July 20, 2024

Ranking the SEC’s best coaches of 2024

SEC's best coaches of 2024

Tennessee Coach Josh Heupel watches a play unfold in the third quarter of the Cheez-It/Citrus Bowl against Iowa Monday January 1, 2024 at Camping World Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s the Almighty SEC, where everything means more.

With the addition of traditional blue-bloods Oklahoma and Texas this July, the new 16-team league will become the premier conference. They don’t call the SEC the baby NFL for nothing. Talent, speed, physicality and coaching will be at an all-time high this upcoming season.

That means these 16 coaches will have a slimmer margin for error. However, with the Playoffs expanding to 12 teams, expect several squads from the SEC to punch their ticket to postseason glory.

16. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt: The 42-year old was a Defensive Coordinator at Notre Dame for three years before he returned home to lead his alma mater. Lea is approaching his fourth season with Vanderbilt, and is 9-27 up to this point. The Commodores haven’t finished with a winning record in SEC play since 2012, and nothing has come easy for Lea. He has gone winless in SEC play in two of the past three years. It was a head-scratcher that Vanderbilt ended last season on a 10-game losing streak, considering Lea showed promise and finished with a 5-7 campaign in 2022. With the conference expanding this July, it’s going to make Lea’s job even harder to get the Commodores out of SEC cellar.

15. Sam Pittman, Arkansas: He’s approaching season five in Fayetteville, and there’ll be some concern regarding his job security if the Razorbacks suffer another losing campaign. After all, Pittman is 23-25 overall at Arkansas, and has lost two additional games in each of the past three seasons. The Razorbacks took a huge step back in 2023, and lost their first five SEC games. Pittman finished 1-7 in SEC play, his worst as Arkansas’ coach. However, he led the team to nine wins in his second season, which was the most in the program since 2011. The 62-year old is 11-23 overall against SEC foes. This will be the first time in four seasons that Pittman won’t have record-setting quarterback KJ Jefferson.

14. Jeff Lebby, Mississippi State: Although this will be his first season as a head coach, he’s familiar enough with the SEC to make an immediate splash. After all, Lebby was an Offensive Coordinator at Ole Miss for two seasons. He also orchestrated UCF’s offense under Josh Heupel. Lebby has spent the past two years as Oklahoma’s Offensive Coordinator. Not to mention he does great work with quarterbacks. Dillon Gabriel and Matt Corral put up video game numbers under Lebby’s watch. The Bulldogs finished 101st nationally in total offense last season. The remaining offensive guys on the roster that played for Mike Leach, should have a smooth transition into Lebby’s scheme.

13. Shane Beamer, South Carolina: He’s the son of a Hall of Famer, who was raised to coach football. Beamer is 20-18 through three seasons with South Carolina, but is coming off his first losing campaign. The Gamecocks got off to a horrible start in 2023, and lost six of their first eight games. However, Beamer has a track record of finishing strong down the stretch, and that’s why he’s 6-2 in the month of November over the past two years. His 2022 squad finished 23rd in the final AP Poll. Beamer is 10-14 overall in SEC play, and now he’ll have a slimmer margin for error with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas. Regardless, with less injuries and fewer turnovers, the Gamecocks should be improved.

12. Mike Elko, Texas A&M: The New Jersey native was Notre Dame’s Defensive Coordinator in 2017. Elko orchestrated Texas A&M’s defense for four seasons, before he accepted the job as Duke’s head coach. He led the Blue Devils to back-to-back winning campaigns over the past two years, which hasn’t happened in the program since 2017-18. Elko won five of his first six games in 2023, and if Riley Leonard didn’t get injured, Duke would’ve finished strong down the stretch. The 46-year old proved he was a winner at a basketball powerhouse. Elko’s familiarity with the Aggies, and the SEC should bode well for him this fall. Not to mention Jimbo Fisher didn’t leave the cupboard bare for Elko.

11. Billy Napier, Florida: The 44-year old has a jaw-dropping, 51-26 record as a head coach. Napier went 40-12 through four seasons at Louisiana, which included three double-digit-win campaigns. However, he’s 11-14 over the past two years with the Gators. Not to mention he’s 6-10 overall against SEC foes. Florida ended last season on a five-game losing streak in SEC play, which hasn’t happened since Jim McElwain patrolled the sidelines in 2017, and he was fired that year. Napier is a solid coach in a tough situation, including a daunting schedule this fall. Still, Napier is an offensive-minded coach, with one of the league’s best passers in Graham Mertz, so the Gators should be better.

10. Brent Venables, Oklahoma: The 53-year old established himself as one of the best Defensive Coordinators in the game at Clemson, where he won six ACC Titles, and two National Championships. Venables is approaching his third season with the Sooners, and is coming off a 10-win campaign. He even won his first seven games in 2023, including the Red River Rivalry. Oklahoma also finished No. 15 in the final AP Poll. Venables is 16-10 overall with the Sooners. Not to mention he finished 10-8 in Big 12 play. This will be his first season as a head coach without Dillon Gabriel behind center. Still, Oklahoma has enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a big splash in the SEC.

9. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: He’s the longest-tenured coach in the Almighty SEC, who continues to have success at a basketball powerhouse. Stoops is approaching his 12th season with the Wildcats, and is the program’s all-time winningest coach. The Ohio native is 73-65 overall at Kentucky. Not to mention Stoops hasn’t lost in non-conference play since 2017. He has led the Wildcats to seven winning campaigns over the past eight seasons. Stoops gets his players ready for the next level, and has had a jaw-dropping, 28 players drafted during his tenure. However, he’s 35-55 against SEC opponents, and Kentucky lost five of its’ last six conference games in 2023. His longevity speaks volumes.

8. Hugh Freeze, Auburn: The Mississippi native has a 80-54 overall record as a head coach. Freeze won 39 games through five seasons at  Ole Miss. Although his tenure with the Rebels ended in controversy, Freeze’s success continued at Liberty. He led the Flames to a 34-15 record through four seasons. The 54-year old returned to the SEC last year, and led Auburn to a bowl game in his first rodeo on the Plains. However, Freeze suffered a rough start, and lost his first four conference games. Not to mention Auburn ended 2023 on a three-game losing streak, which included an embarrassing upset at home to New Mexico State. The Tigers have more depth, experience, and better talent this time around.

7. Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri: His stock continues to rise, and he has a 41-22 overall record as a head coach. Drinkwitz led Appalachian State to a 13-1 campaign in 2019, which included a Sun Belt Title. He is 28-21 through four seasons at Missouri. Last year was his best so far with the Tigers. After all, he led the program to 11 wins for the first time since 2014. Missouri also finished in the top-10 of the final AP Poll for the first time in 10 years, and ended 2023 on a four-game win streak. Drinkwitz has had the Tigers bowl eligible every year on the job, despite the cancelled contest during the pandemic season. Not to mention the 41-year old is 17-17 against SEC opponents at Missouri.

6. Josh Heupel, Tennessee: The former Oklahoma gunslinger won a National Title as a player in 2000, so he understands what it takes to succeed on the gridiron. After all, Heupel has a 55-20 overall record as a head coach. The 46-year old led UCF to 28 victories in three seasons. He’s 27-12 through three years with the Volunteers. Heupel has gone undefeated in non-conference play for the past two seasons. The South Dakota native won 11 games in his second year in Knoxville, which was the most in the program since 2001. Not to mention he’s 14-10 in SEC play. Tennessee has finished in the top-20 of the final AP Poll each of the past two seasons. A lot of hype surrounds the Vols this fall.

5. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: The 49-year old is the only individual on this list that has been a head coach in the NFL. Kiffin has a 94-49 collegiate record. He led Tennessee to a winning campaign in 2009. Kiffin coached USC to 28 wins through 43 games. Not to mention he posted 27 victories through three seasons at Florida-Atlantic. Kiffin is approaching his fifth year with the Rebels, and has a 34-15 record. He’s also 20-13 in SEC play at Ole Miss. The Lincoln native has led the program to double-digit win campaigns in two of the past three seasons. Kiffin has won eight of his last nine games overall, and the Rebels finished in the top-10 of the final AP Poll for the first time since 2015.

4. Steve Sarkisian, Texas: The Californian has been a head coach at three different Power Five programs. Sarkisian was successful in the Pac-12, Big 12, and now he’s invading the SEC. He led Washington for five seasons, and posted a 34-29 record. The 50-year old won 12 of his 18 games at USC. Sarkisian is approaching his fourth season with Texas, and is coming off a stellar campaign. After all, he led the Longhorns to 12 victories, and a Big 12 Tile, which hasn’t happened since 2009. Texas made its’ first-ever appearance in the Playoffs, and Sarkisian was named the AP Big 12 Coach of the Year. Sarkisian is 71-49 overall as a head coach, and will be fielding a talented Longhorn squad this fall.

3. Brian Kelly, LSU: His coaching resume dates back over three decades, and is full of success. Kelly led Grand Valley State to two Division II National Championships. He won 10 games, and a MAC Title at Central Michigan in 2006. Kelly even led Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season in 2009. The 62-year old coached Notre Dame for 12 years, and left as the program’s all-time winningest coach. He led the Golden Domers to a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, and two Playoff appearances. His success continued in the SEC too. Kelly has led LSU to two 10-win campaigns, which includes two bowl victories. He’s 12-5 in SEC play, and helped Jayden Daniels win the Heisman.

2. Kalen Deboer, Alabama: All this guy knows how to do is win, which is why he has put together a jaw-dropping, 104-12 record as a head coach. DeBoer won three NAIA Titles at Sioux Falls. He later won 12 of his 18 contests at Fresno State. However, DeBoer made himself a household name at Washington. He led the Huskies to a 25-3 record over the past two seasons, which included a Pac-12 Title, a Playoff berth and an appearance in the National Championship Game. His 14 victories last season was a school record. DeBoer went 17-2 against Pac-12 opponents at Washington. The 49-year old has won 21 of his past 22 games. Now he inherits a loaded team Nick Saban left behind.

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia: It appears he’s carrying the torch now that Nick Saban has retired. Smart has turned Georgia into a national powerhouse. He’s a jaw-dropping, 94-16 through eight seasons in Athens, with two SEC Titles and two National Championships. Not to mention Smart is the No. 1 recruiter in the game, and keeps the Bulldogs’ roster full of five-star talent. The 48-year old is 59-14 against SEC opponents, and led his alma mater to a 12-0 start in 2023. However, a soft schedule kept Georgia from completing a three-peat. On top of that, Smart has had 63 of his players selected in the NFL Draft, including 17 first-rounders. The Bulldogs will likely start this season ranked No. 1.