SEC football coaches ranked: Kirby Smart nips at Nick Saban's heels; then who? | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

When SEC spring meetings convened in May, it marked the conference's first in-person gathering for the annual summit since 2019. Of the 14 coaches assembled for the meetings, only four had been in that room three years previously. It served as a visual reminder of the rough-and-tumble nature of the nation's most rugged conference.

And it doesn't take long to go from the penthouse to the outhouse, either. Just ask Ed Orgeron.

Two new coaches, LSU's Brian Kelly and Florida's Billy Napier, joined the conference ahead of this season. They'll enter a league that is stouter than ever, and top-end coaches Nick Saban and Kirby Smart show no signs of relenting

Meanwhile, coaches like Lane Kiffin, Sam Pittman, Josh Heupel and Shane Beamer are an upgrade over their predecessors. 

This looks to be the SEC's best assemblage of coaching talent since the conference expanded to 14 teams before the 2012 season. 

Here’s my ranking of SEC coaches. 

1. Nick Saban

Alabama

The greatest coach of all time endured a rough stretch these past several months. He lost to a former understudy, Jimbo Fisher, last October, then fell to another, Smart, in the national championship. And Texas A&M bested Alabama for the No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Saban's frustration bubbled over at a speaking engagement this spring. Some saw it as a sign that Alabama's dynasty is teetering. That's absurd. Saban continues to recruit well. Now, he's adding top-shelf transfers to fill holes, and he's developing quarterbacks at a Heisman Trophy level. Alabama was reloading last season after a swath of departures followed the 2020 team's national championship. This year's team is loaded.

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2. Kirby Smart

Georgia

Smart knows recruiting. Smart knows defense. And he proved last season that still can be a winning combination, even in this quarterback-driven era. Despite Stetson Bennett IV's improvement, Smart has not delivered an elite quarterback. And he still must prove he can avoid any major program drop-off after the loss of 15 players to the NFL Draft.  Saban has separated himself from others by the way he keeps the machine rolling with no significant backsliding. The way Smart recruits, he's positioned his program to do the same.

3. Jimbo Fisher

Texas A&M

Fisher has shown in the past year he can beat Saban on the field and on the recruiting trail. That's a start. The Aggies keep butting against a ceiling, though. Fisher won his lone national championship at Florida State behind quarterback Jameis Winston and a robust defense. The Aggies have the defense part down. Their challenge is developing that elite quarterback – and playing with more consistency. The Fisher era has the feel of one that hasn't reached its peak.

4. Lane Kiffin

Ole Miss

Ole Miss winning 10 games and reaching the Sugar Bowl in Kiffin's second season proved there's more to this coach than a witty Twitter account. Kiffin inherited some useful offensive pieces from his predecessor, but he deserves the credit for installing an aggressive, hard-to-defend system and developing the talent. Matt Corral's ascent reiterated Kiffin's touch with quarterbacks. Kiffin's "Portal King" strategy is a wise move for a program not accustomed to being atop the recruiting rankings. Sustaining success is the one thing Kiffin has yet to achieve. He's never stayed anywhere long enough. Here's his chance.

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5. Brian Kelly

LSU

The Tigers succeeded in landing a big-name coach. But what about a big-game coach? Kelly has won at a high rate everywhere he's been, but he's lost most of the biggest games in his career. However, Les Miles and Orgeron each won a national title at LSU, and Kelly is a better coach than either. He's been effective at using the transfer portal. He may be an odd cultural fit, but that won't matter if he wins. LSU ranks among the best jobs in college football, and it now has its best coach since Saban. 

[ OPINION:To understand LSU football hiring Brian Kelly, start with Scott Woodward's dad | Toppmeyer ]

6. Mark Stoops

Kentucky

Kentucky won 10 games last season for the second time in a four-year span, the first time that has been done in the program's history. Stoops is Kentucky's best coach since Bear Bryant. He benefits from the Wildcats annually playing one of the softest schedules in the league, but that doesn't diminish that he's a shrewd defensive coach who pairs that with quality offensive lines. He's also elevated UK's recruiting. The missing piece has been securing an elite quarterback. Perhaps Will Levis can be that guy.

