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When Kirby Smart hoisted the College Football Playoff trophy after finally vanquishing Alabama for a national championship, he joined an exclusive SEC club.
Smart became the third active SEC coach to win a national championship. Nick Saban, of course, leads the way with seven national championships. Jimbo Fisher hasn’t won one yet at Texas A&M, but he did at Florida State in 2013.
Smart was the most obvious coach to join Saban and Fisher given the way Georgia has recruited since he arrived in Athens in 2015. Those three coaches would be the most popular and sensible picks to be the SEC head coaches to win the conference’s next national championship, too. Alabama is the early favorite to win in 2022, Georgia will be a strong contender to repeat as champions and after signing the nation’s top recruiting class, Texas A&M should be competing for championships in a few years.
But what about the rest of the conference’s head coaches? Who is the most likely to join the national championship club? After talking to some different people in the industry, below is a ranking of the other 11 SEC head coaches from least to most likely to be the next coach to win it all.
Here’s a key point before we get to the rankings: I treated these coaches as if they were stocks. For instance, I might not believe Shane Beamer will win a national championship at South Carolina but he’s only 44-years old and I might want to buy long-term stock in him. This ranking isn’t simply about who is a good coach, but also takes into account age, current situation, previous recruiting success and other factors.
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11) Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
It is pretty difficult to imagine Vanderbilt winning a national championship in any of our lifetimes. Lea, 40, went 2-10 in his first season in the SEC and faces a massive uphill battle just to get Vanderbilt back to respectability.
10) Mike Leach, Mississippi State
Leach is a successful coach, but he is 60-years old and Mississippi State feels like the last stop before he retires to Key West. Leach has a shorter window than many of his SEC peers, and it seems unlikely Leach can recruit at a high enough level to get past Saban, Smart and Fisher to get the Bulldogs a national championship.
9) Sam Pittman, Arkansas
Pittman has been a revelation at Arkansas, far exceeding early expectations and finishing 2021 with a 9-4 record. Pittman is a better coach than some of the men ranked above him, but similar to Leach, the window to win it all isn’t huge. To really have a shot to win a title, Pittman will have to start recruiting at an elite level which is easier said than done in the SEC.
8) Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri
Drinkwitz hasn’t had the success of either Pittman or Leach, but as the SEC’s youngest head coach at 38-years old, there’s plenty of upside. Drinkwitz signed Luther Durden, the nation’s No. 3 overall recruit, which shows he’s capable of winning a recruiting battle for an elite prospect. Drinkwitz isn’t going to win it all at Missouri, but it’s not inconceivable to see him land a big job one day and have more resources at his disposal to give him a better shot.
7) Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops is one of the best coaches in the SEC, and if he had left Kentucky for LSU or Florida, he’d be much higher on this list. Instead, he agreed to a contract extension to stay in Lexington through 2028. It is hard to see Stoops breaking through to win a national championship at Kentucky, but if he ever left for a blueblood program, he has the skills to do so.
6) Bryan Harsin, Auburn
This is more about the school than the coach. Auburn has all the things you need to win a national championship as Gene Chizik proved in 2010. Harsin is only 45-years old and should coach for plenty of years to come. After a disappointing 2021 season, though, there are certainly questions about whether Harsin is a good enough coach and recruiter to capitalize on Auburn’s advantages.
5) Shane Beamer, South Carolina
This might be the boldest ranking but Beamer is a young, charismatic coach who has a high ceiling. Beamer did perhaps the best coaching job in the SEC in 2021, winning a bowl game to finish 7-6. It probably won’t happen at South Carolina for Beamer, but if he can continue to exceed expectations, he’ll be a hot name for big coaching jobs that will open up in the coming years. In the right situation and with the right staff, Beamer could win big.
4) Josh Heupel, Tennessee
With limited depth, Heupel showed he’s a good coach in Year 1 at Tennessee. There are questions about whether the 43-year old can recruit at a high enough level to win big, but he proved at UCF he can maximize the talent he does have. It’ll be interesting to see what Heupel can do in 2022 in quarterback Hendon Hooker’s final season.
3) Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Kiffin is on his fifth head coaching job yet is still somehow only 46-years old. Kiffin is a brilliant offensive mind who guided Ole Miss to a 10-3 record and Sugar Bowl appearance in 2021. It might seem crazy to imagine Kiffin winning it all, but his offensive style when coupled with an elite quarterback can overcome a lot of other deficiencies. Whether one will hire him is to be determined, but Kiffin will pursue elite jobs that open up in the future.
2) Billy Napier, Florida
The 42-year old was one of the best coaches at the Group of 5 level before leaving to take over Florida. Florida is another SEC school that has all the things you need to win a national championship, and Napier saw up close at Alabama what it takes to win it all. With Georgia and Alabama atop the sport, the path to winning it all isn’t exactly easy. But Napier is very well-regarded in the coaching industry and should have the Gators competing for SEC Championships in a few years.
1) Brian Kelly, LSU
Kelly walks into one of the best situations in the country and has already proven he can get a team to the national championship game. The last three LSU head coaches have all won national championships, and Kelly is a better coach than two of them. As long as Kelly recruits at a high level in Baton Rouge, he has the best and most realistic chance to join the club.
I wrote a book
If you missed the announcement on Twitter on Tuesday, I wrote a book coming out this year. The book is called The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban: How the Alabama Coach Became the Greatest Ever. It is a deep dive on what makes Saban and Alabama so great, from how the program recruits to how it handles defeats like Monday night’s title game loss to how Saban combats complacency to keep the Crimson Tide on top. It features anecdotes and stories you’ve never seen anywhere else on some of the biggest and most important moments of Saban’s Alabama dynasty over the last 15 years.
I’ll have plenty more information about the book, including exclusives for our newsletter subscribers, in the coming months, but if this book sounds interesting to you, you can preorder it now at any of the major booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Target, etc.
Here’s a link that has a full list of where you can buy the book right now.
My column from the national championship game focuses on Alabama’s bright future that had the Tide ahead of schedule this season.
Tom Green had one of my favorite stories of 2022 so far looking at how Auburn fans pummel opposing teams’ Twitter accounts after the Tigers win.
Only hours after losing to Georgia, the Alabama player exodus into the transfer portal began. Michael Casagrande has a good roundup of what each player’s exit means for the future.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty. Want more SEC stories like this straight to your inbox? Sign up for the Inside College Football with John Talty newsletter here.