Seasons come and go and only one thing you can bet on is turnover on the coaching staff. Some get fired, some decide to make jumps to other gigs. It is one of the most natural progressions in college football.
There's way too many schools and way too much money being thrown out for position coaches not to interview for open coordinator spots and coordinators not to interview for open head coaching opportunities. Some assistants make what head coaches label as "lateral moves" (this is when the head coach is very sad that they just lost an assistant--it is the Obama reaction instead of the Luther).
Going into the 2016 season, 10 out of the 14 teams in the SEC are replacing at least one of their coordinators. This includes three teams in the East replacing both. In total, there are 13 new coordinators in the conference.
Needless to say, a majority of the teams were looking to either improve upon what they had or at least maintain the status quo in light of attrition.
We're going to look at each of the new coordinators and try to predict the success they have in comparison to their predecessor. Today we'll take a look at the Western division.
Jeremy Pruitt (Alabama-Defense)
It's a homecoming of sorts for Pruitt and it seems to be about as seamless a transition for Nick Saban to make considering he hasn't had to make this particular choice of coach in eight years. In this day and age, it's remarkable that as hot a head coaching prospect as Kirby Smart was, he chose to remain with his mentor for as long as he did.
Before Pruitt busted out on his own to coach very good defenses at Florida State and Georgia over the last three seasons, he was Director of Player Development from 2007-2009 and Defensive Backs Coach from 2010-2012 under Nick Saban at Alabama. This is exactly where he wanted to be in 2012.
Let's begin with this: Kirby Smart's defense last year, save for two games, was truly dominant. In the era of HUNH, one could posit that the 2015 Alabama defense is comparable to the 2011. They finished third in the nation in Total Defense allowing 276.3 yards per game, 3rd in Scoring Defense allowing 15.1 points per game, first in Rushing Defense with 75.7 yards per game and 30th in Passing Defense with 200.6 yards per game.
That last statistic may well be where 'Bama gets an upgrade in 2016, considering Pruitt's Georgia defense last year finished first in Passing Defense with a stingy 156.5 yards per game. Granted, five of the worst offenses in the conference in 2015 played in their division, but it's certainly worth noting. Overall, Georgia finished last season in the Top 10 in all but one major defensive category.
Since becoming a full-time defensive coordinator, Pruitt improved upon the previous coach's efforts in three out of the four major statistical categories. The one negative factor is his teams' deficiencies against the rush. This is where you may see Alabama take a step back from previous years, especially against the likes of Power-I teams like LSU and Arkansas.
Overall, Pruitt should be able to keep things relatively stable. With Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Eddie Jackson, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson all returning for their final years in Tuscaloosa, nothing should keep this team from being anything but a "Nick Saban Defense." It just may be a little inverted, statistically speaking.
2016 Prediction: Push
Kevin Steele (Auburn-Defense)
70. It is a number that will haunt Kevin Steele for as long as he lives. It's a number that kept him off the field for two straight seasons. For those who don't remember, the 2012 Orange Bowl provided one of the uglier defensive performances in a bowl game. In fact, the 70 points West Virginia hung on Kevin Steele's Clemson defense is still a bowl game record.
For most of Steele's career, he was a position coach, namely working with the linebackers under legendary coaches Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden. It was Saban who gave him his first opportunity as a coordinator when Saban became Alabama's head coach in 2007. That season, Steele's defense gave up 345.5 yards per game, a number alien to anyone who's thought of Alabama the last decade.
In 2008, 'Bama's defense improved to 263.5 yards per game, but it must be noted that Kirby Smart was Steele's co-defensive coordinator. As Clemson's defensive coordinator from 2009-2011, each of Steele's defenses regressed from the year prior. In fact, in Dabo Swinney's first full season as head coach, Clemson's defense gave up more yards per game than they did when he took over as interim in 2008.
In 2014, Steele was back on the field as Alabama's middle linebackers coach, when Les Miles needed a new defensive coordinator following John Chavis' departure. While, he kept things relatively stable for his one year in Baton Rouge, a Chavis defense it certainly was not. Then, Gus Malzahn came calling after Will Muschamp took the South Carolina job.
Muschamp's 2015 Auburn defense was not quite as dominant as people expected it to be, giving up 374 yards per game, but it was still a vast improvement over Ellis Johnson's dreadful '14 squad. Now, as Steele comes in to take over a slew of talent, the hope is to keep things simple for the players and not overhaul too many defensive principles.
Still, just as he did for Chavis, Steele has to replace another great defensive mind at Auburn and while Carl Lawson and Co. should provide enough highlights to satiate the Tiger faithful, history dictates that Auburn under Steele may take a step back defensively in 2016 in more than one statistical category.
2016 Prediction: Worse
Dave Aranda (LSU-Defense)
As the successor to the aforementioned Steele, this is arguably the biggest coordinator upgrade in the country in 2016. Since becoming defensive coordinator for Gary Andersen's Utah State and Wisconsin teams in 2012, Dave Aranda consistently overachieved with lesser talent.
In 2012, he was a Broyles Award finalist at Utah State for top assistant of the year when his Aggies defense finished the season in the top fifteen in the country in all four major statistical categories. When Andersen moved his staff to Madison, Aranda's 2013 defense finished in the top ten in three out of the four.
Even after Andersen moved to Corvallis to coach Oregon State in 2015, new Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst kept Aranda as his defensive coordinator and Wisconsin finished first in Scoring Defense, second in Total Defense, fourth in Rushing Defense and seventh in Passing Defense. All of this with a bunch of unwanted three-star recruits. Nuts, right?
While Kevin Steele did a respectable job with LSU's defense last season, they still finished outside of the Top 25 in two out of the four categories and ended up 25th in Total Defense. For what LSU fans have become accustomed to, this is an aberration and basically unacceptable. While Steele took the Auburn gig willingly, Aranda becoming defensive coordinator is the best possible outcome for Les Miles.
Not only did Miles save his job, but he's now put blue chip talent in the hands of the hottest coordinator in the nation and he's doing it at a time where LSU's offense could be as prolific as any team he's coached. Not only will LSU's defense be better under Aranda in 2016, they will be the best in the conference and he will be the 2016 Broyles Award winner and it won't even be close.
2016 Prediction: Better (WAY Better)
Peter Sirmon (Mississippi State-Defense)
If you ever wondered whether the SEC West likes fielding good defenses, this is the fourth defensive coordinator to be discussed in this blog. The SEC West loves defense. Like Aranda, Peter Sirmon is another youthful presence brought into the big, bad Southeastern Conference.
This is Sirmon's first stint as a true coordinator, but his work with the linebackers at, both, Tennessee under Derek Dooley and Steve Sarkisian at Washington and USC indicate that he's ready to make the jump. Sirmon being a fairly recent retiree of the NFL should be a nice shot in the proverbial arm for an underrated crew of Bulldog players ready to be better.
The outgoing coach for Mississippi State is Manny Diaz, who took the same position at Miami, much to the chagrin of head coach Dan Mullen who had to search for his sixth defensive coordinator in eight seasons. And this was Diaz's second stint, as well. While losing that stability is not a prime indicator for success, like Les Miles, Mullen should be happy about the current state of his defense.
This is the perfect opportunity for both Sirmon and Mullen. Sirmon gets to try his hand at his first coordinator position in a very tough and physically demanding division, while Mullen gets some time to see his defense improve. Honestly, it couldn't be much worse than how the Bulldogs fared in 2015.
Under Diaz, the Mississippi State defense allowed 391 yards per game. While at USC and Washington, Sirmon coached star players like Su'a Cravens and Shaq Thompson and he should be able to get the same production out of State LBs Leo Lewis and Richie Brown. Based off the above information, Sirmon could be in for a slight learning curve, but he should, also, be able to get the Bulldogs back to where they were under Geoff Collins.
2016 Prediction: Better
Noel Mazzone (Texas A&M-Offense)
Certainly, new A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone understands what's at stake with his arrival in College Station. Head Coach Kevin Sumlin has seen his stock plummet since waving bye-bye to Johnny Football in 2013 and while he was able to plug a hole in the defensive issues last season with the hiring of John Chavis, his offenses under Jake Spavital continued to regress, including a 59-0 drubbing at the hands of Alabama in 2014.
Tack on the departure of two former five-star QBs and Sumlin had some work to do to keep himself in good standing with the top brass. His first step in the right direction was to bring in former UCLA offensive coordinator, Mazzone. Mazzone coached UCLA's offense to a healthy 465.8 yards per game and did it with a true freshman quarterback.
Noel Mazzone needs to produce some serious stats for Sumlin. Badly.
In his four years in Westwood under Jim Mora, Jr., Mazzone's offenses never strayed far from the previous year. In fact, his first offense at UCLA in 2012 improved from 376.6 yards per game to an astonishing 466.5 yards per game. Mazzone produces.
Interestingly enough, Spavital's offenses in his four years as OC were not awful. They always maintained a productive pace in the ever-competitive SEC West. Yet, given A&M's 2012 offense under former OC Kliff Kingsbury produced 558 yards per game and Spavital's 2015 offense produced 427 yards per game, there was obviously a steady decline and a change needed to be made.
Mazzone has a new, but experienced quarterback in Trevor Knight to work with and a collection of speedy receivers that would be starting on any other team in the conference. He doesn't need to get them back to 558. He just needs them to be better than 427. This is attainable and it will happen.
2016 Prediction: Better. The new kids on the block look to improve their team's respective units.