Mitchell: SEC's Biggest Offseason Question
AU Head Coach Gus Malzahn
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Such is the fate of the four new coaches at the helm of SEC teams entering the 2013 season...or will they prosper like the rookie class of 2012?
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
Last year, lightning struck twice in the SEC, as though ‘twere fireworks for the rabid football-everything fans of the South. Two new head coaches announced their arrival with conviction: both Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M and Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss left the gates quickly and closed better still in their impressive conference debuts.
TAMU arrived with a bold new offense to match its coach, dismantling the SEC's weaker teams while more than holding its own against the heavyweights – including a "How-dee!" win for the ages in Tuscaloosa.
When one considers that Sumlin was gifted the nation's most electric player (QB Johnny Manziel) paired alongside the likely first pick in this year's NFL draft (LT Luke Joeckel), it's not a reach suggesting that Freeze's scorecard was equally as impressive; all the more so remembering that the Rebels went 2-10 in 2011, without a single conference win.
Ole Miss would get stronger as the year progressed, outscoring Alabama in the second half in Tuscaloosa and outplaying both TAMU and LSU in close defeats, along the way to snapping State's three year Egg Bowl winning streak and posting a convincing Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. Ole Miss won more than three times as many conference games in 2012 as in the previous two years (3:1), and were one win shy of the four from the easier 2009 season (9-4, 4-4).
NEXT MAN UP
The mob loves an underdog, and thus it is that four new SEC head coaches walk into the soul-numbing coliseums of the South…all with respectable track records, good staffs, and the bright expectations of hopeful strangers.
Sporting perhaps the easiest task is Auburn's Gus Malzahn, who returns to the Plains one year removed but this time the Tigers' head coach. Expectations in Auburn might be the lowest they have ever been, coming as they are off a goose egg conference run.
Many of last season's questions remain, but the team that gave up on Gene Chizik has talent and pride. The return of Malzahn and his magnetic offense should provide ample opportunity for the players to re-discover their collective heart.
There's far too much talent on this roster for the 2012 season not to quickly fade into the rear view mirror…IF these players buy into what Malzahn and his excellent staff are selling.
Bret Bielema arrived in Fayetteville by way of Camp Randall, and he immediately garnered high expectations from the Woo Pig Sooie faithful. He hired Tennessee OC Jim Chaney to run his offense/quarterbacks. Chaney's offense struggled in Knoxville up until 2012, when, finally given a mature offensive line, it blossomed.
Unfortunately for Chaney and the Hogs, they begin the 2013 season replacing nearly all of their offensive weapons, especially the prodigious receiver Cobi Hamilton and quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Perhaps the biggest coup in the offseason staffing wars (next to Auburn's Malzahn and LSU's Cam Cameron, with his back-end loaded contract), came when Bielema convinced ex-Miami head man Randy Shannon to take over as linebackers coach in Fayetteville. Shannon immediately paid dividends by helping recruit some of the top talent in south Florida to The Natural State.
In case anyone questioned whether it's the most difficult division in college football – since the LSU vs. Alabama "Game of the Century" just 16 months ago, the SEC West has recycled more than 50% of its coaches. Into this frying pan jump both Malzahn and Bielema.
While the rest of the south was wondering whether or not Louisville coach Charlie Strong would jump ship, and to where, new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops swooped in and grabbed much of the Bluegrass prep talent. The only one of the four new hires with no head coaching experience, Stoops at least out-recruited the Cardinals, something his predecessor Joker Phillips struggled to do.
More than that, Stoops landed a solid class for the Wildcats by any standard, and did so in short order. At the same time, he assembled a rather stout coaching staff – even if it does feel a little too much like Homecoming.
Alabama rotates onto the Kentucky schedule in 2013; October 12 in Commonwealth Stadium. Right after Florida and at South Carolina. Welcome to the conference, Mark.
By comparison, Butch Jones landed rather quietly in Knoxville, but no less effectively. Jones secured a top 20 recruiting class with only 21 signatures…even if it was still behind Vanderbilt.
More importantly, he brought both Mike Bajakian and John Jancek with him from Cincinnati as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. Jones insists that Bajakian spurned offers from two other SEC schools in the process.
Meanwhile, UGA fans will remember Jancek, who was a Bulldog assistant for five years until 2009. He's done a superb job for the Bearcats, who closed out 2012 ranked in the top 20 in Points Allowed – this after losing several key players from the 2011 team.
NO SPRING SKIPS ITS TURN
The spring is a time for clean slates, unspoiled optimism and unchecked potential. Everything's possible in the spring.
And thus it is for these four new coaches...soon to be cannon fodder or the stuff of legends?
We'll all be watching.
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC Columnist for CFN and a senior CFB analyst for Campus Insiders. During the season, he can be heard weekly on more than 20 radio stations throughout the south. Follow him @russmitchellcfb