published Saturday, October 26th, 2013

Greeson: Grading the SEC's rookie coaches

As we head to the home stretch of the college football season -- can you believe this is the final weekend of October? -- we have enough evidence to grade the first-year SEC football coaches.

Asking which of the four SEC rookies has done the best job, well, that could be discussed from a variety of points, and the views likely depend on the tint of glasses and the color of your car flags. It would be way easier to grade the worst one first, because the dumpster fire filled with bad Indian food and dirty diapers that is the Arkansas Razorbacks has become hard to watch and impossible to turn away from.

Plus, as Arkansas coach Bret Bielema looks at that roster and at the scenes in the ever-tough SEC West, where attempts at rebuilding make the guy who built his house on the sand look at you with puzzled eyes and a smirk on his face, this is a tall order. Heck, the Hogs may finish with a worse record in Bielema's first season than they did in John L. Smith's interim year. Yes, that John L. Smith, who entered a news conference last year with his primary talking point being that the members of the media needed to smile more. OK, coach.

Here's one other thing: How sure are we that Bielema is committed to this? Would it stun you completely if in this offseason of much change that will start with monolith jobs such as Southern Cal making hires and the trickle down from there will create waves more than ripples, if Bielema picks up after one year and heads somewhere else? And, while that may not happen, how long before the vocal minority of Hogs fans start longing to have the salad days of Bobby Petrino back? Tough times in Fayetteville for sure.

The other three first-year guys in the SEC are riding differing levels of waves of positive vibes that are testaments as much to the situation each inherited as the job that each has done. Mark Stoops and Co. at Kentucky have put together a top-flight recruiting class by making the SEC pitch in talent-rich Ohio and spending shoe leather chasing prospects. Kentucky's current class is ranked No. 8 in the country by Rivals.com and is currently ahead of such recruiting juggernauts as Texas, LSU and Florida. And yes, we double-checked to make sure it was the football rankings.

On the field, UK is taking a squirt gun to a shootout, but the Wildcats are fighting in every game. Stoops gets a solid B, and if he keeps that recruiting class together and finds another win or two down the stretch, it could be a B-plus.

In Knoxville, Butch Jones has flipped the script. He has laid a foundation from day one of buzz words and catch phrases -- and whoever came up with the Farm Bureau commercial that emphasized "Brick by Brick," well, that person deserves a raise -- that took off. The Jones approach took off with recruits and UT fans. It has galvanized a locker room that had become an eight-figure building of misfit toys that barely worked together and lacked direction.

The spirit and energy were super and exciting, and the fundamentals and discipline were fine and dandy. But they do not last without results. Butch and Co. took their swings against Georgia. They won against South Carolina. They have delivered above the tapered expectations and in some ways already have made the first step in renewing the rivalry with Alabama because we are at least interested to watch today's game. That's something this time last year was hardly true, considering that trying to put intrigue in Derek Dooley vs. Nick Saban was like trying to figure ways that the baby seals could beat the clubbers.

Add in the recruiting class -- Butch's bunch is No. 2 in the nation, according to Rivals -- and it is tough to find much to criticize with his first 10 months on the job. We'll give him an A-minus that will be bumped higher if/when the Vols qualify for a bowl game.

Which brings us to Gus Malzahn, the first-year Auburn coach who inherited a dysfunctional but talented program, put on his wizard hat, added a sprinkle of junior college quarterback Nick Marshall and BOOM, the Auburn Tigers are in control of their own destiny in the SEC as we approach the final Saturday of October. Yes, imagining the Tigers topping Alabama is to stretch the limits of even the most diehard Tigers fan, but it still is undeniable that there are only three SEC teams in complete control of their fate in the conference and Auburn is one of them.

That fact is made even more eye-popping since this was about the point that the Tigers phoned in the end of last season. Now they are already bowl-eligible and have ratcheted their expectations from hoping to make the postseason to playing in no worse than a New Year's Day game.

According to a recent story on ESPN.com, several Tigers including star running back Tre Mason have said Malzahn has preached from the very beginning that Auburn would have the biggest turnaround in the country. After going 3-9 overall and bagel-and-8 in the SEC last year, the 6-1 Tigers are ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and well on the way to making Gus the Wizard look like Gus the Prophet.

So heading into the season's homestretch, Bielema gets an incomplete that looks a lot like an F, Stoops gets a B that could swing up, Butch Jones gets an A-minus and Malzahn gets an A-plus.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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