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Roundtable: Picking SEC's second-best coach is no small task

In a draft of the SEC’s coaches, there’s no question who would be the first name off the board.

Even the Cleveland Browns wouldn’t screw up taking Alabama coach Nick Saban.

But after Saban, who’s next?

That’s where things get complicated.

In today’s roundtable, ESPN SEC reporters give their take on who should be considered the second-best coach in the conference entering the 2017 season.

Edward Aschoff: Well, when you consider that Jim McElwain has been to back-to-back SEC championships (sans offense) in his first two seasons at Florida, it's hard not to pick him. He has won 19 games in two years, and you can't underestimate the coaching job he's done without an elite quarterback to work with during his entire two seasons at Florida. People will laugh at the state of the SEC East -- and it ain't great -- but McElwain has done the job that Urban Meyer only did twice and Will Muschamp never did -- win the SEC East. I bet there are 12 other coaches who would have traded flashy offenses for spots in Atlanta the last two years. And we still haven't seen his full potential. McElwain is supposed to be a bright offensive mind, and if he can win the East with such limited resources on offense, think of what he could do as that offense starts to add real pieces to it.

David Ching: Maximizing talent is one deciding factor here, which brings three guys to mind: Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Florida’s Jim McElwain and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. That said, Bielema has been a sub-.500 coach at Arkansas thus far, and while McElwain’s back-to-back division titles are nice, Florida would have been in the middle of the pack in both years if it played in the SEC West instead of the mediocre East. I’ll take Mullen, who probably has the most difficult job of the three and still manages to win. Mullen coaches at a school that has played in 20 bowl games … ever … and yet he has led Mississippi State to the postseason in each of the last seven years. In three of those seasons, the Bulldogs won at least nine games. Mullen has finished higher than fourth in the division only once and has a losing SEC record (29-35), but he consistently puts a competitive team on the field for a program that has never done that over any extended period of time. That’s impressive.

Sam Khan Jr.: This is a challenging task, because when you look at the landscape, you realize how much of a gap there is between Nick Saban and the rest of the league. That said, give me the only current SEC head coach not named Saban who has actually won an SEC championship: Gus Malzahn. That's the goal, right? Win your league (and ultimately, win a national title, which Malzahn came close to doing in 2013 before the Tigers were beaten by Florida State). No, the Tigers haven't come close to doing it again since then, but Malzahn still has a better SEC record in the last four years than everyone else in the SEC West other than Saban (19-14). A critical part of being a head coach is also recruiting, which Auburn has also consistently done well under his watch. The Tigers have cranked out four consecutive top-10 classes and with that type of talent, they'll continue being a factor in the SEC West.

Greg Ostendorf: Let me start by reminding everybody that Malzahn is the only head coach, aside from Saban, that has coached in a national championship game. Some have won it all as coordinators, Malzahn included, but only Malzahn has made it there as a head coach. He’s fallen off a little bit since that magical first season, but he’s still won eight or more games in three of his four years at Auburn. For all the heat he’s taken in recent years, the guy can still coach. He’s one of the better offensive minds in the conference. He’s proven he can recruit, landing a top-11 class every year since he’s been a head coach. And he’s done it all while coaching in the same state as Alabama during one of the more unprecedented runs in college football history. That’s no easy task.

Alex Scarborough: If this was a year or two ago, how many of us would be mentioning Hugh Freeze here? During the last three seasons, only Alabama and LSU have more wins against top 25 teams than his Ole Miss Rebels. You’re talking about nearly 40 total wins, four bowl berths and a Sugar Bowl victory in five seasons. But alas, how you win is important and the NCAA sanctions hanging over Freeze and Ole Miss right now has cast a pall over everything. That leads me to my pick of Freeze’s cross-state neighbor: Mullen. (I was tempted to dig up Bret Bielema’s 68-24 record at Wisconsin, but I couldn’t give too much credit to past performance.) Mullen, by any reasonable measure, has been a resounding success at Mississippi State. His ability to field productive offenses year in and year out is remarkable, and his credibility as a quarterbacks coach is unquestioned. While I’d like to lean less on the does-more-with-less argument — because if you want to do more with more, recruit better — it’s hard to argue against the way Mullen continually exceeds expectations.