SEC Power Poll Ballot: Preseason

August 19, 2008

The preseason SEC Power Poll this year (conducted by Garnet and Black Attack) is not a ranking of the teams, but a ranking of the coaches. Specifically, it is a ranking of coaching ability.

My ballot is based on who is good now, and it is slanted towards performance in this decade. No lifetime achievement awards are being handed out here.

Here’s my list and the explanations.

1. Urban Meyer

Call it a homer pick if you want, but he’s done well everywhere he’s gone. He turned in an undefeated season at Utah, becoming the first BCS Buster ever. Let’s also not forget that he did it before the BCS expanded to five games.

At Florida he won a national and conference championship and got a quarterback a Heisman. He proved the spread could work in the SEC and did it so convincingly that other coaches in the league are going to install some spread-style goodness of their own in 2008. Add to that his ace recruiting abilities, and you have my vote for top SEC coach.

2. Tommy Tuberville

I should specify that this is a vote for the Tuberville of 2004 and on and not for the Tuberville of 2003 and prior. There is a difference, and I outlined it here.

The post-2003 Tuberville has been one of the best coaches in the country in that span, though the fact he’s only parlayed that into one conference title is the reason why he’s second on the list. He also gets points for abandoning his old, conservative offense and actually giving former outcast/spread guru Tony Franklin the shot at major college coaching that he deserves.

3. Mark Richt

Richt is on pace for becoming the most successful head coach in Georgia history. He has two conference titles and a 13-1 season that wins him a national title in nearly any other year than the 2002 season in which he did it. He also lost to Vandy in 2006, something that a top league coach shouldn’t do six years into his tenure despite the strides the Commodores have made under Bobby Johnson.

He ended up third in the league on my ballot. That is still nothing to sneeze at in the best coaching conference in the country. How he does with the heaps of expectations on him this year will help to sort out his place in the hierarchy as well as help to define his legacy as a head coach.

4. Nick Saban

I know some people will be upset seeing him this high, especially given the loss to Louisiana-Monroe last season. It’s difficult to blame him too much for the negative goings on last season though given that his predecessor was Mike Shula, a guy who never should have been given a head coaching position.

Despite that fact, all six of the losses were by eight points or less so the Tide was competitive in every one of them. He had a blowout win over the SEC East champ Tennessee. Let’s also not forget the BCS championship he won at LSU and the incredible amount of talent he left there when he bolted to the Dolphins.

5. Les Miles

I decided that the first five guys on the ballot had to be guys who have won the national title in this decade, or at least have done enough to win one in a normal year. Since Miles won his national title with two losses while Meyer’s and Saban’s came with one loss (and Tuber ville had an undefeated season and Richt had a 13-1 year), he ended up fifth.

Yes it’s true that he walked into a treasure trove of talent at LSU. It’s also true that he has gone 11-2 each of the past three seasons with two blowout wins in BCS bowls and a Peach Bowl win that ended Miami football as we knew it. He also doesn’t get nearly enough credit for keeping the LSU team together after the Hurricane Katrina disaster just days before the start of his first season in Baton Rouge. He’s colorful, but he can coach.

6. Bobby Petrino

I’m going to throw out his time with the Falcons, which was spent under conditions that pretty much no one could succeed under. Instead, I’m looking more at his time at Louisville where he turned it into one of the country’s best teams, nearly made the national title game, and helped save the Big East.

The immediate drop off after his departure should highlight how good of a coach he was. He still did win his BCS game as the Big East champ though, which unfortunately doesn’t mean a whole lot, and it was over surprise ACC champ Wake Forest, which makes it matter even less. He’s still got a bright offensive mind and knows how to build a winner, so he goes here.

7. Phil Fulmer

You could make a case for him being higher or lower on the list, but he’s listed here thanks to being the final guy who has won a division championship at his current school. His East Division title last season helped some, but the fact remains that he has not won a conference title since 1998 and none of his teams has truly been elite without David Cutcliffe.

He gets some points for hiring Dave Clawson but nothing big until we find out if the Clawfense can succeed long term in the conference. Fulmer didn’t really manage his staff as well as he could/should have in the time between the Cutcliffe stints, but maybe this is a step forward. He will have to win the conference again to move higher on my list though.

