Where does Billy Napier rank among SEC coaches ahead of 2022?

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Florida football has dealt with a coaching carousel over the last decade that recently landed former Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns head coach Billy Napier in the Swamp after the collapse of the Dan Mullen era. Now on their fourth skipper since Urban Meyer left town, the Gators are counting on the young up-and-comer to restore glory to the Orange and Blue this fall.

Napier joins a conference chock-full of coaching talent headlined by the best in the business this era: Nick Saban. But the head of the Alabama Crimson Tide program — and once upon a time, the LSU Tigers as well — is not alone on the list of the best at his job, with the Georgia Bulldog‘s Kirby Smart and Texas A&M Aggies‘ Jimbo Fisher also notable names on the Southeastern Conference’s sidelines.

So where does Florida’s newest leader stand among his SEC peers? USA TODAY Sports’ Blake Toppenmeyer took on the task of ranking all 14 head coaches, which in his opinion is the best assemblage of coaching talent since the conference expanded before the 2012 season.

See also: Quarterbacks | Linebackers | Wide Receivers | Offensive Linemen | Defensive Linemen

Nick Saban - Alabama Crimson Tide

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The greatest coach of all time endured a rough stretch these past several months. He lost to a former understudy, Jimbo Fisher, last October, then fell to another, Smart, in the national championship. And Texas A&M bested Alabama for the No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Saban’s frustration bubbled over at a speaking engagement this spring. Some saw it as a sign that Alabama’s dynasty is teetering. That’s absurd. Saban continues to recruit well. Now, he’s adding top-shelf transfers to fill holes, and he’s developing quarterbacks at a Heisman Trophy level. Alabama was reloading last season after a swath of departures followed the 2020 team’s national championship. This year’s team is loaded.

Kirby Smart - Georgia Bulldogs

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Smart knows recruiting. Smart knows defense. And he proved last season that still can be a winning combination, even in this quarterback-driven era. Despite Stetson Bennett IV’s improvement, Smart has not delivered an elite quarterback. And he still must prove he can avoid any major program drop-off after the loss of 15 players to the NFL Draft.  Saban has separated himself from others by the way he keeps the machine rolling with no significant backsliding. The way Smart recruits, he’s positioned his program to do the same.

Jimbo Fisher - Texas A&M Aggies

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Fisher has shown in the past year he can beat Saban on the field and on the recruiting trail. That’s a start. The Aggies keep butting against a ceiling, though. Fisher won his lone national championship at Florida State behind quarterback Jameis Winston and a robust defense. The Aggies have the defense part down. Their challenge is developing that elite quarterback – and playing with more consistency. The Fisher era has the feel of one that hasn’t reached its peak.

Lane Kiffin - Ole Miss Rebels

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss winning 10 games and reaching the Sugar Bowl in Kiffin’s second season proved there’s more to this coach than a witty Twitter account. Kiffin inherited some useful offensive pieces from his predecessor, but he deserves the credit for installing an aggressive, hard-to-defend system and developing the talent. Matt Corral’s ascent reiterated Kiffin’s touch with quarterbacks. Kiffin’s “Portal King” strategy is a wise move for a program not accustomed to being atop the recruiting rankings. Sustaining success is the one thing Kiffin has yet to achieve. He’s never stayed anywhere long enough. Here’s his chance.

Brian Kelly - LSU Tigers

Andre Broussard/Special to The Daily Advertiser

The Tigers succeeded in landing a big-name coach. But what about a big-game coach? Kelly has won at a high rate everywhere he’s been, but he’s lost most of the biggest games in his career. However, Les Miles and Orgeron each won a national title at LSU, and Kelly is a better coach than either. He’s been effective at using the transfer portal. He may be an odd cultural fit, but that won’t matter if he wins. LSU ranks among the best jobs in college football, and it now has its best coach since Saban.

