June 16, 2024

Ranking the SEC’s best coaches of 2023

The SEC's best coaches of 2023

Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher exits Empower Field after a 10-7 victory over Colorado Saturday September 11, 2021 at Mile High Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s called the almighty SEC for a reason.

That’s because the speed, physicality, recruiting and coaching is on another level. The conference dominates the national rankings, puts the most players in the NFL and the College Football National Championship continues to run through the league.

With two cream of the crop teams, and a bunch of parity, these coached have a slim margin for error in 2023.

14. Zach Arnett, Mississippi State: The 36-year old is the youngest head coach in the almighty SEC. Arnett was Mike Leach’s Defensive Coordinator over the past three seasons, and coached the Bulldogs to a bowl victory over Illinois after he passed. Mississippi State finished fifth in the SEC, and 35th in the FBS in total defense last season. Arnett worked extensively with the safeties, and the Bulldogs were sixth in the league against the pass. Now Arnett trying to build off that momentum from the bowl win. Having quarterback Will Rogers back, who’s the program’s all-time leader in touchdown tosses, will do wonders in Arnett’s first campaign of patrolling the sidelines in Starkville.

13. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt: The Nashville native fell one win short of leading the Commodores to bowl eligibility last season. However, Lea improved Vanderbilt’s win total by three from his first campaign. The Commodores also averaged 35 more yards per game on offense than what they did in 2021. Not to mention Vanderbilt beat Kentucky and Florida in the same season for the first time since 2013. Lea definitely appears to have the program trending up, and the schedule is manageable this time around. Vanderbilt should be able to generate three victories in non-conference play, and gets Kentucky and Missouri at home. Lea could very well match 2022’s win total by the end of September.

12. Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri: He has yet to post a winning campaign with the Tigers, but they’ve been bowl eligible every season under his watch. Although Drinkwitz has 19 losses so far in his tenure, he signed a contract extension last November that will pay him $6 million for 2023. Last year Missouri got off to a 2-4 start, but Drinkwitz turned it around and finished 4-2 down the stretch of the regular season. Drinkwitz is an offensive-minded coach, but the Tigers averaged 4.3 fewer points, an 43.1 less yards from the year prior. The 39-year old is 11-15 overall in SEC play. Not to mention he’s 8-10 against SEC East opponents. Recording a winning season will go a long way for Drinkwitz.

11. Sam Pittman, Arkansas: The former edge rusher has outshined his predecessors. Pittman won three times more games in his first two seasons with the Razorbacks than Chad Morris. Pittman even registered more victories in his first three years than Bret Bielema. The 61-year old has stockpiled 16 wins over the past two seasons, including back-to-back bowl victories against Power Five foes. He’s an architect with the offensive line too, and the way the unit blocks at the point of attack. Which is why Arkansas has had one of the best rushing attacks in the conference over the past two years. Pittman is also 7-9 in SEC play during that span, including a 5-7 mark against teams from the West.

10. Shane Beamer, South Carolina: He’s the son of a Hall of Famer, who’s starting to make his mark in the almighty SEC. Beamer has equaled the total of wins in his first two seasons with the Gamecocks as Steve Spurrier and Will Muschamp. Not to mention Beamer¬† won seven of its’ final nine games of the regular season in 2022. South Carolina also beat two top-10 teams in back-to-back weeks during that span. The 46-year old is 8-9 in SEC play up to this point, including a 5-7 mark against foes from the East. The Gamecocks have won three of their last four games on the road. Not to mention South Carolina averaged nearly 10 more points per game than what it did the year prior.

9. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: He arrived in College Station with a bunch of hype, and a National Title under his belt. However, Fisher is 39-21 through five seasons, after suffering a 5-7 campaign last year. That was a head-scratcher to many, considering Fisher had the Aggies trending up, and signed the top recruiting class of 2022. Quarterback play has been spotty since Kellen Mond left the building. Texas A&M ranked 12th in the SEC, and 93rd in the FBS in total offense last season. The Aggies won their last two games of the year though. The 57-year old is 23-18 in SEC play, including a 14-16 mark against West opponents. Fisher needs a great season this fall to prove he’s still an elite coach.

8. Billy Napier, Florida: The former quarterback had somewhat of a disappointing campaign in his first season with the Gators. Napier registered a 6-7 record, which was the exact same mark under the previous regime in 2021. Although Napier made the Gators bowl eligible, they still lost five of their final seven games. Not to mention Florida ended 2022 on a three-game losing streak. With Anthony Richardson off to the NFL, Napier will be breaking in a new quarterback this upcoming season. It helps that the 43-year old has a history of responding with a stellar campaign in year two. After all, Napier increased Louisiana’s victories from seven to 11 in his second season with the program.

