Navigating off the hot seat is tough. Even coaches who temporarily turn down the heat usually experience a later flare-up that incinerates their tenure. Best to avoid the heat altogether.
A year ago, Auburn’s Bryan Harsin entered his second season on the hot seat. His debut had flopped, recruiting stalled, and he was subject to a university inquiry in the offseason. Harsin’s goose was cooked, and it was just matter of when the oven would ding. Auburn fired him on Halloween, ending his tenure after 21 games.
No SEC football coach faces the heat Harsin experienced last year, but a few coaches could quickly move toward the hot seat if this season sours.
And hot-seat pressure is only one type of pressure SEC coaches face.
Here’s my ranking of the five SEC coaches facing the most pressure this season.
5. Zach Arnett (Mississippi State)
Promoting Arnett from defensive coordinator to coach became the logical move for MSU after Mike Leach’s unexpected death in December. Arnett had been in his position for three seasons, and he offered stability at a tumultuous time. Also, Arnett’s coaching stock had been rising, although, under normal circumstances, he probably would have been at least a couple of years away from an opportunity like this.
Zac Selmon became Mississippi State athletics director following Arnett’s hire, so it’s important that Arnett make a good impression on his new boss. Year 1 charts the course for a coach’s tenure. Arnett will be judged on his decision to pivot away from Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. If State’s offense flourishes, Arnett will be credited as a bold leader. If the offense stalls, his decision will be dubbed a hasty change that cost the Bulldogs’ their identity.
4. Sam Pittman (Arkansas)
The Head Hog had the Razorbacks rumbling along after two seasons, and his personality is tailormade for Arkansas. But after receiving a contract extension and a raise last summer, Pittman’s third season became one of unattained potential, although Arkansas finished on an upswing by beating Kansas in the Liberty Bowl.
Pittman’s 19-17 record at Arkansas looks pedestrian, until you consider the Razorbacks were stuck in the muck before his arrival. Predecessor Chad Morris failed to win a single SEC game in two seasons. Pittman retains job security, and the Razorbacks should stabilize behind talented veteran quarterback KJ Jefferson. If they don’t, though, the question must be asked whether Arkansas’ nine-win season in 2021 was Pittman’s ceiling.
3. Nick Saban (Alabama)
Saban will coach there as long as he likes. Remember, this is not exclusively a hot-seat list. Saban and his Crimson Tide face heightened pressure. Kirby Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs are the SEC’s new kings, courtesy of their consecutive national championships. If the Bulldogs three-peat (something Alabama has never done), they’ll tighten their stranglehold on the sport.
Saban’s headaches don’t end with Georgia. He’s got two new coordinators and a starting quarterback competition. Alabama’s losses to LSU and Tennessee last season marked the first time it lost to both of those rivals in the same season since 2006. Brian Kelly, Josh Heupel and Hugh Freeze comprise the best collection of coaching talent among Alabama’s rivals during Saban’s tenure.
Saban has never gone three straight seasons without a national championship at Alabama. If the Crimson Tide does not reclaim its standing, questions about Saban’s age – he’ll be 72 in October – and whether he’s built to rule in the NIL era will gain steam.
2. Billy Napier (Florida)
Florida fans don’t just want to win. Spoiled by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, they want to be entertained. The Gators were neither consistent winners nor particularly exciting in Napier’s debut. The highlights – a win against Utah and a trouncing of South Carolina – were overshadowed by a loss to Vanderbilt and a whipping by Oregon State.
Florida soured on Dan Mullen at warp speed, and Napier hasn’t won like Mullen. Losing blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada from the 2023 recruiting class didn’t help. It doesn’t much matter that the recruiting miss was more of an NIL snafu than anything Napier flubbed.
Napier inherited a thinner-than-usual cupboard at Florida, and his Louisiana tenure took flight in his second season. If Florida musters some patience with Napier, this still could work, but Florida’s schedule is brutal, its quarterback situation is bleak and an SEC coach doesn’t get a second honeymoon season.
1. Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M)
Fisher’s buyout is a whopper. So is the pressure he’s facing. After a 5-7 season, Fisher’s record after five years is worse than predecessor Kevin Sumlin’s was. Coaches who rely on their buyout for job security usually wind up collecting that buyout eventually. Fisher’s buyout will still exceed $77 million come December. That affords him wiggle room, but it’s not an ironclad failsafe. Texas A&M is a revenue giant and has proven to be a big spender.
The Aggies’ disappointing 2022 came with caveats: They had a young roster, were hurt by injuries and lost numerous close games. But, Fisher had a hand in the disappointment. He neglected to solidify A&M’s young roster with transfers, and his offense stalled.
Now, the Aggies are older, they return their top quarterback, and Bobby Petrino is here to revitalize the offense. If those developments don’t fix the Aggies, what excuses will be left?