S.E.C. Power Poll: Ranking the Coaches (Part II)

Yesterday, at the invitation of Garnet and Black Attack’s C&F, I began compiling my first S.E.C. Power Poll ballot, on which I ranked the bottom six coaches in the Southeastern Conference. Now I turn to . . .

The Top Six Coaches in the S.E.C.

6. Bobby Petrino (Arkansas): There’s no denying the dude can coach him some offense. As innovative passing masterminds go, Pignocchio is to the 2000s what Steve Spurrier was to the 1990s. So why isn’t Coach Petrino higher on this list? The snarky dishonesty that infuses everything he does ensures that any success he brings a program will be short-lived and will dissipate the moment he departs, which inevitably will be sooner rather than later. He’s a quick-fix artist and top-tier coaches build programs. To elevate himself into the upper echelon, Coach Petrino will have to stick around somewhere long enough to forge something lasting. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t holding my breath.

5. Les Miles (Louisiana State): All right, I admit it . . . he’s a good coach. Much as Ronald Reagan allowed his political enemies to indulge in the fiction that he was unintelligent so he could lull the opposition into underestimating him, so too has Coach Miles profited from the perception of others (including me, although not just me) who thought he was dumber than he really is. There is no question that his gutsy fourth-down play-calling won last year’s Florida-L.S.U. game and preserved the Bayou Bengals’ shot at the national championship, but boneheaded moves (the time-out against Tennessee in 2005; the game-ending touchdown pass against Auburn last year, which was strategically unsound, even though the athleticism of his players bailed him out on a blown call) and the fact that he needed considerable help (including Pitt’s upset of West Virginia) to get into the title tilt last year have prevented my previous criticism that Coach Miles led 13-0 talent to 11-2 ledgers from being rebutted utterly. It remains true that you can’t spell "Les Miles" without two L’s, but he made the right calls, both motivationally and tactically, with sufficient frequency last season to put to rest most of the doubts about him.

Actually looking and sounding like someone who had half an idea of what in the Sam Hill he was doing would put to rest the doubts that are left.

4. Nick Saban (Alabama): Virtually no one will agree with this pick. The Crimson Tide faithful will think I have Coach Saban too low; everyone else will think I have him too high, including RedCrake. It is true that, aside from the 2003 national championship season at L.S.U., Coach Saban’s teams have produced records which were very good but not great. Still, his teams play hard and play smart. He is as good a recruiter and organizer as there is in the game. Like Coach Petrino, he leaves programs---I have no doubt that, five years from now, he will be back in the N.F.L.---but, unlike Coach Petrino, he leaves them better than he found them. To answer RedCrake’s reasonable question, I have Coach Saban ahead of Coach Spurrier because the Evil Genius has been in Columbia longer than the Armani Bear has been in Tuscaloosa, and---as painful as this may be for ‘Bama fans to hear---Lou Holtz left the Gamecocks in better shape than three dumb guys named Mike left the Tide. I’ll put it this way: I’m glad Georgia gets Alabama early, because Coach Saban will make the Red Elephants better over the course of the campaign. (L.S.U. certainly improved a great deal between their September date with the ‘Dawgs in Baton Rouge and their S.E.C. championship rematch in December during the Fighting Tigers’ national title season in 2003.) Meanwhile, if the Classic City Canines got the Palmetto State Poultry in November instead of September, the way the Gators and the Volunteers do, depth issues at South Carolina would have allowed the Red and Black to have gone 15-1 against the Gamecocks as a division rival the way Florida and Tennessee have done. Coach Spurrier hasn’t recruited or coached well enough to change that state of affairs at South Carolina the way Coach Saban has done everywhere he’s been, and, while both Darth Visor (in his second stint in the S.E.C. East) and the Nicktator have won with defense more than with offense, Coach Saban is a defensive coach, while Stevie Boy leaves that side of the ball alone. Given equal talent and equal time to prepare, would you pick Nick Saban to beat Steve Spurrier head to head in 2008? I danged sure would.

3. Urban Meyer (Florida): Whether you hate him or love him set aside your deep-seated dislike for him because you’re a Gator fan, you can’t ignore the fact that the guy’s a winner. Coach Meyer has been successful at every stop along the way and his teams invariably have been better in his second season at a particular place than they were in his first. He isn’t ranked higher because (a) he gives off the unmistakable sense of being someone whose arrogant bluster barely conceals a core of gnawing insecurity, (b) his won-lost record in his third year in Gainesville calls into question whether he truly is built for long-term success at the highest level, and (c) his last two seasons have demonstrated that, when his gimmicky offense fails, good old-fashioned defense can bail him out, but, when his innovative attack is clicking on all cylinders, it still isn’t enough to save him from fielding a lousy D.

