Wednesday, June 29, 2005

This Will Get You Going

KNOXVILLE — He hasn’t won an SEC game in three years. He lost his last SEC game at home when he was an 18-point favorite, costing his team a chance to play for the SEC title and, perhaps, the national title. He’s won just one SEC Championship since 1996. Yet, when you pick the SEC’s top football coach, it’s hard to get past Steve Spurrier. Yes, he’s cocky and brash and failed in the NFL. And he hasn’t coached in the SEC since 2001. But you can’t ignore what he did at Florida. He won four straight SEC championships. He won six overall in 12 years and had the best record one other time. Perhaps teams caught up with Spurrier during his final years at Florida. But that doesn’t mean the Ol’ Ball Coach — he likes to be called the New Ball Coach now — isn’t the guy you’d like on the sideline to win a big game. The SEC’s second-best coach is Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer has the nation’s best winning percentage (minimum of 10 years) but he failed to capitalize when Spurrier left the league. Fulmer hasn’t won an SEC championship since he won the national title in 1998. Here’s my rating of the other 10 SEC coaches:
3. Tommy Tuberville, Auburn. The Sporting News rated Tuberville ninth. Ludicrous. Tuberville was voted the national coach of the year after guiding the Tigers to an SEC championship and a 13-0 record. In Tuberville’s six years at Auburn, the Tigers have won or shared the West Division title four times.

4. Mark Richt, Georgia. No doubt, Richt is a bright coach. But he won for four years mostly with talented inherit from Jim Donnan. And he won with quarterback David Greene. Now, he has a chance to win with all of his own players, and his own quarterback, D.J. Shockley.

5. Urban Meyer, Florida. Maybe that’s high for a coach who’s never won an SEC game. But you couldn’t help but be impressed by his outstanding and undefeated team at Utah. It was well-coached in all aspects, especially on offense. What Meyer did at Utah rivals Spurrier winning the ACC while at Duke.

6. Houston Nutt, Arkansas. Nutt took his first six Arkansas teams to a bowl game. He was 9-0 in 1998 before losing a tough game to eventual national champion Tennessee. He has scored his share of improbable upsets. And he’s averaged almost eight wins at a school that doesn’t have a strong in-state talent base.

7. Les Miles, LSU. Like Meyer, Miles hasn’t won a game in the SEC. And like Meyer, he inherits enough talent to win the SEC and field a top-10 team. At Oklahoma State, he upset Oklahoma twice and almost beat the Sooners a third time.

8. Mike Shula, Alabama. After a suspect first season, Shula showed signs of improving as a coach. The Crimson Tide won six games and likely would have won at least eight had quarterback Brodie Croyle not suffered a season-ending injury in the third game. The secondary went from 10th in the SEC in pass defense to first in the nation.

9. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State. Croom has proven to be a stern disciplinarian. He is laying a solid foundation, but the Bulldogs won’t be much better than last year’s 3-8 team.

10. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt. It’s hard to judge Johnson. Vanderbilt doesn’t have tradition or players. They play teams close for a half or three quarters, but then wilt when the game is on the line.

11. Rich Brooks, Kentucky. Brooks was almost fired after two seasons, but his job was saved when offensive coordinator Ron Hudson resigned after one unproductive season. A former NFL head coach, Brooks has been beset by transfers and unhappy players. If he doesn‚t win more than three games, he might be gone after three seasons.

12. Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss. The man called “Bay-bay” has a big hill to climb. He will bring energy to the program, but he doesn’t have the talent to win more than five games. The Rebels have a chance to be decent on offense, but the defense is suspect.