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The SEC Coaches’ Hot Seat Rankings: 2017 Preseason Edition

Which SEC coaches could be looking for a new job in December?

Tennessee v South Carolina Photo by Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

2011 was just six years ago, and yet only two of the fourteen Southeastern Conference schools — Alabama and Mississippi State — have the same head coach that they did in that season.

Granted, not every school has fired a coach in that time frame: South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel retired, and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin took the Penn State job. Still, that’s a lot of coaching turnover in a relatively short time frame. You can perhaps argue whether all the turnover at the top is a good thing, but it’s just a fact of life in modern college football.

Which brings us to the hot seat. Just one SEC school made a coaching change in 2016 -- LSU, which fired Les Miles in the middle of the season and then retained interim coach Ed Orgeron after the season. That feels like remarkable stability from one year to the next. But that also means that, well, some coaches are on the hot seat entering 2017. Who’s the most likely to be looking for a new job in December?

Tier 1 (Hot)

(1) Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M Aggies: I’ll take Texas A&M’s athletic director at his word that Sumlin needs to win this year. But the thing is, Sumlin has been winning. Since joining the Big 12 in 1996, Texas A&M has won 157 and lost 107, and Sumlin’s 44-21 record in College Station is actually slightly better than that. Sumlin is also responsible for the Aggies’ only top 10 finish since the SWC folded.

The problem is the trajectory, both in the long term (after an 11-2 season in 2012, A&M went 9-4 in 2013 and has gone 8-5 in each of the last three seasons, while the team’s SRS rating has declined each year) and in the short term (the Aggies have spent at least one week ranked in the AP top 10 in each of Sumlin’s five seasons, but only finished there once, and they’ve finished outside the top 25 each of the last three years.) So my general sense is that one of these things needs to change in 2017: either Sumlin needs to win at least nine games, or the team needs to show improvement over the course of the season instead of limping to the finish. Of course, if the Aggies start the year slow, will Sumlin even get the chance to turn it around in November?

(2) Butch Jones, Tennessee Volunteers: There’s some real debate over just how hot Butch’s seat is. For example, here’s Dennis Dodd giving Butch Jones a 2 (out of 5) which stands for “pretty safe... for now.” Okay, Dodd’s probably the only person who thinks Jones is that safe, but in the absence of athletic director statements, it’s not that clear just how much heat there is on Jones.

Unlike last year, though, the Vols aren’t expected to do great things, which kind of works in Butch’s favor. With a new quarterback, Tennessee is probably going to be in the back end of the preseason top 25, if not outside the top 25 completely. So an 8-4 type season could be spun as an indicator that Jones has brought the program back to the point that even in a rebuilding year, they win eight games. I don’t think Butch is safe by any stretch, but this might not be as dire a situation as some people on the interwebs might have you thinking.

(3) Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers: Like Kevin Sumlin, Malzahn finished in the top 10 in his first year and hasn’t finished there since, in spite of being ranked in the top 10 at some point during each of his four seasons. So what’s the difference? Well, for one thing, Malzahn’s 2016 at least seemed to reverse some of the downward trajectory of the program: Auburn did improve from 7-6 to 8-5, and the Tigers made the Sugar Bowl after a 1-2 start to the season. Malzahn also signed a top 10 recruiting class.

What’s more, Malzahn has won an SEC title and played for a national title. That’s upside that Sumlin just hasn’t shown, and it begs for a little more caution when it comes to pulling the trigger on a coaching change. Auburn could still decide to change course if this season doesn’t involve nine wins and/or a win over Alabama, of course, but my gut sense is that Malzahn’s seat is slightly cooler than those of Sumlin and Jones.

Tier 2 (Warm)

(4) Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss Rebels: Hey, what’s Hugh Freeze doing in this tier? Isn’t Ole Miss under investigation for major NCAA violations that allegedly occurred on Freeze’s watch? Shouldn’t he be higher? Well, let’s just say that if Ole Miss were going to fire Freeze because of the possibility of NCAA sanctions, it would have done so by now. There’s really nothing that could happen on that front between now and December that would move Ole Miss from “this is fine” to “you have to go.” There’s some calculation here, of course: Ole Miss is likely convinced that it’s probably not going to get a better coach than Freeze, particularly with the possibility of sanctions hanging over the program.

So what could change their minds? On-field performance. The rationale behind keeping Freeze is that under Freeze, Ole Miss has won at a level that it really hasn’t seen since the days of John Vaught, excluding Eli Manning’s four years in Oxford. But if Freeze doesn’t keep that up, Ole Miss might decide that he isn’t worth the headache. Or they might not have a choice in the matter if the NCAA decides to hand down a show cause order. Barring that, it still seems rather likely that Freeze will still be Ole Miss’s head coach in 2018.

