Last season, my ranking of the SEC head coaches drew the ire of several fan bases (including Tennessee, for some reason). Things have changed a bit since then, with the retirement of Rich Brooks from Kentucky, Bobby Johnson's mid-summer departure from Vanderbilt and Lane Kiffin's unceremonious exit from Knoxville. Here's how I rank the head coaches in the SEC in 2010, starting with No. 12.
12. Robbie Caldwell – Vanderbilt Commodores (Last season: NR)
Raise your hand if you thought Robbie Caldwell would be included in these rankings at the end of spring practice? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Caldwell is totally unproven and, given the timing of his ascension to the head of the Commodore program, you'd think that he's not 100 percent prepared for the role. It took him 32 years to gain the title, so he's had time to think about what he will do as a head coach. But honestly, where else could he be in the 2010 head coach rankings? Could he be the spark that the Commodore program needs to get back to respectability? Maybe. But his situation is WAY too unstable at this time.
Why he could be higher: He can't be. The late upheaval in the Vanderbilt program was something that was unexpected, and Caldwell can't be totally prepared for this position. But his performance at Media Days was fantastic.
11. Joker Phillips – Kentucky Wildcats (Last season: NR)
Phillips was been the coach-in-waiting for Kentucky for the past two years under the very underrated Rich Brooks, so he's had time to prepare for this moment. He has spent more than 20 years with the Wildcats as both a player and a coach, so he understands the program. The Kentucky football program is very under-appreciated in the landscape of the SEC; and with weapons like Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke on the roster, the Wildcats will be better-than-advertised in 2010. I'd be shocked if Phillips was anywhere near the bottom of these rankings in 2011, but since he's completely unproven as a head coach.
Why he could be higher: He doesn't have a career record below .500.
Why he could be lower: He can't be. Contrary to Robbie Caldwell, Phillips has seen this coming for a couple of years, so he has a pretty good idea on how he wants to run the program.
10. Derek Dooley – Tennessee Volunteers (Last season: NR)
Dooley takes over in Knoxville after the failed one-year Lane Kiffin experiment. As the son of former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, Derek Dooley certainly comes from a successful head coaching pedigree. But let's be honest, a 17-20 career coaching record playing primarily against WAC competition isn't something to write home about. Despite the sub-.500 record, Dooley built a good reputation for himself in SEC circles and even saw his name pop up on the periphery in coaching searches at Mississippi State and Auburn after the 2008 season. Dooley cut his teeth in the SEC with Nick Saban while Saban was at LSU, and if you're gonna learn how to coach in the SEC, that's a pretty good guy to learn from. He's stepping into a situation in Knoxville that isn't ideal (to say the least). But if given the proper time, Dooley can succeed with the Vols.
Why he could be higher: Vince Dooley and Nick Saban are two pretty good mentors.
Why he could be lower: Sub-.500 at Louisiana Tech is still sub-.500 at Louisiana Tech.
9. Dan Mullen – Mississippi State Bulldogs (Last season: 11)
Despite posting a 5-7 record and missing a bowl game in his inaugural season in at Mississippi State, Mullen has restored a sense of optimism in Starkville and has begun to turn an offense around that had become stagnant under previous coach Sylvester Croom. Let's not forget, the Bulldogs were a botched two-minute drill away from beating LSU and going to a bowl game last year, plus they were competitive in almost every game they played. Mullen has things going in the right direction, but it's a process that will take some time. Once he gets his players on campus, things could really get cooking in Starkville.
Why he could be higher: He impressed enough people to be mentioned as a possible replacement for Urban Meyer for the 18 hours that Florida was without a coach.
Why he could be lower: I'm not sure he could be. That one year has proven that he's got the ship pointed in the right direction.
