Because of that stability, rating the SEC coaches – a time-honored tradition of Southeastern sports journalism that is good for a lot of arguing among readers and not much else – is actually possible this year without having to project predictions on unknown coaches unfamiliar to SEC football.
So without further delay, here we go…
1. Mark Richt, Georgia
Richt came to Georgia without head coaching experience, but with an impressive offensive resume from his time as offensive coordinator at Florida State under Bobby Bowden. Former Alabama head coach Mike DuBose thought enough of Richt to try to hire him as offensive coordinator after a failed pass at David Cutcliffe, but Richt declined thinking he'd have a primo head coaching job open up. His gambit succeeded, and the result was Richt finding himself at one of the SEC's top programs that benefits from a bottomless pit of high school talent from which to draw. Many people knew about Richt's offensive coordination skills, but few knew how successful he'd be as a recruiter. He has arguably out-recruited the man he followed, Jim Donnan, and has done it without those pesky rumors of rules violations and team misconduct. Richt coached the Bulldogs to the SEC title in 2005, and if he can make Georgia respectable this year despite having to rely on Joe Tereshinski III as his quarterback, his genius will be cemented.
2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Spurrier's Gamecocks finished tied for second in the SEC East last year in his first season after rescuing South Carolina from the throes of mediocrity that Lou Holtz forced the program to endure. The only thing holding Spurrier back from taking over the No. 1 ranking here – a position he held for most of the 1990s – is whether he can continue to adapt to the ever-increasing defensive speed of the SEC. Spurrier is winning with a mediocre roster, but he'll get a special challenge this year, as his team has virtually no offensive line, questionable special teams and a quarterback that is just average by SEC standards. There is no doubt that Spurrier is one of the all-time greats of the SEC; the only question is whether he still has it.
3. Tommy Tuberville, Auburn
Outside of the Tigers' magical, yet heartbreaking 2004 – when Auburn finished 13-0 but without a legitimate championship to speak of – Tuberville has yet to prove he can take a team from "above average" to "great." Despite the hoopla of 2004, it remains the only year of Tuberville's Auburn career that the Tigers won 10 or more games. There is much to like about Tuberville's career, though. He has a knack for putting together strong assistant coaching staffs, and he and his staff are among the most savvy talent evaluators in the SEC. Tuberville is at his best when he plays the Bobby Bowden role of sideline administrator, letting his assistants do their jobs. He loses some points for allowing himself to attach his name to the ridiculous "People's National Championship" farce following the 2004 season, but questionable judgment away from the field doesn't necessarily affect performance on it. On the field, he's solid as an SEC coach and has earned his stripes.
4. Urban Meyer, Florida
There's a logjam here in the middle of the rankings, but what elevates Meyer here is his performance at Utah, where he coached before joining Florida, and his hand in designing an offense that is basically the next big thing in college football. How long the spread-option stays the next big thing is yet to be determined, but Meyer's football smarts can't be denied. In his first year at Florida, Meyer reversed some of the anti-magic that the Ron Zook administration had put on the Florida program, and he's got high school prospects talking about Florida again as a desired destination. He did a good job shepherding a team last year that had a lot of questions on defense and on its offensive line prior to the year. On the bad side, Meyer's stubborn insistence to implement his spread-option at Florida even though QB Chris Leak isn't suited to run it is a fine example of how some coaches take their alleged greatness all too seriously. Meyer is also courting disaster in 2006 but letting the father of freshman QB Tim Tebow get too close to the decision-making process. But so far, his on-field results over the balance of his career suggest there's a method to his madness.
5. Mike Shula, Alabama
Shula shot up the charts as a result of his 2005 team's performance, yet it's still difficult to pinpoint exactly what Alabama has in the young coach. On the positive side of the ledger, Shula did exactly what he needed to do on defense – he turned the reins over to the highly underrated and veteran defensive coordinator Joe Kines, and got completely out of the way. Shula's background is in offense, but the performance of Alabama's O over the last three years has some wondering whether he shouldn't turn the reins of that side of the ball over as well. Shula, though, has so far refused to do that, which brings us to a trait that can either be a very good thing or a very bad thing – stubbornness. Actually, stubborn might be an unfair word. A better description of the trait is that Shula seems to have a clear vision of what he wants to do and is undeterred in seeing that vision come to pass. To that end, Shula has cut off the media from all discussion of team discipline issues, stuck with unpopular assistant coaches and stuck with his favored pro set offense until it finally started showing signs of imagination during spring and fall camp this year. On the negative side, the college game is not the pro game, and games at this level can be won with a little imagination every now and then. If Shula was a stock, though, he'd probably be a "buy" right now.
6. Les Miles, LSU
Miles' team lost only once in the regular season last year, but a 34-14 pounding at the hands of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game was enough to cause some worry on the minds of LSU fans. Miles had a decent but not overwhelming resume when he came over from Oklahoma State, and his deer-in-the-headlights act during a 30-27 loss to Tennessee in week two last year sparked a forecast for collapse. The collapse never happened, but many wonder whether that was due to Miles improving over the course of the season or if it was the result of the talent stockpile left behind by former coach Nick Saban. Either way, Miles recruited well over the offseason despite limited scholarships and his team is a favorite to contend for the SEC West title this year. Another good aspect of his Oklahoma State days was the willingness and ability to tailor his offense to fit the personnel strengths from year to year. But a few more truly bad games like the Tennessee loss or the Georgia debacle of 2005, and Tiger fans will start to grow restless.
7. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt
Johnson may yet be better than this, but it's difficult to tell at Vanderbilt. This much is a surety: Had Vanderbilt just beaten MTSU last year and qualified for a bowl, Johnson would have won SEC Coach of the Year going away. But Vandy didn't, and there isn't much defense for losing to a MTSU team that was bad all year and fired its coach at the end of the season. Johnson has instilled confidence in Vanderbilt, something few of his predecessors ever did, and his has turned recruiting up a notch or two. He's also showed flexibility with his offensive schemes. Now he has to take the next step – building a team that is a consistent threat to be bowl-eligible, and to stop losing games to inferior opponents.
8. Houston Nutt, Arkansas
Nutt has been up or down this list a dozen times, and depending on who you talk to, he's either the most overrated or underrated coach in the SEC. Nutt is, pardon the pun, a tough nut to crack when breaking down his coaching abilities. He's committed to power football, and he knows how to implement the requisite systems – recruiting a certain style of offensive lineman, developing running backs, conditioning programs – to see the vision through. But he's left his defense to rot over the last half-dozen seasons, and has had a problem getting his team over the hump. Nutt's recruiting also raises the question whether he's not making suitable inroads into his prime recruiting territory, Texas, or whether he is indeed getting top players and just not developing them. The 2005-06 offseason, though, was what has delivered the biggest hit to his reputation, as Nutt either panicked and selected a high school coach, Gus Mulzahn, to run his offense, or he cowered in the face of pressure from his bosses and hired Mulzahn on their orders. Either way, the 2006 Arkansas team, which is a veteran group, could turn out to be a bomb waiting to go off. Nutt finds himself firmly on the hotseat.
9. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee
From the start, I will tell you that personally, I have never bought into the Phil Fulmer hype. Even when Tennessee was winning one national championship and competing for others, in my mind it was a function of overwhelming talent and a good assistant coaching staff. Those suppositions were proven in my mind when Fulmer allowed himself to believe he was the wizard behind the curtain and not others, and the result of his hubris was the 5-6 debacle in 2005 that saw Tennessee miss the postseason for the first time in 17 years. Fulmer's staff enforced very little discipline – and even then, seemed to only enforce it among backups but not the stars of the team – and mishandled its quarterback situation so badly that the confidence of Erik Ainge, a top talent as a high school senior, was shot to pieces. Whether Ainge can recover from the experience in 2006 is yet to be seen. At year's end, though, Fulmer proved his survival skills were still intact when he reshuffled his staff and ditched offensive coordinator Randy Sanders in favor of Sanders' mentor, David Cutcliffe. The discipline issues, though, have yet to be solved, and Fulmer has made so many enemies during recent years that the whole SEC is gunning for him. The 2006 season could decide his future in football, period, not just at Tennessee.
10. Rich Brooks, Kentucky
Brooks was almost the reason the conference's change-less streak didn't stop at 17 years, but somehow, he held onto his gig in Lexington for another season. The reason Brooks doesn't come in dead last here is because he basically built the Oregon program into a PAC-10 contender many years ago and that has to count for something. The modern SEC game, though, seems to have passed Brooks by. Brooks got another year basically because half his playmakers were hurt by the time the 2005 fall camp ended, and the University – not wanting to step forward with a buyout and hiring package in a sport other than its chosen golden program, basketball – took the economical way out. As such, Brooks either has to challenge for a bowl bid this year or start packing. To his credit, Brooks is a tough coach who seems to run a clean program. To his detriment, he chose unwisely for his first assistant staff and was slow to make changes. His teams show little imagination, and he was probably too old to start a rebuilding project, especially when cross-state rival Louisville was hiring an exciting young coach (Bob Petrino) and becoming the big dogs of the Big East.
11. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State
When Alabama fired Mike Price in 2003 and went looking for a replacement, the job basically came down to three people: Richard Williamson, deemed by most as too old to be a long-term solution for the Crimson Tide; Mike Shula; and Sylvester Croom. By all rights, Croom was the second choice, and the next year, after Jackie Sherrill's tumultuous career came to an end in Starkville, MSU hired Croom, which was as much a poke in the eye of its rival a few miles up U.S. Highway 82 as it was justification of Croom's abilities. Speaking frankly, Croom's NFL career was fairly nondescript, and his tenure as offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions was and still is the subject of wide debate as to his effectiveness. But what is relevant now is the fact that Croom's rebuilding project in Starkville seems to still be at ground zero. A big win over Florida in his debut season and a victory in last year's Egg Bowl are basically the only things separating him from his across-state rival, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss. But the high of that win must be balanced by the low of losing to Division-IAA Maine that same debut year. To make matters worse, Croom, long regarded as one of Paul "Bear" Bryant's top recruiters, has been relatively lame as a recruiter at State. There is no doubt that his hire was historic, and there is little question that his school will give him more than his fair share of chances to turn things around, but to say the future is bleak would be an understatement.
12. Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss
By virtue of his recruiting acumen alone, Ed Orgeron has the chance to go shooting up this list over the next few years. Like Croom, Orgeron is not without his merits; his team was the first to figure out Alabama's offensive weaknesses in 2005 and Alabama's road got tougher from that point forward. On the other hand, this is the same guy that tried to run the West Coast offense with Micheal Spurlock, and then there are the widely-rumored temper tirades that have painted Orgeron, fairly or not, as somewhat unstable. Orgeron's 2006 Ole Miss team was headed for certain disaster until QB Brent Schaeffer's eligibility was approved at the last minute, and Orgeron had better pray daily for Schaeffer's health behind a patchwork offensive line. Little is known about Orgeron's ability to craft offensive and defensive schemes, nor is much known about whether he prefers to be extremely hands-on or whether he likes to administrate from afar. What is clear is that his future will probably hinge on how well he recruits and how quickly those recruits can contribute. Ole Miss ran Orgeron's predecessor David Cutcliffe off the reservation simply for not being able to replicate the Eli Manning years without a Manning onhand, so Orgeron better not get too comfortable unless he starts turning things around much more quickly than he is now.