SEC Football: Ranking the Best Coaches on Game Day

Scott McKinneyContributor INovember 18, 2011

SEC Football: Ranking the Best Coaches on Game Day

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    The Southeastern Conference is arguably the best football league in the NCAA. With five straight BCS National Champions to boast, and perhaps a sixth on its way, the SEC has established itself as the premier pigskin-playing conference.

    Great players make great teams, and of course, they are led by great coaches. The SEC ranks among the nation's best in coaching.

    NFL rosters are loaded with former SEC players, but how do we measure the coaches in the league?

    Who are the top game-day coaches in America's best college football conference? Who has the unique ability to make all the correct calls, anticipate the opponent's next move and make decisions in the heat of battle that produce the ultimate measuring stick—wins?

    This slideshow ranks the SEC coaches and measures their strengths and weaknesses.

12. Houston Nutt: Ole Miss

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    At one time, there was no one better in the SEC on game day than Nutt. However, the lame duck Ole Miss coach finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

    Nutt has an uncanny ability to get his teams ready for battle on southern autumn Saturday afternoons, and has plenty of big victories in his satchel to brag about.

    Most of those, however, came when he was head coach at Arkansas, including a dramatic 50-48 triple overtime win over No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge.

    His luck didn't seem to carry over to Ole Miss. With Nutt about to coach his final two games for the Rebels, it appears his team has given up the fight.

    An embarrassing 27-7 home loss to Louisiana Tech doesn't give much hope for an upset of top-ranked LSU or arch-rival Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl.

    Game-day decisions likely won't matter at this point.

11. Joker Phillips: Kentucky

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    Something has changed with Kentucky's football program. The Wildcats, under Rich Brooks, gave other SEC teams fits through the years and played a tough, physical style of football.

    Phillips is in his second year after taking over for the retired Brooks, and the magic has not been the same.

    Kentucky has looked disorganized at times, especially during a heartbreaking 24-17 home loss to arch-rival Louisville earlier in the season.

    Last week's 38-8 beatdown at the hands of Vanderbilt is completely unacceptable and quite frankly unheard of in Big Blue nation.

    Phillips is a tireless recruiter and will bring talent to Lexington. Now, he just needs to figure out game day.

10. Derek Dooley: Tennessee

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    Take a quick glance at the 2011 SEC standings, and one thing jumps off the page.

    Tennessee is 0-6 in the SEC.

    The Vols have never gone winless in conference play and have lost six times to league opponents only once prior to this year.

    This is definitely not your father's Big Orange.

    Dooley, in only his second season at the helm, hasn't exactly faced an easy schedule in 2011. Four of the six SEC teams he has faced were ranked in the Top 25, including No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.

    However, poor sideline decisions may have cost Tennessee a potential win in the Swamp against Florida, and the play-calling is one of many aspects under scrutiny by a rabid fan base.

    Dooley has a tremendous coaching pedigree—his father, Vince, was once considered one of the best game-day strategists in all of college football.

    Derek has not reached that level, yet.

    And unless game-day decisions improve, the Vols could find more trouble ahead against a much-improved Vanderbilt team and Kentucky to close the season.

9. Will Muschamp: Florida

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    No one has ever questioned Will Muschamp's fiery sideline demeanor—until this year.

    The first-year head coach of the Florida Gators was a highlight reel waiting to happen as a demonstrative defensive coordinator for LSU and Texas.

    He was famous for his vein-bulging facial expressions, his chest-bumping with players and his in-your-face attitude on the sidelines.

    Where did that guy go?

    Muschamp is growing into the role as a new head coach, but he has left behind some of his sideline passion. And with it, the decisions seemingly made without hesitation.

    Florida appears lethargic at times, and Muschamp has lost some of the edge that made him a highly sought-after coach.

    If he can recapture some of the sideline passion from the past, this program could quickly return to the national elite. Without it, the Gators are doomed to more mediocre SEC records like the one they have suffered from this season.

8. Dan Mullen: Mississippi State

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    Mullen is another young football coach trying to figure out the secret to game-day sideline success.

    While no one has questioned his recruiting or public relations abilities, there are some among the Bulldog faithful who scratch their heads over Mullen's sideline decision-making.

    The personable coach made a name for himself as Tim Tebow's offensive coordinator at Florida, but as we are learning, there is a big difference between being a coordinator and being the head guy.

    Mississippi State fans point to questionable calls last season as the first sign of Mullen's growing pains. Fast forward to 2011, and some of those same concerns are still out there.

    Look no further than the Bulldogs' disheartening loss at Auburn this year.

    Quarterback Chris Relf was stopped at the goal line on the final play of the game, denying MSU's shot at knocking off the defending national champions on their home field.

    It was a play-call that had everyone in the stadium shaking their heads, and those were mostly Auburn fans. The loss also started a downhill spiral for the Bulldogs that has produced a disappointing season.

    Mullen also had opportunities against LSU, but hindsight is 20-20. Like most of his young brothers in the SEC coaching fraternity, Mullen is learning—one game at a time.

7. Gene Chizik: Auburn

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    For a coach coming off a BCS National Championship without the superstars who made up that team, Chizik has actually done a nice job on the sidelines in 2011.

    Decision-making is easy with a quarterback like Cam Newton, now likely headed for NFL Rookie of the Year honors with the Carolina Panthers.

    It gets a little tougher when the talent level is not the same.

    Chizik quickly earned his Tiger stripes with the national championship, but Auburn fans are not completely comfortable with game day just yet.

    A freshman quarterback and new starters at the majority of positions puts a much greater emphasis on game-day choices.

    Look no further than Auburn's 38-24 loss at Clemson earlier this season.

