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SEC Football Preview 2016: Measuring Each Coach's Effectiveness

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Which coaches get it done when they should? Or even when they shouldn't?

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

I'm always looking for new ways to gauge how good the SEC's coaches are, and I decided to create a new one based on my definition of peer teams from earlier in the offseason. That definition was simple: S&P+ rates teams based on how many points better or worse than a perfectly average team is, and if the year-ed S&P+ ratings said a team was within a touchdown of another given team, I call them peers because they're roughly on the same level.

I compiled each current SEC head coach's record against three classes of opponents: their peers, the teams that were more than a touchdown above them, and teams that were more than a touchdown below them. These records only go back to 2005, which is as far back as S&P+ goes, and they don't include FCS opponents because S&P+ doesn't include FCS teams. I covered the coaches' full resumes as head coaches, so for instance Butch Jones's record includes Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well as Tennessee. Since this is a relative measure, I didn't have to throw out non-SEC experience.

Given that Georgia and Missouri hired first-time head coaches, I included Mark Richt and Gary Pinkel's records to make sure those schools were represented.

Games They Weren't Supposed to Win

This covers the games where the final S&P+ said that a team's opponent was more than a touchdown better. In theory, coaches shouldn't win many of these games. In practice, it's as expected: they don't.

Coach Overall Home Road Neutral Conf. CG Bowl
Kevin Sumlin 6-10 (.375) 2-5 (.286) 2-5 (.286) 2-0 (1.000) - (-) - (-)
Nick Saban 1-3 (.250) 1-1 (.500) 0-1 (.000) - (-) 0-1 (.000) - (-)
Hugh Freeze 2-7 (.222) 1-3 (.250) 1-4 (.200) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Les Miles 2-9 (.182) 1-4 (.200) 1-5 (.167) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Butch Jones 3-20 (.130) 1-7 (.125) 1-12 (.077) - (-) - (-) 0-1 (.000)
Mark Richt 2-14 (.125) 0-5 (.000) 1-3 (.250) 1-4 (.200) 0-2 (.000) - (-)
Will Muschamp 1-7 (.125) 0-2 (.000) 0-4 (.000) 1-1 (1.000) - (-) - (-)
Bret Bielema 2-15 (.118) 1-6 (.143) 0-8 (.000) - (-) - (-) 1-1 (.500)
Gary Pinkel 2-20 (.091) 1-11 (.083) 0-7 (.000) 1-0 (1.000) 0-2 (.000) - (-)
Jim McElwain 1-10 (.091) 0-3 (.000) 0-6 (.000) - (-) 0-1 (.000) 1-0 (1.000)
Gus Malzahn 0-5 (.000) 0-2 (.000) 0-3 (.000) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Derek Mason 0-16 (.000) 0-8 (.000) 0-8 (.000) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Dan Mullen 0-17 (.000) 0-11 (.000) 0-6 (.000) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Mark Stoops 0-21 (.000) 0-11 (.000) 0-10 (.000) - (-) - (-) - (-)

The coaches are listed both here and in following tables in order of win percentage in the Overall column.

Sumlin is tops in win percentage here in large part due to S&P+ liking the past two Arkansas teams and his having swept those games (see the Neutral column for those games in JerryWorld).

The real winner is Saban, though. He's second in win percentage, but look at the total games. He's only faced four opponents that were more than a touchdown better than his Tide teams—remember, this only goes back to 2005, so only his Bama squads are included—and none since the 2008 SEC Championship Game. This is something important to keep in mind: it's not just about a coach's win percentage in these games, but the total of how many of them they play matters too. And, of course, you have to make adjustments for coaches who took over heavy rebuilding projects and/or mid-majors when doing this exercise.

Four coaches have yet to win any of these games. Mason's name being there probably isn't a surprise, nor I'll bet is Stoops's. However Malzahn and Mullen have had far higher expectations on them and they've not been able to break through. Muschamp would make for a fifth if not for his alma mater no-showing in the 2014 Cocktail Party in what, in hindsight, can only be explained as a last-ditch effort on the Bulldogs' part to keep him employed in Gainesville.

Anyway, beating a team that's clearly better than yours is really hard. No one is all that good at it.

Games They Were Supposed to Win

This time, let's look at games where the coaches' teams were more than a touchdown better than their opponents. These should be mostly wins.

