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Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Challenges for first-year SEC head coaches

By Chris Low

The four first-year head coaches in the SEC all have their work cut out for them next season.

Of course, when new coaches enter this league, they almost always face significant rebuilding jobs.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the challenges and hurdles Bret Bielema, Butch Jones, Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops have in front of them heading into the 2013 season.

Bret Bielema, Arkansas: Bielema’s track record speaks for itself. He went to three straight Rose Bowls at Wisconsin and now gets to prove that he can get it done in the SEC. Recruiting more difference-makers on defense was the first priority, and that’s still a work in progress. The Hogs simply haven’t measured up defensively the last couple of seasons. It’s also going to be equally important next season that Arkansas develop an identity on offense, especially losing the likes of quarterback Tyler Wilson, running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson and receiver Cobi Hamilton. With Jim Chaney coming over as offensive coordinator, look for the Hogs to be more balanced. Any team Bielema is coaching is always going to be able to run the ball, but he also understands the importance of being able to throw it in the SEC. The biggest hurdle Bielema has in 2013 is the schedule. The Hogs play at Alabama, at Florida, at LSU, at Ole Miss and get South Carolina and Texas A&M at home. Talk about a rude welcome to the league. This is a program that needs some confidence early after everything the players went through last year.

Butch Jones, Tennessee: Tennessee’s program has plummeted to nearly unprecedented depths over the last few years, and Jones is the Vols’ fourth head coach in the last six seasons. Tennessee has suffered through four losing seasons in the last five years and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2007. The fan base has been splintered, and there’s been a dark cloud hovering over this program for a long time. Jones has worked feverishly to galvanize the fans, and he’s also reached out to the Vols’ former lettermen and welcomed them back with open arms. The talent level in Tennessee’s program had slipped noticeably, and that’s where Jones has concentrated much of his efforts. The 2014 signing class is coming along nicely with several nationally ranked recruits committed. In the meantime, Jones has to find a way to survive with a defense that was ravaged last season and very few proven playmakers returning on offense. Simply getting to a bowl game this first season could be dicey. The Vols have trips to Alabama, Florida and Oregon.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Malzahn knows his way around the Plains. He was Auburn’s offensive coordinator for three years, including the 2010 national championship season. In returning to replace his old boss, Gene Chizik, Malzahn has done his best to erase everybody’s memory of what happened a year ago. That’s easier said than done when you go winless in the SEC and lose your last three SEC games by a combined 129 points. The good news for Malzahn is that he inherited some talent. The Tigers are much more talented than they played a year ago. The trick will be getting them to play to that talent level. The most pressing question is finding a quarterback, or more specifically, finding some consistency at the quarterback position in Malzahn’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense. Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier battled it out in the spring, and a couple of newcomers will join the fray this August. Even though Auburn won the national title three years ago, Alabama has run off and left its Iron Bowl rival. Closing that gap (and doing it quickly) will be Malzahn’s most daunting challenge.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky: What’s the toughest coaching job in the SEC? Most in and around this league would tell you that it’s a close race between Kentucky and Vanderbilt. And with James Franklin taking the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games, the challenge that Stoops faces at Kentucky is in a class by itself. Basketball is always going to be king at Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean there’s zero passion for football there. In fact, give Stoops major props for exciting that fan base with some of his early recruiting and his aggressive style on both sides of the ball. More than 50,000 people showed up for Kentucky’s spring game. Upgrading the talent level was right at the top of Stoops’ to-do list, and he’s off to a good start. He's had good success in the state of Ohio. The Wildcats are lacking in the offensive playmaker department, and that’s one of Stoops' biggest concerns going into this first season. Ultimately, he’s confident that offensive coordinator Neal Brown will put an offense on the field that can score points and move the ball. But filling in the right pieces could take some time.