mullen is 21-17 at Mississippi State, which is respectable. But the fourth-year Bulldog head coach is 3-12 vs. SEC West teams, with all three of those wins coming vs. Ole Miss.
The nine-win season in 2010 was impressive, but the signature wins that season over Florida and Georgia are signature only due to name recognition. Beating a Georgia team that finished under .500 and a Florida team that was coached by Urban Meyer, who had one foot out the door, takes the shine away.
Is Mullen a decent coach? Yes. Can he get Mississippi State to a bowl game? Yes. Is he considered one of the SEC's best or a "coach on the rise?" I don't see it.
8. Will Muschamp: Florida Gators
Will Muschamp's first year at Florida was nothing short of a disappointment; but after the Sporting News detailed in April how broken the Florida program was when former head coach Urban Meyer left, that 7-6 record became a little bit easier to stomach.
Muschamp knew going into last season that depth at quarterback could haunt him, and it did when starter John Brantley went out with injury.
"Going into the first year, the issues I knew we had was a situation where we inherited a roster with two quarterbacks on scholarship, Tyler Murphy and John Brantley," said Muschamp at SEC Media Days. "We signed two freshmen that are really good football players. Unfortunately, I think I said this a thousand times last year, if we can keep John Brantley healthy, we'll be fine. We were unable to do that."
Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling for the starting quarterback job, but the play of both of them this spring went a long way towards calming the fears of Gator Nation.
Muschamp was a hot-shot assistant for a reason, and he can be successful at Florida. It just may take more time and patience than Gator faithful envisioned when he took over.
7. James Franklin: Vanderbilt Commodores
Gus Malzahn passed on taking the Vanderbilt head coaching job after the 2010 season, which allowed James Franklin to slide right in fresh off a tenure as the offensive coordinator at Maryland.
I'd say that the Commodores are pleased with this outcome.
Franklin's team went 6-7 and made a bowl game last season, which is remarkable in and of itself. That record could have been much better considering that the 'Dores lost close games vs. Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee.
On the field, Franklin has done well. Off the field, he's killing it.
Vanderbilt is currently ranked in the top 25 of 247Sports.com's updated recruiting rankings, which is a departure from the norm for Vanderbilt.
It's still debatable whether or not Franklin can sustain this kind of success, but so far, so good.
6. Gary Pinkel: Missouri Tigers
Gary Pinkel is still relatively unknown in SEC circles, but he shouldn't be.
In his 12 years at Missouri, Pinkel has compiled an 85-54 record and is 158-91-3 overall during stops at Missouri and Toledo. He has posted 10-win seasons in three of the last five seasons and had the Tigers on the doorstep of the BCS National Championship Game in 2007 before losing the Big 12 championship game to Oklahoma.
That was then, and this is now. Pinkel certainly has his work cut out for him now that his team plays in the SEC. But his experience as a head coach coupled with veteran leadership that litters his team should make that transition smoother than the one that fellow SEC newcomer Texas A&M is going through.
5. Gene Chizik: Auburn Tigers
There is still some concern about whether Gene Chizik can achieve sustained success at Auburn, but a national championship counts for something.
Actually, it counts for a lot.
Critics will say that the 2010 BCS National Championship was won because of quarterback Cam Newton and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn more than Chizik. That's an utterly ridiculous argument. Two of the primary responsibilities of a head coach are to recruit well and hire a good staff. Newton and Malzahn didn't just magically appear on Auburn's campus without Chizik's consent.
Chizik's 35-29 career record isn't stellar, but a 30-10 mark at Auburn is. The 8-5 record last season during a major rebuilding year included a road win over 11-win South Carolina.
4. Mark Richt: Georgia Bulldogs
Mark Richt is joined by Gary Pinkel as the elder statesmen in the SEC.
His sterling .736 winning percentage (106-38) makes him the fourth-winningest active head coach in America with at least 10 years of experience.
That doesn't happen by accident.
But despite the sustained success between the hedges, Richt still finds himself the subject of rampant job security speculation due in large part to a stretch from 2009-10 that saw the Bulldogs post a 14-12 record.
Last season's SEC East championship and 10-game winning streak went a long way to calm those fears, but the fact that Georgia accomplished that without having to play LSU, Alabama and Arkansas during the regular season still leaves some doubt about whether the Georgia program is "back," or if 2011 was an aberration.
3. Steve Spurrier: South Carolina Gamecocks
Steve Spurrier made a name for himself building Florida back to an SEC juggernaut. The Head Ball Coach won six SEC championships at Florida in the '90s and took home the 1996 National Championship.
He took over at South Carolina in 2005 expecting to achieve the same kind of immediate success.
Better late than never.
He hasn't built the Gamecocks into a national power, but he has led the program to its most prosperous time ever. He won the 2010 SEC East championship—the first division championship in program history—and then followed it up with the first 11-win season in program history.
2. Les Miles: LSU Tigers
Les Miles is known as the "Mad Hatter" thanks to some gutsy (and some would call "crazy") calls and press conferences, but there's no doubting the success that Miles has enjoyed in Baton Rouge.
He is a mind-boggling 75-18 as LSU's head coach, which includes three SEC West titles (2005, '07 and '11), two SEC championships (2007, '11) and the 2007 BCS National Championship.
Miles is still the subject of some criticism due to his methods and the fact that he has the state of Louisiana basically all to himself on the recruiting trail.
You can't argue success, and Miles has enjoyed a lot of success during his first seven years in Baton Rouge.
1. Nick Saban: Alabama Crimson Tide
There may have been some debate about whether Les Miles or Nick Saban deserves the top spot if LSU had won the BCS National Championship Game in 2012 to close out the 2011 season.
The 21-0 drubbing Alabama gave the Tigers at the Superdome took care of that debate in a hurry.
Saban's career reads like a future Hall of Fame resume should read. He has compiled a 55-12 record at Alabama and has the program on the verge of dynasty status.
He has a 146-54-1 overall record in stops at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, and he has won four SEC West titles (2001, '03, '08, '09), three SEC championships (2001, '03, '09) and three national championships.
It takes a great coach to win a national championship, but only elite coaches can maintain that level of success year-in and year-out.
Saban has done that.