More than a decade after Nick Saban took over as the coach of Alabama, the rest of the Southeastern Conference is still trying to figure out how to consistently beat him.
A lot of coaches have tried. A lot of them have ended up unemployed.
Now a new group will take a shot.
Five of the league’s 14 programs – including Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher), Mississippi State (Joe Moorhead), Arkansas (Chad Morris), Florida (Dan Mullen) and Tennessee (Jeremy Pruitt) – have a new head coach. Ole Miss coach Matt Luke is in his first season as the permanent head coach after working last season under an interim tag.
For those schools, recent spring practices were vital in trying to quickly establish a winning foundation in the unforgiving conference.
Morris – who came to the Razorbacks after three years at SMU – knows it’s a daunting challenge.
“I definitely think this is an extremely tough league. The best league in college football,” Morris said. “It’s been proven year in and year out. But with that being said, I can’t control the other teams. What I can control is the Arkansas Razorbacks.”
Pruitt said building an elite program requires much more than on-the-field adjustments.
“Eventually around here when we have things the way we want it, I won’t have to police them anymore,” Pruitt said. “They’ll police themselves because there will be folks so vested in the program, that paid the price … they’re not going to let any of their teammates, roommates or whoever let them down so they’ll confront them.
“But until then, I’ll be the one that does all the confronting.”
Saban, now in his 12th year at Alabama, still has the Crimson Tide far above the competition. The program won a fifth national championship in nine seasons in January and shows no sign of slowing down.
Alabama’s dealing with its own transition after losing both coordinators and several other assistant coaches to other jobs. Pruitt, who is now the Volunteers’ coach, was the former defensive coordinator.
“We have six new faces around here, but they all seem to fit in and they’re all doing extremely well,” Saban said. “I’m excited about them and I like every one of them and to be honest with you, we’re very, very fortunate and hit a home run with the guys we were able to hire.”
Alabama’s national championship victory makes it easy to forget that Auburn won the SEC’s Western Division after beating the Tide in the Iron Bowl. The euphoria was short-lived after the Tigers lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and then watched as Alabama was picked for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is entering his sixth season – tied for the second-longest tenured in the SEC. The Tigers hope that the relative coaching longevity can give them an advantage in the race to challenge the Tide.
Georgia will try to repeat as SEC champions after losing star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Third-year coach Kirby Smart won 21 games during his first two seasons with the Bulldogs.
Some other things to watch across the Southeastern Conference:
Florida turned to its past to find a new head coach during the offseason, hiring Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen . The 45-year-old Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida when Tim Tebow was quarterback and helped the Gators win national titles in 2006 and 2008. Mullen – who has built a reputation as a quarterback guru – will try to rebuild an offense that’s mostly sputtered over the past decade.
Jimbo in College Station
Texas A&M made arguably the most impressive coaching hire in the SEC when it lured Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher to College Station . Fisher won a national championship with the Seminoles in 2013 and will try to do the same with a Texas A&M program that’s been stuck in the middle of the SEC Western Division since it joined the league in 2012.
It’s been a lost decade for Tennessee’s football program, which has mostly struggled since longtime coach Phillip Fulmer was forced out in 2008. The Volunteers now turn to Pruitt , who was the defensive coordinator at Georgia and Alabama before coming to Knoxville. Tennessee has plenty of uncertainty on the roster, including at quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano started six of the final seven games last year, but must hold off a challenge from Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst, who will arrive on campus during the summer.
The quarterback competition between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa should continue into preseason camp. Tagovailoa broke a finger in his left, passing hand and was limited throughout the spring, sitting out the A-Day game. Hurts, who is 26-2 as the starter, turned in an unimpressive scrimmage performance. Hurts’ father, Averion, indicated to Bleacher Report that the junior would transfer if he didn’t win the starting job. Neither passer was made available to the media during the spring.
Orgeron in year 2
LSU coach Ed Orgeron had a rough start to his first full season after losses to Mississippi State and Troy, but the Tigers recovered and finished with a respectable 9-4 record. Orgeron’s second year should also be challenging. The Tigers have several starting spots up for grabs and must figure out answers before a brutal schedule that includes games against Miami and Auburn in the first three weeks of the season.
AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Steve Megargee and Kurt Voigt contributed to this story.
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