I may enjoy making fun of South Carolina as much as any human being alive, but never let it be said that I don't give them credit in the rare instance when a Gamecock does something right -- as the blog Garnet and Black Attack has done with their weekly SEC power poll. This year, though, they decided to do away with blind middle-of-August predictions and instead have participants rank the 12 SEC coaches in lieu of a preseason ballot. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea, I says.
What struck me as I was putting this together, even after having written somewhat extensively on the topic for Roll Bama Roll's Alabama annual, is the incredible depth of coaching talent in the conference. Even the guys in the bottom half of these rankings are talented enough to get million-dollar checks thrown at them by numerous other D-IA schools in the event they ever decided to go looking for different jobs. So with that in mind, here's my list, which is guaranteed to be purely objective and not biased in any way whatsoever:
12. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt
Kyle King feels bad about putting Vanderbilt's coach at #11 on his list, but I don't feel bad about ranking him dead last. At 0.286, Johnson's winning percentage is actually .002 lower than Woody Widenhofer's record in five years in Nashville. So why is Widenhofer seen as a lovable loser while Johnson is credited with making great things happen with the Commodores? Simple: Because Johnson's expectations are lower. I mean, once you shut down your athletic department and lump football in with the club sports -- as Vanderbilt effectively did in 2003 -- you've made it pretty clear that, for better or for worse, football is no longer a priority. Johnson's a stand-up guy, and he's notched some remarkable upsets during his Vanderbilt tenure, but his overall results over the last six seasons has been a lot closer to typical Vandy than some people would have you believe.
11. Rich Brooks, Kentucky
Now, here is a guy I feel a little bad about ranking this low -- Brooks took over doormat programs at both Oregon and Kentucky and managed to at least make them respectable, so he has to have some idea what he's doing. Both his Oregon and Kentucky teams, though, seemed to have about an eight-win ceiling, so you can't really say that any of his teams exactly achieved elite status, either. Some of that is surely due to not having access to the kind of talent he would've had at an established powerhouse like USC or Florida, of course, and it'd be interesting to see what he might be able to do if put in charge of a program like that. Then again, he did have André Woodson and a team capable of knocking off LSU last year, and the Wildcats still ended up with little better than a second straight Music City Bowl win to show for it.
10. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State
Another guy whose ranking doesn't seem commensurate with his talent, and should Missy State manage to string together a few more winning seasons, the Croominator will get his due. I guess I'm still cagey about calling a guy a genius, no matter how much I like or respect him personally, after just one good season, particularly when that breakout season seems to have had more to do with catching certain teams at the right time than with any tangible improvement in on-the-field production. Still, Croom has been successful in turning around the program's loser attitude, and that plus a perennially strong defense seems to indicate that he does indeed have things pointed in the right direction.
9. Houston Nutt, Ole Miss
Kind of crazy, certainly didn't navigate the off-the-field soap opera in Fayetteville as deftly as he could have over the past couple seasons, but still a guy for whom the tired "does more with less" cliché remains entirely accurate. A couple isolated lackluster seasons aside, he took Arkansas teams that rarely had access to the best overall talent pools out there, determined where the strengths of his players did lie, and made the most of their potential. It'll be interesting to see what he can accomplish at Ole Miss, where Ed Orgeron proved you can attract some top-tier players (even if Orgeron had absolutely no idea what to do with them once he had them).
8. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas
I hesitated to rank him at all, since he has yet to coach a single game in the SEC, but he does have a good track record (at the college level, at least). Despite his success at Louisville, though, I can't rank him a lot higher than this simply because dominating the SEC is a much more daunting task than dominating the Big East or Conference USA. Becoming a powerhouse in the SEC is at best a medium-term project, and like a lot of people, I have absolutely no confidence that Petrino will stay at Arkansas long enough to see that through. I can grudgingly concede he's probably a step up from Houston Nutt on paper, but that aside, I just don't like the guy.
7. Phil Fulmer, Tennessee
Fulmer is better and smarter than a lot of people give him credit for, but the fact remains that his Vols haven't won an SEC title since 1998, nor have they accomplished much of note period without David Cutcliffe at the OC spot. I get the impression of him as an old-school, mule-stubborn guy who hasn't put much effort into adapting to a rapidly changing conference; that may change with Dave Clawson's new blood and spread-y offensive ideas, but we'll have to see.
6. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Version 2.0 (Florida edition) of Spurrier would be at the top of this list with a bullet and it wouldn't even be close. Version 3.0, however, the South Carolina version, is stuck square in the middle of the pack. Maybe I'm biased against the Evil Genius, but I get this impression of him that he thought coaching up the Gamecocks was going to be a lot easier than it turned out to be, and he's getting pretty annoyed that it isn't. When he first took the Carolina job, I thought that if nothing else he'd be able to break through the mindset of mediocrity that had plagued the Gamecock program for the vast majority of its history, yet it seems like that's the one major thing he hasn't done in three years in the Palmetto State. I mean, when you've got a 6-1, seventh-ranked team that finds a way to lose to Vanderbilt at home and collapse to a bowl-less .500 finish, what more needs to be said about the mentality of the program? And why hasn't Spurrier -- who once upon a time turned Duke into a conference champion, for crying out loud -- had more success in improving it?
