SEC Spring Meetings Little Slow? Time To Rank The SEC Football Coaches 1-14

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The SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida, this week are looking more like the Spring Break meetings. As in a lot of sand and talk and not a lot of accomplishment so far.

So, let’s draw a line in the sand – or 14 of them and update the annual SEC football coaches rankings. There have been a few changes from last year.

Alabama’s Nick Saban is no longer number one in the rankings, obviously. And Jimbo Fisher has dropped much more than the price of oil. So, let’s roll with it before somebody in Destin starts talking about moving to a nine-game schedule again.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart during the Bulldogs’ national championship win over TCU last January 9 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

1.KIRBY SMART, GEORGIA (No. 2 last year) – It’s hard not to be No. 1 when you just won two straight national championships. Smart became the first coach to do that since Nick Saban in the 2011 and ’12 seasons when Smart served as defensive coordinator. And Smart, just 47, has a chance to catch Saban’s all-time record of seven national titles. Because Smart keeps getting better. He started slow at Georgia, going 8-5 in 2016, then he was 13-2 in 2017 with a loss to his mentor Nick in the national championship game. He maintained well at 11-3 and 12-2, then 8-2 in the COVID season of 2020. At this point, he did what great coaches do. He beat his own stubbornness concerning his lackluster offense.

Hiring Todd Monken as offensive coordinator before the 2020 season was the best move of Smart’s career and similar to Saban finally updating his offense with the hiring of Lane Kiffin as OC before the 2014 season. But Monken has left for the NIL and Transfer Portal-free NFL as OC of the Baltimore Ravens. Smart’s new OC is former Georgia quarterback Mike Bobo. He was an analyst last year with the Bulldogs and previously coordinated offenses at Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. If Smart is to keep winning like Saban, Bobo will have to be like Monken. Bobo’s first assignment is to keep the offense moving without Stetson Bennett. It appears junior Carson Beck will be the man.

Kirby Smart Wins Largely Without The Portal

Smart will not win the national championship in the 2023 season, but there will be more. One of the greatest things about Smart is that he won the last two national titles without having to dive headfirst into the instant-gratification, short-term NCAA Transfer Portal. Smart doesn’t need it because he recruits and develops so well, which is promising for the long term future.

2.NICK SABAN, ALABAMA (No. 1 last year) – There’s a new sheriff in town, and he (Kirby Smart) was Saban’s deputy just eight years ago. He shot the ageing Saban down in the national championship game of the 2021 season. And Saban is still down as he did not even reach the College Football Playoff last year for just the second time since that started in 2014. Can Saban, 71, get up one more time and win his eighth national title? He had the nation’s best quarterback for two years in Bryce Young, and did not win one.

And now Saban has had to resort to a second-tier-at-best quarterback transfer from Notre Dame in Tyler Buchner because projected starter Jalen Milroe may not have it.

Alabama Has Quarterback Issues

Buchner played under new Alabama offensive coordinator Tommy Rees at Notre Dame, so many think that gives Buchner the edge. Only problem with that is, we’re not sure how good Rees will be. That’s a lot of questions, which begs another one. Will Saban slip from just his second two-loss regular season since 2010 in 2022 to his first three-loss regular season since 2010 in 2023?

Still, Saban’s two losses last year were by a combined four points, and each happened on the last play of the game on the road – 52-49 at Tennessee and 32-31 at LSU. And apparently Alabama took so much out of each team that each went on to lose big to much lesser teams – the Vols by 63-38 to South Carolina and the Tigers by 38-23 to Texas A&M. And Alabama finished ranked higher than each at No. 5 to Tennessee’s No. 6 and LSU’s No. 17. The Transfer Portal and NIL has perhaps narrowed the gap between Alabama and the rest, and Saban hates the Transfer Portal and NIL. But he used to hate all the wide-open offenses and adjusted to that as the great ones do. Saban has also shot past gunning coaches who had brief success against him – Les Miles, Urban Meyer, Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher. Does he have enough bullets left to shoot down Smart? Or did he have so much fun in Italy recently on vacation that he is thinking of getting out?

SEC Coaches Rankings See Josh Heupel Soar

3.JOSH HEUPEL, TENNESSEE (No. 9 last year) – Heupel proved to be more than just an offensive wizard in his second season at Tennessee by posting an 11-2 season for second in the East at 6-2. Tennessee had not won 11 games in a season since 2001 and had not won double-digit games since 2007. The six SEC wins were also the most since 2007. And he picked up the Vols’ first win over Alabama since pre-Saban in 2006. That is quite a year. Now, can he maintain with a new quarterback and play with Georgia? As good as he was at Central Florida, he did dip over his last two seasons. Or will he fancy a shot at the NFL?

4.BRIAN KELLY, LSU (No. 4 last year) – Kelly proved to be very good, but not great, in his first season at LSU with a 10-4 and 6-2 SEC West title with a win over Alabama. That after inheriting a mid-major roster and a mess that was 5-5 and 6-7 the previous two seasons. Still, only one SEC West champion in history had more overall losses than LSU last year as Arkansas was 9-5 in 2002. LSU also got blown out in three of its four losses – 40-13 at home to Tennessee, 38-23 to a Texas A&M team that finished 5-7 and 50-30 to Georgia. The former Notre Dame coach will not be a national championship contender in 2023, but he may be favored to win the West and will continue with steady improvement.

It’s Tough To Win At Kentucky, But Mark Stoops Does

5. MARK STOOPS, KENTUCKY (No. 6 last year) – The Wildcats dropped to 7-6 and 3-5 from 10-3 and 5-3 the previous year, but this is still Kentucky. Success on the second tier of the SEC tends to be in one-to-two-year cycles. What sets Stoops apart from most previous not-on-probation Kentucky coaches is his ability to maintain without major drops since his first winning season in 2016 in his fourth year.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin jokes about joining Georgia's staff with Kirby Smart. (Credit: Twitter/Lane Kiffin)
Georgia coach Kirby Smart (left) and Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin coached at Alabama under Nick Saban at the same time. (Credit: Twitter/Lane Kiffin)

6. LANE KIFFIN, OLE MISS (No. 7 last year) – Like Stoops, Kiffin also dropped last year from a watershed, 10-3, 6-2 season in 2021 to a so-so 8-5 and 4-4 campaign. But this is Ole Miss, and it has not had back-to-back double-digit winning seasons since Johnny Vaught was coach in 1959 and ’60. Kiffin could be the Auburn coach now, but he was smart enough to realize that Auburn is not that much better of a job than Ole Miss. B.etter, but not much better, and certainly not enough to leave.

There is an NFL head coaching job out there for Kiffin. He has been better than several NFL head coaches for years. Amid the circus of Kiffin’s candidacy at Auburn, though, he lost five of his last six after a 7-0 start in 2022. And he was as good or better than some of those teams, yet was blown out by three of them – 45-20 to LSU, 42-27 to Arkansas and 42-25 to Texas Tech. Kiffin still gets distracted too easy. And he needs to lay off criticizing coaches and programs like Fisher at A&M and Kelly at LSU because they make more money than him at places that have more money. Kiffin tends to forget he was at one of those programs at USC, and ended up doing as badly as Fisher did last year.


7. HUGH FREEZE, AUBURN (1st year) – Freeze returns to the SEC after four years of exile as head coach at Liberty, where he put up four solid seasons. At Ole Miss from 2012-16, Freeze proved to be a hot offensive coach and became one of the few coaches anywhere to beat Saban back-to-back. Freeze resigned instead of being fired in July of 2017 amid an NCAA investigation that uncovered 17 NCAA violations with Freeze as head coach, including major recruiting violations such as car loans and cash. Further probes unveiled Freeze’s frequent use of escort services. On the field, though, Freeze went 7-6, 8-5, 9-4 and 10-3 from 2012-15 with an 11-5 mark in the SEC over those last two seasons. This is why Auburn hired him after Kiffin was not interested.

