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March 3, 2009

Whispers: Ranking the coaches in the SEC

With the dust settled on the head coaching searches across the nation, now is a good time to rank the coaches in each BCS conference.

This is a highly subjective exercise I have done annually for the past three years. My criteria is a mix of future projections with past performances.

First up is the SEC, which now and forever will be the premier conference in America. It also is a league that had as much coaching tumult as any, with three new coaches: Tennessee's Lane Kiffin, Auburn's Gene Chizik and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen.

1. Urban Meyer, Florida
He is coming off a second BCS title in three seasons. Add in a 12-0 record at Utah in 2004, and Meyer is the closest thing to college football perfection walking the planet. He has an 83-17 career record, and he's 44. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? You know, what more can Meyer accomplish at the college level? The pull of the NFL will become too strong at some point for college football's prince.

2. Nick Saban, Alabama
Two seasons into his tenure, it looks like Saban may be underpaid at $4 million per season. Last season was a breakthrough of monumental proportions that no one could have anticipated, with Saban leading the Tide to a 12-2 record. As he continues to hoard talent, it's only a matter of time before Saban wins his second BCS title. How much fun will it be to watch Saban battle Meyer for SEC supremacy in coming years?

3. Mark Richt, Georgia
Here is food for thought: Is Richt losing some of his luster? He had what many felt was the nation's No. 1 team last season, but the Bulldogs ended up in the Capital One Bowl. No doubt, Richt has done a lot, going 82-22 in eight seasons in Athens. And he is a survivor; he's the longest-tenured coach in the SEC. But programs blessed with this many bells and whistles are measured by championships. Richt hasn't won the SEC title since 2005 and never has won a national title.

4. Houston Nutt, Ole Miss
He never was appreciated at Arkansas, where he led the Razorbacks to two SEC title games and eight bowls in 10 seasons at a school that never teems with blue-chip talent. In one season in Oxford, Nutt already has legions of believers following a 9-4 record and Cotton Bowl triumph over Texas Tech. Few motivate or scheme as well as Nutt.

5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
His Hall-of-Fame legacy is sealed, having laid the foundation for a dynasty at Florida that included six SEC titles and a national championship. But four mostly mediocre seasons (28-22) in Columbia have chipped away at that legacy. Spurrier can't seem to get the Gamecocks over the hump, which is maddening to the fat cats in those Cockabooses. He turns 64 in April.

6. Les Miles, LSU
It seems any currency Miles earned by leading LSU to the 2007 BCS title vanished with last season's 8-5 clunker that saw the Tigers go 3-5 in the SEC. Now, Miles seemingly has to prove himself all over again. And he'll do it with a revised coaching staff. Talent never is an issue in Baton Rouge. It's up to Miles to coach 'em up.

7. Rich Brooks, Kentucky
He laid the foundation of a powerful program at Oregon from 1977-94. Now, he has made Kentucky a strong and respected program since taking command in 2003. The Wildcats have won three consecutive bowls for the first time ever. Now, the question looms: When will Brooks who turns 68 in August hand off to coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips?

8. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas
He might be a job hopper, but Petrino also is a fantastic play-caller and a terrific coach. He showed that during a great four-year run at Louisville, going 41-9 from 2003-06. And Petrino offered a glimpse of the future when he rallied the Hogs to a 5-7 record in his debut that was highlighted by a season-ending 31-30 win over LSU. Stand back and watch the Hogs fly.

9. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt
We dare you to find a coach who does more with less. You can't, so don't try. Johnson became a heroic figure when he delivered Vandy to its first bowl since 1982 last season after coming close in 2005 (5-6) and '07 (5-7). And if Johnson ever was going to get swooped up by a bigger school, it likely would have happened after last season. It didn't, so it looks like Johnson, 56, likely will finish his career in Music City. And that's a beautiful thing.

10. Gene Chizik, Auburn
Can the guy coach? He went 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State. Chizik supporters are quick to point out that hardly anyone wins in Ames. Regardless, the jury is out on Chizik. And going head to head with Alabama and Saban is no way for a neophyte coach to cut his teeth.

11. Lane Kiffin, Tennessee
It hasn't taken Kiffin long to talk a good game. Will he be able to back it up? His one-plus seasons as coach of the Oakland Raiders that produced a 5-15 record only can be summed up as disastrous. Now, Kiffin, 33, wades into one of the nation's most high-profile jobs in the most competitive conference in America. This can end two ways: 1. Kiffin will be a huge success; 2. Kiffin will be an utter disaster. There will be no in-between.

12. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Let's go ahead and call him "Urban Junior" because that's who Mullen is. Pushing the buttons as the coordinator for a Florida offense that included Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow is one thing. Making Mississippi State's attack consistently functional is quite another. This is going to be fascinating to watch, and perhaps further proof that talent matters more than schemes. If Mullen, 36, can pull this off and make the Bulldogs a consistent bowl team, he will be hailed as a genius. And he also likely won't be in Starkville for long.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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