There was a time when we wondered who among SEC coaches could catch Nick Saban. We have our answer: Nobody.
It’s not just that Saban is still on top. It’s that he stands unchallenged. Alabama just won the SEC West, once considered the nation’s toughest division, by three games. Of the league’s other 13 programs, none won more than nine games. (Florida and LSU had games canceled.)
Since 2007, Alabama is 99-12 overall, 64-8 in league play. That’s a winning percentage of .888 in SEC games. It’s 43-5 in SEC regular-season games since 2010. That’s a winning percentage of .896, which means Bama has gotten better, which beggars belief. Even with everyone else in the conference that sees football as the One True Sport plotting to take down the Crimson Tide, Saban’s team is more dominant than ever.
If you assess the coaches who are supposed to be chasing King Crimson, it makes a bit more sense. Urban Meyer left Florida — his Gators beat Alabama for the 2008 SEC title — to spend time with his family; after a year, he landed at Ohio State. Gene Chizik, whose Auburn Tigers overrode a 24-0 deficit to win in Tuscaloosa in 2010, was fired two years later. Steve Spurrier, whose South Carolina Gamecocks upset No. 1 Bama that same year, quit halfway through the 2015 season. Les Miles, whose LSU Tigers beat Alabama in both 2010 and 2011, was fired this September. That’s a drain of championship-winning coaches.
Only three of the SEC’s current head coaches — Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss — hold victories over a Saban-coached Alabama team. As many SEC coaches have worked under Saban — Florida’s Jim McElwain, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and Georgia’s Kirby Smart — as have beaten him. An alphabetical rundown of the Other 13:
Bret Bielema, Arkansas: Hired in December 2012 from Wisconsin, where he was 65-24 in seven seasons and led the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls; is 25-25 with the Razorbacks, 10-22 in SEC play; is 3-13 against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M.
Freeze: Hired in December 2011 from Arkansas State, has taken Ole Miss to two New Year’s Six bowls; is 39-25, 19-21 in SEC play; latest team went 5-7 and finished last in the West; program is under NCAA investigation.
Butch Jones, Tennessee: Hired in December 2012 from Cincinnati; is 29-24, 14-22 in SEC play; team was picked to win the SEC East but finished 4-4 in league play with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt; defense ranked 110th among FBS schools.
Malzahn: Hired in December 2012 from Arkansas State, his first Auburn team was 12-2, won the SEC and came within 14 seconds of beating No. 1 Florida State in the BCS title game; is 23-15 since, 11-13 in SEC; is 0-6 over the past three seasons against Georgia and Alabama.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: Hired in January 2014 from Stanford, where he was David Shaw’s defensive coordinator; is 13-23, 5-19 in SEC play; upset Georgia and Tennessee to become bowl-eligible; offense has ranked 122nd, 116th and 110th nationally.
McElwain: Hired in December 2014 from Colorado State, has won the SEC East in both seasons at Florida; is 2-7 against ranked opponents, the seven losses coming by an average of 18.4 points; the Gators’ offense ranked 111th nationally last year and is 114th now — and McElwain once was Saban’s offensive coordinator.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Hired in December 2008 from Florida, where he was Meyer’s offensive coordinator; is second in SEC seniority to Saban; is 60-42, 29-35 in SEC play; has had one winning season in league play; team just went 5-7 and will miss a bowl for the first time since 2009.
Muschamp: Hired in December 2015 from Auburn, where he was Malzahn’s defensive coordinator; previously was head coach at Florida, where he was 28-21, 17-15 in SEC play, before he was fired in November 2014; was 6-6, 3-5 in SEC play, with the Gamecocks; has had only one regular season with more than six victories; offenses at Florida ranked 105th, 103rd, 113th and 93rd nationally; offense at South Carolina is ranked 117th.
Barry Odom, Missouri: Promoted to head coach in December 2015, succeeding the retiring Gary Pinkel, for whom he worked as defensive coordinator; first team was 4-8, 2-6 in SEC play; defense ranked 117th nationally.
Ed Orgeron, LSU: Named permanent head coach Saturday, having taken over the Tigers in September when Miles was fired; was 5-2 as interim coach; was 6-2 as interim coach with USC in 2013 after Lane Kiffin was fired; was head coach at Ole Miss from 2005-07; was 10-25, 3-21 in SEC play; won more SEC games in two months with LSU than in three years with the Rebels.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: Hired from Houston in December 2011; is 44-20 with the Aggies, 21-19 in SEC play; is 15-17 in league play over past four seasons; is 3-9 in November SEC games since 2013.
Smart: Hired in December 2015 from Alabama, where he was Saban’s defensive coordinator; first Georgia team was 7-5, 4-4 in SEC play; became first Georgia coach to lose to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida and Georgia Tech in a season; offense ranked 89th nationally.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky: Hired in November 2012 from Florida State, where he was Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator; is 18-29, 8-24 in SEC play; team is 7-5, 4-4 in SEC play this season and bowl-eligible; was 0-15 against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisville before upsetting the Cardinals on Saturday.
Only one of the Other 13 was hired from another Power Five head coaching job, and that one — Bielema — has been the essence of mediocrity. Five had never been head coaches when hired for their current present jobs. Muschamp and Orgeron were career assistants when first hired as SEC head coaches; both were subsequently fired. If you’re Oregon, say, is any one of the Other 13 even mildly intriguing?
If we compare these 13 with the head coaches in other Power leagues, the mighty SEC looks puny. Has there been too much emphasis on promoting assistants? (The three best SEC coaches of the past quarter-century — Saban, Meyer and Spurrier — proved themselves as head coaches elsewhere.) On worrying about how a non-Southerner might recruit the South? On working only with Jimmy Sexton clients? (Although Sexton represents big-name coaches in every league.)
I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure there’s any one answer. But this part I know: If you’re picking the second-best coaches in the ACC or the Big 12 or the Big Ten, you’re choosing among heavyweights. If you’re picking the second-best coach in Saban’s league, you’re choosing between McElwain and Malzahn. They and Sumlin are the only ones above .500 in league play.