Why Has the SEC Been Struggling Recently? It Is All About Coaching

The SEC did not have a good 2016. That is just the reality. Outside of Alabama and their well-documented dominance over the last multiple years, the rest of the SEC has just not been getting great results recently. Look at last season, no team besides Alabama finished with less than four losses. That is ridiculous.

While some people say the SEC beats up on itself (and it was true in year’s past,) it just was not the case last season. While the SEC struggled a lot of times against decent to good teams in non-conference play (see Tennessee almost losing to Appalachian State, SEC East winner Florida being blown out by Florida State and more,) the conference was at its worst in the postseason. They went 6-6 overall with some really ugly results.

Vanderbilt was destroyed 41-17 in the Independence Bowl. Texas A&M lost a close game to Kansas State 33-28 in the Texas Bowl. South Carolina lost to USF in the Birmingham Bowl 46-39 (big second half comeback by the Gamecocks) in OT. Arkansas blew a 24-0 lead at halftime to the Virginia Tech Hokies and ended up losing 35-24. Kentucky lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

That is definitely not ideal as far as results go. The SEC has plenty of talent, as shown in the recruiting success of the conference. In fact, nine SEC squads finished in the top 25 of recruiting last cycle, which was the best of any conference. The problem is on the coaching front.

Coaching in the SEC sucks. Let us just say it how it is. Outside of the great Nick Saban, one would be hard pressed to find any really good coaches. Whenever I ever think about or compare coaches, I always put myself in an athletic director’s shoes. Who would I pick to coach my team if I had to choose a current SEC coach not named Nick Saban?

The question is really hard to answer. Let us look at each coach. We will start in the West. Gus Malzahn? Maybe, but, other than his first year as head coach at Auburn when he won the SEC and his team appeared in the national championship, he really has not done all that much (8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 since.) No way I would hire Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin either. Sumlin has been just as mediocre as Malzahn since the Johnny Manziel days in College Station, Texas.

Ed Orgeron at LSU seems to be a great defensive coach, but he has failed so far to really do anything with the Tiger’s offense. (We will see how new offensive coordinator Matt Canada does, so we can judge him fairly.)

Bret Bielema is charismatic and a funny guy (see video below), but he has not really done all that much at Arkansas. The Razorbacks went 7-6 last season and finished in ugly fashion with losses to 4-8 Missouri and Virginia Tech in their bowl game, in which they surrendered the aforementioned 24-point lead.

The two coaches at the two Mississippi schools might actually be the next best coaches to Saban in reality, but they both have their flaws. Dan Mullen at Mississippi State has done a good job in Starkville (when he was hired in 2009) as he has coached SEC cellar dwellers MSU to 61 wins with 42 losses for a .592 winning percentage.

Mullen’s best season was in 2014, when the Bulldogs led by star quarterback Dak Prescott went 10-3 on the year, were ranked No. 1 in the country at one point and appeared in the Orange Bowl. However, the Bulldogs have yet to reach the SEC Championship under Mullen and, other than 2014, have not even seriously challenged for the SEC West crown.

Hugh Freeze has seen similar success at Ole Miss. Freeze has done an outstanding job, although he is currently mired by the well-documented NCAA issues that are weighing over Ole Miss (including being charged with the dreaded lack of institutional control.) However, Freeze has been exceptional on the football field. The Rebels were in dire straights (2-10 in 2011) when he was hired ahead of the 2012 season.

Freeze resurrected the program and has gone 39-25 (0.609 winning percentage) in the five seasons he has been in Oxford. Highlights of his coaching career at Ole Miss so far has been beating Alabama twice in a row, appearing in the Peach Bowl and winning the 2016 Sugar Bowl in dominant fashion. Despite all this success, the Rebels have still never made it to the SEC Championship game.

The coaching in the East could easily be seen as worse, as there are no great coaches in the division. Jim McElwain is probably the best coach in the division. After all, he has won the division in both years he has been at Florida, but the Gators have wilted down the stretch each season (minus their bowl game against Iowa after last season,) and McElwain cannot seem to figure out the offensive side of the ball (even though that is supposed to be his strong suit) in Gainesville. (Some of that can be attributed to having horrible quarterback play.) Also, McElwain has not had enormous success on the recruiting front so far. He has not brought in a class better than No. 5 in the conference.

Let us look at the other East coaches. Derek Mason might be the second best coach in the East, but he is at Vanderbilt. We cannot know his true worth for sure. Even though Mason struggled in his first two years at the helm in Nashville, he had a very improved season that included upsets of both Georgia in Athens, Ga., to a huge home win over in-state rival Tennessee to making a bowl game.

However, Vanderbilt has some issues of its own from (sometimes) lack of focus on football, lack of history and recruiting difficulty. Nonetheless, Mason has still done a good job, and Vanderbilt is definitely happy as they gave him an extension this week.

The rest of the coaching in the East is not much better. Kirby Smart had a disappointing season (8-5)  in his first season at the UGA reigns, but it is kind of unfair to judge him based on Georgia lacking talent in key positions and being so young last year. He has certainly made waves on the recruiting trail, but I believe this is a put up or shut up year for him.

Do not even get me started on Butch Jones. He is the worst coach in the entire SEC in my opinion. (I personally think he is one step away from teaching high school PE, but I digress.) Anyway, the guy has been all promises about building Tennessee back up “brick by brick” on the road to national prominence. He has consistently underachieved in Knoxville since being hired prior to the 2013 season. In 2013, he went 5-7, 7-6 in 2014 and 9-4 the past two seasons.

Last year was supposed to be Tennessee’s year as they were undoubtably the most talented team in the division led by guys like Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd (left mid-season), Alvin Kamara, Josh Malone, a talented defense and the list goes on. They beat both Florida and Georgia but still somehow ended up not winning the division due in part to injuries and just lack of good coaching/execution. The biggest low point was the Vols’ double-digit loss to Vanderbilt in the last week of the regular season.

Even though the Vols’ recruiting success has been a bit inconsistent, Tennessee still brings in good talent. However, the development and on-field coaching just does not seem to be good enough. A large number of Tennessee fans want Jones gone. He better have a decent year this season, or things could get really ugly.

As far as the rest of the East coaching goes, Will Muschamp seems to have South Carolina trending upward, and hopes are that Muschamp will do better as a head coach in Columbia than he did at Florida. Mark Stoops finally got Kentucky to a bowl game, but that should have happened earlier, and the jury is still out on now second-year head coach Barry Odom at Missouri.

Needless to say, SEC coaching outside of Nick Saban is largely crap. It is even crazier when you look at the head coaches they had in the not-so-distant past. Guys like Les Miles at LSU (in his prime), Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, Urban Meyer at Florida, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina (besides his last season) and others. Oh, how times have changed.

That is the biggest reason the SEC struggled last year. They still attract top talent, but the quality of coaching (overall) is just not there.

This is exactly why you saw a league like the ACC have such a strong season and do the best of any conference in the postseason (8-3). It is because their quality of coaching has gone up.  I even foresaw the ACC’s improvement before the season last year.

Guys like Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, Bobby Petrino at Louisville, Mark Richt at Miami, David Cutcliffe at Duke, Larry Fedora at North Carolina and more are all very good coaches that hail from the ACC. That is the biggest reason for the conference’s rise.

Players are the most important part of college football. We all know that. But if teams do not have the coaching in place to develop those players and make good decisions, they are severely limiting their on-field success.

The SEC definitely regressed last year, but it was not a surprise. The coaching is just not where it needs to be.

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