When the 2018 college football season kicks off in just under two months, five SEC programs will have new head coaches roaming the sidelines.
Some of them will be wearing the headsets as the head man for the first time in their careers. Such is the case for Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, who previously served successful stints as assistant coaches for Alabama and Penn State, respectively.
Then there are the others who have been head coaches before but are taking on new challenges, like Florida’s Dan Mullen, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Arkansas’ Chad Morris.
While the expectations between the five of them are different due to different circumstances, where do they stack up against the rest of the league? The offseason content would not be complete without some sort of ranking, and we’ve got you covered on where the current SEC head coaches stand heading into the 2018 season.
1. ) Nick Saban, Alabama
What can be said that hasn’t already been said about Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama? Since taking over the Crimson Tide in 2007, Saban is 127-20 with five national championships, having won another in 2003 during his time at LSU. Saban lead Alabama to their fifth title in the last decade and are primed to make a run at another in 2018.
2.) Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Despite not having coached a single game in the SEC, Fisher is the only coach in the league other than Saban that has won a national championship, having done so with Florida State in 2013. Even more impressive than that, Fisher is only one of four current college football head coaches who have won a national title. Given his track record of developing quarterbacks, his ability to recruit (check out 247 Sports 2019 class rankings) and what the Aggies return, Fisher and Texas A&M could be contenders sooner rather than later.
3.) Dan Mullen, Florida
Mullen may be ranked higher than expected, but out of the five new head coaches listed above, he’s the only one who has been a head coach, not just in the SEC, but in the SEC West. Mullen spent nine seasons in Starkville, leading Mississippi State to 7 winning seasons, five of which consisted of 8 or more wins. While the Bulldogs weren’t able to beat Alabama during his tenure, Mullen was able to lead them to a No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history during the 2014 season. Another reason? Mullen is a proven commodity with a proven pedigree in developing quarterbacks from his days with Alex Smith as an assistant at Utah, to Chris Leak and Tim Tebow when he was OC under Urban Meyer, to more recently with Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald. That all being said, Florida is a program where winning is expected quickly, so in many ways, it’s a tougher job than Mississippi State.
4.) Kirby Smart, Georgia
Smart almost took the No. 3 spot here after leading Georgia to an SEC championship, the College Football Playoff final, and a 13-1 mark in only year two of his reign in Athens. The only reason he sits where he does in this ranking is the fact that former head coach Mark Richt didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare when he was fired following the 2015 season. Still, Smart did something that Richt never could with that talent by getting them two downs away from a national title last season. Add in the embarrassment of riches that Smart has brought in through recruiting in his first couple of classes and he may be as high as No. 1 on this list in a few years.
5.) Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn makes the top five because he’s only one of three coaches in America to have beaten Saban since he’s been at Alabama, and he’s the only one currently coaching in the SEC to have done it twice. He’s also appeared in a national title game and won an SEC title. Other than that, Malzahn is easily one of the biggest underachievers in the country. Last season, the Tigers were ranked in the top 15 in most preseason polls with an abundance of hype in then-Baylor QB transfer Jarrett Stidham. An early season loss to Clemson could be overlooked, but blowing a 17-point second half lead to unranked LSU, getting manhandled by Georgia in the SEC title game and losing to UCF in the Peach Bowl lead to a disappointing finish to the season, especially since there were rumblings before the season that it was a ‘make or break’ year for Malzahn.
6.) Will Muschamp, South Carolina
If I had made this list a few seasons ago, no way would have the former Florida coach ranked this high. It appears that Muschamp has learned a lot since his time in Gainesville. He showed flashes as the head man at Florida, leading the Gators to an 11-2 campaign in only his second season 2012. But, an abysmal 2013 season which saw Florida finish with their worst record since 1979 , which included a loss to then-FCS foe Georgia Southern on their home turf, and a mediocre 7-5 mark in 2014, Muschamp was fired and returned to the assistant coaching ranks at Auburn. I felt that South Carolina acted in haste when they hired him to be their head coach after Spurrier resigned during the 2015 season, but Muschamp has proven many wrong.
After the Gamecocks finished 3-9 in 2015, Muschamp turned the team around to a 7-6 finish in his first season in 2016. Last season, they capped off a 9-4 season with a come-from-behind win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Recruiting has always been one of Muschamp’s fortes, and he has South Carolina ranked as the 12th class in the nation in 247 Sports composite rankings for 2019. One thing that will be interesting to see is his success against Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen. Florida and Tennessee were arguably the worst teams in the conference in 2017 and South Carolina nearly lost to both.
