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VOL. 132 | NO. 144 | Friday, July 21, 2017

SEC Hot Seat Index: From Saban to Sumlin

By David Climer

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Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason speaks during the Southeastern Conference’s annual media gathering Tuesday, July 11, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

When it comes to Southeastern Conference football coaches, there are three kinds of seats – hot, hotter and hottest.

There is, of course, one exception. You guessed it.

Nick Saban. To quote the late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, Saban’s seat is as cool as the other side of your pillow.

If Saban coaches out the remainder of his contract, which was extended recently, he will be 72 after the 2024 season. And who’s to say he won’t keep on coaching?

Otherwise, all bets are off.

Things can turn quickly in this league. One day, you’re up; the next day, you’re out. Just ask former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who won a national title in 2010 and was fired two years later.

As the 2017 season approaches, here is my pressure gauge on each of the 14 SEC coaches, from cool to sizzling. It should not go unnoticed that four of the five hottest seats reside in the Western Division. There’s a reason. It’s hard to achieve the desired level of success when you face that divisional schedule.

Nick Saban, Alabama

All he does is win SEC and national championships. How? By recruiting superior talent and developing it better than anybody else. With a recent extension, Saban is now under contract through Jan. 31, 2025. If Alabama fired Saban without cause, it would owe him $26.9 million. Now that’s what you call job security.

Jim McElwain, Florida

Tennessee Vols football coach Butch Jones speaks during the Southeastern Conference’s annual media gathering Monday, July 10, in Hoover, Alabama. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

He may not be in the same league with predecessors Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, but winning the SEC East in each of his first two seasons in Gainesville speaks for itself. It remains to be seen, however, if McElwain can recruit and develop a quarterback to help the Gators play up to expectations on offense.

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

A year ago, Mason was on the other end of this list, even at a program that historically does not have a quick trigger on its coaches. That changed with a six-win season and bowl berth in 2016, leading to a contract extension and a bigger recruiting budget. There’s nothing like beating rival Tennessee to enhance a Vanderbilt coach’s job security.

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

Fellow coaches will tell you that Mullen is one of the best at what he does. He recruits underrated players, develops them and consistently puts quality teams on the field. Yes, last year’s 6-7 finish was disappointing, but he has taken the Bulldogs to seven straight bowls, plus he is 5-3 against rival Ole Miss. He received a four-year contract extension in February.

Kirby Smart, Georgia

His debut season as a head coach had its ups (a win over No. 8-ranked Auburn) and its downs (a home loss to Vanderbilt and the last-second hiccup against Tennessee), but Smart will be given every chance to succeed in Athens. He arrived with the Nick Saban seal of approval and is a Georgia grad. Having rising star Jacob Eason at quarterback doesn’t hurt.

Ed Orgeron, LSU

When Orgeron was fired in 2007 after a dismal three-year run at Ole Miss, it seemed unlikely he would get another chance at a prime head coaching job. But things changed when he led LSU to a 5-2 record as interim coach after Les Miles was fired. Orgeron’s engaging personality and his recruiting ability (the Tigers are off to a great start in next year’s class) should buy him a little time.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Credit Stoops for staying the course after an 0-2 start last season, which had some of his harshest critics wondering if boosters were willing to cover a $12 million buyout. It didn’t come to that. Stoops’ Wildcats won seven of their next 10 games, including a victory over No. 11-ranked Louisville, before losing to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Will Muschamp, South Carolina

He went 28-21 as Florida’s coach in 2011-14 before getting fired. His debut season with the Gamecocks included three losses in the last four games, including a 56-7 no-show against rival Clemson. It remains to be seen if Muschamp is head coaching material, or yet another example of a good coordinator whose skills do not translate to managing the entire program.

Butch Jones, Tennessee

I’m on record as saying Jones shouldn’t be on the hot seat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t under pressure. The Vols failed to play up to expectations last year, going 4-4 in the SEC, with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt as well as a blowout defeat by Alabama. It remains to be seen what the arrival of John Currie as athletics director means to Jones.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

When the Tigers rebounded from a 1-2 start to win six straight games last season, things looked good for Malzahn. But Auburn lost three of its last four games, including defeats by a combined 34 points to Alabama and Oklahoma. Tigers athletics director Jay Jacobs has not been reluctant to make a change even with a big buyout in play.

Barry Odom, Missouri

When Gary Pinkel retired after the 2015 season for health reasons, Mizzou officials wasted little time elevating Odom to head coach instead of looking elsewhere. After a 4-8 debut season that included only two SEC wins, Odom needs to do something to excite his fan base. Another sub-.500 season will put Odom in the crosshairs.

Brett Bielema, Arkansas

When the Razorbacks blew halftime leads of 17 and 24 points in their final two games of last season, a red flag went up on Bielema. He responded with staff changes. But there are other concerns, particularly since the Hogs have not finished higher than third in the division in Bielema’s four seasons and are just 7-17 against SEC West opponents.

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

When Freeze made his appearance at the recent SEC Media Days, it was fair to wonder if he would be back in 2018 as an NCAA investigation finally comes to a head. So far, the university has stood behind Freeze, but it remains to be seen what will happen if the NCAA lowers the boom. It’s an ugly situation that could get even uglier.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

When his athletics director, Scott Woodward, flatly stated in May that Sumlin “has to win this year,” it put him on alert. After an 11-2 debut in the SEC and a No. 5 national ranking in 2012, things have leveled off.

Three consecutive 8-5 seasons simply aren’t good enough, based on the program’s expectations. In the last three seasons, the Aggies have started out at least 5-0 (they were 6-0 in 2014), but faded. They finished those seasons a combined 8-15.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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