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In the south, college football is king. What's the second most popular sport? Spring football. Spring practices have wrapped up, and fans from all over the south have got a brief glimpse at what their teams could look like in 2009. Here's where the SEC head coaches rank following spring practices, starting with number 12...
12. Lane Kiffin – Tennessee Volunteers
Let's see, in his six months since being hired to be the head man in Knoxville, Kiffin has already managed to anger Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt, been reprimanded by the conference, had his coaching staff strip for recruits and run off 11 scholarship players – all before coaching his first game. Somehow still, he has energized the fan base with all of his shenanigans. Energy or not, Kiffin's hire is going to be either a home run or a strike out, and so far, it's looking like the latter. Not many people can make Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis look like a reasonable man, but Kiffin's antics this winter make it a little more clear why Davis showed him the door in Oakland. Maybe the Vols players will buy into his style and turn it around; but so far, not so good.
11. Dan Mullen – Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen certainly has learned from the best, coaching under Florida head man Urban Meyer for the majority of his career. It will take some time for him to implement his version of the spread with the Bulldogs, but there's little doubt that he will be successful at some point. However, he's never been a head coach anywhere, thus the low ranking. The cupboard is pretty bare in Starkvegas, so Bulldog fans will have to be patient with Mullen. But, in due time, he will move up the rankings once he gets his guys enrolled.
10. Gene Chizik – Auburn Tigers
Yeah, it's a bit of a cop out to rank the new head coaches at the bottom of the rankings, but all of them are major unknowns, so where else can they be ranked? Chizik comes to the Plains after a less-than-stellar 5-19 record as the head coach at Iowa State. But, he's assembled quite an all-star staff with Gus Malzahn running the offense and Ted Roof heading up the D. The Tigers first teamers looked good in their spring game, but depth will be a problem for the Tigers in 2009. Chizik will be on a shorter leash than Mullen and perhaps even Kiffin, and he knows it. While the hire was widely criticized, let's not forget that the only person that can make Iowa State football relevant is Seneca Wallace; and that Chizik was as sought after as Will Muschamp just two seasons ago.
9. Bobby Petrino – Arkansas Razorbacks
Petrino wasn't as successful as Razorback fans would have liked in his inaugural season in Fayetteville. Ineffectiveness at quarterback plagued the Razorbacks last season. Enter Ryan Mallett. Petrino has proven that he can breed good quarterbacks and potent offenses, but most of that track record comes from his days with Louisville in the Big East. This season will tell a whole lot about Petrino's actual coaching ability, now that he has a true weapon under center. Don't worry Razorback fans, if he senses that things are going badly, Petrino will know it before it becomes apparent to everybody else, and just bail (probably via a four sentence form letter).
8. Bobby Johnson – Vanderbilt Commodores
It's really hard to judge Johnson due to the fact that he's at Vanderbilt, but he did make the Commodores relevant again, leading them to their first bowl game since 1982. Johnson is a good coach, and given comparable talent to the rest of the league, he could probably lead a team to the SEC Championship. His name has popped up at a few coaching vacancies over the last few years, most notably this past off-season at Clemson. If he does, at some point, decide to move on, he could do some serious damage with a full arsenal.
7. Les Miles – LSU Tigers
In 2007, LSU won the National Title. They won that title in spite of their coach. Les Miles did everything he could to prevent them from winning the crystal football. But, vastly superior talent covered up Miles' coaching mistakes enough to make them the first two-loss team ever to win the National Title. Last season, the Tigers got hung out to dry a bit, after the departure of Ryan Perrilloux left them without an SEC-caliber quarterback for the majority of the season. This will be an interesting season in Red Stick. They've got a lot of young guys that they are expecting to play major roles. Miles will have to do some of his best coaching to get them in the mix in the SEC West. LSU fans better hope that his best coaching isn't the style we saw in 2007, because the Tigers don't have the experience to bail Miles out in 2009.
6. Steve Spurrier – South Carolina Gamecocks
It's simply not happening in Columbia for the Ole Ball Coach. We're now into year five of the Spurrier era, and the Gamecocks still look like exact opposites of the Florida teams of the 90's that lifted Spurrier to legendary status. Spurrier is four games over .500 for his Gamecock career and two games under .500 in-conference. If any Gamecock fan tells you that's what they expected, they are lying. Spurrier needs to get things turned around, and fast. Job one would be to find at least one quarterback that has near the talent of any of the stable that he had slingin' the ball around in Gainesville. He's got a solid defense to fall back on, but his offense has been very un-Spurrier-like, and that's why, by reputation alone, he finds himself in the sixth spot on our rankings.
5. Rich Brooks – Kentucky Wildcats
Brooks flies very, VERY far under the radar. But, the veteran coach has led the Wildcats out of probation, and back to respectability in the SEC East. In January, Brooks became the first Kentucky coach ever to win three straight bowl games, and currently holds the nations second-longest out-of-conference winning streak at 14. In years past, Kentucky was mentioned in the same breath as Vanderbilt. Not anymore. The 'Cats are no longer a pushover and, if the rest of the league doesn't watch out, could be serious contenders for a division title in the very near future.
4. Mark Richt – Georgia Bulldogs
Richt always has his teams at or near the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. But, that's been the problem for Richt. His teams are consistently good, but not great. If Georgia catches some breaks, Richt can have them in the National Championship Game on any given year. But, so far, the Bulldogs have not gotten those breaks. Coming in to last season, the Dogs were pre-season number one with a first-round backfield. Five months later, the Bulldogs had been blown out by Alabama and Florida, lost to intra-state rival Georgia Tech for the first time since 2000, and lost 19 scholarship players to season-ending injuries. One of these years, Richt may put it all together. But, it will take more than intentional unsportsmanlike penalties and black jerseys to do it.
3. Houston Nutt – Ole Miss Rebels
While it's taken for granted that Mark Richt will have his squad at or near the top of the division, Houston Nutt routinely has the rest of the SEC surprised by his teams' success. Maybe we should have taken note by now. Nutt was vastly under-appreciated at Arkansas – to the point where boosters dug into his personal phone records to get him out of town. Their loss has been Ole Miss' gain. In just one short year, Nutt, who has a career record of 120-74, has the led the Rebels out of the winless SEC abyss left for him by former coach Ed Orgeron, and has them as a sleeper pick for the National Championship in 2009.
2. Nick Saban – Alabama Crimson Tide
Saban already has a ring from his days at LSU, and he's very close to bringing Alabama their first title since 1992. Alabama wasn't a National Championship-caliber team last year, but Saban led them to the brink of playing in Miami before Tim Tebow broke out his Superman cape in the second half of the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide will likely take a step back this year after losing some serious talent and key positions from the 2008 squad. But, there's little doubt that, despite the holes that must be filled, Saban will find the right guys to fill them and will have the Tide competing for the SEC West title again in '09.
1. Urban Meyer – Florida Gators
What can you really say? When Meyer came into the league, SEC purists said that his spread offense would never make it. Two National Championships later, virtually every team in the league incorporates at least some of the spread into their game plan every week. In his four seasons in Gainesville, Meyer has amassed a 44-9 record and has more National Championships than Steve Spurrier. Has Meyer reached Spurrier status in Gator-lore? Probably not. But, in a few more years (assuming he doesn't bolt to South Bend), there's a good chance that we could be referring to Meyer as the best coach in Florida history, and one of the best in college football history.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter