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This offseason was relatively calm on the SEC coaching front. Sure, Urban Meyer resigned; but the novelty of that wore off when he resigned the first time, so the second time around wasn't as much of a shock. What was a shock was Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley's bold move, plucking hot shot assistant Will Muschamp from the Texas Longhorns. Former Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell - who quickly rose to become an Internet legend during 2010 SEC Media Days - also bid adieu to the SEC after just one season in Nashville. Stepping in for Caldwell is former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin, who was hired to turn around a Vandy offense that has been stagnant for...well...ever.
Here is my ranking of the 12 SEC head coaches as they currently stand. By my own rules, newcomers Muschamp and Franklin have to cut their teeth in the bottom of the list, before being placed elsewhere next season. Last year's ranking is in parentheses.
12. James Franklin – Vanderbilt Commodores (Last season: NR)
Credit the Commodores for taking a shot at luring Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to Nashville, but when Malzahn saw Will Muschamp make the jump from big-time coordinator to big-time head coach with no experience, it shut the door on Vandy getting Malzahn. The Dores settled with former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin, who was hired to do one thing - fix the Vandy offense. Too bad his offense at Maryland ranked 80th in the country last year in total offense. Franklin showed some creativity during the spring game, which is something that Vanderbilt has to do if it wants to be successful in the SEC. But it's a tough place to be successful, so Franklin has his work cut out for him.
Why he could be higher: He can't be. There's no reason to put Franklin above fellow newcomer Muschamp.
11. Will Muschamp - Florida Gators (Last season: NR)
I was skeptical of the Muschamp hire when it was announced, but since the hire, Muschamp has done everything right. He recruited well considering the short time he had to work with, and hired a fantastic staff, highlighted by offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. The move from the spread to the pro-style offense is a transition that we haven't really seen before, so Gator fans need to be patient with Muschamp, even though the SEC East appears to be wide open. By my own rules I can't put a new coach - especially one with no head coaching experience - ahead of an established coach. But I wouldn't be surprised to see Will Muschamp's name mentioned as one of the conference's best sooner rather than later.
Why he could be higher: His potential is through the roof. There's a reason he was the hot-shot assistant for three years.
Why he could be lower: He can't be. Nobody with a straight face could put him below James Franklin at this point.
10. Joker Phillips - Kentucky Wildcats (Last season: 11)
Phillips continued the minor success that Kentucky enjoyed under former coach Rich Brooks last season, by leading the Wildcats to their fifth straight bowl game - a school record. But let's be honest, being the head football coach at basketball school like Kentucky is like playing the Scottie Pippen role on the mid-90's Chicago Bulls. Phillips saw his team spring an upset on eventual SEC East champion South Carolina, and nearly toppled eventual national champ Auburn a the week before. Can he lead his program to SEC East contention? That remains the be seen.
Why he could be higher: He has his program going in a different direction than Houston Nutt - which is a good thing if you're a Kentucky fan.
Why he could be lower: He won't be above Will Muschamp, a coach who has many more ingredients in Gainesville to be a successful head coach, for long.
9. Houston Nutt - Ole Miss Rebels (Last season: 5)
Other than Mark Richt, is there any coach in the SEC on a hotter seat than Houston Nutt? Nope. Nutt followed up back-to-back nine-win seasons with a four-win clunker, and is staring the SEC West cellar in the face again in 2011. The talent on the Ole Miss roster and on the coaching staff is not up to par with the rest of the division, and Nutt is to blame. His 22-16 record in Oxford isn't bad, but you simply can't ignore the direction of the program. Don't forget that Ole Miss is the same school that fired David Cutcliffe one year after a 10-win season. If the Rebs fail to make a bowl game again, Nutt could be in trouble.
Why he could be higher: His 133-86 career record is impressive, and certainly more impressive than Derek Dooley's career record.
Why he could be lower: If we're basing this list on potential and program direction, Nutt might be below Phillips.
8. Derek Dooley - Tennessee Volunteers (Last season: 10)
Everybody assumed that 2010 was going to be a struggle for the Vols, even when Lane Kiffin was there. But Derek Dooley finished his inaugural season as an SEC head coach strong, winning his last four regular season games to become bowl eligible, before dropping one of the most controversial bowl games in recent memory. The Vols may not be back to the point where they're contending for the SEC East title just yet, but they'll have a solid offense and a defense that will surprise. Consider Dooley as one a coach "on the rise" in the SEC.
Why he could be higher: He can't be. Even though Dooley had as many wins in his first season against his division (2) as Dan Mullen has in two seasons, the SEC East was down.
Why he could be lower: His 23-27 career record isn't anywhere close to that of Houston Nutt, who's one spot lower on the list.
