- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Now that we’ve gone through our position rankings in the SEC for the 2011 season, the only thing left is the coaches.
The head coach is obviously a big part of these rankings, but we’re taking into account the total staff and the job all of the coaches did this season in developing players, developing the team and getting the team to play its best in the biggest moments.
1. Alabama: The only blemish for the national champions was the LSU game in the regular season, and that was an overtime loss. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain did an excellent job bringing along quarterback AJ McCarron, and it was hard to beat the Tide’s balance on offense. What more can you say about Kirby Smart and the defense? It’s a group that rates up there among the best in Alabama history, and when Nick Saban gets to the title game, he’s money. Alabama was easily the most prepared team on Jan. 9 in the Big Easy.
2. LSU: For 13 games, Les Miles and his entire staff did as good a job as any staff in America. There were several off-the-field issues that Miles handled well, and through it all, he kept his team on point against a killer schedule. Defensive coordinator John Chavis did a masterful job all season and won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country. But in the end, the Tigers were poorly prepared offensively in the title game and never made any significant adjustments. Miles’ refusal to at least try another quarterback remains a mystery.
3. South Carolina: It’s been a while since Steve Spurrier has been this happy about a football season. The Head Ball Coach and his staff have a lot to be happy about. The Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time ever, beat rival Clemson for the third straight season and did so despite their best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, going down with a knee injury during the middle of the season. It was one of Ellis Johnson’ best defenses at South Carolina, and after he left to take the Southern Miss head job, Lorenzo Ward saw to it that the Gamecocks didn’t miss a beat defensively in their Capital Bowl win over Nebraska.
4. Arkansas: With Tyler Wilson taking over for Ryan Mallett at quarterback, the Hogs were as potent as ever offensively, and that’s a credit to both Bobby Petrino and his right-hand man, Garrick McGee, who left at season’s end to take the UAB head job. Special teams were very good all season, although the Hogs gave up punt returns for touchdowns in their two biggest games of the season against Alabama and LSU. The disappointment was on defense, where Arkansas took a step backward from 2011, which is why Petrino parted ways with Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes.
5. Georgia: Mark Richt and his staff get serious props for recovering from an 0-2 start and steering the Bulldogs to the SEC championship game. A lot of teams would have folded after that South Carolina loss. In particular, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was invaluable with the mental toughness he brought to a unit that finished fifth nationally in total defense. The only real disappointment for the Bulldogs was how poorly they played on special teams, and the way Richt managed that first overtime in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State is another reason Georgia’s staff isn’t ranked a little higher.
6. Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ best win came in the regular-season finale when they routed Wake Forest on the road to qualify for a bowl game. And even though they lost their bowl game and wound up with a losing record, first-year coach James Franklin and his staff breathed new life into a program that had only gone to four bowl games previously in school history. The Commodores lost four of their six SEC games by a total of 19 points, and they improved dramatically on offense, especially in the offensive line. As much as anything, Franklin brought an edge to the program that it had been lacking.
7. Auburn: It’s never easy to go from a 14-0 national championship season to a ho-hum season where you lose three of your last four SEC games by a total of 101 points. The Tigers’ defense was dreadful for most of the season, and other than former tailback Michael Dyer, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about on offense, either. Nonetheless, Gene Chizik and his staff still found a way to carve out eight victories, including wins over five teams that finished the season with winning records.
8. Mississippi State: Maybe the expectations for Mississippi State at the start of the season were a tad unrealistic, but Dan Mullen helped create those expectations by winning nine games in his second season and spanking Michigan in the bowl game. Chris Wilson’s defense came around the second half of the season, but the Bulldogs didn’t take the step most thought they would on offense. They were a couple of plays away from winning nine games again, and it’s the first time Mississippi State has put together back-to-back winning seasons since Jackie Sherrill had four in a row from 1997-2000.
9. Florida: The first year was a mulligan of sorts for Will Muschamp, who inherited some issues off the field he needed to solve. He made a tough (and the right) decision by kicking off his best player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, after multiple drug arrests. The Gators also held their ground defensively. But the Charlie Weis experiment as offensive coordinator wasn’t a good fit, and the Gators were as bad offensively as they were the year before during Urban Meyer’s last season.
10. Kentucky: Had the Wildcats played just 11 games in 2011, Joker Phillips and his staff might have been ranked even lower. But then came the finale against Tennessee and the end of the 26-game losing streak to the Vols. Not only that, but the Wildcats figured out a way to win with receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback. It was a struggle the whole way offensively during the season, but first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter deserves credit for bringing a more aggressive approach to the defense and forcing more turnovers.
11. Tennessee: A very average season for the Vols turned into a forgettable season thanks to their lackluster 10-7 loss to Kentucky. The Vols were slowed by key injuries to Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray and were playing a lot of younger players, but Derek Dooley has been the first to say that they also need to coach better going forward. The running game was a no-show in 2011, and there was a serious problem with team chemistry as the season wore on, something Dooley must correct if he’s going to be around long-term on Rocky Top.
12. Ole Miss: It was a tough end to a 14-year SEC coaching run for Houston Nutt. Some poor recruiting classes at the start of his Ole Miss tenure caught up to him, and so did some crippling injuries. There were no answers at quarterback, and even though the numbers were ugly on defense, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is a much better football coach than the numbers would suggest. The reality is that when you lose 14 straight conference games over two seasons, you’re not going to be ranked very high in any rankings.
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