Mark Story

The five SEC football coaches who need big years in 2018

LSU Coach Ed Orgeron has only 10 starters back from last season and faces a difficult schedule that includes Miami (Fla.), Georgia, Auburn and Alabama.
LSU Coach Ed Orgeron has only 10 starters back from last season and faces a difficult schedule that includes Miami (Fla.), Georgia, Auburn and Alabama. Associated Press

In the first decade of the 21st century, three different Southeastern Conference programs — LSU (two), Florida (two) and Alabama — combined to win five of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision national championships.

So far in the second decade of the century, the SEC has won five of the eight national titles awarded. Four of those, however, have been won by one school.

Alabama took home the big prize in 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017. Auburn (2010) is the other Southeastern Conference school with a national title in the current decade.

A season ago, Georgia came achingly close to derailing Nick Saban’s dynasty before falling in overtime in the national title game.

In a year when Alabama has but 10 starters back, only three on defense, is 2018 when somebody else from the SEC finally claims another national crown?

Here is a preview of the 2018 Southeastern Conference football season:

Five coaches who need to win

1. Ed Orgeron, LSU. Skeptics abounded when the ex-Mississippi head coach was chosen as the full-time replacement to Les Miles. Even though “Coach O” has gone 15-6 since, he has not overseen two things impatient LSU fans crave: 1.) the installation of an effective, modern offense; 2.) a win over Alabama.

2. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt. In four prior seasons, Mason (18-31) has yet to have a winning record and is 6-26 in SEC games. However, he does have something that really matters to Vandy fans (all 11 of them): Two straight wins over Tennessee.

3. Barry Odom, Missouri. After going 4-8 in his first season (2016) as Mizzou head man and starting last year 1-5, the hounds were braying for Odom’s job. Missouri proceeded to take some heat off Odom by winning its final six games of the regular season behind quarterback Drew Lock. With Lock returning for his senior season in 2018, it would behoove Odom to take advantage.

4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. Yes, Malzahn led Auburn to a 10-4 season, a berth in the SEC championship game and (most importantly) a victory over Alabama in 2017. Yes, he also signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension. But the Tigers have a brutal league schedule in 2018 — at Mississippi State; at Georgia; at Alabama — and history says Auburn coaches are always one disappointing season from the hot seat.

5. Mark Stoops, Kentucky. With Stoops entering 2018 off back-to-back winning seasons (both 7-6), his job is not on the line in 2018. Stoops needs to produce bountiful results with a veteran-laden roster this season, however, so he will not feel rising heat in 2019 in what looks to be a rebuilding year.

Five with Kentucky ties

1. Damien Harris, Alabama. After running for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, the Madison Southern star could play his way into Heisman Trophy consideration with a monster senior year for the Saban-ic forces.

2. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. Born in Corbin and raised in Richmond until he was nine, the Auburn quarterback (3,158 yards passing last season with 18 touchdowns vs. six interceptions) could get into the Heisman race himself if he and the Tigers can surmount an exacting schedule that includes Pac-12 power Washington on a neutral field and three rugged SEC road games (see above).

3. Jedrick Wills, Alabama. As a sophomore, the ex-Lafayette High School star is bidding to crack the Crimson Tide starting lineup at either right guard or right tackle.

4. Saige Young, Vanderbilt. A high school teammate of Kentucky Wildcats center Drake Jackson at Woodford County, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior started the last eight games at left guard for Vandy last season. Young is one of five returning starters on the Commodores’ offensive line.

5. Landon Stratton, Georgia. The Logan County High School product was the starting punter at Murray State the past three seasons, averaging 41.2 yards a kick on 213 punts. A graduate transfer, Stratton could end up playing a vital role for a team with national title aspirations if he can beat out lavishly touted freshman Jake Camarda to be the Bulldogs’ punter.

Texas A&M lured Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State with a 10-year, $75 million contract. Curtis Compton TNS

Five first-year head coaches

Not counting Mississippi’s Matt Luke, who was the Rebels’ interim head coach last year, there are five new head men in the SEC this year.

1. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M. Fisher signed a 10-year, $75 million contract to leave Florida State for College Station. His immediate reward is a killer 2018 SEC road schedule that features games at Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn.

2. Dan Mullen, Florida. The former Mississippi State head man is buying the stock “Gators football” at a modern low after UF went 4-7 in 2017. Mullen inherits 19 returning starters — most in the SEC — and got good news this month when former standout Ole Miss wide receiver Van Jefferson was declared immediately eligible as a transfer.

3. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State. Recognized as one of the sharpest offensive minds in football, Moorhead was an intriguing hire by MSU AD John Cohen, the ex-Kentucky baseball coach. Moorhead, a former Fordham quarterback and head coach and ex-Penn State offensive coordinator, has no prior ties to the South. Inheriting 17 returning starters from a 9-4 team, Moorhead should be set up for a fast start.

After a meandering coaching search that became a national punch line, Tennessee ended up with Phillip Fulmer, left, as its athletics director and former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as its head coach. Steve Megargee AP

4. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee. After a coaching search that became a national punchline, UT settled on the same formula Georgia used in hiring Kirby Smart: The Volunteers went with Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Pruitt’s chances for an immediate breakthrough in 2018 are constrained by an SEC schedule that begins with a challenging five-game stretch of Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, Alabama and at South Carolina.

5. Chad Morris, Arkansas. The former SMU head man came to Fayetteville vowing to transform the Razorbacks into the most explosive offense in college football. That will be quite the change from the “ground and pound” approach of ex-head Hog Bret Bielema.


It will be a very “chalky” year in Southeastern Conference football:

1. Alabama wins the SEC West.

2. Georgia wins the SEC East.

3. Alabama wins the SEC championship game.

4. Alabama and Clemson meet in the College Football Playoff championship game.

5. Clemson wins it all.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory