Mark Story

Five big-name SEC football coaches who better win right now

Gus Malzahn went 12-2 in his first season as Auburn head coach (2013) but is “only” 23-16 in three seasons since.
Gus Malzahn went 12-2 in his first season as Auburn head coach (2013) but is “only” 23-16 in three seasons since. Associated Press

Over the last four college football seasons, the Southeastern Conference has won “only” one national championship — Alabama after the 2015 season.

In the same time frame, the SEC has boasted “only” one Heisman Trophy winner — Alabama running back Derrick Henry in 2015.

That has led to a narrative of decline for the league that produced eight of 10 national champs between 2003 and 2012 and claimed four Heisman Trophy winners between 2007 and 2012.

So it does not seem a coincidence that the dominant SEC football storyline entering 2017 is some high-profile coaches thought to be on searing hot seats.

Below is a look at what to watch in the coming season in Southeastern Conference football:

Coaches who better produce

Five coaches who need to win big in 2017:

1.) Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. With Johnny Manziel as his starting quarterback in 2012 and ’13, Sumlin went 20-6 overall and 10-6 in SEC games. Since the mercurial Manziel turned pro, Sumlin is 24-15 overall and 11-13 against SEC foes.

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Kevin Sumlin coached Texas A&M to a 6-2 record in SEC games in the Aggies’ first season in the conference (2012) but A&M is 15-17 in league contests since that year. Brynn Anderson Associated Press

Suffice to say, A&M did not invest $485 million in football facilities upgrades earlier this decade to have a losing record in the SEC.

2.) Butch Jones, Tennessee. For a fan base that burns to see Rocky Top again become an elite college football brand, Jones (30-21, 14-18 SEC) has only produced one winning record in league games (5-3 in 2015).

With no actual championships having yet been won, Jones’ penchant for cloying bromides — think “champions of life” and “five-star hearts” — has started to irritate.

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In four prior seasons as Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, left, is 4-0 against Kentucky and Coach Mark Stoops, right, but is 10-18 in all other SEC games. Herald-Leader file photo

3.) Bret Bielema, Arkansas. When the Hogs landed the coach who led Wisconsin to three Rose Bowl appearances, I don’t think Arkansas expected to be 25-26 overall and 10-22 in the SEC after four seasons.

4.) Gus Malzahn, Auburn. As a first-year coach in 2013, Malzahan led Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC) to a berth in the national championship game — after a win over Alabama.

Since then, he’s 23-16 overall, 11-13 in the SEC — and 0-3 vs. the Crimson Tide.

At a school that has long had a quick trigger finger when it comes to coaching changes, Malzahn needs better results now.

5.) Ed Orgeron, LSU. You don’t often see a first-year coach on a “hot seat list.” Then again, you don’t often see a school fire a coach with a 114-34 overall record — 62-28 in conference games — in order to ultimately hire a coach who went 10-25, 3-21 in the league, at a different school in the same conference.

In replacing the deposed Les Miles with former Mississippi coach Orgeron, LSU did exactly that (in fairness, Orgeron went 6-2 as interim head coach at USC in 2013 and 6-2 in the same scenario after Miles was fired at LSU last year).

Given the “I told you so’s” that will come down if Orgeron looks like a failure, it would behoove “Coach O” to be “Coach W” right out of the gate in Baton Rouge.

Heisman watch

Five players who could return college football’s most prestigious individual award to the SEC:

1). Jalen Hurts, Alabama. Quarterbacks have won six of the past seven Heismans. Crimson Tide QB Hurts has a chance to put his stamp on the race immediately with a strong showing in their marquee season opener with Florida State.

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Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, No. 2 in red, ran for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 2,780 yards and 23 TDs last year as a true freshman. Butch Dill Associated Press

2). Derrius Guice, LSU. Would be something if running back Guice captured the Heisman that many felt was the destiny of now-former LSU RB Leonard Fournette.

3). Nick Chubb, Georgia. After suffering a significant knee injury in 2015, the Georgia running back was not the same player in 2016 (five yards per carry) that he had been before (7.1 yards per carry in 2014; 8.1 in 2015). If he gets his explosion back as a senior, he could rush his way to a special season.

4). Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. The dual-threat quarterback is apt to put up massive numbers in 2017, but the challenge will be leading State to enough wins to gain traction in the Heisman race.

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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, No. 7, kissed the “Golden Trophy” as after leading the Bulldogs to a 55-20 win over archrival Mississippi in last season’s “Egg Bowl.” Rogelio V. Solis Associated Press

5.) Calvin Ridley, Alabama. A wide receiver has not won the Heisman since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991, so the odds are stacked against Ridley. But, man, Ridley is talented.

Kentucky expatriates to watch

Four players with Kentucky ties who could have varying degrees of impact on 2017 SEC football:

1.) Damien Harris, Alabama. The former Madison Southern running back star led the “Saban-ic forces” in rushing last season (1,037 yards, two touchdowns) as a sophomore but many project Harris will take a back seat to power back Bo Scarbrough (812 yards, 11 TDs) in 2017.

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Former Madison Southern High School star Damien Harris led Alabama in rushing last season with 1,037 yards. Brian Simms bsimms@herald-leader.com

2.) Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. Born in Corbin and raised in Richmond until he was 9 before his family moved to Texas, quarterback Stidham began his college career at Baylor in 2015 by throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns versus only two interceptions while completing 68.5 percent of his passes. Now a redshirt sophomore transfer in the SEC, Stidham’s performance might well determine the coaching fate of Auburn head man Gus Malzahn.

3.) Ryan White, Vanderbilt. Somewhat overshadowed at Louisville’s Trinity High School by teammates James Quick and Jason Hatcher, White has turned out to be the most productive college player of the lot. Last year as a junior, the safety had 75 tackles and six pass break-ups to help Vandy reach the Independence Bowl.

4.) Jedrick Wills, Alabama. In his first preseason camp in Tuscaloosa, the ex-Lafayette offensive tackle is said to have “drawn positive attention” from Nick Saban and might get a chance to play as a true freshman.

Predictions

1.) Alabama will win the West. How can you pick anyone else?

2.) Georgia will win the East. I’m going to keep picking the Bulldogs until they finally do it.

3.) Alabama will defeat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

4.) Alabama will reclaim the national championship, beating Ohio State in the College Football Playoffs Championship Game.

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