(This is the third in a three-part series on what some SEC coaches said about other SEC programs. They spoke on the condition they would not be identified. Part Three is about the SEC West.
By Jimmy Hyams
Nick Saban has dominated college football like no other coach.
Since 2009, Alabama has won six national championships and lost three times in the national title game. The Crimson Tide has also won at least 10 games 14 years in a row and won at least 12 games 11 times during that stretch.
And there appears to be no end in sight, despite Georgia defeating Bama in the national championship game last season.
“I know they lost (seven) in the draft,’’ one SEC coach said, “but I talked to someone there on the team and he thinks they will have more draft eligible players projected to go in the top five rounds than any team Nick has had. That, coupled with fact a veteran offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien) is returning, helps.
“They’ve got the two best players in the country (QB Bryce Young, OLB Will Anderson). They say it’s the deepest team in terms of top-level talent Nick has had. They might have 15 drafted in the first two rounds.’’
Alabama won the SEC title over Georgia last year but fell in the College Football Playoff final. One SEC coaches thinks the Tide will be better this season “because they were so young and inexperienced in the secondary, and they had to cut back on a lot of things they like to do. That’s unusual for Nick.’’
Alabama’s defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was five or six years ago, but it’s still good.
“Defensively, Nick runs the show,’’ one coach said. “They’re never bad on defense, even though some say they’re not as good since (defensive coordinator) Pete Golding left. It’s hard to be bad when you’ve got that kind of talent.’’
Much of that talent is on offense, one coach said: “It all starts with the quarterback (Young). They also brought in some good receivers from the portal. And a good running back and defensive back and offensive lineman. When you’re Alabama and go to the free-agent market, they fit a need. A lot of schools make desperation moves because they don’t have a choice. Alabama takes players to strengthen what they have.’’
After a 6-2 start, Auburn lost its last five in a row: to Texas A&M, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Alabama and Houston in the Birmingham Bowl.
“All I’ve heard about Auburn is it’s a dumpster fire,’’ one SEC coach said. “They’re really in chaos. I don’t know what kind of talent Auburn has. I don’t remember them recruiting at the level Auburn recruited when they had great teams. It doesn’t always have to be 10 first-rounders but you need 10 draftable players. I don’t think they have 10 draftable players on the team, much less in one class.
“One thing positive is the running back (Tank Bigsby) is the real deal. We all know the next question is: What about the offensive line. I think it was key they got some of those older offensive linemen back due to Covid, and the tight end. That helped things in a major way.’’
One coach said it was alarming that a legacy quarterback transferred after being a three-year starter.
“Bo Nix transferred. His Dad played there. That ain’t an indictment but testimony to where Auburn football is,’’ the coach said.
“I’m not saying I disagreed with firing Gus Malzahn, but at an SEC school, you’ve got to have someone connected with that culture and navigate the borders of what goes on the in the SEC, particularly the SEC West, which is the best college conference in country.’’
What’s the outlook for Auburn?
“The Issue is, who’s going to be the quarterback?’’ a coach said. “In the SEC West, it’s going to come down to quarterback play. You know that old saying, if you’ve got three quarterbacks, you don’t have one. And they’ve been dissipated at wide receiver.’’
When Jimbo Fisher wasn’t feuding with Nick Saban in the offseason, he was acquiring the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country.
Whether that pays immediate dividends remains to be seen. But Aggie fans aren’t thrilled that one of the richest coaches in the country has gone 4-4 in the SEC two of the past three seasons and suffered defeats last year to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and LSU.
“Texas A&M has a lot of talent, lot of talent,’’ one SEC coach said. “What’s the key to winning the SEC West? First of all, it’s hard to win the SEC West, particularly if you’re name doesn’t start with `AL.’ That’s No. 1.
“Jimbo Fisher has done a great job there, he really has in talent acquisition. He’s a good football coach. A&M is a well-coached team.
“What’s the next step? I think they’re doing all the right things. The next step is to win it. If they get an elite, elite quarterback and put it with the talent they have, then that may be part of the next step.’’
One coach said it’s time for Fisher to start winning big.
“They pay Jimbo a lot of money, but other than beat Alabama In 2022), what has he done?,’’ one coach said. “Now that he’s got the NIL and biggest collective in college football, maybe he can win something. He hasn’t won the West or the SEC.
What’s holding A&M back?
“It’s about culture and recruiting,’’ the coach said. “They haven’t had a good quarterback. Kellon Mond was not a good quarterback, even though he had some good games.
“Jimbo has a proven track record with quarterbacks. So would Jimbo let a great quarterback leave A&M (Zach Calzada to Auburn)? No. He needs Haynes King or Max Johnson to be productive.’’
The defense should be solid.
“A&M has a lot of defensive talent,’’ one coach said. “They play good defense. Hiring D.J. Durkin is a shot in the dark. You lose Mike Elko and get Durkin. I don’t think that’s an upgrade.’’
One coach wondered about player development: “Either A&M is not getting the right ones or they’re not developing them. You can’t say you can’t get players at Texas A&M, right? You should be able to get who you want.’’
After blitzing its way to the 2019 national championship with an historically great team, LSU has gone 11-12 the past two years.
Out with the Cajun from Cutoff. In with the non-southerner from South Bend.
“The Brian Kelly Experiment,’’ one SEC coach said. “LSU brought in a hillbilly from West Virginia (Nick Saban), and they won the national championship. I hear different things from different people about Kelly. They need for him to act like himself and not act like he’s from Baton Rouge.’’
Indeed. Kelly’s fake Cajun accent didn’t play well on the bayou. But Kelly went 113-39 in 12 years at Notre Dame, and won at least 10 games his last four seasons.
That matters little to the Tiger Nation.