8. Bobby Petrino – Arkansas Razorbacks (Last season: 9)
Petrino posted an eight-win season and a Liberty Bowl win in his second year in Fayetteville. This season will give the rest of the conference a good idea of where Petrino actually has this Razorback program. Petrino is widely regarded as a brilliant offensive mind, but the head coach is responsible for all three phases of the game, and he's been neglecting his defense ever since he stepped foot in the SEC. Expectations are running high in Fayetteville, but they were running high in Oxford last season, and that didn't turn out so well for Ole Miss. Let's see how Petrino does with a target (albeit a relatively small one) on his back.
Why he could be higher: He's groomed Ryan Mallett to be a Heisman Trophy contender in the toughest conference in America.
Why he could be lower: Having a defense that allows more than 400 yards per game is unacceptable.
7. Gene Chizik – Auburn Tigers (Last season: 10)
While it took Petrino two years to get to the eight-win mark as an SEC head coach, Chizik reached that point in just one. Chizik parlayed a better-than-expected inaugural campaign on the Plains into the No. 6 recruiting class in the nation in 2009; and has vaulted the Tigers back into the preseason top 25 of several publications. Auburn's struggles on defense last season were due in large part to the lack of depth leftover from the Tommy Tuberville regime. With the fast-paced offense Auburn runs, their defense has to be deepest and best-conditioned defense in the conference to be successful. They weren't quite there in 2009, but the return of several players from injury coupled with Chizik's success on the recruiting trail should restore the depth to that side of the ball in short order.
Why he could be higher: He turned a program that was in complete chaos around in a matter of five months.
Why he could be lower: He doesn't have a BCS appearance and Bobby Petrino does. Even if it's at Louisville, it still counts.
6. Les Miles – LSU Tigers (Last season: 7)
Last season, I got grilled for saying that the talent on the Tigers roster bailed Les Miles out in 2007. LSU didn't win the BCS National Championship in 2007 because of coaching – they won it in spite of their coaching. Miles further proved that point in 2009 with some horrendous clock management late in games vs. Ole Miss and Penn State. The Tigers are 8-8 since hoisting the crystal football at the end of the 2007 season, and none of those wins have come against a team with a winning SEC record. The decline of the LSU program has landed Miles squarely on the hot seat in 2010, and I'm not sure he'll be able to dig himself out of it.
Why he could be higher: You can't take that ring away (unless, of course, you're USC....oh wait...that hasn't happened yet).
Why he could be lower: Top to bottom, his roster is littered with NFL-caliber talent. Middle-of-the-road just doesn't cut it.
5. Houston Nutt – Ole Miss Rebels (Last Season: 3)
Houston Nutt did a lot wrong last year; but you can't ignore the fact that he's posted back-to-back nine-win seasons in each of his first two seasons in Oxford, and led the Rebs to back-to-back January bowl appearances for the first time in 40 years. Considering that the Rebels are the only team in the SEC West that has never represented the division in the SEC Championship Game, that's pretty impressive. With so many players gone off of last years' team, Nutt is looking at a rebuilding year this year even with Jeremiah Masoli taking the snaps. But his success at Ole Miss and previously at Arkansas can't be ignored.
Why he could be higher: I'm not really sure that he could be. He doesn't have an SEC title, and his teams have never really contended for the national championship.
Why he could be lower: He doesn't do well with expectations. Last season, Dexter McCluster was virtually invisible from the Rebels offense for the first six games. No excuse for that.
4. Steve Spurrier – South Carolina Gamecocks (Last Season: 6)
Remember when the Ole Ball Coach was widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the nation? Well, that may be in the past, but he hasn't fallen as far as some like to think. He has the name value and rings to warrant a No. 4 ranking, even if his tenure in Columbia has been less-than-stellar. That will change this year. Don't fall into the trap, Spurrier is just playing mind games with quarterback Stephen Garcia. He's poised to have a big year, and the Gamecocks will to give Florida a run for their money in the SEC East.
Why he could be higher: Contrary to the man ranked ahead of him, Spurrier has a national championship to fall back on.
Why he could be lower: He came to Columbia in 2005 to turn the Gamecocks around. Instead, they've been stuck in neutral.
