Quick quiz: Who is the best coach in the Southeastern Conference?
OK, we admit. Not much of a challenge. It’s not exactly like asking for the atomic weight of radium. If you name anyone else besides Alabama’s Nick Saban, he of the five national championships and one close call, you’re just being dishonest.
Now, who is the second-best coach in the SEC?
It’s a lot easier to debate than to answer. And herein lies the problem, if it can be called that, of the SEC’s slide off the summit of college football.
Is Florida’s Jim McElwain the second-best coach? He’s led the Gators to a pair of blowouts to Bama in the SEC championship game. How about Gus Malzahn? His Auburn Tigers were a few seconds away from winning the last BCS title game against Florida State a few years ago.
Would you vote for Kirby Smart at Georgia? Not enough of a track record. Dan Mullen at Mississippi State seems to do more with less than anyone else. He got the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the very first CFP rankings in 2014 but hasn’t steered State to a division title yet. You might have said Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss before he was shown his cell-phone records and, subsequently, the door.
Although he still has a lot of proving to do, LSU’s Ed Orgeron has as much chance to lay claim to that SEC coaching silver medal as anyone, especially if he can keep together a staff like he has with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and new offensive play-caller Matt Canada.
The point is, it’s Saban and then everybody else. And that’s the SEC’s issue. Just a decade ago — granted, that’s a lifetime in the coaching biz — you had national championship coaches all over the place: Saban, Les Miles, Phillip Fulmer, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier. Kentucky had an accomplished program builder at the time in Rich Brooks, Tommy Tuberville was still winning at Auburn and Houston Nutt was a decent coach at Arkansas long before his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss was a glint in his lawyer’s eye.
In some ways, the talk of the SEC’s demise from the days when it won seven straight national titles (2006-12) based on Alabama’s loss to Clemson in January’s CFP final is overblown. Bama was one play (and a few seconds) away from winning the title yet again.
Saban graciously (or facetiously, depending on your opinion of the man) stood up at SEC media days in July and declared that he thought there was a lot of parity in the league. To most other observers, however, the conference has become Big Bad Bama and the Little 13.
Alabama has won three straight SEC titles by blowout margins and is handily favored to win the conference again. Before 2014, the last SEC team to win back-to-back conference titles was Tennessee in 1997-98.
“The (SEC) East isn’t trying to catch up to the West,” said South Carolina coach and former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. “We’re all trying to catch up to Alabama.”
Falling behind Alabama after beating the Crimson Tide in the 2011 “Game of the Century” was a big reason Miles lost his job in September. Beating Alabama is a big factor in keeping the LSU job, and Orgeron freely admits it.
“I understand that the head coach at LSU must beat Alabama,” he said.
Understanding the problem is the first step toward finding a remedy for it. Doing something about it is something else entirely.
Can this crop of coaches finally chase down the Crimson Tide? If they can’t, there will soon be some other guys charged with taking up the cause.