5. Nick Saban, Alabama
Yes, he turned LSU back into a dominant, national-title-winning force, but as Steve Spurrier's ranking probably indicated, each coach's performance at his current school is far more heavily weighted than whatever he did previously. And I'm sorry, no SEC coach, not even if they're at Vandy, should be losing to UL-Monroe at home. Like Spurrier, Saban seems to have run into more trouble than he anticipated in changing the attitude of a promising but underachieving program -- with as much talent as Alabama's got, there's no excuse for losing to ULM other than laziness and lack of focus -- and if Alabama's off-the-field issues during the offseason are any indication, he may still be having trouble getting through to certain members of the team. Still, I'm a lot more confident in Saban's ability to ultimately effect a permanent change in that regard than I would be with most of the other guys on this list. A lot of it just depends on how much patience the notoriously finicky Bama fan base will give him -- and how much patience Saban, who's developed a reputation for career ADD that almost rivals Bobby Petrino's, will give himself in Tuscaloosa.
4. Tommy Tuberville, Auburn
Another guy on whom I disagree with Kyle King, who says Tubs "is the most underrated coach in the league"; I say he's one of the most overrated. I mean, he's hardly a bad coach, but let's see what his nine years on the Plains have produced: one SEC title, two division titles, and a single BCS bowl. He's notched some pretty amazing upsets, but for each one of those there's also a head-slapper of a loss that should never have happened, and many of those losses have been enough to bounce the Tigers out of the SEC West lead so that a team like LSU or even Arkansas can take their place. Doesn't seem to foster a lot of consistency with coordinators, either, which may be part of the problem. Good coach, the kind of guy under whom Auburn will never stumble to something like 6-6 or worse, but he's hardly reinvented the wheel, and he's another one of those guys for whom there seems to be a sort of "ceiling" (outside of the somewhat anomalous '04 season) to his success. That said, he's done a spectacular job of building good relations with the fans in the wake of 2003's Planegate -- of course, you beat Alabama six years in a row and you've made your job pretty easy in that regard -- and while his team is still hardly a bunch of choir boys, Tuberville has succeeded in ensuring that the program no longer bears the radioactive glow of scandal that followed it around during the Dye and Bowden eras.
3. Les Miles, LSU
Crazy as a shithouse rat? No doubt. Occasionally prone to the types of WTF losses I just dinged Tommy Tuberville for having? Sure. But the fact remains that, in a year when Miles's LSU program should've began a nosedive had all those "He's only doing it with Saban's players" doubters been correct, he managed to go out and win a national title anyway. Yes, he did it in a freaky-deaky season that allowed a two-loss team to bring home the crystal football for the first time in history, but consider that in the SEC of 2007, Miles had way more opportunities than just Kentucky and Arkansas to piss away the Bayou Bengals' national-title hopes. Faced with mind-blowingly intense circumstances and razor-thin margins for error in games against teams like Florida, Auburn, and Alabama, Miles never got ruffled, he just dialed up another ballsy play call and motivated the team to do what it had to do. And maybe that happened mainly because Miles was too stupid to get ruffled, but if that's what stupidity gets you, then I dare say you could bottle it and sell it to 90 percent of the programs in Division I-A.
2. Urban Meyer, Florida
So what excuse do I have for bumping a national-title-winning coach down to the #2 spot when the one guy above him quite conspicuously doesn't have one? None, other than the fact that I think the guy's an asshole. OK, no, that's really not fair. It's hard to quantify, but I guess I'd have to say I see some creeping instability when I look at his team -- i.e. one year they have an inconsistent offense and a national-title-caliber defense, they next year they score a bajillion points a game but can't stop anybody; one week they're eviscerating Tennessee by 39 points, the next week they're having to survive Ole Miss, the week after that they're losing to Auburn at home; and the fact that the entire offense hinges so completely on one guy. And the referring-to-oneself-in-the-third-person thing doesn't help, either. No doubt, the guy can coach his balls off -- and he's certainly proven the naysayers wrong by making his spread offense work like gangbusters in the SEC (though as we've seen, it's still no substitute for a killer D). Still, with the game on the line against one of the biggest opponents of the season, what I'd really want on my sideline is the levelheadedness and smooth operating of . . .
1. Mark Richt, Georgia
Seventy-two wins, two SEC titles, and three BCS appearances in seven seasons -- out of what has obviously been the toughest conference in the country during that span: Yes, the guy can coach. But as good a field general as Richt has been, it's the way he's progressed in areas outside Xs and Os that make me feel truly blessed to have him as the top Dawg. He's learned new skills as a motivator and leader of young men, even after seven years on the job; he's been able to maintain valuable continuity on the coaching staff, and made shrewd decisions in the rare instances when he's had to make a new hire; and he continues to set a good example in his personal life for players and fans alike. I can honestly say I wouldn't trade him for a single other coach on this list, and if that makes me a homer, so be it.