8. Steve Spurrier

It pains me a little to put him this low, but there’s not a lot he’s done at South Carolina to support putting him higher. The Orange Bowl win in his final year at Florida was this decade so it does count some, but not being able to break past seven wins at South Carolina hurts his ability to go higher on my list.

Now, he did go to two bowls in a row in 2005-06, which ties the longest bowl appearance streak in school history. Lou Holtz also left the school on probation and in questionable shape. However, I can’t ignore the epic collapse last season after climbing to #6 in the country. His upward mobility will be determined in large part by whether he can win the division.

9. Houston Nutt

This could be a little low, but we’re talking about ability to perform the duties of head coach with this list. He won the SEC West twice this decade, but with Matt Jones and Darren McFadden on those teams, you’d expect that to happen.

In recent years, his ability to be a head coach has appeared to decline. His regime at Arkansas had increasingly been marked by scandal, and last season there was precious little offensive talent behind the McFadden-Felix Jones combination. The cupboards at Ole Miss appear to be relatively full, so he’s going to need to produce quickly in Oxford.

10. Sylvester Croom

Mississippi State was a toxic waste dump of a program when he arrived, and he got it to eight wins and a bowl just four years later despite having no dominant offensive players. Even in Croom’s rebuilding years, he scored upsets over Florida in ’04 and Alabama in ’06 despite them being in better shape.

He has not been perfect; he initially wanted to run a West Coast scheme despite not having nearly the talent or practice time to pull it off. However he’s built a winner, and he built it the right way. If he can sustain it, he can move up.

11. Rich Brooks

Brooks has taken Kentucky to two consecutive bowls, and that should win him some sort of award. I mean, this is a school that used its newly-hired basketball coach to sell football tickets last fall despite having gone to a bowl the previous season.

I have a feeling though that any of the other guys on the list could have done that with the personnel Brooks had. I also suspect that many of them would have done it faster than he did. For that reason, he’s behind the rest.

12. Bobby Johnson

I actually like Bobby Johnson, so I don’t like ranking him last. He has made Vanderbilt a competitive team week in and week out, and he has defeated Tennessee and Georgia in recent years. That’s really good for a school that doesn’t even have an athletics director.

At the same time, he’s not yet made a bowl so I can’t put him ahead of guys who have. His 2005 team with Jay Cutler was his best chance to get eligible, but they lost late in the season to 3-8 Kentucky. As far as I know, Vanderbilt is happy with him so he’s not going anywhere, but I’d like to see him get a shot at a school with more resources.

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Bear Hunting with Sylvester Croom

July 27, 2007

Al.com has been leading the pack when it comes to SEC media day coverage, and I’ve been sifting through some of the videos. One that I thought might be a little bland was that of Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, since he’s not really the excitable type, and isn’t known for shooting his mouth off like Steve Spurrier.

As it turns out, it was a pretty entertaining video. First of all, it may be your only chance to hear someone with an Alabama accent speak with humility. Beyond that though, his first great line came when he was asked about playing LSU the first game of the year. Instead of making excuses, he said that if MSU plans on ever competing for the SEC title (one of his goals, eventually) it would have beat the top SEC teams both whether at the beginning or end of the year. He summed it up with, “August 30 is as good a time as any” to play the Tigers. I really like that line.

He continued talking about LSU, and praised it for being such a good team. He also got in a dig at Notre Dame, saying that the Sugar Bowl  last year went exactly how he thought it would. Well, I can definitely say I’m for anyone who takes shots at overrated teams, especially when that overrated team is Notre Dame.

Finally, the press conference ends with this exchange:

Reporter: Did you say you’re more excited going into this season than any year so far here in Starkville?

Croom: You ever gone bear hunting without a switch? I mean, bear hunting with a switch? Well that’s what we’ve been doing for three years, bear hunting with a switch. This time we got a gun.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s officially welcome Sylvester Croom into the official SEC Quote Machine club. I’m going to have to start paying more attention to what he says and see if any more chestnuts like this come out. I really hope Miss State officials and fans don’t lose their perspective, forget how bad things were when Jackie Sherrill left, and fire Sly after he misses a bowl again this year. Not only has he cleaned up the program (not one Bulldog had an off-the-field issue this summer for the first time in a long, long time), but by now he’s joined the rich tradition of SEC coaches saying interesting things. Those are both things to be proud of.