    Poor tackling, poor blocking and poor play-calling is never a good combination. It especially wasn't for Auburn against Clemson. Putting your team in position to win a big road game is the sign of an experienced head coach.

    Finding a way to lose that same game is a sign of a coach learning on the fly.

    Chizik is proving to be the right hire for Auburn in spite of the public outcry when he got the job. Now, he just needs to rely more on his game-day decision-making skills.

6. James Franklin: Vanderbilt

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    If passion were an infectious disease, the city of Nashville would likely be quarantined.

    First year Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin is one of the most passionate people you will ever meet. He realizes not many are Commodore fans, but after a few minutes with Franklin, you can't help but be one.

    Franklin has Vanderbilt poised for a bowl game if they can somehow find one win among road games at Tennessee and Wake Forest.

    A win in Knoxville over Big Brother Big Orange might cause sensory overload in Music City.

    Although Franklin is new at game-day decisions as the ring leader of a football playing outfit, he has pushed all the right buttons so far. Narrow losses to SEC powerhouses Florida, Arkansas and Georgia have Commodore fans excited about the future with Franklin in charge.

    Coaching at Vanderbilt requires more than what is expected at other schools. The talent level is not the same as at many opposing schools, so the spotlight shines brighter on Franklin and his staff.

    Imagine what he might do with that kind of talent.

5. Steve Spurrier: South Carolina

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    Ahh, the ole ball coach. For entertainment purposes, there is none better on game day.

    Yes, the years are starting to take their toll on Spurrier and there is a little more gray underneath that Gamecock visor. But the fire still burns intensely in his belly.

    For years, no one was better than Spurrier on game day. Not only could he make every critical decision with precision accuracy, he could anticipate what his opponent across the way was going to do next as well.

    Spurrier changed the way the game was played when he arrived at Florida.

    His tenure at South Carolina has not been as Earth-shaking, but he can still call a pretty mean game. Some argue his off-the-field decisions, particularly his handling of departed quarterback Stephen Garcia, but no one can debate his game-day operations.

    It's as if Spurrier morphs into a totally different person on game day. You can see it in his eyes and that sly, sneaky smile he gets when he slips on his headphones.

    If only Father Time would not be so harsh.

4. Nick Saban: Alabama

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    Prior to the LSU game, Saban would have likely been ranked higher. However, some questionable decisions in the epic 9-6 overtime loss to the Tigers dropped him to fourth.

    Saban is as good as it gets on game day. An excellent motivator and teacher, he may be one of the best coaches in the country at making halftime adjustments.

    Give him some time, and he can find a way to beat you.

    Talent influences decisions—that much we know. Alabama has as much talent as anyone, which makes decision-making a little easier.

    However, what Saban lacks on game day is the ability to instill confidence in his players once they've made a mistake. Saban uses more of the "fear factor" to get his players to follow orders, which is an old school style.

    But then, Saban is an old school coach.

    If I had one game to play for the national championship, I would take Saban as my coach. As long as he has plenty of time to prepare and the players follow the script.

    Saban is legendary in his preparation, but this poll is not about preparation. It's about the best there is on game day.

3. Bobby Petrino: Arkansas

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    Petrino is a quiet assassin on the sidelines for Arkansas.

    Known as an offensive innovator, Petrino has turned the Razorbacks into SEC and national title contenders. The one-loss Hogs are perhaps the most underrated team in all of college football.

    His sideline savvy was in rare form earlier this season when the Hogs faced Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.

    Down 18 points at halftime to the Aggies, Petrino rallied Arkansas to a miraculous 42-38 victory with a combination of aggressive play-calls and adjustments.

    Petrino isn't the most vocal of SEC coaches, but he is perhaps one of the most feared and respected. He exudes a confidence on the sidelines that says to his counterparts across the way, "I'm coming after you."

    Arkansas fans should be in Hog heaven with the Boss Hog making excellent game-day calls.

2. Mark Richt: Georgia

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    How does a coach go from being on the hottest of hot seats to receiving a contract extension and likely voted as the conference Coach of the Year?

    Easy—make excellent game-day decisions.

    Richt has his Georgia squad on an eight-game win streak after losing the season opener to Boise State and falling in Week 2 to South Carolina.

    The Bulldogs are only a few points away from being 10-0 and in contention for a national championship.

    Consider Georgia has done all this with one of the youngest teams in the SEC, and Richt deserves even more credit. The Bulldogs are already being discussed as the team to beat in the conference in 2012.

    Richt's sideline antics may be remembered more for his decision to send the entire team onto the field to celebrate a touchdown against Florida in 2007.

    However, with the chips down and the team 0-2, Richt has made all the right calls since and Georgia is reaping the benefits.

1. Les Miles: LSU

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    There is no one better in the SEC on game day than the Mad Hatter, Les Miles. Just ask Alabama coach Nick Saban.

    Sure, Miles has his Tigers ranked No. 1 in the BCS poll. And LSU is likely headed to their second BCS National Championship Game under Miles.

    However, Miles is a master puppeteer on the sidelines with his own team.

    During LSU's 9-6 overtime win over the Crimson Tide, Miles had Saban and the Alabama staff more concerned with what the Tigers might do next.

    As a result, Alabama got away from its own game plan. Now, that's mastering game day.

    Miles has come under great scrutiny over his clock management skills in the past, and rightfully so. But he has learned from those mistakes and has become the most feared coach on game day.

    His almost arrogant confidence bleeds into his team, feeds the frenzy among LSU fans and strikes fear in his opponents. Miles is the Picasso of game-day decisions and his latest piece is masterful.

    Since 2001, Miles is the SEC's best coach in games decided by four points or less with a 13-6 record.

    Maybe there really is something magical in that grass he munches on the sidelines.