7. Dan Mullen - Mississippi State Bulldogs (Last season: 9)
After two successful seasons in Starkville, Dan Mullen became one of the hot shot names during last offseason's coaching search. But while Mullen may be the most hyped up-and-coming coaches in the country, his lack if success against his own division leaves a lot to be desired. Mullen is 2-8 against the SEC West, with those two wins coming against Ole Miss. His two signature wins came against the worst Georgia and Florida teams in recent memory last season. Until Mullen proves that he can beat the big boys in his division, he doesn't deserve to be mentioned with other big-name coaches in the conference.
Why he could be higher: Unlike Mark Richt - who is ranked higher on my list - Mullen has his program headed in the right direction going into the 2011 season.
Why he could be lower: He can't be. Nine wins in Starkville is more impressive than anything that any of the previously listed coaches can boast at their current stops.
6. Mark Richt - Georgia Bulldogs (Last season: 3)
There's no other coach in the conference with as much pressure riding on 2011 than Mark Richt. Now in his 11th season between the hedges, Richt has to improve dramatically from last season's 6-7 debacle, otherwise he'll be looking for work this winter. The good news for Richt is that, as Georgia's head coach, he's 55-11 with a returning starting quarterback – and he's got a pretty darn good one this year in redshirt sophomore Aaron Murray. Richt's two SEC Championships are the only two won by UGA in the post-Dooley era. He has to get his program turned around ASAP to stay employed, but no matter what his future holds, Mark Richt's legacy in Athens is set in stone.
Why he could be higher: He brought a sustained level of success to Georgia that Steve Spurrier has yet to acheive at South Carolina.
Why he could be lower: You can't ignore the downward direction the program is heading.
5. Steve Spurrier - South Carolina Gamecocks (Last season: 4)
It took a little while, but the Head Ball Coach finally got the Gamecocks to the promised land last season, when he led the program to its first SEC Championship Game appearance in school history. At age 66, Spurrier shows no signs of letting up (well, pics from the Daytona 500 notwithstanding). He's recruiting well, adapting to the strengths of the personnel on his roster and taking advantage of being in a division that is at its lowest point since the division split in 1992. He's not going to be at South Carolina forever, but he's finally doing what he was brought to Columbia to do – make the Gamecocks relevant in the SEC.
Why he could be higher: His 186-73-2 carrer record is one that can't be matched by anybody in the SEC.
Why he could be lower: There's still some question whether or not his success last season at South Carolina was due to the down seasons that Florida, Georgia and Tennessee suffered through.
4. Bobby Petrino - Arkansas Razorbacks (Last season: 8)
Nobody doubted Petrino's ability when he took over the Razorbacks before the 2008 season. His loyalty, on the other hand, was a different story. Petrino answered that one lingering question this offseason by agreeing to a massive six-year extension that includes a buyout number that will force Arkansas and Petrino to honor the contract from now until long after the next rumored rapture. In his three seasons with the Hogs, he has proven that he has what it takes to lead record-setting offenses. His defenses have struggled at times at Arkansas, but with a veteran group returning this season, it might finally be the year that Arkansas returns to the front of the national conversation.
Why he could be higher: While Gene Chizik enjoyed almost immediate success at Auburn, Petrino appears to be slowing building a monster in Arkansas.
Why he could be lower: SEC Championships. Spurrier and Richt have them; Petrino doesn't even have a division title.
3. Gene Chizik - Auburn Tigers (Last season: 7)
That one guy that screamed at athletics director Jay Jacobs when he got off the airplane after hiring Chizik must feel bad now. In two short years, Chizik gave Auburn something that Pat Dye, Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville couldn't give it – a crystal football. Sure, there is some doubt that Auburn might have "peaked too early," and the success of the program may be more due to Cam Newton and Gus Malzahn; but you can't complain about Chizik's job performance. Two of a head coach's primary responsibilities are to surround himself with a solid staff and recruit well – and Chizik has done both of those better than any coach in the country.
Why he could be higher: Just last year, we were talking about Les Miles being on the hot seat. You can't say the same for Chizik.
Why he could be lower: The overall state of the program really hinges on whether or not Chizik can "rebuild" with so many players gone from last season's National Championship team.
2. Les Miles - LSU Tigers (Last season: 6)
He's unorthodox, he's aloof, he even eats grass...but you can't deny the success that LSU has enjoyed under Les Miles. He's 62-17 as a head coach in Baton Rouge, and routinely has the Tigers in the mix for the conference title. With a ton of pressure heading into last season, Miles was essentially two bad quarters (one vs. Auburn and one vs. Arkansas) from going to Atlanta undefeated with a chance to play in the BCS National Championship Game. The expectations are high in Baton Rogue every year, so his position in the rankings is probably more fluid than the other coaches, but the LSU program is as healthy as it can be.
