(This is the third in a four-part series on what SEC coaches had to say about other SEC programs. The coaches agreed to be quoted but not identified. Here is a look at the rest of the SEC East – not counting Tennessee.)
By Jimmy Hyams
Is this the year Florida unseats Georgia as the East Division champion?
Or is Georgia’s defense and overall talent too much for the Gators to overcome?
“I think Florida has the potential to have a really, really good year,’’ one SEC coach said. “Dan Mullen is a little weird, but he has an uncanny ability to take the talent he’s given and get them to play at a high level. He did it at Mississippi State and he’s got a lot more talent at Florida.
“I think he puts his guys in position to be successful (on offense). He does as good a job as anyone of calling plays to put his players in position to succeed.
Florida has arguably the SEC’s best quarterback in Kyle Trask.
“Trask is a very talented young man who is doing what Dan asks him to do,’’ said an SEC coach. “I also think they’ve got the best defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) in the league. They’re not where they need to be yet (with defensive talent) but they’re getting there.
“They’re missing difference makers up front, potential first round guys. They do not have pass rushers like they did a year ago but Grantham will generate it. That’s a smart dude, now.’’
Georgia lost quarterback Jake Fromm to the NFL draft and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out. That leaves the quarterback position as a big question mark.
“They have a new offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) and that’s always going to be interesting, no matter whether it’s coupled with a new quarterback or coupled with missing spring practice,’’ an SEC coach said. “There will be some growing pains but they’ve got so many players on that roster. They’ve got good receivers, young and inexperienced, they’re but good receivers.’’
Georgia might be more reliant on a run game this season.
“Just when you think Georgia doesn’t have a running back, they’ve got two,’’ an SEC coach said. “Zamir White is a good player, fast and tough and can make hard yards in the SEC.
“They’re not close to what they were on the offensive line. They lost too many good players.’’
Georgia might have the best defense in the SEC.
“The defense has a chance to be exceptional,’’ one SEC coach said. “Kirby (Smart) does a great job schematically and they’ve got a lot of talent on that side on the ball. They could be as good as anybody in the league on defense. They’ve got so many guys on defense, they can’t play them all.’’
Kentucky has been impressive, winning at least eight games each of the past two seasons under coach Mark Stoops.
“I tell you what, if they ever get a close vote for (SEC) Coach of Year and they don’t know who to give it too, just give it to Mark Stoops,’’ said one SEC coach. “He’s found a way to offensively and defensively get those guys to play at a high level and compete week in and week out and do it year after year. To win 18 games in back-to-back years at Kentucky is remarkable.’’
That sentiment was echoed by another SEC coach.
“Mark and his staff have done a really good job of evaluation and finding SEC caliber players in places that maybe other people weren’t looking,’’ the coach said..
How has Stoops sustained success?
“That’s just who he is.’’ a coach said. “He’s a tough, resilient guy and he’s very positive.
Stoops is a proven guy. He’s done a helluva job recruiting good guys, playing good defense and being very creative on offense.
“(Offensive coordinator) Eddie Gran is very creative on offense and open minded. He takes his best players and does what they do best. Man they won eight games last year with a wide receiver playing quarterback.’’
Another coach wasn’t quite as high on Stoops.
“Stoops has done a great job but he’s done it with the East being really bad.’’ the coach said. “South Carolina has sucked, Tennessee has sucked. Florida wasn’t that good.’’
Missouri fire one of its own, Barry Odom, after another subpar season, and hired a one-year head coach who had a great season at Appalachian State.
“With a new coach (Eli Drinkwitz) that’s going to be a change in a major way, not so much schematically but culturally,’’ said one SEC coach.
“Barry Odom had played at Missouri, he came under (former coach) Gary Pinkel. It’s been the same structure in a lot of ways, because it was out of the same family. This is distinctly different.
“Having said that, they’ve got some good football coaches on that staff and they’re not going to flinch because at Appy State, when they played Power Five teams, they didn’t back up.’’
Another coach was complimentary of Drinkwitz.