Coach Overall Home Road Neutral Conf. CG Bowl
Jim McElwain 16-0 (1.000) 11-0 (1.000) 5-0 (1.000) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Mark Stoops 5-0 (1.000) 5-0 (1.000) - (-) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Dan Mullen 31-1 (.969) 16-0 (1.000) 14-1 (.933) - (-) - (-) 1-0 (1.000)
Butch Jones 30-1 (.968) 18-0 (1.000) 10-1 (.909) - (-) 1-0 (1.000) 1-0 (1.000)
Nick Saban 79-4 (.952) 42-2 (.955) 27-2 (.931) 5-0 (1.000) 3-0 (1.000) 3-0 (1.000)
Kevin Sumlin 39-2 (.951) 21-1 (.955) 17-1 (.944) - (-) - (-) 1-0 (1.000)
Gary Pinkel 48-3 (.941) 27-1 (.964) 15-2 (.882) 4-0 (1.000) - (-) 2-0 (1.000)
Les Miles 70-5 (.933) 44-1 (.978) 20-4 (.833) 3-0 (1.000) 1-0 (1.000) 2-0 (1.000)
Hugh Freeze 23-2 (.920) 13-1 (.929) 7-1 (.875) 1-0 (1.000) - (-) 2-0 (1.000)
Mark Richt 64-6 (.914) 36-1 (.973) 25-3 (.893) 1-1 (.500) - (-) 2-1 (.667)
Bret Bielema 52-6 (.897) 32-1 (.970) 17-3 (.850) 1-2 (.333) - (-) 2-0 (1.000)
Will Muschamp 15-2 (.882) 9-1 (.900) 6-0 (1.000) - (-) - (-) 0-1 (.000)
Gus Malzahn 18-3 (.857) 12-2 (.857) 6-0 (1.000) - (-) - (-) 0-1 (.000)
Derek Mason - (-) - (-) - (-) - (-) - (-) - (-)

If you had McElwain and Stoops as the only undefeated guys in this category, come collect your winnings. Mullen ('15 loss to Texas A&M) and Jones ('08 loss to Eastern Michigan while at CMU) are right behind with only one blemish each. And poor Derek Mason's Vanderbilt teams haven't been good enough yet to clear any opponents by at least a touchdown in the final S&P+ ratings.

Almost no one had much of a hard time with these games, with eleven guys winning basically 90% or more of these games. Once again Malzahn ends up at the bottom—being tied for or in last in the first two categories is why he's on the hot seat—and his former defensive coordinator isn't far behind. Keep in mind that this isn't including FCS opponents, so Muschamp's 2013 loss to Georgia Southern isn't counting against him (but his Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville and '13 loss to Vandy are).

Tossup Games

Here is where true coaching acumen might be revealed. No one does all that well in games they shouldn't win, and basically everyone excels in games they should. But what about when it's even?

Coach Overall Home Road Neutral Conf. CG Bowl
Derek Mason 5-1 (.833) 4-0 (1.000) 1-1 (.500) - (-) - (-) - (-)
Les Miles 31-19 (.620) 15-5 (.750) 9-9 (.500) 1-0 (1.000) 1-1 (.500) 5-4 (.556)
Gus Malzahn 12-8 (.600) 4-2 (.667) 5-5 (.500) 1-0 (1.000) 1-0 (1.000) 1-1 (.500)
Nick Saban 16-11 (.593) 4-3 (.571) 5-6 (.455) 1-0 (1.000) 1-0 (1.000) 5-2 (.714)
Jim McElwain 13-9 (.591) 7-2 (.778) 3-5 (.375) 3-1 (.750) - (-) 0-1 (.000)
Gary Pinkel 36-25 (.590) 14-6 (.700) 16-13 (.552) 2-1 (.667) 0-2 (.000) 4-3 (.571)
Butch Jones 30-21 (.588) 11-8 (.579) 15-12 (.556) 2-0 (1.000) 1-0 (1.000) 2-0 (1.000)
Mark Richt 28-21 (.571) 12-7 (.632) 8-8 (.500) 2-3 (.400) 1-0 (1.000) 5-3 (.625)
Mark Stoops 4-3 (.571) 3-0 (1.000) 1-2 (.333) 0-1 (.000) - (-) - (-)
Hugh Freeze 14-11 (.560) 8-3 (.727) 5-7 (.417) - (-) - (-) 1-1 (.500)
Dan Mullen 17-17 (.500) 9-5 (.643) 5-9 (.357) 0-1 (.000) - (-) 3-2 (.600)
Bret Bielema 21-23 (.477) 12-6 (.667) 6-13 (.316) - (-) 2-0 (1.000) 1-4 (.200)
Will Muschamp 9-11 (.450) 6-4 (.600) 2-5 (.286) - (-) - (-) 0-1 (.000)
Kevin Sumlin 17-21 (.447) 6-6 (.500) 7-11 (.389) 1-0 (1.000) 0-2 (.000) 3-2 (.600)

Bet you didn't see that one coming. Mason is ahead in win percentage by a mile, having defeated tossup opponents UMass and Old Dominion in 2014 and Missouri, Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee in 2015 with only a loss to '15 South Carolina in there too. He's not an SEC legend just yet because, well, it's not so great to call UMass or ODU a peer in any football context. Six games is a pretty small sample set too, but so far, Mason is on top here.

Miles being second and notably clear of Saban is probably another surprise for you, but this is right. His problem is just that his 2006, 2007, and 2011 teams were above 20 in S&P+ (meaning they were more than 20 points better than a perfectly average team), but he hasn't hit that rarified air since. And finally here we see why it is that Malzahn hasn't been fired already: he more than holds his own against his peers.

Sumlin in dead last was a surprise to me, but I guess he's on the hot seat for a reason too. He's 6-9 (.400) as head coach of the Aggies, so it's not like baggage from his Houston days is weighing him down here either. Regarding Muschamp, well, I've got bad news for Gamecock fans.