3. Mark Richt – Georgia Bulldogs (Last Season: 4)
Repeat after me, “Mark Richt is not on the hot seat.” The Georgia Bulldogs' head coach has been the subject of unfounded criticism this offseason, particularly from out-of-state media members. Mark Richt is a very good football coach. Is he Vince Dooley? No. But he does have a career winning percentage (.769) that's 54 points higher than the legendary former Bulldog head coach. The two coaches prior to Richt, Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, averaged just over seven wins per season. Since Richt took over in 2001, the Bulldogs have averaged 10 wins per season and won SEC Championships in 2002 and 2005. He's built that program to a point where eight-win seasons simply won't cut it, which is a pretty nice place to be.
Why he could be higher: He can't be. He doesn't have a National Championship, so No. 3 is pretty much as good as it gets for Richt.
Why he could be lower: He can't seem to avoid the inexplicable let-down, and has a very tough time beating Florida.
2. Urban Meyer – Florida Gators (Last Season: 1)
In reality, Meyer and Nick Saban are No. 1 and No. 1B. But since Saban is the most recent recipient of the crystal football, Meyer is relegated to No. 2. Meyer has led the Gators to a level of sustained success that Florida hasn't enjoyed since the Spurrier era. His retirement/un-retirement saga this past offseason does call into question his long-term commitment to the Gators, which should be at least a little bit concerning to Gator fans. But you can't question the results. The Gators have lost one regular season game in the last two years, and are in the National Championship hunt every season.
Why he could be higher: He's got that Gator program on cruise control.
Why he could be lower: The jury is still out on how Meyer's offense works with a pro-style QB. Aside from 2006, when Chris Leak took the snaps, we've never really seen him coach a pro-style quarterback. Even then, Tim Tebow came in on goal line and short-yardage situations.
1. Nick Saban – Alabama Crimson Tide (Last Season: 2)
Nick Saban has led the Alabama Crimson Tide to back-to-back unblemished SEC regular seasons. In this day and age, that's almost impossible. In just three short years, he's turned the Crimson Tide program around from a middle-of-the-road SEC team, to a national power – and there's no sign of letting up. The Alabama fan base now expects to win the SEC West and contend for the national title on an annual basis. Those are some pretty lofty expectations, and Nick Saban is the reason they exist. Are they going to win the SEC West every season under Saban? Probably not. But I don't see any way that they fall out of contention at any point in the near future.
Why he could be lower: He hasn't quite built the roster depth that Meyer has at Florida, but he's getting very close.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
Off-Season Column Archive:
Ranking The SEC Head Coaches – August 2, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 3 Recap – July 23, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 2 Recap – July 22, 2010
SEC Media Days: Day 1 Recap – July 21, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part III – July 13, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part II – June 21, 2010
Auburn Gets The Last Laugh – June 10, 2010
Realignment – What Should The SEC Do? – June 9, 2010
SEC Roundtable Discussion Part I – June 7, 2010
Richt On The Hot Seat? – June 3, 2010
Auburn Dismisses Redshirt Freshman RB – May 21, 2010
SEC Hires of the Decade – The Bottom Five – May 14, 2010
Top 5 SEC Hires of the Decade – May 5, 2010
Georgia In A Gray Area – April 26, 2009
Taunting Rule Goes Too Far – April 16, 2009
Memorable SEC Press Conferences – February 20, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 2 – February 18, 2009
2010 Early SEC Picks, Part 1 – February 16, 2009
Florida Reaches For DC – February 12, 2009
Vols Go West For New DC – February 3, 2009
Early 2010 SEC Predictions – January 31, 2010
Chizik Doing It Right – January 21, 2010
Georgia's DC Debacle – January 12, 2010
SEC Bloggers: Do Over – January 8, 2010
Trouble In Baton Rouge – January 2, 2010
Meyer Calls A Reverse – December 27, 2009
Urban Meyer's SEC Legacy – December 26, 2009
End Of The Season Accountability – December 26, 2009
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 18, 2009
2009 SEC Superlatives – December 13, 2009
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