Sports

SEC college football coaching rankings before 2022 season

When it comes to SEC football, there is no such thing as an offseason.

So here we are, less than two weeks from SEC Football Media Days, less than two months from the actual start of the season, a perfect time to set the pecking order for the conference coaches before the start of the 2022 campaign.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama: Georgia dethroned the Crimson Tide last season, and the Crimson Tide leader committed an unforced error in instigating a public spat with former BFF Jimbo Fisher, but the 70-year-old Saban remains the best of the best. Seven national titles. Six since arriving in Tuscaloosa. He is the profession’s gold standard.

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia: The coach of the reigning national champions is recruiting at a ridiculously high level. The Bulldogs must replace a ton of talent on defense — the key to their sweet season — but Smart is well-stocked with replacements. To be the king, however, he has to do it over the long haul.

3. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: Fisher’s star has dimmed somewhat since his 2013 national title at Florida State. He is building a potential powerhouse in College Station, however, especially considering how well the Aggies have capitalized on the new frontier of NIL. Everything’s bigger in Texas.

4. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: Stoops is second only to Saban in SEC longevity. That speaks volumes. The Cats are coming off their second 10-win season in four years and boast a top 15 recruiting class for 2022. Next up: Cracking that glass ceiling.

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Mark Stoops is entering his 10th season as head coach at Kentucky. He is 59-53 overall and 4-2 in bowl games, having won four in a row. Alex Slitz Herald-Leader file photo

5. Brian Kelly, LSU: The former Notre Dame coach did an excellent job in South Bend, but the SEC is a different deal. So is Baton Rouge. Kelly says he made the career/culture change because he wanted to test his skills against the best. Be careful what you ask for.

6. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: Kiffin’s tart tongue can detract from his formidable talent as a head coach. He’s made Ole Miss a viable contender, though it will be interesting to see how the loss of quarterback Matt Corral (to the NFL) and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby (to Oklahoma) affect the Rebels.

7. Mike Leach, Mississippi State: I remain skeptical Leach’s slavish devotion to the Air Raid can win big in the SEC these days, but there is no denying he maximizes his talent. Leach has 150 career wins at schools lacking in rich football tradition.

8. Sam Pittman, Arkansas: Pittman’s recruiting skills have elevated the Razorbacks roster. Now comes the hard part. After a 9-4 record in 2021, Arkansas won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2022.

9. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: After several stabs in the dark, the Vols look to have found their guy in Heupel, who went 7-6 last season after a 28-8 mark at UCF. Tennessee’s aggressive NIL efforts haven’t hurt, either.

10. Shane Beamer, South Carolina: The son of the legendary Frank Beamer gave Gamecocks fans something to smile about in his debut season. An enthusiastic recruiter, Beamer assembled a top 25 recruiting class, but South Carolina has proven to be a tough place to sustain success.

11. Billy Napier, Florida: Loved Scott Stricklin’s hire of Napier, who produced outsized success at Louisiana after learning at the foot of Saban. It’ll take time, however, for Napier to turn the Gators around.

12. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri: The optimism from Drinkwitz’s first season faded a bit last year as the Tigers finished 6-7. Mizzou is in a tough spot, trying to climb a ladder already crowded with powerhouse programs.

13. Bryan Harsin, Auburn: The former Boise State coach survived an attempted purge by boosters after the 2022 season, Harsin’s first with the Tigers, but remains on extremely thin ice. He’ll need some magic tricks this fall to keep his job for 2023.

14. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt: Hey, it’s Vanderbilt football, the conference pinata, but Lea was just 2-10 in his debut with the Commodores. The Vandy alumnus has a smart plan, but can he survive long enough to see the fruits of his labor?

This story was originally published July 6, 2022 12:28 PM.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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