It is notable that Bielema is down in this ranking after being down in the prior and nothing special in the first. He came to Arkansas with a reputation for doing better than expected at Wisconsin, and he did do that by going to three Rose Bowls. However against each tier of opponents, he's just kind of there. He doesn't actually appear to be among the SEC's best.

How to Apply This Information

If there is one single way to make a definitive "best coaches" list, this isn't it. It doesn't say anything about recruiting or player development or in-game adjustments.

What it does do, in a somewhat simplistic manner, is guide us in how to think about coaches' abilities to beat teams of varying quality levels.

One of the hot button issues in the SEC this offseason has been whether Tennessee can break through and win its first East crown in a almost decade. On the skeptics' side, some of the arguments against have been, say, critiques that Joshua Dobbs isn't as good a passer as some people assume.

However, a lot of the dissenting opinions have been that people don't know if they can trust Butch Jones as a coach. The way in which his team gave up leads in losses to Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas a year ago certainly plays into that. However, OU was about ten points better than the Vols a year ago according to the year-end S&P+ figures. Putting the Sooners on the ropes spoke highly of what the team could do, even if it couldn't seal the deal. And though dropping tossups to the Gators and Razorbacks was not great, UT won tossups against Georgia and Northwestern. Winning half of your tossups is pretty much implied by what the word "tossup" means, and over the long haul, Jones has won 58% of them.

Using the early S&P+ numbers and a very simplistic method, I estimated a win total of about 9.5 for UT. I can now add some extra context here using Jones's track record. The Vols still will likely lose to Alabama and still will probably beat the eight teams they're more than a touchdown better than on the schedule. That leaves three tossups, but the Vols are better than all three of their tossup opponents. Jones has won 64% of tossups when his team has been at least a point better than his opponent in S&P+, which is roughly winning two of three.

That would suggest rounding him up from 9.5 to ten wins, and a ten-win regular season should qualify as him breaking through. The S&P+ numbers aren't infallible—the final figures aren't even out in a single set yet—but them combined with what Jones has been doing over his nine seasons as a head coach suggest this really is the year for Tennessee to get the kind of win total the fans have been thirsting for.

Of course, it also only implies a 6-2 SEC record, and whether or not that's good enough to win the East's bid to Atlanta will probably depend on tiebreakers with Florida and/or Georgia. Even as the SEC East has lacked a true power team more often than not in the eight years since Tennessee's last SEC Championship Game appearance, the East's champion had worse than a 7-1 record just one time (2010).

One More Thing About Each Coach

Saban: The four opponents he "should have" lost to were Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU in 2007 and Florida in 2008. The one win was over the '07 Vols to the tune of 41-17.

Bielema: Though he's just 6-13 in road tossup games, he's won his past three: at Tennessee, at Ole Miss, and at LSU in 2015. And before you ask about the Alabama road game that was between the Vols and Rebels, it wasn't a tossup.

Malzahn: When his teams have been in games they weren't supposed to win, they often weren't close. The average final score in those five contests is 40-20 in favor of the opponent.

McElwain: His one win in a game he wasn't supposed to win was the 2013 New Mexico Bowl when his Colorado State team took down Washington State 48-45. The Rams scored 18 unanswered points in the final 2:52 to secure the comeback win.

Richt: Though he only lost six games he shouldn't have from 2005 through his firing after 2015, the losses gained in frequency towards the end: his 2013 team lost to Vandy and dropped the Gator Bowl to Nebraska, and his 2014 team lost to South Carolina and forgot to bring the defense to Jacksonville.

Stoops: His records of 5-0 in games he should win and 4-3 in tossups are plenty respectable; he just has to figure out how to become a peer with much better teams.

Miles: He uses Tiger Stadium as his ally. His tally of 15 home wins over peers is the most of anyone, and his .750 home win percentage against peers is tops among coaches with more than four years of experience.

Freeze: His two wins in games he shouldn't have won are not both over Alabama. One is—from 2015—while the other is a win over LSU in 2013. His 2014 team qualified as a peer to the Tide.

Mullen: He's 0-17 in games he shouldn't win, 31-1 in games he should, and 17-17 in tossups. In those tossups he is 9-5 at home, 5-9 on the road, and 3-3 at neutral sites. He will basically fulfill expectations exactly, no more and no less.

Pinkel: Both of his victories in games he shouldn't have won came in his SEC era, though only one was over an SEC member. They were his 2014 win over Arkansas and 2015 win over BYU.

Muschamp: His average of 33.4 points per game in games he should have won was the lowest of all 13 coaches who have coached in that class of game.

Jones: Two of his three victories in games he shouldn't have won were over SEC teams, but only one was as an SEC coach. That one was in 2013 when he prevented South Carolina from getting a second splattering at the hands of Auburn in Atlanta. The other was his 2011 Liberty Bowl win over Vanderbilt while head coach of Cincy.

Sumlin: The story on him lately is that he does better on the road than at home, but that could just be random noise. His home record is equal to or better than his road record in all three categories.

Mason: His points per game averages at home and on the road in games he shouldn't have won are within one point of each other: 32-12 at home and 32-11 on the road. You can't say he's not consistent.