Thursday, August 27, 2009

First Year SEC Coaches and Signature Wins

One of the real joys of college football is the unbridled – however unfounded – optimism that typically comes from the hiring of a new head coach, particularly when replacing a coach who was fired – or whatever euphemism is trendy that day. New philosophies and new attitudes abound with the influx of new blood in the coaching ranks.

2009 is a perfect example of this. Take a look at the three new hires entering the SEC, none of which has proven much of anything as a head coach:

  • Gene Chizik, Auburn: Chizik went 5-19 at Iowa State, but was DC for some very good Auburn teams earlier in the decade

  • Lane Kiffin, Tennessee: Kiffin was fired after a brief, unsuccessful stint (5-15) with the Raiders, but was co-OC for some very good USC Trojan teams earlier in the decade

  • Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: No head coaching experience, but was OC for some very good Florida and Utah teams earlier this decade

Of those 3, I can only see how Mississippi State fans could be genuinely excited. While I’m not a Mullen fan by default, his pedigree seems to be the best of the three, though I’m not sure how much he (or anybody) will win in Starkville. Chizik and Kiffin both failed miserably in their previous head coaching stints. In spite of all this, optimism rules in Auburn, Starkville, and Knoxville these days.

An integral part of the frenzy surrounding new coaches is landing that “signature win” in your first season at a school. It seems to happen for an unusually high number of first year coaches in the SEC (but never in 3 years if you’re Ed Orgeron). But what constitutes a signature win? Basically any win that a fan base can latch on to as a glimpse of the future of the program. A win that a coaching staff can point to when recruiting as an example of how their system works against top-tier opponents. A win that makes the program’s future so bright, you gotta wear shades.

Here’s a look at some signature wins by current or recent head coaches:

  • Tommy Tuberville’s 1999 Auburn team struggled a bit at 5-6 but did pick up a blowout win in Athens over an 8-4 UGA team

  • In 2001, Mark Richt and his UGA Bulldogs knocked off #5 Tennessee

  • Ron Zook was the first coach to be Croomed as Sylvester Croom led the MSU Bulldogs to a victory over Zook’s Gators in 2004

  • In 2005 Les Miles led his LSU Tigers to a comeback win over then undefeated and #4 Alabama and put a stamp on the season with a 40-3 hammering of Miami in the Peach Bowl

  • In 2005, Urban Meyer led the Gators to wins over Florida’s 3 biggest rivals: #4 Tennessee, #4 Georgia, and #21 Florida State, clearly stamping the program as his own

  • Steve Spurrier’s 2005 Gamecocks knocked off #23 Tennessee in Knoxville a few weeks before taking down #12 Florida in Columbia

  • In 2007, Nick Saban led the Tide to a now vacated victory over #16 Arkansas in his third game as head coach in Tuscaloosa. The Tide built a huge lead, watched it evaporate, but came back in the 4th quarter for a 34-31 victory

  • In 2008, Houston Nutt led the Rebels to a 31-30 victory in Gainesville and a 47-34 win in the Cotton Bowl over Texas Tech

  • In 2008, Bobby Petrino led the Razorbacks to a big comeback win over LSU in the final game of the regular season last year
So looking at the 2009 schedules for Auburn, Mississippi State, and Tennessee, which first year head coach(es)will land that signature win or wins that puts his stamp on the program? In the SEC, with so many good teams and storied rivals, the trio of new coaches will have multiple opportunities to put their stamp on their new programs.
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn: There are 3 teams in the SEC West currently ranked in the Top10 in both polls. Auburn lost to all 3 last year, and dropped a game to Georgia. Were Chizik to coax just one win out of those four games in 2009, the War Eagle Tiger Plainsmen fan base would have something to build on for 2010.

  • Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Another team residing in the powerful SEC West, the Bulldogs are blessed or cursed (depending on how you look at it) with ample opportunities for a signature win. In addition to Ole Miss, LSU, and Alabama, the Bulldogs also welcome Florida and a highly-touted Georgia Tech team to Starkville.

  • Lane Kiffin, Tennessee: Kiffin’s shenanigans thus far have put him in a precarious situation: Win the big games and you look like a genius, but lose them big and be blasted for running your mouth. The Vols take on Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss this year. Each will be a prohibitive favorite over the Vols and offer Kiffin and crew the chance for a signature win.
At this point, it’s tough to pinpoint which matchups seem most likely to swing the way of the new coaches. Mississippi State is nearly completely void of experienced SEC-caliber talent and faces one of the toughest schedules in the country. Tennessee and Auburn have a little more talent in place, but, at least in the preseason, have no quarterback to speak of. Both were one win - actually one bad loss – away from bowl eligibility last year and return a chunk of players from last year’s squads.

While it’s safe to assume that Tennessee will not beat Florida in Gainesville this year, every other team on this list has flaws or at least questions that need to be answered. If the Tigers or Vols stumble onto a serviceable passing game and catch one of the other teams napping or struggling to answer some of their own problems, either Kiffin or Chizik could put his stamp on his program.

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