“LSU people are not very patient,’’ one coach said. “But (Kelly) got 14 in the transfer portal (including a quarterback from Arizona State, Jayden Daniels). It’s free agency. You better make sure it’s the right 14. And he better realize how important the Alabama game is.
“In Baton Rouge, they don’t care if you’re from Finland — if you can win.’’
How long will it take Kelly to get buy-in from the bayou?
“There’s going to be probably as big a culture shift as there’s been in the SEC in years,“ one coach said, “because going from where they were, the circumstances they were in and bringing in someone like Brian Kelly, that’s a whole ‘nother flavor.’’
Ed Orgeron went 15-0 in 2019, but he couldn’t back it up. Few programs not named Alabama can.
“The hardest thing to do is not winning the national championship, it’s to win it again the next year, to repeat,’’ one coach said. “That’s the hardest thing to do.
“When you go from 8-4 to 6-6, that’s not a big fall. When you go from best team in America (2019) to a very average team because of many issues (Covid, transfers, injuries) that breaks down the psyche of the team.’’
How long will the rebuild process take in Baton Rouge?
“LSU has always had players, always will have players,’’ one coach said. “Is it where it was? No. Will it take long to get back? No.’’
Arkansas went 1-23 in SEC play the three years before Sam Pittman arrived.
The Hogs were competitive in 2020 despite a 3-7 record, then went 9-4 with wins over Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
“Sam Pittman has done a phenomenal job,“ one SEC coach said, “but at the end of the day, he’s only as good as his quarterback (K.J. Jefferson) and his ability to run the ball. Sam always has a tough, hard-nosed offensive line.
(Defensive coordinator) Barry Odom has done a really good job (with 4-2-5 defense). But I think teams are starting to catch on to the scheme and exploit it. (Pittman) has got a veteran defensive coordinator to hold people down in scoring. The offense has to be more productive to be a consistent winner.’’
One coach was impressed with the Hogs turnaround: “To get Arkansas to bowl game is a phenomenal job in the West. That’s why Sam got that extension. Sam does it with class and he does it within the rules.
“It all starts with Sam Pittman’s culture and fact the players play hard for him. They’re a tough football team, well coached. They haven’t been there long enough to have a good talent pool. But from where they came from when he took job (two straight winless SEC seasons) to now is amazing. The next step is the hardest step to take in SEC. Going from 8-4 to 10, 11, 12 wins is a harder step than going from three wins to eight. It really is.’’
The outlook: “They’re going to be a good football team and will beat a couple people they probably shouldn’t beat. Can they make next step with the talent pool they have this early in process? That’s hard.
“They have one of the better offensive/defensive coordinator combinations in the SEC. I think they struck gold there.’’
Mike Leach went from 4-7 to 7-6 and a bowl game. He beat North Carolina State, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Auburn before an embarrassing Liberty Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
What’s in store for the Bulldogs? Who knows?
“Mike Leach is an odd ball,’’ one SEC coach said. “But he’s got that quarterback back (Will Rogers). He’s got to have a better plan against eight-drop teams. That’s where he really struggles because he doesn’t have a running attack. If he would incorporate the run game, it would help his passing attack.
“The defensive is solid but it’s not like some of their great defenses in the past.’’
One coach wasn’t sure Leach could get State to a bowl game: “I’m really kind of pleasantly surprised at his success at State. We all know he’s a good football coach. But does he really fit there? I don’t know, but he’s done it his way and improved and improved and improved. He’s very competitive.
“Leach has done a nice job and his personality and offense enamors kids to go there.’’
One coach noted: “In the state of Mississippi, there are two clear differences in the head coaches, Leach and Lane Kiffin. Both are offensive coaches, but with different styles and personalities.’’
Can Leach win at a high level in the SEC?
“He doesn’t run the ball at all,’’ a coach said. “That’s not a flaw. It’s not the way he builds it. He has answers in his offense. It’s a different philosophy, yes. But it’s not a flaw. He knows how to call a game.’’
Lane Kiffin proved he isn’t just a smart offensive coach as he guided the Rebels to a 10-3 season, only the third 10-win season for the Rebels since 1972.
Ole Miss was third in the SEC in rushing and passing and fourth in scoring. Kiffin beat Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU in consecutive games while dodging golf balls at Neyland Stadium.
Can Ole Miss repeat its 10-win season?
“I think the key to the drill is how good they are this year without (quarterback) Matt Corral and (offensive coordinator) Jeff Lebby,’’ one coach said. “I’ve watched Jeff Lebby. I think Jeff Lebby is the best kept secret in football, and if the Auburn job opens up, I think Auburn should hire Lebby (who is now at offensive coordinator at Oklahoma).’’
Ole Miss picked up a quarterback, two running backs and a tight end in the transfer portal.
“They got a couple of good offensive guys in the portal,’’ one coach said. “The defense was better under D.J. Durkin, but I still wouldn’t consider them a good defense. Time is going to tell. If Ole Miss wins eight games, it’s a great job. Lane (Kiffin) did a great job last year of putting his staff together. But he was the best available offensive (head) coach at about five schools and all of them stiffed him. That needs to be a wakeup call for him.’’
Another coach raised the question about the impact of Corral’s departure.
“When you lose the quarterback (Corral) they had, it creates a question,’’ the coach said. “But they do have a quarterback coach (Kiffin) and a play caller who is very creative and has been throughout his coaching career of doing some really unorthodox things that fit the quarterback he has. He’s always going to put pressure on the defense — always.’’
Said another coach: “Kiffin created an identity for Ole Miss. He made them relevant. Ole Miss didn’t walk into any stadium last year where the opponent didn’t think, `We better play well or we’ll lose this football game.’’’