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Who’s ahead in the SEC Coach of the Year race?

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As the season rounds into the home stretch, the SEC Coach of the Year race centers on three newcomers who’ve had better-than-expected results.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Apologies for crossing sports boundaries here, but it sort of feels like debating SEC Coach of the Year is equivalent to debating the NBA MVP. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a once-in-a-generation talent and James Harden is maybe most gifted scorer in the history of the league. But y’all... Lebron James is still playing.

It’s not as if we’re all wholesale invested in the yearly SEC COTY debate. Gary Pinkel won the award in 2014, but it does feel like a fruitless exercise in a league where Nick Saban operates. If you take away Saban from his well-oiled machine, do you still have the Alabama we’ve come to expect over the past decade? Probably not. And it’s not as if you get some magical prestige when your head coach wins the award. Jim McElwain won the award one year after Gary Pinkel.

However, we still have to find things to get excited about in this churning wheel of misfortune we call 2020, at least for 31 more days. And Eli Drinkwitz has given us that. Despite low preseason expectations, Drinkwitz has captained Missouri to a 4-3 record, with a high probability of finishing at least .500 and fair betting odds of finishing above. This success falls in a new light with the Battle Line Rivalry coming this Saturday.

Sam Pittman, the exuberantly Southern Head Hog, has brought Arkansas from the pit of Sheol under Chad Morris to a modicum of respectability. That’s not to say Arkansas is now some great beast to behold out of the SEC West, but under Pittman (and Barry Odom), the Razorbacks no longer resign themselves to the slaughter the moment you show up to the game.

This dramatic turnaround has Pittman squarely in the race for SEC Coach of the Year, at least if you ask the candidate a lot of people have tabbed.

This tweet has driven the narrative around the COTY conversation over the past few weeks, centering the discussion around two of the three brand new coaches in the SEC West — how’s that Air Raid working out, Mike Leach?

There is some stealth momentum, though, for Eli Drinkwitz in this race as the year rounds into the home stretch. While he hasn’t been the prime candidate, Drinkwitz has always been at least part of the discussion. He could really come into the limelight over the next few weeks, as Missouri now has a decent chance at finishing 6-4... and an outside shot of hitting 7-3.

So as we prepare for for Drinkwitz vs. Pittman 1.0 this Saturday, I decided to examine the SEC Coach of the Year cases for what appear to be the three front-runners at this moment: Drinkwitz, Kiffin and Pittman. There’s probably a case to be made somewhere in here about Dan Mullen at Florida, but (a) eat a brick, Dan (b) there’s no chance media personalities will want to reward Mullen after some of the stunts he’s pulled this year, even if his coaching has been superb.

To get a comprehensive look at the job each of the three newbies has done in his first year on the job, I used three factors: Recruiting, SP+ and the 2020 resume.

Crootin’

Old Coach vs. New Coach: Recruiting

Program Rivals 2019 Ranking 247 2019 Ranking ESPN 2019 Ranking Rivals 2021 Ranking 247 2021 Ranking ESPN 2021 Ranking Average Difference
Program Rivals 2019 Ranking 247 2019 Ranking ESPN 2019 Ranking Rivals 2021 Ranking 247 2021 Ranking ESPN 2021 Ranking Average Difference
Missouri 34 37 33 19 30 28 9
Arkansas 20 22 23 21 19 26 -.33
Ole Miss 22 23 21 53 55 46 -29.33

Before we dive in, a little bit of reasoning: I chose to move from 2019 to 2021 as a reflection of the first full class each of these coaches is bringing in vs. the last full class brought in by the previous regime. This is a bit of a risk considering the 2021 class isn’t yet finished, but we can compensate by factoring in 2020 along the way.

That being said, it’s obvious who’s ahead by this metric. Ole Miss and Arkansas are Top 25 staples in the recruiting industry, even when their programs are abysmal. Pittman, a celebrated recruiter, has continued Arkansas’ standard of success, if doing appreciably nothing to improve upon said standard. The Hogs, “fell” to 41 in the Rivals rankings in 2020, an admirable job considering the valleys they reached under Chad Morris. Kiffin, a dogged recruiter in his own right, also patched together a class in the mid-40s in 2020, but has taken a major step backward in 2021. The Rebels only have 15 commitments thus far, but will need to hit big on several names to meet, much less succeed, their lofty standard.

NCAA Football: Missouri at South Carolina
Eli Drinkwitz has energized Missouri’s recruiting base, reeling in a class that could finish in the Top 25.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Only one first-year coach has exceeded expectations as a recruiter in their first year, and that’s Eli Drinkwitz. Rivals is especially high on the Tigers’ 2021 class, which has a good shot at landing in the Top 25 as the cycle rounds out. And while Drinkwitz’s hurried results in the 2020 class fell below that of Kiffin and Pittman, there were signs of progress from the jump. Fans will remember the hotly-watched recruitment of Ennis Rakestraw, who picked Missouri over a commitable Alabama offer at the last minute, sparking a viral celebration from Drink before he ever took the field.

Even if the Tigers end up below the Razorbacks in the team rankings this year, there’s little to suggest Pittman has done much to elevate Arkansas’ profile from where it already was. There’s no doubt Drinkwitz has done as much before he even has a full season at Missouri under his belt.