“I do know this, Eli Drinkwitz is a very good teacher of quarterbacks,’’ the coach said. “That’s evident by what he’s done at other stops. He inherited a helluva team at Appy State and did a good job with them.’’
Another coach thinks Missouri could be dangerous: “You play Missouri, they look like an NFL team. They’re pretty getting off the bus. Barry Odom is a good football coach. I don’t know why he didn’t succeed more. It is hard to win there but Gary Pinkel went to Atlanta a lot (twice by winning the SEC East.)’’
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp would likely be on the hot seat if not for a $13 million buyout and a built in excuse for the pandemic.
But his last couple of seasons have been disappointing.
“It’s a hard job in some ways because of the state they are in,’’ one SEC coach said. “It’s a small state in terms of number of high schools and high school talent. They’re in the SEC and oh by the way, they’re in the same state with what Clemson’s got going on, so those things make it hard.’’
One coach thinks fans have turned on their coach: “South Carolina fans have kind of soured on Will Muschamp and (AD) Ray Tanner. South Carolina’s defense the last four years has been horrible and that’s supposed to be Will’s baby. Tavaris Robinson (defensive coordinator) is not very good. And on offense, they can’t run the ball.’’
Another coach saw things differently: “They’re well coached. They compete, and I think that’s evident in the fact, it’s hard to go to Athens, Georgia, and win (which SC did last year).’’
Muschamp made a change at offensive coordinator, hiring Mike Bob, the former head coach at Colorado State and offensive coordinator at Georgia.
“I think Mike Bobo is a good hire for them,’’ the coach said. “He could be the next head coach there. But not having spring ball hurts when you have a new coordinator with a new system. It hurts skill guys a lot more.’’
So why hasn’t Muschamp done better in following Steve Spurrier?
“What happened in the post Steve Spurrier Era, you can’t rule out what Clemson has done, so that’s always in your face,’’ one SEC coach said. “Then the fact that during the run with coach Spurrier, North Carolina had been hit with the academic scandal. N.C. State was going through some issues. Clemson wasn’t that good. Everything just kind of lined up and South Carolina had some top flight recruiting classes.’’
James Franklin proved you could win at Vanderbilt as he recorded consecutive nine-win seasons.
Derek Mason hasn’t been as productive.
In fact, Mason might be on the hottest seat in the SEC. He has taken the Commodores to two bowl games and beaten Tennessee three times. But he has yet to post a winning season and his offense was among the SEC’s worst last season.
`The only thing worse than a bad record is a bad offense,’’ said one SEC coach.
“Vanderbilt is a tougher job than Arkansas,’’ said another coach. “Arkansas has got decades of winning and Arkansas has been to Atlanta (site of the SEC Championship game) multiple times (three).’’
Stringent academics has been a hurdle for Vanderbilt for many years.
Lack of tradition doesn’t help, either.
“You get into the history of it,’’ one coach said “and in terms of recruiting, prospects want to go somewhere where they can win and go to Atlanta and go to a bowl.
“Recruits can go to a game and watch Tennessee play and Auburn and Alabama and Georgia play and see the atmosphere. Then go to Vanderbilt and it’s not impressive. That doesn’t mean it’s anything bad. It’s just different from what you’re competing against.’’
Another coach defended Mason: “I think Derek Mason has done a really good job because he doesn’t flinch. He just keeps working. He keeps competing. If you ever went to war, you want Mason to go with you because he’s not going to flinch.’’
In an effort to improve his program, Mason hired veteran Ted Roof as defensive coordinator.
“Ted has always had a decent defense,’’ one SEC coach said. “Ted has the personality to handle those kind of kids at Vanderbilt. He’s a smart guy, understands those kids. He has the best non-verbal communication of any guy I’ve met. You don’t need to scream, you just have to get them to get it.
“Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech (where Roof played and coached) are two of the toughest jobs in America. They’ve got limitations. They’re not going to jeopardize the mission state of school for football. Other schools don’t have a mission statement, except go win football games.’’