5. Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator, Alabama
The Good: There’s always got to be one current assistant coach considered, and Sarkisian is about the only guy on the current staff qualified to talk about. He’s been a head coach twice before, at Washington and Southern Cal, and was also offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons for two years. He was regarded as a good recruiter while in the PAC-12 and his 2019 Alabama offense was probably the best mix of pro-style concepts and the former wide-ranging spread concepts of the former offensive coordinator, Mike Locksley. Somewhat surprisingly, he’s just a year older than Lane Kiffin, so it’s not imperative that Sarkisian is in a hire-him-soon-or-else scenario like Swinney or Garrett.
The Bad: Sarkisian was just 34-29 at Washington and has never won 10 games in a season as a head coach. His highly-publicized exit from Southern Cal in the middle of his second year, the result of alleged misuse of alcohol, is a red flag. His tenure in Atlanta was uneven at best.
The Verdict: Sarkisian nearly left in January for Mississippi State, so he’s looking. And that’s probably a good thing, because he needs to prove himself somewhere other than in the Tuscaloosa pressure cooker. Fair or not, it’s a “show-me” situation right now in regards to Sarkisian’s career, and the USC debacle aside, his results at Washington never really lived up to the reputation.
6. Kirby Smart, head coach, Georgia
The Good: No, you’re not seeing things; we’re really talking about Kirby Smart here. Yes, he’s currently at his alma mater. But Smart is the son of a high school coach who moved around quite a bit during Kirby’s formative years, so abrupt (and crazy) change is not something to which he’s unaccustomed. If Jeremy Pruitt isn’t the best defensive coordinator Nick Saban ever had, it’s certainly Kirby Smart, and in the years since leaving Tuscaloosa, Smart has proven to be a ruthless recruiter and his bona fides in regards to development of defenses are top-notch and beyond reproach. Smart spent part of his childhood in Alabama and his connections to Georgia might not be impenetrable. If Georgia doesn’t take care of Smart, jumping to another job isn’t out of the question, and Alabama has the checkbook to at least make the offer.
The Bad: Smart probably out-coached himself out of beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in 2018 and his gameday management has come under fire. He’s made two consecutive hires for offensive coordinator that have drawn criticism, and for a young coach looking to make a name for himself, his level of offensive conservatism is off the charts. Georgia also surprisingly lost key players to the transfer portal this year, and there has to be a reason for that. Get past all this, and you still have to probably outbid Georgia for Smart, and trying to do so but failing would be a PR nightmare.
The Verdict: This is a longshot for sure, with the potential to be a disaster if Alabama botched the process. But know this: If Alabama is prioritizing recruiters with knowledge of the SEC, who can coach the kind of tough defense Alabama is historically known for, then Smart is tops on that list above even Dabo Swinney. Smart has burned a few bridges since leaving Tuscaloosa, making the possibility of hiring him even less likely, but this bears watching.
7. Will Muschamp, head coach, South Carolina
The Good: If people like the yelling, screaming version of Nick Saban that also happens to get results as a defensive coach, then Will Muschamp is probably the most available of that subset. Muschamp has a solid reputation as a defensive mind, and at one time he was an ace recruiter – and probably could be again were he not headquartered in Columbia, S.C.
The Bad: There’s a reason we didn’t write a lot under “The Good,” because there hasn’t been much good to write about since Muschamp became a head coach. He failed at Florida and is in the process of failing at South Carolina as well. He keeps getting opportunities because of his Saban connections and his ability to navigate the SEC recruiting trail, but even his recruiting at Florida could have been a lot better. Mostly, though, he’s a hothead without a filter, and even Nick Saban can turn it on and off whenever he wants. Muschamp lacks that ability.
The Verdict: He’s either going to have to turn South Carolina around right now, or go somewhere else for 3-4 years and do it there, or he’s simply not going to be a part of Saban’s replacement process at Alabama. While there’s always the chance that Alabama could find the next Frank Beamer – a coach who failed hard for six years before magically figuring it all out – the much greater likelihood is that Muschamp has simply advanced one step beyond his competency. And with Jeremy Pruitt now out there, why take the risk on Muschamp when Pruitt is available and an alumnus besides?
8. Jimbo Fisher, head coach, Texas A&M
The Good: Fisher has a national title on his resume, which probably should vault him to the top of this list, or at least no further than just behind Swinney. His recruiting prowess in unquestioned, and his knowledge of the state of Alabama and SEC recruiting territory as a whole is as good as any. He’s just 54 years old, even though it seems like he’s been around a lot longer than that, and with stops at Auburn, LSU and Florida State, he’s well-known and respected among crucial high school coaches. Fisher has done a lot to correct the shortcomings of the Kevin Sumlin era at Texas A&M, especially on defense.
The Bad: Despite a reputation for being an offensive guru, the numbers have rarely backed it up. Fisher’s offenses are quite actually something much different: power-first, almost plodding and not particularly explosive, but at least somewhat efficient. The biggest challenge for Alabama is that Fisher works for Texas A&M, which has more money on hand than any other SEC program, Alabama included. The Aggies would not be outbid.
The Verdict: Had Saban left 3-4 years ago for some other opportunity, it would have been a Swinney-Fisher race to see whose private plane would have landed in Tuscaloosa first. Now, things have changed for both men, and the game is threatening to pass Fisher by.