Ranking Urban Meyer third? That wasn’t right. It was a bad deal. And it will forever be in the mind of Urban Meyer and in the mind of his football team. So they’ll handle it. And it’s going to be a big deal.

2. Tommy Tuberville (Auburn): I hate Auburn, but Jay Coulter is right: Tubs is the most underrated coach in the league. In 2004, Coach Tuberville led a Southeastern Conference squad to an undefeated record. Of his coevals, only Phillip Fulmer can make the same claim: Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, and even Steve Spurrier haven’t done it. Coach Tuberville has made the most consistently good coordinator hires and fires in the S.E.C. in the last several seasons and he has done something Coaches Fulmer, Meyer, Miles, Saban, and Spurrier have not yet shown signs of doing: namely, getting better with age. In his first five seasons on the Plains (1999-2003), Coach Tuberville never won more than nine games in an autumn, only once had fewer than three losses in conference play, and lost his only S.E.C. championship game appearance by a 22-point margin. However, in the four seasons since (2004-2007), Coach Tuberville’s teams have never won fewer than nine games, only once had more than two losses in league action, and won in the S.E.C. title tilt by a ten-point margin. You say that’s just because he has good coordinators? Fine; credit Coach Tuberville with hiring them, and with replacing them when they moved on, usually to bigger and better things. He was a good coach when Auburn hired him and he became a better coach after Auburn tried to fire him.

1. Mark Richt (Georgia): This is not---I repeat, not---a homer pick. Although I believe I give Vince Dooley full credit for his contributions to my alma mater, I never would have rated him as better than the second-best coach in the S.E.C. on the best day of his career. Coach Richt began the 2007 campaign as one of only six coaches to have won two S.E.C. titles in his first five years in the league and as one of only five S.E.C. coaches to have posted four straight ten-win seasons . . . and that was before he guided his team to a No. 2 final ranking in 2007. Coach Richt, a two-time S.E.C. coach of the year, is among the league’s most consistent coaches---his worst season in 2006 wasn’t as bad as, say, Tommy Tuberville’s in 2003 or Phillip Fulmer’s in 2005---and his teams improve: Georgia hung on to win a lot of nailbiters early in 2002 before shutting opponents down in the second half after the midpoint of the season, and the 2006 and 2007 squads rebounded from low points to post a string of impressive victories down the stretch when it would have been easy for them to have fallen apart. Beginning with the concerted effort to improve his clock management skills following the 2001 games against Auburn and Boston College, Coach Richt has learned from his mistakes more than any other coach in the league. Despite having coached two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks and the winningest quarterback in Division I-A history, he turned over the play-calling to Mike Bobo in 2006 and became a master motivator in 2007; after the near-disasters of the Neil Callaway era, Mark Richt redoubled his efforts to recruit offensive linemen; after losing the Sugar Bowl on a fake punt at the end of the 2005 season, Coach Richt won the Chick-fil-A Bowl with an onside kick at the end of the 2006 season. While critics may claim that he’s recruiting "criminals" to Athens, those critics apparently failed to notice that Coach Richt invariably disciplines players immediately after learning of arrests, lengthens suspensions when those players are disrespectful in their dealings with law enforcement, requires mandatory character education classes, takes his players on mission trips, and kicks talented players off of the team due to "zero tolerance" policies. Anyone who deducts points from Coach Richt’s score for staging a celebration in his own team’s end zone at a neutral site is simply ignoring the fact that, one game earlier, he got angry with his players and apologized publicly after they celebrated at midfield in the opponent’s stadium. Clearly, there is not a better man in the S.E.C. head coaching ranks and I don’t think there’s a better coach. The only argument that Mark Richt isn’t the best coach in the league is that he hasn’t won a national championship. To that argument, I say: get back to me on January 9 and we’ll talk.

First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of Bulldog Nation. Well, right behind Uga, anyway.

Well, there you have it. Those are my top six picks for the best coaches in the Southeastern Conference, with which, as always, you are free to agree or disagree. Your comments are welcome and, as much as I enjoy a good offseason debate, I’m looking forward to the fact that all twelve of the league’s head honchos will have the chance to prove themselves anew starting in a couple of weeks.

Is it football season yet?

Go ‘Dawgs!

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