Advantage: Eli Drinkwitz

Advanced Numbers (Nerd Stuff)

Old Coach vs. New Coach: SP+

Program 2019 Offense SP+ 2019 Defense SP+ 2019 Special Teams SP+ 2019 Overall SP+ 2020 Offense SP+ 2020 Defense SP+ 2020 Special Teams SP+ 2020 Overall SP+
Program 2019 Offense SP+ 2019 Defense SP+ 2019 Special Teams SP+ 2019 Overall SP+ 2020 Offense SP+ 2020 Defense SP+ 2020 Special Teams SP+ 2020 Overall SP+
Missouri 90 17 49 39 100 31 14 69
Arkansas 105 88 66 108 55 50 108 56
Ole Miss 68 42 118 53 12 105 93 53

I have to say, I haven’t been keeping up with the SP+ numbers as stringently as I usually would, mostly because I think they’re a little less reliable this year. This is no shot at Bill, rather a statement on roster uncertainty in 2020. If Missouri is down half of its offensive line due to contact tracing, doesn’t it make sense they might struggle a bit more, making their advanced numbers slip? Yes, there are injuries every year, but 2020 has been a season where the eye test matters more than usual.

Even when you put less weight into these numbers, however, they tell a clear story. Arkansas has made the biggest leap of all three teams, due to the fact that they were a wet trash bag under Chad Morris. The arrival of Sam Pittman and Barry Odom has vaulted the Razorbacks into the realm of slightly above average on both offense and defense — though it should be noted that special teams come out a little worse for wear.

Ole Miss, despite being rated highest amongst the three schools this season, hasn’t taken a sizable step forward or back. Sure enough, hiring Lane Kiffin has been a boon to the offense, which is now an elite unit by SP+. The defense, on the other hand, has fallen off the face of the earth and the special teams have only marginally improved. The Rebels are still fine, they just look a bit different now.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi
Under Lane Kiffin’s leadership, Ole Miss has gone from a mediocre outfit to a mediocre outfit with an explosive offense.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As for Missouri... well, this one is a bit puzzling. SP+ is not fan of the Tigers this year, having them all the way down at 69. Special teams is the sole unit that has improved under Drinkwitz, while the defense has fallen from, “elite” to merely, “very good.” The offense, as it turns out, is where the issue lies. Derek Dooley’s 2019 offense was boring as hell, but it still slots in 10 spots higher than the newly-installed offense of 2020. Under the microscope of our Mizzou gaze, this doesn’t feel right — after all, Larry Rountree III has been a beast, Connor Bazelak is miles better than anyone the Tigers played at QB last year, and the receiver play has steadily improved throughout the season. That’s not to say the offense has been great, but if you remove the early season struggles, it feels like Mizzou has to be better than 100th, right?

Regardless, the numbers don’t lie. By way of advanced statistics, Arkansas is far and away the most improved team, though most Missouri fans would probably argue that the Tigers would be in a far worse position under Odom.

Advantage: Sam Pittman

The 2020 Season

2020

Program Record Division Standing Average Win (SP+) Average Loss (SP+) SOS Best-Case Scenario
Program Record Division Standing Average Win (SP+) Average Loss (SP+) SOS Best-Case Scenario
Missouri 4-3 3rd 87.5 26.6 29 7-3
Arkansas 3-5 6th 66.6 25 7 5-5
Ole Miss 4-4 4th 93.25 26 24 6-4

This is about where things get as tight as they can. The biggest difference amongst the schools is Arkansas’ strength of schedule, which sits at 7, while both Missouri and Ole Miss fall into the 20s. That’s not bad by any means, but it reflects the fact that Arkansas has run the gambit, facing four Top 25 teams that aren’t Alabama. Missouri, on the other hand, has been the beneficiary of the softer SEC East, where they sit at third despite being one win above .500.

The strength of schedule isn’t as much of an advantage for Pittman when you look at on-field results, however. After averaging the SP+ rankings of all the teams’ wins and losses, the truth comes to this — none of these resumes are that far apart. All of the losses average out to about the Top 25. None can claim any spectacular wins. And none have even a remote chance at winning their division.

So where do we find any separation? I’m looking at best-case scenarios and head-to-head match ups. Unfortunately for Kiffin, this pretty much disqualifies him. Pittman’s Hogs have already dispatched the Rebels, and Kiffin’s team will have to upset Texas A&M to have any shot at finishing above .500. The Lane Train is officially leaving these tracks.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas
Sam Pittman’s Hogs have faced one of the country’s toughest schedules, but came out ahead against Lane Kiffin and the Rebels.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With two contenders left, Missouri takes the lead by way of the best-case scenario. The Tigers are, at worst, looking at a high likelihood of .500, with Mississippi State still on the schedule. And if the Tigers can handle Arky this coming Saturday, all they’ll need is an upset of a flawed Georgia team to finish the regular season 7-3.

Arkansas, on the other hand, will need to knock off Missouri at home and upset Alabama to avoid finishing below .500. That’s not necessarily their fault — again, strength of schedule — but there’s no doubt a better record is a useful tool on the recruiting trail, especially between two schools who share so many recruiting grounds. Had Arkansas been able to handle LSU like Missouri did, they’d be in much better shape.

Still, it feels unfair to call this race with Saturday’s game looming. Arkansas was clearly in a worse position than Missouri at the beginning of the year, and Pittman has been nationally recognized for making his team relevant over the course of one season. Missouri has undoubtedly exceed expectations, but it’s not as if they were in any need of a total revival.

It’s a push, with Saturday’s winner looking to take an insurmountable lead down the stretch.

Advantage: Tie, Sam Pittman and Eli Drinkwitz