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Ranking SEC Football Head Coaches 1 Through 14: Where Does Your Coach Stand?

Football is over.

Too bad the NCAA transfer portal is not over, but hopefully that will be soon. Because, let’s face it, in most cases, that is the quitter portal, particularly for the younger players, and it is in large degree backups becoming backups at new locations.

Yes, spring football is coming, but that’s not really football. No one ever says during a college or NFL game, “Wow, he’s playing well. He had a great spring.” You only hear that in MLB. Spring football is a good exercise, but it doesn’t really matter. If whatever happens in spring practices does not happen again in August practices, it does not matter if it happened in spring practices.

So, without further ado, it is time for my annual SEC head football coach rankings. I usually do this in late August, but since many of us wish we could fast forward to the cusp of what could be a completely COVID-free 2022 football season, here goes:

1. NICK SABAN, Alabama: At 70, the end could be soon – like five years. Did he slip last season? He did lose to a former assistant for the first time as Texas A&M Jimbo Fisher finally broke Saban’s 24-0 run against his pupils-turned-head coaches. Then he lost to another one – Georgia’s Kirby Smart in the national championship game after beating Smart in the SEC title game – but 25-2 is still very strong. The most impressive number, though, remains the NCAA record for national titles at seven, with the last one just two seasons ago. And he has also reached 10 national championship games. As long as Saban is coaching, there is a strong chance of another title. Still simply the best of all time.

2. KIRBY SMART, Georgia: The heir to the throne of Nick? Smart is just 46 and has the one national championship with two appearances in the championship game. With the way he has recruited, there could be another one soon. And with Saban eventually retiring within the next five years, there could be even more. But let’s not get carried away. He will not catch Saban.

3. JIMBO FISHER, Texas A&M: Fisher has gotten off to a slower start than I thought he would, and his offense needs a refresh. Yes, he lost his starting quarterback, Haynes King, last year in the second game of the season, but he got excellent play from backup Zach Calzada for the win over No. 1 Alabama. But his offense was too often lifeless in losses to Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. And that loss at LSU was inexcusable.

But he stockpiled top six recruiting classes before NIL helped push him to a No. 1 class for 2022. The Aggies will be very good for a long time, which is the genesis of Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin’s NIL “luxury tax” comment earlier this month that angered Fisher. That and the fact that Fisher “recruited” Ole Miss defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to his staff.

If Fisher tweaks his offense, he will win his second national title soon after that first one at Florida State in 2013. Calzada has transferred to Auburn as King was likely to beat him out again. And if not King, Fisher signed the No. 1 quarterback dual-threat quarterback in the nation – Conner Weigman from Cypress, Texas.

Mark your calendars now for Fisher vs. Kiffin on Oct. 29 at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.

4. BRIAN KELLY, LSU: The former Notre Dame head coach did in South Bend, Indiana what no one could do since Lou Holtz – win a national championship in the 1988 season and make the Irish a consistent national championship contender. Kelly took Notre Dame to the national championship game in the 2012 season and to the College Football Playoff in the 2018 and ’20 seasons. That’s close. If he can do that at Notre Dame, which is recruiting challenged compared to a traditional SEC power like LSU, he will get closer at LSU and win a national championship. It will not be soon though, because of a wrecked roster, but it will happen.

Kelly’s pass offense needs to get SEC ready or it may not happen. Often at Notre Dame, it was more stodgy and Les Miles-like than progressive. Over the last five seasons, the Irish finished out of the top 35 in passing yards four times – 102nd in 2017 at 178.9, 36th in 2018 at 259.5, 49th in 209 at 252.5 and 58th in 2020 at 237.4 before a No. 20 finish last season at 282.5.

5. MIKE LEACH, Mississippi State: The other offensive genius in Mississippi, Leach, has succeeded early at one of the toughest jobs in the league. The Bulldogs finished 7-6 last season with impressive wins over quality teams Texas A&M and Kentucky after Leach went 4-7 in his first season. He is an expert at winning at places that usually don’t win, such as Texas Tech and Washington State. Look for the Bulldogs to make another step next season.

6. MARK STOOPS, Kentucky: Kentucky should be proud it has kept Stoops this long. After three losing seasons to start (2013-15) that followed three in a row from the previous coach, Stoops has put together five winning seasons over six years with a 5-6 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. And 2021 was his best at 10-3 and 5-3, capped by a victory over No. 15 Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. That was Stoops’ sixth straight bowl, breaking the school record of five. At 54, he could still get better.