Why he could be higher: He can't be. Saban's on a roll now, and second place in the SEC isn't an insult.
Why he could be lower: The expectations in Baton Rouge lead to a volitile atmosphere. If the Tigers disappoint in 2011, Miles will be back on the hot seat in 2012.
1. Nick Saban - Alabama Crimson Tide (Last season: 1)
Rember in the mid-2000's when Alabama was coming off of NCAA probation and was an afterthought in the SEC? Nick Saban changed that perception in a hurry. He's built the program back to the point where a 10-win season is unacceptable, and National Championships are expected every season. How has he done it? Stellar recruiting, great assistants and discipline that is unmatched in the SEC. Saban's accolades read like a Hall of Fame speech, and there's no sign of the program taking a turn south anytime soon.
Why he could be lower: He can't be. His 43-11 record at Alabama is mighty, mighty impressive.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
2010/2011 Off-Season Column Archive:
Ranking The SEC Head Coaches - June 6, 2011
Point/Counterpoint: Oversigning In The SEC II - June 4, 2011
Point/Counterpoint: Oversigning In The SEC - June 2, 2011
CFN Analysis: Tressel Resigns – May 30, 2011
Five Thoughts on SEC RB's – May 29, 2011
Ohio State & Tressel: The Hits Keep Coming – May 29, 2011
Five Thoughts on the SEC QB's – May 23, 2011
CFN Thoughts – The Extra Stipend Debate – May 22, 2011
Ealey's Transfer Leaves UGA In A Bind – May 9, 2011
Russell Wilson to the SEC? – May 5, 2011
SEC Draft Review – May 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Janoris Jenkins – April 27, 2011
Muschamp Sets New Tone For Florida – April 26, 2011
Spring Lessons Learned – SEC East – April 24, 2011
Spring Lessons Learned – SEC West – April 20, 2011
Five Thoughts On Kentucky's Spring – April 14, 2011
Five Thoughts On Bama's Calloway – April 13, 2011
Stephen Garcia, Winning! – April 6, 2011
Stephen Garcia Suspended Indefintely – April 6, 2011
Five Thoughts On Ole Miss' Spring – April 6, 2011
Five Thoughts On Auburn's Spring – April 4, 2011
Real Sports Much Ado About… – March 31, 2011
Ainge's Addictions, And What It Means For UT – March 29, 2011
Five Thoughts On Tennessee's Spring – March 29, 2011
Tressel-Gate Has Only One Conclusion – March 26, 2011
Five Thoughts on Bama's Spring – March 25, 2011
Five Thoughts on Vandy's Spring – March 24, 2011
Five Thoughts on Florida's Spring – March 23, 2011
Bama Star Arrested – March 20, 2011
Five Thoughts on South Carolina's Spring – March 16, 2011
Five Thoughts on Arkansas' Spring – March 15, 2011
Auburn Players Arrested, Dismissed – March 12, 2011
Five Thoughts on LSU's Spring – March 11, 2011
CFN Analysis – The Too Busy Offseason – March 11, 2011
Five Thoughts on Georgia's Spring – March 9, 2011
CFN Analysis – Should Jim Tressel Have Been Fired – March 8, 2011
Five Thoughts on Mississippi State's Spring – March 6, 2011
Wheels On Newton Saga Keep Spinning – February 28, 2011
Six SEC West Spring Storylines – February 24, 2011
Kiffin and the Tennessee Issue – February 23, 2011
Six SEC East Spring Storylines – February 17, 2011
CFN Analysis – The SEC Schedule – February 10, 2011
Ealey Suspension Leaves Georgia In A Bind – February 9, 2011
SEC Signing Day Review – February 3, 2011
CFN Analysis – Signing Day 2011 – February 2, 2011
Dream Team Won't Save Richt – January 31, 2011
Five Thoughts On Kragthorpe – January 24, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC West Rankings – January 23, 2011
LSU Hires OC Four Years Too Late – January 20, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC East Rankings – January 19, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cam Turns Pro – January 14, 2011
BCS National Championship Review – January 11, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cotton Bowl – January 8, 2011
Five Thoughts On Why Auburn Wins – January 7, 2011
Five Thoughts On Dan Quinn – January 5, 2011
Tuesday Question: Should Rich Rod Be Fired – January 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Charlie Weis – January 4, 2011
CFN Analysis: Charlie Weis as the Florida OC – January 3, 2011
CFN Analysis: Outback Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Gator Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Capital One Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Liberty Bowl – December 31, 2010
CFN Analysis: Music City Bowl – December 30, 2010
End Of The Season Accountability – December 27, 2010
Pryor Can't Be Compared To Newton – December 23, 2010
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam's Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Click here for the 2010 regular season archive
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive