John Clay

Grouping the SEC football coaches into tiers ahead of the 2019 season

Let’s try something different.

Instead of the usual offseason exercise of ranking the Southeastern Conference football coaches one through 14, let’s group them into tiers, not from best to worst, but from the top (the elite) to those on the hot seat (they better produce).

Elite

Nick Saban: Never mind last year’s national title loss. The Alabama coach has clearly separated himself from the rest of the pack. Saban is 141-20 in Tuscaloosa with five national titles. He also won a national title at LSU. And at age 67, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Chance to be elite

Kirby Smart: He’s 32-10 in three years at Georgia with a trip to the 2017 College Football Playoff. The Dawgs lost a heartbreaker to Bama in last year’s SEC title game. And the 43-year-old Smart’s 2019 recruiting class was ranked second by 247Sports, just behind Alabama.

Dan Mullen: The 47-year-old Mullen was 10-3 in his first season as Florida’s head coach. He went 69-44 in nine seasons at Mississippi State. Given the abundant football talent in Florida, Mullen should make the Gators a national power again.

Safe

Mark Stoops: The 51-year-old Kentucky coach earned a payoff last season for his six years of program-building. The Cats finished 10-3, their best victory total since 1977, to bring Stoops’ overall record to 36-39. And season tickets are selling at a brisk pace.

Jimbo Fisher: The 53-year-old Fisher was 9-4 in his debut season at Texas A&M. Scott Woodward, the athletics director who brought him to College Station from Florida State, is now at LSU. But Fisher is in the second year of his 10-year, $75 million contract.

Barry Odom: This one was tricky, but the 42-year-old Odom is 19-19 in three seasons. The Tigers were 8-5 last year and have been to back-to-back bowls. The fact that Missouri is bowl-ineligible this season because of probation might actually help Odom, keeping expectations low.

Jury is out

Joe Moorhead: The 45-year-old Moorhead wasn’t a flop his first year at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were 8-5 with a loss in the Outback Bowl. The former Penn State offensive coordinator looks like a good hire, but time will tell.

Jeremy Pruitt: After Butch Jones’ firing, Tennessee’s mess of a search ended with Pruitt. The 45-year-old former Alabama defensive coordinator went 5-7 in his first season as a college head coach. The Vols collapsed at season’s end, however, losing 50-17 to Missouri and 38-13 to Vanderbilt.

Chad Morris: The 50-year-old was 2-10 last season, his first at Arkansas. Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator at Clemson was 14-22 in three years as SMU’s head coach before coming to Fayetteville.

Matt Luke: The 42-year-old former Rebel is 11-13 in two seasons. The Rebels have new coordinators with head coaching experience. Former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez will run the offense. Former Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre will run the defense.

Better produce

Gus Malzahn: The 53-year-old Malzahn might have lost his safety net Friday when Auburn president Steven Leath was forced out. He’s 53-27 overall, but went just 8-5 last season. Meanwhile, Alabama keeps winning.

Ed Orgeron: At 25-9, the 57-year-old Orgeron has not been the disaster some predicted when LSU promoted him from interim coach after the Les Miles firing. But he’s working for a new boss in Woodward.

Will Muschamp: The 47-year-old South Carolina coach was a disappointing 7-6 in 2018. He’s 22-17 over three seasons in Columbia after going 28-21 at Florida.. And he’s lost three straight to Kentucky.

Derek Mason: The 49-year-old Mason is 24-38 with a pair of bowl trips over five years. The Commodores were 6-7 last year. But Mason is working for a new boss in Malcolm Turner, who wasted little time firing basketball coach Bryce Drew.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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