8. SAM PITTMAN, ARKANSAS (No. 8 last year) – Suddenly what Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino did at Arkansas – keep winning in the 9- and 10-range – looks difficult for Pittman. He went 9-4 in his second season in 2021. There was a dip to 7-6 last season, even though he still had one of the league’s best quarterbacks in KJ Jefferson. And he has him back this year. Pittman is the most well-liked coach in the league, but that is not going to keep his job if he stays closer to mediocre than to 10 wins.

9. SHANE BEAMER, SOUTH CAROLINA (No. 12 last year) – New head coaches start off low in this space, and Beamer was No. 12 going into his second year as a head coach. He improved only by a hair on paper to 8-5 and 4-4 after a 7-6 and 3-5 opening season. But look closer. After no wins over ranked teams in 2021, he had three last season with two in the top seven and two on the road – 24-14 at No. 13 Kentucky, 63-38 over No. 5 Tennessee and 31-30 at No. 7 Clemson. He finished strong.

Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher has the most players leaving. (Credit: Getty Images)
Jimbo Fisher had his worst season as Texas A&M’s coach last year. (Credit: Getty Images)

10. JIMBO FISHER, TEXAS A&M (No. 3 last year) – Fisher is one of the biggest disappointments in all of college football in many years. After coming to College Station, Texas, following the 2017 season, Fisher was just one year removed from a run of five straight double-digit win seasons at Florida State. Then-Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward awarded him a $75 million contract over 10 years one year after LSU athletic director Joe Alleva did not want to pay that much for Fisher. Alleva opted instead to promote LSU assistant/interim coach Ed Orgeron, who won the national championship in 2019. Fisher has not been close to a national title, and his only season of fewer than four losses was a 9-1 mark in the 2020 COVID year. Then last year, he plummetted to 5-7 and 2-6 for a tie for last in the SEC overall with Vanderbilt and Auburn.

Aggies’ Offense Has Stumbled Under Jimbo Fisher

Fisher, once known for offense, has a passing game that resembles Jimmy Stewart trying to shoot in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” while progressive marksmen are all across the SEC and country. Amid orders to change his offense with a new, non-figure head coordinator, Fisher hired Bobby Petrino, an ageing Easy Rider last seen coaching at Missouri State. Sounds like a match made in buyouts. But that’s Ross Bjork’s problem. Woodward left for LSU in 2019, and fired Orgeron two years later.

11. CLARK LEA, VANDERBILT (No. 14 last year) – Lea went 5-7 and 2-6 last season after a 2-10 and 0-8 mark in his first season in 2021. At Vanderbilt, that is significant, even though three of the wins came over Hawaii, Elon and Northern Illinois. The Commodores did beat No. 24 Kentucky and Florida. So, maybe Lea was not hallucinating at the SEC Media Days last summer when he said, “We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country.”

12. BILLY NAPIER, FLORIDA (No. 11 last year) – Napier started fast last year with a stunning upset of No. 7 Utah. But a 31-24 loss to lowly Vanderbilt led off three straight setbacks to end the season with the other two to No. 16 Florida State and No. 14 Oregon State for a 6-7 and 3-5 finish. And the bad thing is, he may be fortunate to do that well this season with quarterback problems post-Anthony Richardson.

13. ELI DRINKWITZ, MISSOURI (No. 13 last year) – Ranking the same as last year. Record the same as last year at 6-7 and 3-5. Look for it to remain same as it ever was.

14. ZACH ARNETT, MISSISSIPPI STATE (1st year) – Arnett will be entering his first season as a head coach after a promotion from defensive coordinator following the death of Mike Leach last December. Who knows? He is only 36. Nowhere to go but up. And if nothing else in this league, he can learn from some of the best.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests.

A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention.

Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at, and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.

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