SEC Football: Top 10 Coordinators for 2014 Season
SEC football has raised the bar with coordinator salaries for good reason—many of the best assistant coaches make their livings in Southeastern college towns.
Such fierce competition breeds top-notch head coaching prospects.
Before they became head coaches, Gus Malzahn, Will Muschamp and Dan Mullen created names as elite coordinators in the SEC.
The new wave features Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who seems capable of landing nearly any gig he fancies.
Today we explore the current top-10 coordinators as we near the open of fall camps.
To do so, we consider recent success of each of the assistant coaches against that of their peers.
Of course, trying to evaluate numerous coaches who come from different backgrounds doesn’t always prove easy.
The toughest call on the list to make was Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Yes, Kiffin served in the same role for some very good USC teams under Pete Carroll, but he also split duties with new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian. Carroll entrusted Sarkisian with play-calling duties.
Kiffin’s head coaching experience would seemingly give him a leg up in the power rankings.
Then again, one needs only watch the goal-line failures USC endured against Notre Dame in 2012 to see Kiffin freeze up on the sideline as a play-caller in a critical moment.
Alabama fans don’t have to think back very far to recall similar circumstances inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Former Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula showed similar indecision—and borderline incompetence—during the closing stages of the 2006 Auburn game.
The Tigers came away with a 22-15 victory and the contest served as the last of the Shula era.
Needless to say, Alabama fans would scoff at the notion of Shula making this list.
Enough about who didn’t make the list.
Here are the preseason top 10 coordinators in the SEC.
10. Geoff Collins, Mississippi State
For the first time in program history, Mississippi State has reached bowl games in four consecutive years.
Geoff Collins took over as defensive coordinator in 2011 and has been instrumental in helping the Bulldogs pull off this accomplishment.
Sure, State doesn’t usually rank toward the top of the conference in defensive statistics—though it did finish No. 4 in scoring in 2011.
What Collins does instead is play to the strengths of his defense.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 7-0 start in 2012, for instance, on the strength of a defense that led the league in takeaways.
No Mississippi State defense has allowed 24 points per game since Collins took over as the coordinator.
9. Kurt Roper, Florida
Even before Kurt Roper coaches his first game on the Florida sideline, he brings a great reputation from leading a stunningly effective Duke offense.
Hard to believe.
Whether or not Gators coach Will Muschamp truly hands the reins completely to Roper remains to be seen, though he would be well-advised to do so.
Roper brings with him a system not seen in the Muschamp era.
Look for that to stop with Roper calling the shots.
Under Roper, Duke averaged more than 30 points in 2013 and 2012—the first time it did so since 1988-89 when Spurrier coached the Blue Devils.
8. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn
Rhett Lashlee will face detractors as long as he coaches under Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
No matter what heights the Tigers and their offense reach, most of the credit will be directed more toward offensive guru Malzahn.
Similar mindsets leave Lashlee a bit underappreciated, though history shows those slights might not ultimately be bad.
Remember, most harbored similar feelings toward Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who served as Urban Meyer’s long-time offensive coordinator. Under Mullen, the Bulldogs have reached new heights.
Malzahn deserves most of the credit for salvaging an Auburn offense that ranked 13th in the SEC in scoring and dead last in total yardage in 2012.
But Lashlee absolutely played a role in morphing the Tigers attack into the No. 2 offense in the conference behind just Texas A&M and superstar quarterback Johnny Manziel.
7. Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina
South Carolina opened the 2013 season seemingly in defensive trouble.
Numerous starters graduated from the prior year and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was failing to live up to the hype.
A young Gamecocks defense could have lost confidence, but Lorenzo Ward instead quickly helped it develop.
South Carolina finished the season behind only Alabama in scoring defense while also leading the SEC in takeaways.
In 2012—Ward’s first as defensive coordinator—the Gamecocks allowed just 18.2 points per game.
This year Ward has his work cut out for him again—needing to replace three quarters of its defensive line and top cornerback Victor Hampton.
At least he faces those challenges now having proven he can adapt to difficult circumstances.
6. Josh Henson, Missouri
Like Auburn’s Rhett Lashlee, Josh Henson made a splash in his first season as an SEC offensive coordinator.
