By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Let’s talk some college football. Specifically SEC Football.
With one game left in the regular season there’s been a lot of talk about which SEC coaches should be considered contenders for SEC Coach of the Year. I realize that the results of the last game could tremendously impact how a vote for Coach of the Year could be cast but it’s interesting to discuss who the leading candidates should be. Especially if you consider where each coach started from in preseason to where they are today.
For instance, Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network recently said that Tennessee Volunteer’s first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt should ultimately be the coach selected if his team had won its final two games against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Winning those two games would have given Tennessee a regular season record of 7-5 and a 4-4 record in the SEC which would have been good enough for fourth place in the SEC East and a tie for sixth place overall in the SEC. Unfortunately for the Volunteers and Jeremy Pruitt they were destroyed by the Missouri Tigers at home 50-17.
Should Pruitt’s record of 3-5 in the SEC still be good enough for Coach of the Year? Some analysts like Finebaum may still think it is. He said that consideration has to be given for where the program was before the season started. That’s sounds great. If that logic is used then here is some additional consideration that needs to take place. Tennessee’s average recruiting class over the last five years has been about 14th in the country. Tennessee has been a traditional football power in the SEC for a long time. Tennessee has a roster loaded with talented players. Unfortunately the previous staff struggled to get them to play up to their potential. So from that perspective Jeremy Pruitt — picked to finish sixth in the SEC East by the media — still had a lot of good material to work with in Knoxville. Maybe 6-6 overall and 3-5 (if UT beats Vanderbilt) is a good enough resume to win it but I’m sure not convinced.
What about other candidates that Finebaum mentioned? How about Nick Saban? All Saban has done is run the table on this year’s schedule including his seven SEC games. His team is ranked No. 1 in the country and is the favorite to win another National Championship. He has one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the best offense in the country and a defense that is good enough to beat any other team playing college football today.
But keep in mind that Coach Saban starts with the No.1 recruiting class each year. But that still doesn’t make it easy to win a championship just because you have the most talent — just ask John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski. It takes a lot of great coaching to pull that off. Even so Alabama was picked to win the SEC title hands down and they are meeting that expectation.
And then some other candidates mentioned were Ed Orgeron at LSU. He has his Bayou Bengals at 9-2 overall and 5-2 in the SEC with losses to highly ranked Florida and Alabama. They still have to play Texas A&M and should they win that game LSU would finish third in the SEC behind Alabama and Georgia. LSU was picked to finish fifth in the SEC West but they do have a very talented roster based on the ranking of their past recruiting classes. They have averaged fifth in the country in recruiting since 2013. So should the expectation be higher than third in the SEC with that kind of talent?
Then Dan Mullen, the new head coach at Florida was also mentioned as a candidate. But really, what has Mullen done that was unexpected? His team was picked by the media to finish third in the SEC East and currently they are in third place behind Georgia and Kentucky. They are ranked No.13 but do have losses to Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri — all by double digits and two of the losses were at home. That doesn’t seem like anything noteworthy for a program the caliber of Florida’s.
Last but not least we have Mark Stoops and his Kentucky Wildcats. Sitting at 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC — which is good enough for second place in the SEC East and fourth in the SEC overall — puts Kentucky in a position in which they haven’t been in quite some time. In fact it’s been about thirty four years since the Wildcats won eight games in the regular season. It’s been even longer (1977) since the Blue and White Football Cats have been able to win five games in an SEC schedule. That’s a long time.
They also ended the decades long losing streak against the Florida Gators at the Swamp in Gainesville. Those are some significant accomplishments for a team that was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East by the media and sixth by national media outlets like USA Today. By the way UK’s recruiting classes have consistently ranked on average 32nd in the country over the last five years according to 247Sports.
So with one game to go on the SEC schedule it seems to me that the frontrunners for Coach Of The Year in the SEC should be only two, Nick Saban and Mark Stoops, but for different reasons. Nick Saban because he has done exactly what he was supposed to do — win the SEC in dominating fashion with the best talent in the SEC (assuming Alabama can beat Auburn in the final game).
Mark Stoops because if you believe the recruiting rankings he is doing more with a lot less. To take a team that has averaged 32nd in the recruiting rankings — about 12th in the SEC — and lead that team to a fourth place overall finish in the SEC is pretty incredible. It implies that this coaching staff has the ability to identify talent and then develop that talent into a high level football team. In the toughest football conference in the country. Something that hasn’t happened at UK in along time.
And that should be worthy of Coach Of The Year honors.