Mark Stoops - Kentucky Wildcats

Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky won 10 games last season for the second time in a four-year span, the first time that has been done in the program’s history. Stoops is Kentucky’s best coach since Bear Bryant. He benefits from the Wildcats annually playing one of the softest schedules in the league, but that doesn’t diminish that he’s a shrewd defensive coach who pairs that with quality offensive lines. He’s also elevated UK’s recruiting. The missing piece has been securing an elite quarterback. Perhaps Will Levis can be that guy.

Sam Pittman - Arkansas Razorbacks

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Predecessor Chad Morris made this look like the SEC’s toughest job. Pittman is proving otherwise. Players seem to love competing for Pittman, and he deserves credit for hiring and maintaining one of the SEC’s top coordinator combinations in Kendal Briles and Barry Odom. The Razorbacks’ offense rivals that of Ole Miss and Tennessee for its difficulty to defend. If Arkansas continues to ascend after last season’s nine-win season, Pittman will climb further on this list.

Mike Leach - Mississippi State Bulldogs

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Leach’s Mississippi State teams have shown a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of beating a Top 25 team one week and falling flat the next. That inconsistency is a trademark of Leach’s career. However, he’s also posted impressive seasons while working tough jobs – first at Texas Tech, then at Washington State. The Bulldogs boast an impressive bounty of returning starters, so this should be a good test of whether Leach’s Air Raid system – the Bulldogs led the conference in passing offense last season while ranking last in rushing – can be a formula for SEC success on a higher level.

Josh Heupel - Tennessee Volunteers

Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

A Vols offense that had stalled throughout the Jeremy Pruitt tenure kicked into gear in Year One under Heupel. Heupel’s warp-speed system positioned UT to feast on the weaker teams on its schedule. Quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receiver Cedric Tillman went from average players to SEC stars under Heupel’s tutelage. The lingering question is whether he’ll develop a defense that’s good enough to allow for success against the better teams in the conference.

Billy Napier - Florida Gators

UAA Communications/Tim Casey

Louisiana never had much success until Napier elevated the Ragin’ Cajuns into one of the nation’s best Group of Five programs. That four-year stretch culminated with a 13-win season last year, and Napier finally jumped for an SEC job after eschewing such opportunities in previous coaching carousels. Napier tutored under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, and he has an eye for detail. Too soon to know whether Napier’s impressive track record at UL will translate into SEC success. Recruiting is off to a slow start.

Shane Beamer - South Carolina Gamecocks

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

Beamer supplied the energy and charisma the Gamecocks needed in making a pivot from Will Muschamp. Impressively, South Carolina’s seven-win season in Beamer’s debut came while the Gamecocks cycled through four starting quarterbacks. Beamer made his biggest splash in December with the addition of transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler. We still don’t know whether Beamer is a high-ceiling coach, but the bowl victory over North Carolina is reason to be encouraged.

Bryan Harsin - Auburn Tigers

Jake Crandall-USA TODAY NETWORK

Harsin proved a fine coach for Boise State, his alma mater, but he’s a poor fit at one of the SEC’s most pressure-cooker jobs. Auburn’s lackluster six-win season in Harsin’s debut preceded an equally concerning aftermath: a lackluster signing class and an exodus of players and coaches. Harsin survived an offseason probe from Auburn’s kangaroo court, but it seemed more like a delay of the inevitable. AU faces a typically tough schedule and no recruiting momentum.

Eliah Drinkwitz - Missouri Tigers

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers failed to live up to expectations in Drinkwitz’s encore after a respectable debut in 2020, and the Missouri coach hasn’t shown his touch with offense and quarterbacks, in particular, that he had as an offensive coordinator and Appalachian State’s coach. If there’s reason to be encouraged, it’s rooted in Missouri’s recruiting uptick that includes the signing of five-star wide receiver Luther Burden and top-150 quarterback Sam Horn. The jury remains out on Drinkwitz.

Clark Lea - Vanderbilt Commodores

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Lea did not step into an enviable situation, but that doesn’t excuse a 20-point loss to East Tennessee State in his debut. The Commodores flirted with finding a pulse late last season, but Year Two under Lea offers little hope of significant improvement over last year’s 2-10 record.

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