7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: He’s been patrolling the sidelines in Lexington since 2013, making him the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC. Stoops has racked up a 66-59 record at a basketball school. Not to mention he has won four of his last five bowl games. Kentucky ranked second in the SEC, and 12th nationally in total defense last year. Stoops is 32-50 in SEC play during his tenure, including a 26-34 mark against East foes. However, he’s 19-17 against East division opponents over the past six seasons. It’s mind-boggling that Stoops hasn’t lost a game in non-conference play since 2017. With Will Levis and Christopher Rodriguez gone, Stoops will be starting over from scratch on offense.

6. Hugh Freeze, Auburn: He led Ole Miss to a 39-25 record through five seasons, which included three bowl wins. Freeze has spent the past four years at Liberty, where he stockpiled 32 victories, including three bowls. Not to mention Freeze registered a 10-1 campaign, and finished No. 17 in the AP Poll with the Flames in 2020. During his reign with Liberty Freeze has defeated Power Five teams such as Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Arkansas. The 53-year old is currently the only coach in the SEC that has defeated Nick Saban twice. That’s a huge deal, considering Auburn hasn’t won an Iron Bowl since 2019. Freeze was the perfect hire for the Tigers, but improvement won’t happen overnight.

5. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: The Lincoln native has experience all over the SEC. Kiffin led Tennessee to seven victories back in 2009. He was Alabama’s Offensive Coordinator for three seasons. Kiffin spent the last three years at Ole Miss. He’s an offensive guru, and a quarterback whisperer. The 47-year old has registered a 23-13 record with the Rebels, including a 10-win campaign in 2021. Kiffin is 14-11 overall in SEC play as Ole Miss’ coach, including a 7-11 mark against opponents from the West. Ole Miss has finished in the top-10 nationally in total offense for the past three years. Defense continues to be a liability under Kiffin, but if he can fix the unit, the program may reach new heights this fall.

4. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: The former quarterback has made a name for himself in the SEC, with his high-octane offense. In just two seasons, Heupel has racked up 18 victories, which is more than predecessors Jeremy Pruitt, Butch Jones, Derek Dooley, Phillip Fulmer and Johnny Majors in that same time frame. The Volunteers are coming off an 11-win campaign, which is the most in the program since 2001. Tennessee has ranked in the top-10 nationally in total offense in each of the past two seasons, including No. 1 in 2022. At this point Heupel seems to be the biggest threat to dethroning Kirby Smart and Georgia in the East. On top of that, Tennessee’s recruiting classes keep getting better.

3. Brian Kelly, LSU: The 61-year old left Notre Dame as the blue blood’s all-time winningest coach. Kelly even conquered the SEC West in his first season on the job. He led the Bayou Bengals to a 10-win campaign, and they finished 16th in the final AP Poll. Quarterback Jayden Daniels successfully made a smooth transition from the Pac-12 to the SEC under Kelly’s leadership. He’ll also be the one of the best returning players in the league this fall. After exceeding expectations in year one, the fans are wondering what Kelly can do for an encore in year two. With a full recruiting class under his belt, and the roster starting to take shape, Kelly’s boys will likely be the favorites in the West.

2. Nick Saban, Alabama: His name is synonymous with SEC football, and the future Hall of Famer will likely go down as the greatest College football coach ever once he retires. Not only has Saban brought national notoriety to the conference, but he has kept it maintained it to this day. Several of his proteges are head coaches and assistants scattered across the conference. He won two SEC Titles, and a National Championship at LSU. Saban has won a jaw-dropping, eight SEC Titles, and six National Championships with Alabama. The 71-year old has put more players in the NFL than any current FBS coach. Saban signed the top-ranked recruiting class of 2023, so he’s not slowing down at all.

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia: The 47-year old is coming off one of the best two-year runs in College Football history. Smart has led the Bulldogs to a 29-1 record, including back-to-back National Championships during that span. He also has two SEC Titles under his belt. Smart’s relentless recruiting is the main reason why Georgia has fielded some of the nation’s best defenses over the past few years. The Bulldogs have dominated the NFL Draft for the past two seasons. Smart is 52-12 overall against SEC opponents, including a 36-5 mark over East foes. Now he’s trying to lead the Bulldogs to three-straight National Titles, which hasn’t been done since Minnesota accomplished that feat back in the 1930’s.