Rating the SEC coaches

Tennessee football hasn't been the same under Phillip Fulmer since the clock struck 2000. The Vols have lost at least three games five times this decade compared to twice under Fulmer in the 1990s. And they are just 21-21 against teams that finished the season with a winning record over the past six years.

But that doesn't mean what Fulmer accomplished in the 1990s should be totally forgotten.

Collegefootballnews.com recently asked the question: If you're the athletic director at a major Division 1-A program, who would you hire as your football coach?

The author, Richard Cirminiello, had Pete Carroll of Southern Cal and Bob Stoops of Oklahoma one and two. He had Gary Patterson of TCU ahead of Fulmer. He had five SEC coaches ahead of Fulmer. He had Mike Price of UTEP ahead of Fulmer as well as Tommy Bowden of Clemson, Mike Leach of Texas Tech and Paul Johnson of Navy.

Cirminiello ranks Fulmer No. 27 – that's right, No. 27.

Twenty coaches who have NOT won a national championship are rated ahead of Fulmer. Have we dismissed that Fulmer is one of only three coaches to lead an SEC team to a 13-0 record? Have we dismissed he has one of the top winning percentages of any 1-A coaches with at least 10 years of head coaching experience?

No doubt, Fulmer's star doesn't shine as it once did. But to rate him 27th is unfair. He's easily in the top 20, if not higher.

It's worth noting that Cirminiello says Fulmer's record says he should be in the top five and that Fulmer is a future Hall of Famer. But he points out Fulmer is 55 and has spent the last 25 years in the same program, making it difficult for him to adjust to a different scene.

Cirminiello has five SEC coaches rated ahead of Fulmer: No. 3 Mark Richt of Georgia, No. 6 Urban Meyer of Florida, No. 10 Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, No. 11 Tommy Tuberville of Auburn and No. 22 Les Miles of LSU.

Houston Nutt of Arkansas is ranked No. 41 and Mike Shula of Alabama is No. 44.

There is a distinction between what you've accomplished as a coach and who you would hire to start a program. Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno are Hall of Fame coaches, but if you're, say, Kentucky, would you hire a senior citizen to resurrect your program?

Fulmer is not a senior citizen, at least not when compared to Bowden and Paterno. He is younger than several coaches ranked ahead of him, including Spurrier and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. He's about the same age as Mack Brown of Texas and Lloyd Carr of Michigan.

We'll approach our ranking from a slightly different angle. Simply put: Who are the best coaches in the SEC right now? This is based more on what you've done that what you're projected to do, with greater emphasis on what you've done the past five years. Here are my rankings.

1. Mark Richt, Georgia. He's the SEC's only coach who has been in the top 10 the last four years. He has won two SEC titles – the same as Fulmer. He is 19-2 on the road. And he's won SEC crowns with two different quarterbacks. He's won 52 games in five years. Georgia won 40 in the five previous years.

2. Tommy Tubeville, Auburn. The Tigers have won or shared the West Division five of the last six seasons, with one SEC title to show for it. He's won 17 of his last 18 league games, including four in a row over Alabama. He's won 65 games in seven years.

3. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina. He once was No. 1. Now he's in a new environment. We'll see what happens. He did rally the Gamecocks to a school-record five straight SEC wins after an 0-3 start. He won one national and six SEC titles at Florida and he won an ACC crown at Duke.

4. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee. He's won a national championship and two SEC crowns, but none since 1998. Losing the SEC title to LSU in 2001 was the most costly defeat of his career. He's got to regain home-field edge after going 46-3 at home in the 1990s but just 29-11 at home since.

5. Urban Meyer, Florida. Meyer did a great job at Utah, but he hasn't done enough in the SEC yet to merit ranking higher. He was too stubborn initially to tweak is spread option to fit the skills of returning quarterback Chris Leak. But the Gators did get wins against Georgia, Tennessee, Florida State and Iowa in a bowl game.

6. Les Miles, LSU. He did a nice job in his first year, going 11-2 and reaching the SEC championship game. The Tigers then pounded Miami in the Peach Bowl. Miles won a lot of close games in 2005 with Nick Saban's talent. But will Miles stand the test of time?

7. Houston Nutt, Arkansas. Nutt has 57 wins in eight years, 20 more than Arkansas won the previous eight years. But he's won just nine games combined the past two years after recording three nine-win seasons and making six straight bowl games.

8. Mike Shula, Alabama. Shula has shown steady improvement, capped with a 10-win season last year. But he's 0-3 against Auburn and he loses seven starters from one of the nation's top defenses the past two years. Shula will be tested this season.

9. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt. The fact he would win five games at Vandy puts him ahead of three other coaches in the SEC.

10. Rich Brooks, Kentucky. He inherited a mess at Kentucky and hasn't been able to turn things around. He had a strong February recruiting class, which helps. But anything short of five wins could result in a change.

11. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State. Croom has lost over 30 players in his first two seasons, setting the tone for discipline. But at some point, he's got to start winning.

12. Ed Oregeron, Ole Miss. Jury is still out on the man known as an ace recruiter.

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