The biggest difference between the two is simple: Henson calls plays.
Just a year earlier, Missouri’s offense looked stagnant and unable to adapt against SEC defenses.
The whispers were difficult to ignore. Critics said the Tigers spread attack couldn’t function because it couldn’t pick up the tough yards.
Henson proved those thoughts wrong while adhering to many of the same principles that have enabled Gary Pinkel to turn around Missouri.
At the same time, Henson—who spent the previous four seasons as the program’s offensive line coach—created a more effective run game to balance the offense.
As a result of Henson’s rejuvenated offense, the Tigers captured their first SEC East crown.
5. Ellis Johnson, Auburn
When Ellis Johnson took over as Auburn’s defensive coordinator last season, it marked his fourth stop in the same role for an SEC program.
There’s a reason he has been a hot commodity in the conference—his 4-2-5 defenses have produced.
During Johnson’s four years with South Carolina, he helped the Gamecocks reach the SEC Championship Game for the first time in program history.
The next year his defense improved further, though South Carolina ultimately fell one game short of winning the division.
Auburn didn’t feature as much defensive talent as Johnson’s final rosters at South Carolina.
However, the Tigers defense improved as the season went along, ultimately allowing Auburn to reach the BCS National Championship Game.
4. Mike Bobo, Georgia
For the last several years, Georgia has fielded an offense that consistently ranked toward the top of the SEC while other programs have drifted in and out.
Mike Bobo deserves much of the credit, engineering a balanced attack that—at its best—prevents defenses from zeroing in on one particular element.
Look at the stars Bobo has groomed or developed in just the past two classes: quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, tailbacks Knowshon Moreno and Todd Gurley and receiver A.J. Green.
Bobo consistently gets the most out of his talent, which has helped Georgia sustain regular success within the SEC East.
3. Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia
Just a year ago, Jeremy Pruitt seemed like a risky, under-qualified choice as Florida State’s newest defensive coordinator.
By now we all know how Jimbo Fisher’s decision turned out—the Seminoles, behind Jameis Winston and an underrated, dominant defense, captured the BCS national championship.
Pruitt cashed in weeks later, accepting Georgia’s lucrative offer to run its defense.
He enters with high expectations despite the fact that his first task is to transition the Bulldogs from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.
Pruitt has work to do on the back end of his defense. Starting safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons were dismissed from the program, leaving Georgia searching for answers.
On a brighter note, the Bulldogs feature a very talented linebacker corps headlined by All-American candidate Ramik Wilson.
Whether Georgia’s hire of Pruitt can pay immediate dividends the way it did at Florida State remains to be seen.
Either way, though, Pruitt has established himself as one of the top coordinators in the country.
2. John Chavis, LSU
Having served as the architect of dominant defenses at Tennessee in the mid-1990s and LSU over the past five seasons, John Chavis comes as well-respected as any coordinator in the SEC.
Chavis finds ways to take the talent he’s given and translate it into results.
Take, for instance, last season when the Tigers replaced most of their starting defense.
LSU had little choice but to turn to young talent like defensive end Danielle Hunter, cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson and safety Jalen Mills.
All four players enter this year with expectations of fielding yet another tremendous LSU defense—though Mills must first address off-the-field issues.
Under Chavis, the Tigers have ranked among the best four SEC teams in scoring defense over every season since 2009. They finished top three in total defense every year since 2010.
That type of consistency leaves little question as to why Chavis ranks so high on this list.
1. Kirby Smart, Alabama
Can it really come as any surprise that Kirby Smart tops this list?
In every year since 2009, Alabama has led the SEC in both scoring and total defense under Smart.
Whenever a high-profile coaching job comes available, Smart’s name seemingly surfaces every time because he has run a defense that serves as the backbone to Alabama’s current spectacular run.
This list really only considers on-field success, meaning Smart ranks at the top without the benefit of his reputation as a great recruiter.
With Smart coordinating the defense, Alabama has won three national championships and has won at least 10 games every year since 2008.
Only once during that six-season run did the Crimson Tide fail to reach a BCS bowl.
Smart’s defenses constantly rank among the best in the nation—much less the conference.
Until he takes the reins of a top-notch program, it seems unlikely another coordinator will supplant him on similar lists.
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