SEC coaches on the hot seat 2016: Kevin Sumlin, Guz Malzahn, Les Miles, Derek Mason

Published 9:00 pm Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Nearly a third of Southeastern Conference coaches enter the season with questions about their futures and potential make-or-break seasons looming over their programs.

Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn, offensive whizzes who have coached Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, are facing pressure to return to the top half of the SEC West standings.

LSU begins the season ranked No. 5, with Les Miles hoping to ride Leonard Fournette back into SEC and national title contention after barely holding onto his job last season. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason also may need to show some progress to hang on to their jobs.

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The good news for the coaches is that it’s opening week, where they can start control what happens to them going forward on the field instead of dealing with questions off it. Of course, the flip side is the intensity of the scrutiny will increase with poor performances.

“We have pegged our loyalties to LSU and we’re going to coach like we’ve always coached,” Miles said. “I’m going to bust my tail, put the best team on the field that is possible, which at LSU is a damn good football team. And I’m not going to look behind. I’m not going to let anyone on the perimeter distract me.”

Miles appears to have a team that could challenge No. 1 Alabama in the Western Division a year after a three-game skid put his job in jeopardy. He’s lost at least three SEC games in each of the past three seasons but also led LSU to a pair of national championship games.

Ending a five-game losing streak to Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide would help wipe out any lingering questions of his security.

Malzahn and Sumlin, meanwhile, had great success in their debut seasons with dual-threat quarterbacks but have each posted two straight mediocre records including struggles within the league. They open with big challenges even before they can even start trying to climb up the typically loaded SEC West.

Auburn faces No. 2 Clemson and Texas A&M plays No. 16 UCLA. If the season should really unravel, it would cost Texas A&M $15 million to fire Sumlin; Auburn would owe Malzahn $9 million.

Malzahn has won just six SEC games combined the past two seasons after debuting with an SEC title and national championship game berth in 2013. He’s facing some heat after going 7-6 in a season when Auburn opened as a popular pick to win the league.

“Last year obviously we were disappointed with the ways things turned out,” Malzahn said. “If you’re a competitor, you want to do something about it. Our team’s kind of had a chip on their shoulder in the offseason, which I think is good.”

Sumlin got off to a great start, too. His Johnny Manziel-led inaugural team finished 11-2, followed by 9-4. The last two teams have won eight games apiece but also finished sixth and tied for fifth in the ultra-competitive West after going 3-5 and 4-4. The Aggies have opened both those seasons with five straight wins.

“We’ve got to figure out what’s going on in the back half, I guess,” Sumlin said. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well, and try to stay ahead of the curve on what we do well and then address some things on the back end.”

He may have found one answer in quarterback Trevor Knight, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who arrives after two highly touted passers transferred.

Vanderbilt’s Mason is 7-17 in two seasons after the Commodores had made three straight bowl games for the first time in school history. That includes just two SEC wins, but he has eight returning starters on each side of the ball.

“We’re playing with a big chip on our shoulder,” Mason said. “We understand exactly where we’re at.”

Kentucky’s Stoops has downplayed talk about this being a pivotal season or possibly being on the hot seat, and Kentucky would owe him the remaining $12 million on his contract if he’s fired. Plus, Stoops has won five games each of the past two seasons, flirting with bowl trips and dramatically improving from his 2-10 debut.

“You get more comfortable at what you’re doing and going into the fourth year as a head coach,” he said. “I better be better than I was year one, right?”

–The Associated Press