SEC Q&A: Whose Seats Can Go from Warm to Hot with Bad 2017 Seasons?

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2017

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema (left) and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (right)
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema (left) and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (right)Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The coaching hot seat in the SEC simmered in 2016, with only Les Miles being let go in the middle of the season and nobody being dismissed at season's end.

Because of that, 2017's should be boiling.

As Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports noted, Tennessee's Butch Jones and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin enter the year on two of the hottest seats in the country, alongside Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and NC State's Dave Doeren.

Who could join them? That question and more are answered in this week's edition of SEC Q&A.

That's a really long list, due in large part to the relative mediocrity the rest of the conference outside of Alabama navigated through during the 2016 season.

Auburn's Gus Malzahn jumps out as the next man up on the hot seat.

He did well to coach himself off it last year by going 8-4 in the regular season and earning a Sugar Bowl berth, despite quarterback issues early in the season and injury concerns to signal-caller Sean White and star running back Kamryn Pettway later.

With junior college transfer and former Baylor hot-shot recruit Jarrett Stidham in-house at quarterback and 79 percent of the offensive production back, the Tigers should take another jump forward and be, at the very worst, a nine-win team.

If that doesn't happen, Malzahn could be in trouble. Of course, there's no set win total that will determine his (or anybody's) fate, because not all eight-win seasons are created equal. But eight would put him in the danger zone.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

If Malzahn is on deck, I'd put Arkansas' Bret Bielema "in the hole."

He's 10-22 in the conference in four seasons at the helm, hasn't won more than seven regular-season games and hasn't taken advantage of an SEC West that has regressed over the last two years.

Bielema will have a little more leeway than Malzahn, and eight wins in the regular season would almost certainly keep him safe. But seven could make things a little sketchy for him, especially if the Razorbacks continually get dominated in the trenches—a common theme from the 2016 season.

Hugh Freeze is a bit of a wild card based on the outcome of the ongoing NCAA investigation. But if Ole Miss shows improvement and nothing groundbreaking comes of the inquiry, I'd imagine he's safe. He took the program to New Year's Six bowl games in 2014 and 2015, and that earned him plenty of goodwill with the Rebel faithful.

If the NCAA hammer comes, all bets are off.

The East is getting better, and I think there can be at least one team that can at least present a challenge in the SEC Championship Game.

Georgia is that contender.

The defense has a ton of promise behind Liberty Bowl MVP Trent Thompson and a young defensive line, and a talented linebacking corps that includes Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. The return of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at running back will help quarterback Jacob Eason develop into the superstar he was touted to be coming out of high school.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart
Georgia head coach Kirby SmartMichael Chang/Getty Images

Head coach Kirby Smart's ability as a head coach is the unknown.

His ability to attract talent to town can't be argued. What he will do with that talent remains a mystery. Will he be like Nick Saban and build a consistent winner, or more like Charlie Strong and do less with more?

Outside of Georgia, it could be a rough year in the East. Tennessee and Florida have far too many concerns and roster holes to fill to trust implicitly; Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are building but not there yet; and it's impossible to trust Missouri's defense at this point.

I'm going to go with Luke Del Rio, with the caveat that it should be redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks.

The reason head coach Jim McElwain won't trot Franks out first is due to those maize-and-blue uniforms that will be across the field at AT&T Stadium in the season opener in Arlington, Texas.

Michigan's defense was ferocious last year, tying Alabama for the best mark in the nation (261.8 YPG). It would be a huge risk for McElwain to let Franks loose right out of the gate, knowing it could not only result in a loss but could create a massive mental hurdle for his young quarterback to overcome heading into Week 2 and beyond.

Florida QB Feleipe Franks
Florida QB Feleipe FranksFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

It's essentially the same problem USC head coach Clay Helton had last year when he started Max Browne in the opener against Alabama instead of Sam Darnold. That didn't work out well for the Trojans, who got smoked, and Browne later got benched for Darnold. 

McElwain should learn the lesson from Helton's mistake: Let Franks loose and see what happens. The reward could be an ultra-confident quarterback and a tone that's set for the entire 2017 campaign.

The risk is hard to ignore, though.

The candidates who have been mentioned—Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, South Florida offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and others—are all fine candidates. 

Of those mentioned, I'll go with Lindsey as the best candidate due to his familiarity with the region (he's a former high school coach in Alabama) and with Malzahn (he was an offensive analyst at Auburn in 2013). But he also has enough experience elsewhere, including in the Pac-12, where offensive pressure is immense, to be more than a yes man for Malzahn.

He can challenge the head coach. He can provide a different perspective. He can force the Tiger offense to be less predictable and break tendency, which should be the two primary goals for the new-look offense.

But he won't reinvent the wheel.

I do question how much Malzahn will let go, though. He did in October of 2016, when Lashlee's play-calling helped Auburn reel off six straight wins. That was just a month into a season before which, during the preseason media circuit, he said that he'd be more "hands on" in 2016 because he felt like he was more of a CEO in 2015.

So no, I don't think Malzahn can fully hand over the keys to the offense, because he has a proven track record of going back and forth.

            

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats and recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on SiriusXM. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.