(5) Ed Orgeron, LSU Tigers: Well this seems a little unfair. Orgeron is in his first full year as LSU’s head coach, and he rallied the team to go 6-2 after Les Miles got fired four games into the season. So far he’s done everything right, and LSU’s 2018 recruiting class is currently ranked #3 nationally in the 247 Sports composite. That’s at least in part because the class is just about full with 22 commits, but it’s an impressive haul nonetheless.

Of course, we already knew Ed Orgeron could recruit. The elephant in the room is Orgeron’s 10-25 record as Ole Miss’s head coach a decade ago, and while it’s probably unfair to hold that against him, it’s the lone relevant data point that we have for what Orgeron can do as a full-time head coach guiding his own program. It’s not pretty, and it’s easy to see how the natives might get restless if the on-field performance isn’t great in 2017. And do I need to remind you that this is a program that just fired a coach who had won a national title?

(6) Dan Mullen, Mississippi State Bulldogs: Mullen might belong in the next tier. You have a strong case that he’s the best football coach Mississippi State has ever employed: Mississippi State made 13 bowl games between 1936 and 2007 and has bowled in each of the last seven years. Of course, last year’s bowl game only happened because Mississippi State had a good enough APR score to make a bowl with a 5-7 record.

Mullen’s job probably isn’t in immediate jeopardy; barring a total collapse, there is almost no way he doesn’t survive 2017. But too many 5-7 seasons will claim the job of just about any head coach, so the challenge now is to maintain what he’s built, and that’s always going to be difficult at what has long been one of the SEC’s toughest jobs.

Tier 3 (Mild)

(7) Bret Bielema, Arkansas Razorbacks: Bielema seems to have found a formula that works at Arkansas: after a rocky 3-9 campaign in his first year, he’s won 22 games in the last three years and gone bowling each time. Advanced stats tell a different story, showing a program that peaked in 2014 (his second year) and that’s been in decline each of the last two years.

Arkansas’s athletic director has pretty much said that Bielema is not on the hot seat, and we’ll take him at his word. But you still have to wonder how much upside there is here. Consider that over the past three years, Arkansas has gone 3-9 against the SEC West’s heavyweights (Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M) and 19-8 against everyone else. That pretty much sums up Bielema’s tenure to date: a reliable middle-of-the-pack SEC West team that hasn’t been able to knock off West heavyweights (at least, those that aren’t coached by Les Miles.) It’s almost like Houston Nutt in reverse, now that I think about it. In the near term, Bielema seems safe, but Arkansas probably won’t want to live with 7-5 seasons indefinitely so it remains to be seen whether he can build on his early success.

(8) Kirby Smart, Georgia Bulldogs: There are two ways to view Kirby Smart’s 8-5 maiden campaign. If you’re an optimist, the Bulldogs were a few plays away from being 11-2: the Dawgs lost three games by a combined seven points, and then they won their bowl game and signed the #3 recruiting class in the 247 Sports composite.

If you’re a pessimist, those three close losses came against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Georgia Tech, and the Bulldogs also barely survived Nicholls State (!), Missouri, and Kentucky, and needed Auburn’s offense to go bye-bye to pick up a win there. The final record really doesn’t reflect how iffy the Bulldogs looked for much of last season. That said, Smart has shown that he has at least one part of the gig down — recruiting — and anyway, Georgia’s probably going to give him at least three years to get the coaching part down because firing him before that would basically be an admission that firing Mark Richt was a huge mistake. Smart could probably use a good year, though, or he’ll be entering 2018 on a pretty warm seat.

(9) Jim McElwain, Florida Gators: McElwain has won the East in each of his first two years. Of course, Florida is not a school where merely winning the East is the goal, and the Gators haven’t mounted a threat to win a national title just yet. And while the concerns about McElwain’s recruiting are perhaps overblown, there’s also a smidge of reality to them. Florida’s two full recruiting classes under McElwain have ranked 12th and 11th nationally: that’s good, but it’s not national title good.

But McElwain’s two East titles have at least bought him time to figure out the recruiting, and he’s fortunate that being located in Gainesville gives Florida a pretty high floor on the recruiting trail. You can only screw up so badly when there are that many blue-chip prospects in your backyard. At some point, though, there will be demands to do better than nine or ten wins and an East title before getting run off the field in the SEC Championship. But those demands won’t really manifest themselves until 2018 at the earliest. McElwain is safe for now.

