Put your Gloria on pause for a few minutes this morning. It’s time to think about college football … then you can get back to dreaming about the Stanley Cup coming to St. Louis.
Let’s check back in with the SEC Countdown. We’ve already looked at the league’s best nonconference games for 2019 and the league’s best quarterbacks. Now, the league’s best offensive and defensive coordinators.
This is an exercise in near complete subjectivity. How do you measure the best coordinators in a league loaded with big names who pull down bigger salaries? Here’s my hardly scientific methodology: The best coordinators are the coaches whose units’ consistent success you can trace back to that coach’s fingerprints. Some coordinators are glorified position coaches who just run the system of their meticulously involved head coach. Some coordinators specialize on the side of the ball counter to their head coach and are essentially responsible for running 50 percent of the team. Those guys carry more weight with these rankings — especially the successful ones with a proven track record, not necessarily at their current school or even in the SEC but at the sport’s higher levels.
We can’t talk about SEC coordinators without talking about salaries and the massive jump they’ve taken over the last decade.
In 1995, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden became the first college football head coach to make $1 million a year. In 2018, there were 21 assistant coaches across college football making at least $1 million, with more than half (11) coming from the SEC.
When he left Mizzou a decade ago, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen was making $237,000 as Gary Pinkel’s highest paid assistant. That figure would now rank ninth among Barry Odom’s 10 assistant coaches. Adjusted for inflation, Christensen’s 2008 salary would be $281,300 in 2019 — and still just 30 percent of what current Mizzou offensive coordinator Derek Dooley pulls down, at $925,000. Great gig if you can get one.
Here are the best of the best in the SEC.
10. Mike MacIntyre, Ole Miss defensive coordinator
Before he was a head coach at two stops, MacIntyre was recognized as the nation’s best assistant coach while running the defense at Duke. He turned that into the head-coaching job at San Jose State, where he won 10 games in 2012, and from there landed the top job at Colorado, where he was named national coach of the year in 2016. He couldn’t survive five losing seasons in six years, but after inheriting a dismal defensive team he built the Buffs around a loaded secondary that included four draft picks in 2017-18. He’s got another major turnaround project facing him in Oxford.
9. James Coley, Georgia offensive coordinator
Who? He’s coached quarterbacks and receivers for the Bulldogs the last couple years and before that coordinated offenses at Miami and Florida State, where he coached three straight first-round draft pick QBs in Christian Ponder, E.J. Manuel and Jameis Winston. When Jim Chaney left UGA for Tennessee, Kirby Smart could have looked outside the program this offseason and made a splashier hire (Derek Dooley? Major Applewhite? Mike Bobo?), but Smart stayed in-house and promoted his co-coordinator who’s already built a rapport with quarterback Jake Fromm.
8. Steve Sarkisian, Alabama offensive coordinator
Sark crashed and burned as a head coach at USC, but nobody ever said he couldn’t coach offense. OK, Atlanta Falcons fans might disagree, but when handed elite talent at the college level he’s produced elite results. Ask Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. Both won the Heisman under Sark’s watch. Now it could be Tua Tagovailo’s turn as Sarkisian returns to Alabama after serving as coordinator for the 2016 national championship game loss to Clemson.
7. Eddie Gran, Kentucky offensive coordinator
Gran works alongside Darren Hinshaw as UK’s co-coordinators, but we’re giving a nod to Gran for the progress the Cats have shown as a potent running team the last few years. After a record-setting run as Cincinnati’s OC, Gran has constructed Kentucky’s balanced attack, led by a fleet of prolific running backs the last three years, topped by All-SEC pick Benny Snell Jr. Gran was in demand this offseason and turned down Georgia’s coordinator job to stay in Lexington for another season.
6. Jim Chaney, Tennessee offensive coordinator
In his second stint in Knoxville, Chaney takes over the Vols’ offense after spending the last three years at Georgia, where he produced four 1,000-yard running backs the last two seasons and prolific quarterback play out of young quarterbacks, first Jacob Eason, then Jake Fromm. It was more than 20 years ago when Chaney made his mark as Drew Brees’ college coordinator at Purdue and has since moved more times than U-Haul. As much as the Vols struggled to win games during his first stop under Dooley, his 2012 team averaged 475.9 yards per game — second-most in team history — and averaged 37 points per game.
5. John Chavis, Arkansas defensive coordinator
The veteran coach known as “Chief” — no relation to Blues coach Craig Berube — Chavis built his reputation during a 20-year run at Tennessee (1989-2008), followed by another strong stretch at LSU (2009-14). His defenses at Texas A&M (2015-17) and Arkansas (2018) haven’t been as strong, but we trust he hasn’t forgotten how to coach. In 24 seasons as an SEC coordinator he’s been part of 12 10-win teams and coached 15 first-round NFL draft picks. Has Chavis lost his fastball? His Arkansas defense can only get better after allowing 34.8 points per game last fall, second-worst in the SEC.
4. Bob Shoop, Mississippi State defensive coordinator
He gets a mulligan for a couple injury- and depth-depleted years at Tennessee, but the Yale graduate has been one of the game’s best defensive coaches everywhere else he’s worked, especially last year in Starkville, where the Bulldogs were the only team in college football to finish inside the top 10 of all four major defensive categories, led the nation in total defense and finished second in points allowed and rushing defense. It helps to have three first-round NFL draft picks, but Shoop also produced strong results in previous stops at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
3. Rich Rodriguez, Ole Miss offensive coordinator
It’s been a while since Rich Rod served as a coordinator, but he was among the nation’s rising play-callers back at Clemson in 1999-2000. He parlayed that success into head-coaching runs at West Virginia (huge success), Michigan (huge flop) and Arizona (mild success). He won just six Big Ten games in three years in Ann Arbor, but his offenses, almost always built around mobile, dynamic quarterbacks, typically leave defenses gassed and overwhelmed. He’ll look to remake his career in Oxford.
2. Kevin Steele, Auburn defensive coordinator
After winning just nine games in four seasons as Baylor’s head coach, Steele rebuilt his career to become one of the game’s top defensive coaches, working at Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and now Auburn, where his defenses have finished no lower than fourth in the SEC in points allowed each of the last three seasons. It’s a credit to Steele that defense has become the backbone of an Auburn program that’s supposed to be all about Gus Malzahn’s offense.
1. Dave Aranda, LSU defensive coordinator
There’s a reason Aranda was college football’s highest paid assistant at $2.5 million last year, which was more than about 70 FBS head coaches made in 2018, including 10 at Power 5 schools. (Yes, including Odom before his new contract kicked in.) At just 42 years old, Aranda has coordinated elite defense after elite defense, starting at Utah State then Wisconsin and now the last three years at LSU, where he also coaches the Tigers’ linebackers. His first LSU defense in 2016 allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country and last fall the Tigers were among the SEC leaders in interceptions, sacks and pass efficiency defense. Yes, his units are blessed with loads of NFL talent, but his system capitalizes on all that speed.
Just missed the cut
Todd Grantham, Florida defensive coordinator: He’s bounced around the last several years but more often than not puts a strong product on the field.
Derek Dooley, Missouri offensive coordinator: His body of work as a play-caller is just one year but he earned rave reviews for last season’s physical, balanced attack.
Mike Elko, Texas A&M defensive coordinator: He made his name as the defensive mind behind Notre Dame’s 10-win season in 2017. The Aggies improved in most areas statistically under his watch last fall.