7.) Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Mark Stoops is entering year six with the Wildcats and is coming off of back-to-back 7-6 seasons. While Stoops has managed notch a pair of bowl appearances, beat Tennessee for only the second time in 30-plus years, and get Kentucky as high as second place in the SEC East, he’s failed to win more than 7 games during his stay in Lexington. In 2014, Kentucky started off 5-1 before losing six straight to close out the season and in 2015, they lost 6 of their last 7 despite a 4-1 start to the season. Still, Kentucky is a hard job and the fact that Stoops has had two-straight winning seasons bodes well for the program.
8.) Chad Morris, Arkansas
The former Clemson offensive coordinator who most recently lead SMU took the Arkansas job following the firing of Bret Bielema last season. While is overall record of 14-22 is less than stellar, Southern Methodist is a tough place to find success, but Morris was able to 7-5 finish in 2017. He’s got his work cut out for him as he takes over an Arkansas program that is 11-29 in SEC play in the last five seasons.
9.) Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
We all know the story of Tennessee’s tumultuous coaching search that transpired at the tail end of the 2017 season. Despite all of that, new AD Phillip Fulmer was able to land a very solid hire in former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt checks off all of the boxes having coached defense under the top two coaches on this very list (Saban and Fisher). Pruitt’s defenses were instrumental in Florida State’s 2013 national title run and Alabama’s most recent national championship in 2017.
On top of the championship background, Pruitt has managed to get off to a hot start on the recruiting trail, as he has the Vols’ 2019 class up to No. 19 according to 247 Sports composite rankings. Even more crucial to the programs overall future is Pruitt’s understanding of the culture in Knoxville. The only thing keeping him from being rated higher here is his lack of head coaching experience, but he’ll have a lot to prove-and a lot of chances to do so-in his first season at the helm when Tennessee kicks off against West Virginia on Sept. 1.
10.) Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
Another coordinator cutting his teeth in head coaching game in 2018 will be former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. After the departure of Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs were able to pry Moorhead away from James Franklin’s staff in State College and get a taste of southern hospitality Starkville. In year one, Moorhead will have plenty to work with, especially on the offensive side of the ball with the return of junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Like Pruitt, Moorhead is also making waves in recruiting, as he has Mississippi State all the way up to No. 11 according to 247 Sports.
11.) Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
As tough of a job as Vanderbilt is, the Commodores underwhelmed in year four. After leading Vanderbilt to a 6-win season in 2016, they returned some important parts in 2017, including then-senior All-SEC running back Ralph Webb and junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Following a 3-0 start to the 2017 season, which included a home win over No. 18 Kansas State, the Commodores imploded down the stretch, losing 7 out of 9 to finish with a 5-7 mark. Mason has managed to beat Tennessee twice, but his time may be running out in Nashville.
12.) Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Following a lengthy NCAA investigation which resulted in a two-year postseason ban, a loss of scholarships, and an exodus of valuable players, co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke walked into a seemingly impossible situation when he was named interim head coach at Ole Miss. Despite all of that working against him, the Rebels managed to come out of 2017 with a 6-6 finish, including an upset win over Mississippi State to cap off the season. It was enough to get Luke a full-time gig in Oxford. While Ole Miss will have to sit out a bowl again in 2018, the future looks promising as they return one of the league’s top wide receivers in A.J. Brown, as well as senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.
13.) Ed Orgeron, LSU
Some may think the Tiger’s second-year head coach is too low here, but Ed Orgeron was a risky hire when he officially took the job after the firing of Les Miles during the 2016 season. Recruiting and talent haven’t been hard to come by in Baton Rouge, so it comes as no surprise that Orgeron has been able to draw in players. However, the offense has been an issue for quite some time, especially at quarterback, and while LSU was able to land Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow, it’s going to take a lot for Orgeron to put the Tigers back in the championship discussion.
Following Miles’ dismissal after a 2-2 start to the 2016 season, Orgeron took over as intrim and lead LSU to a 6-2 finish to the season, which included a dominating win over Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville. The 2017 season was full of ups and downs, as LSU lost to Troy out of the Sun Belt, only to beat No. 10 Auburn two weeks later. It’s hard to argue with a coach who is 17-8 in his first two seasons, but I think it’s more of a testimony to LSU’s talent pool than it is the head coach.
14.) Barry Odom, Missouri
Another coach who was hired from within is third-year Missouri head coach Barry Odom. After going 4-8 in his first season, their was some speculation that his stint may not last long, and that speculation only intensified after the Tigers got out to a lethargic 1-5 start to 2017. However, behind the arm of junior quarterback Drew Lock, Missouri was able to finish the season 6-1, making their first bowl game since 2014.
While Odom walked into a tough spot by filling the shoes of former head coach Gary Pinkel, a lot of the teams success last season can be attributed to Lock, who is projected by some as a first round talent in the 2019 NFL draft. The defensive minded Odom made a questionable coaching staff decision by hiring former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley as his offensive coordinator this past offseason. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact-positive or negative-that decision will have on Missouri’s offensive production in 2018.