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On the tenuous nature of being an SEC head coach in 2023

Hard to care about 2024 when so much rides on 2023!

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011 Mike Sherman came into the year with a solid roster and lofty pre-season expectations. He was coming off a slow ascent from 4-8, to 6-7, to 9-4 and despite not being perfect he had shown promise as a head coach of A&M as they closed out their time in the Big 12 and moved to the SEC.

The 2011 season was a total shit show and resulted in Sherman getting fired. Everything that could go wrong did, and it was capped off with him losing the last game against UT at Kyle Field.

And sure it wasn’t just that we lost games, it was how we lost games, but I think there was also a thought that we couldn’t go into a new conference with a lame duck head coach who we had lost faith in. We weren't going to enter the SEC with a coach already on the hot seat...especially not with a guy like Kevin Sumlin right down the road.

The new schedule dropped for the 2024 season and amidst the excitement and hoopla of new opponents and week-by-week schedules, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much pressure many of the SEC coaches should be feeling this year…and shoot how much pressure I, as a fan, feel about my team performing in 2023. I can’t bring myself to really care about 2024 because everything rides on this year and failure to perform this year means 2024 is a total and absolute question mark.

This isn’t unique to a Jimbo Fisher program still trying to manage an emotional hangover of losing to App St and then beating top 5 LSU in the same year. When you look at the (soon-to-be) 16 teams in the SEC can we legitimately say that more than 8 coaches are safe if they have a “bad” year? Beyond Smart, Saban, Heupel, Kelly, Stoops, Beamer, Kiffin, and Freeze…who’s safe from facing a firing (depending on who’s available) if they fail to meet expectations? Especially in a landscape that’s recently seen two programs, Arkansas and Auburn, fire guys after only 2 years?

Consider the remaining head coaches:

Fisher (39-21): If you were to tell fans and pundits alike that Jimbo had a bad 2023, the only thing they’d say is “thank god for that contract…”but that contract doesn’t mean much when the UT game is looming in 2024. Does A&M want to cut that big ol check? Hell no. Will they do it if they think it’s in the best interest of the program? Hell yes.

Pittman (19-17): Coming off that 9-4 season, Pittman had a bit of a disappointing 7-6 year. Especially with Jeff Traylor out there (and this goes for A&M too) another disappointing year could create some interesting conversations up in Fayetteville.

Napier (6-7): Boy it sure seems like Florida fans would have fired him like a day ago if they could have…but that aside…how much buyers remorse are Florida boosters going to feel if Hugh Freeze manages to have a quick turnaround with Auburn…knowing that Freeze had been there the entire time. Napier for sure won’t get a third opportunity to have a good year.

Drinkwitz (17-19): 5-5, 6-7, 6-7. I always thought Drinkwitz was an odd hire to start with. He took over for Scott Satterfield at App State (it legitimately hurt me to type App State) and parlayed one really really good year into an SEC head coaching position. I dont think it’s easy to win at Mizzou or anything, but I think they can likely do better than a losing record after three years.

Arnett (1-0): This one is tricky given how the transition happened last year…but let’s say he goes 4-8 and the moment proves to be too big for him. Would he be given another year or would this just be an interim season?

Lea (7-17): I really like Clark Lea, and maybe Vandy won’t care too much about a losing season given that he’s taken them from 2-10 to 5-7. In fact he might need to be added to the list of guys who could be safe with a “bad” year.

This isn’t unique to the current members of the conference…it also goes for the new folks too.

Venables (6-7): Finishing 6-7 last year with a brutal ass kicking by their arch rivals doesn’t bode well for a program that kind of pioneered early firings by only giving John Blake 3 seasons back in the day. Venables also commenting “if we just get better on defense, we’re going to win 10-plus games and have a chance to hang a banner up at the end of the year” was odd to me…what exactly is it that you say you do around here Brent?

Sarkisian (13-12): Sark had a good year in 2022 and has seemingly done almost everything right in his time at Texas. He has managed the transfer portal incredibly well, and has recruited his ass off…and its reasonable to assume that the wins should follow. Texas likely has the best roster in conference, and is positioned to compete for a Big 12 title—but how many times have we heard that? Can Sark continue to improve a program on a year-by-year basis if given the opportunity? What happens within the Texas powers-that-be decision-making hive if he, for whatever reason, goes 7-6 this year?

Maybe this is me projecting my own insecurities onto every other program out there, but projecting out to what 2024 is going to look like seems like a fool's errand right now because a lot of us are really really hoping to have a good year to give us confidence for the following year…because we lack surefire data that our coach is THE guy to get us to where we want to be.

The stakes are incredibly high for 2023 for half the conference. I’m not saying that should all of the worst-case scenarios for the above teams happen, that all of the teams will fire their coaches. But in my view firing your coach happens along a spectrum…there are times when you know a firing is coming and there are times when boosters and ADs dabble in the firing mindset just to see what it might look like.

The 2024 season, in my view, could result in more boosters and ADs wading into that pool a bit to set themselves up well for a new-look conference and a 12-team playoff.