7. Sam Pittman

Arkansas

Predecessor Chad Morris made this look like the SEC's toughest job. Pittman is proving otherwise. Players seem to love competing for Pittman, and he deserves credit for hiring and maintaining one of the SEC's top coordinator combinations in Kendal Briles and Barry Odom. The Razorbacks' offense rivals that of Ole Miss and Tennessee for its difficulty to defend. If Arkansas continues to ascend after last season's nine-win season, Pittman will climb further on this list.

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8. Mike Leach

Mississippi State

Leach's Mississippi State teams have shown a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of beating a Top 25 team one week and falling flat the next. That inconsistency is a trademark of Leach's career. However, he's also posted impressive seasons while working tough jobs – first at Texas Tech, then at Washington State. The Bulldogs boast an impressive bounty of returning starters, so this should be a good test of whether Leach's Air Raid system – the Bulldogs led the conference in passing offense last season while ranking last in rushing – can be a formula for SEC success on a higher level.

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9. Josh Heupel

Tennessee 

A Vols offense that had stalled throughout the Jeremy Pruitt tenure kicked into gear in Year One under Heupel. Heupel's warp-speed system positioned UT to feast on the weaker teams on its schedule. Quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Cedric Tillman went from average players to SEC stars under Heupel's tutelage. The lingering question is whether he'll develop a defense that's good enough to allow for success against the better teams in the conference. 

Josh Heupel:Six Tennessee football games that could make or break Vols fans' trust in Josh Heupel in 2022

10. Billy Napier

Florida

Louisiana never had much success until Napier elevated the Ragin' Cajuns into one of the nation's best Group of Five programs. That four-year stretch culminated with a 13-win season last year, and Napier finally jumped for an SEC job after eschewing such opportunities in previous coaching carousels. Napier tutored under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, and he has an eye for detail. Too soon to know whether Napier's impressive track record at UL will translate into SEC success. Recruiting is off to a slow start.

11. Shane Beamer

South Carolina

Beamer supplied the energy and charisma the Gamecocks needed in making a pivot from Will Muschamp. Impressively, South Carolina's seven-win season in Beamer's debut came while the Gamecocks cycled through four starting quarterbacks. Beamer made his biggest splash in December with the addition of transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler. We still don't know whether Beamer is a high-ceiling coach, but the bowl victory over North Carolina is reason to be encouraged.

[ OPINION:Inside South Carolina football's ascent and 'great vibes' under Shane Beamer | Toppmeyer ]

12. Bryan Harsin

Auburn

Harsin proved a fine coach for Boise State, his alma mater, but he's a poor fit at one of the SEC's most pressure-cooker jobs. Auburn's lackluster six-win season in Harsin's debut preceded an equally concerning aftermath: a lackluster signing class and an exodus of players and coaches. Harsin survived an offseason probe from Auburn's kangaroo court, but it seemed more like a delay of the inevitable. AU faces a typically tough schedule and no recruiting momentum. 

Bryan Harsin:ESPN's Booger McFarland directs Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin to 'swallow your pride'

13. Eliah Drinkwitz

Missouri

The Tigers failed to live up to expectations in Drinkwitz's encore after a respectable debut in 2020, and the Missouri coach hasn't shown his touch with offense and quarterbacks, in particular, that he had as an offensive coordinator and Appalachian State's coach. If there's reason to be encouraged, it's rooted in Missouri's recruiting uptick that includes the signing of five-star wide receiver Luther Burden and top-150 quarterback Sam Horn. The jury remains out on Drinkwitz.

14. Clark Lea

Vanderbilt

Lea did not step into an enviable situation, but that doesn't excuse a 20-point loss to East Tennessee State in his debut. The Commodores flirted with finding a pulse late last season, but Year Two under Lea offers little hope of significant improvement over last year's 2-10 record.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.