Tough SEC coaching decisions lie ahead

Nick Saban was only trying to be nice when he praised former assistant Derek Dooley Saturday night.

Speaking with the media following Alabama’s 44-13 thumping of Dooley’s helpless Tennessee team, he said that Dooley’s team “really played hard” and that Dooley was “doing a fantastic job” at Tennessee.

Saban wasn’t being disingenuous, but to those who have been around this sport long enough, a statement like that about a coach whose team dropped to 3-4 on the season and hasn’t won an SEC game since mid-November of the previous year doesn’t really help much. It almost magnifies the unfortunate situation surrounding Dooley and his Vols.

And when Tennessee’s season concludes on Nov. 24, athletic director Dave Hart will have a tough decision on his hands. With the rate at which this season is going for the Vols, they’ll be lucky to get to seven wins by season’s end, which might not be enough to keep Dooley in Knoxville.

But Hart isn’t the only AD with a tough decision on his hands. Kentucky’s Mitch Barnhart will have to seriously reevaluate things with coach Joker Phillips and Auburn’s Jay Jacobs will certainly be playing the thinking game when it comes to Gene Chizik.

Phillips and Chizik have combined to win just two games this season and sport teams that are floundering around the bottom of the SEC in most offensive and defensive categories. Chizik might have won the national championship in 2010, but with Auburn off to its worst start since 1952, frustration is mounting on the Plains, as this team simply isn’t any better than last year’s younger 8-5 squad.

Even with brand new coordinators, the only thing that separates Auburn from an 0-7 start is an overtime field goal against Louisiana-Monroe. Since Cam Newton stepped off Auburn’s campus, Chizik has gone 9-11, including 4-9 in SEC play.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, things don’t appear to be getting any better with No. 20 Texas A&M, No. 10 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama still on the schedule. Auburn might not have another SEC win in its body.

This is Chizik’s only losing season at Auburn and with a current buyout of $7.5 million, it could be very difficult for Jacobs to part with Chizik. Coordinators Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder would also be owed an additional $1.35 million if Chizik were fired.

It would be a hefty firing price tag, but as Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News recently wrote, Chizik’s buyout isn’t as steep when you consider that Auburn could pay him in monthly increments.

After making it to five straight bowls, Kentucky won’t go bowling for consecutive years under Phillips. He enters Saturday’s game against Missouri with a 12-21 record since he was hired in 2010. Injuries have ravaged this team the past two years, but recruiting efforts haven’t exactly given the Wildcats quality depth.

Phillips hasn’t made excuses, but he also hasn’t won a lot and Vanderbilt’s recent success under James Franklin isn’t helping. The former SEC cellar dwellers have found new life under their new coach, and maybe Barnhart feels his program can do the same with change.

Injuries and youth might not save Phillips.

Dooley’s situation is more complicated after he walked into a terrible situation at Tennessee. He’s dealt with NCAA issues from the previous staff and crippling attrition. But with his most talented team in Knoxville, the Vols are in danger of missing out on a bowl game in back-to-back years for the first time since the late 1970s.

Dooley is 0-14 against ranked opponents and has just four SEC wins. The writing was literally on the Rock last week when someone called for Dooley’s job by painting his or her frustration with Dooley on the legendary rock that sits on Tennessee’s campus.

With financial issues at Tennessee -- and the school still paying former coaches Phillip Fulmer and Bruce Pearl -- Dooley’s $5 million buyout could be too expensive. Still, there might not be a price tag on losing for Hart.

And to think, Arkansas was the only sure job we knew would come up. Dooley and Phillips entered the year on the hot seat, but they could have won their way off. John L. Smith’s 10-month contract basically said it all.

Arkansas AD Jeff Long’s thorough coaching search better start fast because he might have some competition on his hands when it comes to luring a big-name coach away from other SEC schools in December.