7. LANE KIFFIN, Ole Miss: Kiffin is better than several NFL head coaches, and Ole Miss is fortunate no NFL team was smart enough to hire this offensive genius. At 46, Kiffin is no longer showing his immaturity as much as he did in previous jobs as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and USC. But he’s still a rascal. He is also smart as hell, and not just on offense. He made a great defensive coordinator hire last year: former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin, who turned Ole Miss’ defense around before leaving for Texas A&M. Ole Miss is a very difficult place to win consistently, but Kiffin is off to a great start. The Rebels won 10 games in a regular season for the first time in history last season. After Matt Corral, QB-U may continue with USC transfer Jaxson Dart. However long Ole Miss keeps Kiffin from now on is a bonus.

8. SAM PITTMAN, Arkansas: Arkansas was becoming a coaching graveyard before Pittman, who in 2020 inherited from Chad Morris a 4-20 program that was 0-16 in the SEC, and he went 3-7. Going 9-4 and 4-4 in 2021 with a win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl was fantastic. Arkansas had not won nine since Bobby Petrino went 11-2 in 2011. Naming Pittman national coach of the year would not have been a reach. Before Morris, Bret Bielema talked a lot and was funny, but he was 11-14 and 4-12 in years four and five. Maintaining Arkansas will be a challenge, as it too has been a difficult place to win consistently since joining the SEC in 1992.

Pittman’s team manhandled Texas A&M, 20-10, outscored Mississippi State, 31-28, and played Alabama as well as anyone in a 42-35 loss that was a classic.

9. JOSH HEUPEL, Tennessee: A first-year miracle worker, Heupel inherited an NCAA probation-riddled program that was 3-7 in 2020, and he went 7-6 and 4-4 in the SEC. For the most part, however, he did just beat bad-to-average teams like Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama, Missouri and South Carolina. The lone win against a ranked team was over No. 18 Kentucky. But it’s a start, and he got Rocky Top legitimately excited about the future. He has already proven he can win consistently as he was 12-1, 10-3 and 6-4 at Central Florida before coming to Tennessee, though that was downward trending.

10. BRYAN HARSIN, Auburn: It’s still amazing to think that Harsin got off to a 6-2 start with impressive wins at No. 17 Arkansas, 38-23, and over No. 10 Ole Miss, 31-20. He had already equaled previous coach Gus Malzahn’s win total of 2020, but then everything went three-and-out on the way to a 6-7 finish that only got worse as his roster and people skills diminished. But this is a solid coach. He had double-digit winning seasons five times in his seven years at Boise State. With some help recruiting and learning some southern schmooz, the ultimate lame duck coach could eventually make it if he can get through 2022 after nearly getting fired just last week.

11. BILLY NAPIER, Florida: Napier comes from what is considered a “mid-major” program at Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt, but he won in a major way – 11-3 and 7-1, 10-1 and 7-1, and 13-1 and 8-0 over his last three seasons. He went 7-7 and 5-3 in this first season in 2018 after inheriting a program that had three straight losing seasons. By the time he was done, his Cajuns probably could’ve beaten a floundering LSU team last season. He’s young at 42 and has coached under both Saban at Alabama and Dabo Sweeney at Clemson. LSU may long regret not hiring him if Kelly doesn’t make the dance, so to speak.

12. SHANE BEAMER, South Carolina: Much like Heupel, Beamer inherited a mess – 6-16 and 5-13 over the previous two seasons – and had a winning season at 7-6 and 3-5 in his first year as a head coach against mostly bad teams. In fact, there were no wins over ranked teams, and the only win versus a team that finished with a winning record was over 7-5 East Carolina. Still, a strong season for a first-year head coach at a place that is difficult to find consistent success on the field and in recruiting.

13. ELI DRINKWITZ, Missouri: He improved incrementally in his second season to 6-7 after a 5-5 start. He still has not equaled his win total at Appalachian State in 2019 at 12-1. The best his predecessor, Barry Odom, could do in four seasons was an 8-5 and a 7-6, so he’s not far from that.

14. CLARK LEA, Vanderbilt: One of the toughest coaching jobs in America, and maybe going 2-10 last season was remarkable in his first season as a head coach and his first at Vanderbilt. Lea did inherit an 0-9 team. It is too early for anything higher than 14, however. He has potential to make something out of nothing though, as he did set an SEC teleconference record last season with a five-minute filibuster to one question about Vanderbilt football.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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  1. I think you could consider Kiffin as high as #3, but at least #5, over Leach and Stoops. Fisher and Kelly have accomplished more – they have more-or-less earned the spots where you listed them. I’d take Kiffin over both right now though.

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