Sometimes people so obviously vote on awards before a body of work in a season is complete, and this season’s SEC Coach of the Year honor is a blatant example of that. Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel should have won it.
However, the league gave the honor to Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs. There are two ways you can look at the coach of the year. It’s always a competition between coaches who dramatically overachieved with their teams and coaches who had the talent but maximized what their team could do with it.
Smart, obviously, falls into the latter category. Georgia came into this season as a national title contender loaded with talent thanks to three No. 1 recruiting classes in four years. Through the regular season, Smart had a case, as he led a historically great defense to a 12-0 record.
These awards come after conference championship week, though, and Georgia was blown out 41-24 by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC title game. How could anybody see that and, upon reanalyzing Georgia’s schedule, think Smart is the SEC Coach of the Year?
By nature of losing that game given the talent he had to work with, Smart should have been disqualified. The award should have then gone to the head coach who overachieved the most with the talent he had.
Lane Kiffin has a case with the Ole Miss Rebels being in the top 10. Sam Pittman has a case with the Arkansas Razorbacks being in the top 25. Both of them, however, probably had stronger cases their first year on the job.
Heupel, meanwhile, has the strongest case. Tennessee football did better than any other SEC school with a first-year head coach, the only one to finish above .500 in the regular season. When you look at what Heupel was dealing with, the award should have been obvious.
Consider the fact that he inherited a 3-7 team. Then he lost six of his best commitments from a 2021 recruiting class that was already outside of the top 25. Finally, amidst the firing of Jeremy Pruitt, he lost 30 players to the transfer portal.
All of that alone was working against Tennessee football. Then you have the mental disadvantage. The Vols were under NCAA investigation for the whole season and an internal investigation for the majority of the season thanks to violations committed under Pruitt, and there was the constant thought that the players could receive a bowl ban.
Taking that into account, Heupel had to throw together a brand new team whose only returning talent was on a bad team last year, and he had to keep them focused all season amidst potential probation. Add in a schedule that saw him play five top 25 teams, four top 10 teams, two conference champions and two College Football Playoff teams, and he deserves tons of credit.
Kiffin, Pittman and even South Carolina Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer all have coach of the year cases over Smart. However, Heupel clearly has one given what he did with Tennessee football. That he didn’t win it is, quite honestly, embarrassing for the league.