Tier 4 (Cool)

(10) Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats: It’s amazing how much going 7-6 and beating Louisville can do for your job security when you’re Kentucky’s head coach. Stoops started last season on the hot seat and appeared to be DOA after blowing a big lead in a season-opening loss to Southern Miss and a particularly ugly loss at Florida to go to 0-2. But then Kentucky won five of six (with the only loss coming at Alabama), got bowl eligible with a win over FCS Austin Peay, and then Stoops’ coup de grace came with a 41-38 win at Louisville in the regular season finale.

All of that might not sound like much, but this is a program that hasn’t finished a season ranked since 1984 and hadn’t been bowling since 2010 prior to last year. Stoops isn’t completely out of the woods yet, but with a lot coming back in 2017 it seems likely that he’ll keep his job for at least another year or two.

(11) Derek Mason, Vanderbilt Commodores: If you’re an Alabama fan, going 6-7 with a loss in the Independence Bowl seems like a failure. In Vanderbilt’s case, though, the Independence Bowl trip in 2016 was just the eighth in school history — and Vanderbilt also beat Tennessee for just the fourth time since 1982. These things are kind of a big deal in Nashville, and it helps explain how Derek Mason’s job is safe in spite of a 13-24 overall record. Mason’s record only looks bad in comparison to his immediate predecessor: James Franklin went 24-15 in three years before taking the Penn State job, but compared to just about any other three-year stretch in Vanderbilt’s history since World War II, Mason comes out looking pretty good.

What’s more, Mason seems to be answering one of the biggest concerns about his long-term viability — recruiting — with a class that’s currently ranked 28th nationally, and 5th in the SEC, in the 247 Sports composite. That leaves the one other nagging concern: offense. In three years, Vanderbilt has only scored more than 17 points three times in 24 SEC games. The fact that two of those three were the team’s two most recent games might have blunted that criticism a bit, but there are still nagging questions whether Mason can consistently field an offense to match his top-notch defensive chops.

(12) Barry Odom, Missouri Tigers: Odom is a defensive guy, so you have to be concerned that Missouri’s defense just completely collapsed in his first year as head coach. The Tigers surrendered an average of 34.4 ppg against FBS competition last year, and Mizzou gave up 40 or more points four times. That really did a lot to blunt some legitimate improvement on the offensive side of the ball; Mizzou jumped from 13.6 ppg in 2015 to 31.4 last year (though that drops to 27.1 ppg if you remove a blowout against FCS Delaware State.) And Odom’s recruiting hasn’t been all that promising, either: his 2017 recruiting class ranked 13th in the SEC, only ahead of Vanderbilt, and so far his 2018 class ranks 93rd.

It’s actually hard to imagine how this could have started any worse for Odom, but he’ll get time. Gary Pinkel’s success in Columbia obscures the fact that this is a pretty tough gig: Mizzou had just two winning seasons in 17 years prior to Pinkel. But with South Carolina seeming to right the ship and Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the rise, it’s easy to see how this situation could get very bad, very quickly for Missouri. So this is a situation worth watching even if you think Odom will get at least three years to build his own program.

(13) Will Muschamp, South Carolina Gamecocks: South Carolina wasn’t expected to do much in Muschamp’s first year, and instead, the Gamecocks went to a bowl game. Granted, the actual on-field product wasn’t that great — South Carolina’s five wins against FBS competition came by an average of 5.4 points, and the less said about the 56-7 loss to Clemson in the regular season finale, the better — but given that the Gamecocks went 3-9 in Steve Spurrier’s final year, even getting to a bowl game seems like a significant accomplishment.

What’s ahead for the program isn’t clear, though. Muschamp’s first full recruiting class ranked 21st nationally, but then recruiting was never the question here. Steve Spurrier turned South Carolina into a bona fide contender, with an East title in 2010 followed by three straight top 10 finishes from 2011-13. Is that the standard that Muschamp will be judged against, or will he be judged against the program that made three bowl appearances in its first 13 years in the SEC prior to Spurrier? If the latter, Muschamp is already in pretty good shape, but Spurrier might have raised the bar enough that seven-win seasons aren’t going to be enough to keep the boosters happy. But that’s a thought for further down the road; it’s tough to imagine South Carolina wanting to make a change any time soon.

Tier 5 (No)

(14) Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide: Saban will be Alabama’s coach for as long as he wants. Anybody trying to argue otherwise is just wrong.