Commentary by David Climer, The Tennessean
The start of preseason practice is approaching and the heat is on.
SEC football coaches can relate.
In the unquestioned best football conference in the nation, pressure is part of the game. Everybody is on the hot seat, although some seats certainly are hotter than others. The average tenure of an SEC coach at his current school is a fraction longer than four years.
Granted, things are a little more settled this year than last. Then, it was clear Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips were facing win-or-bust seasons. Their seats were not just hot; they were sizzling. Neither survived.
No SEC coach is under quite that amount of pressure this time around, although things can change quickly. Really, now, did anyone expect Gene Chizik to get his walking papers just two seasons after winning a national title at Auburn?
In the SEC, no coach is untouchable. And this season is no different. Based on a five-flame maximum, here is a ranking of SEC coaches from the hottest seat to the coolest cushion.
Gary Pinkel, Missouri - 4½ flames
He has been the Tigers' coach since 2001 and won at least eight games from 2006-11, but Missouri's struggles in its first season in the SEC raised concerns. It didn't help that fellow SEC newcomer Texas A&M had a great season while the Tigers finished 5-7 and just 2-6 in the conference.
This season, the Tigers should sweep an easy non-conference schedule and be 4-0 entering the Vanderbilt game. But what if there is an early slip-up? Longevity used to be an asset, but now it's a liability. Pinkel may be under contract through 2017, but he needs to win now.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn - 4 flames
How can a new arrival be under any significant pressure? Unlike the three other SEC newcomers, Malzahn has considerable history with his program - he was offensive coordinator from 2009-11, including the 2010 national championship run - which ups the ante.
It'll be interesting to see how Malzahn handles the expectations. At age 47, he has only one season as a college head coach, going 9-3 at Arkansas State last year. And at Auburn, you're always measured against rival Alabama.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State - 3½ flames
After steering the Bulldogs' program to its highest point in several years - a 7-0 start and No. 13 national ranking - Mullen saw his 2012 team lose five of its last six to finish 8-5.
Although Mullen has coached State to three of its five winning seasons since 2000, his teams are just 13-19 in the SEC and 5-16 in the Western Division, which accounts for some of the criticism. Also, the Bulldogs are under two years probation with the loss of four scholarships for NCAA violations, but Mullen was not implicated.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas 3 flames
As a player, assistant coach and head coach, Bielema spent all but two years in the Big Ten. Just as Urban Meyer took an SEC philosophy to the Big Ten when he landed at Ohio State, Bielema brings a Big Ten philosophy to the SEC.
Is that a good thing? Time will tell.
Bielema's coaching body of work is impressive - a 68-24 record over seven years at Wisconsin. His last three teams made it to the Rose Bowl. With a salary of $3.2 million and with the program just two seasons removed from an 11-2 record, much is expected of Bielema.
Butch Jones, Tennessee - 2½ flames
After the program had two coaches during a 32-year period, Jones is UT's fourth coach since 2008. Although early returns are very encouraging in terms of recruiting, Vols fans are eager to see how Jones' coaching style translates to the SEC after successful three-year tenures at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
One concern is that Jones inherited good situations at his previous coaching stops, where he succeeded Brian Kelly both times. This is different. Jones took over a program that had been mismanaged by Derek Dooley.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky - 2½ flames
With the Wildcats coming off a 2-10 season that led to the firing of Joker Phillips, Stoops has made an impact in recruiting, where he signed the nation's No. 29-ranked class in February and has Kentucky ranked No. 3 in commitments for 2014.
Although the 'Cats went to five straight bowls under Rich Brooks and Phillips from 2006-10, expectations are considerably lower than at many other SEC schools. But Stoops turned 46 before getting his first head-coaching job. Is he ready?
Les Miles, LSU - 2½ flames
How can a coach that has won 11, 13 and 10 games over the past three seasons and who owns a national championship be under any real pressure?
Because this is the SEC. And this is LSU.
Miles owns an exceptional 85-21 record in eight seasons with the Tigers. His program routinely sends players to the NFL, including nine draft picks (with two first-rounders this year).
But with all that, there is a perception that Miles wins by recruiting great players that can overcome his occasional strategic lapses.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss - 2½ flames
Although there were some tough stretches in his inaugural season with the Rebels last year, Freeze closed strong with a victory over rival Mississippi State and a bowl win over Pittsburgh to finish 7-6.
Freeze raised eyebrows with a recruiting class that ranked No. 5 in the nation. His success on the field and in recruiting has raised expectations.
In addition to an important season-opener at Vanderbilt, it will be interesting to see how the Rebels perform in a Sept. 14 game at Texas. The Longhorns overwhelmed them 66-31 in Oxford last season.
Will Muschamp, Florida - 2 flames
In many ways, Muschamp is a victim of the success of two of his predecessors. Steve Spurrier reinvented the way the SEC plays on offense and won a national championship in his 12 seasons as Gators coach, and Urban Meyer brought the spread option to the conference while winning two national titles in six years.
In other words, nothing short of a national championship will suffice. Until he does that, Muschamp will be under some degree of pressure.
After a 7-6 debut in 2011, his Gators went 11-2 last season, beating four teams that were listed among the top 12 in the final BCS rankings.
Mark Richt, Georgia - 1½ flames
As recently as two years ago, Richt was considered on the hot seat and perhaps on his way out of Athens. His 2010 team went 6-7 and the Dawgs opened the 2011 season with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
Since then, however, Richt has won 22 of 26 games and secured two SEC East championships to silence many of his critics. His overall body of work in 12 seasons is impressive.
But in a conference where the top programs are expected to win national championships, Richt has yet to play for one.
James Franklin, Vanderbilt - 1½ flames
The Commodores have been to five bowl games in the school's history. Franklin has taken them to two in his two seasons as coach.
Now for his next magic trick ...
The nine-win season in 2012 was quite impressive. But even more impressive is how Franklin has changed the culture of Commodores football in his 31 months on the job.
The recent dismissal of four players from the team in the wake of an investigation of a possible sex crime on campus does not appear to have impacted Franklin's status with his superiors at all.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina - 1 flame
Barring an unexpected downturn on the field, it is generally accepted that Spurrier will be South Carolina's head coach until he retires to the golf course. His last two seasons have been his best with the Gamecocks - back-to-back 11-2 records. South Carolina finished last season ranked No. 8 in the final AP poll.
At age 68, Spurrier says he has no plans to retire. And that's good news for South Carolina football.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M - 1 flame
A year ago at this time, Sumlin was considered something of a wild card. It was unclear how his spread offense would translate to the SEC.
Then A&M went 11-2 with an upset of top-ranked Alabama and a 41-13 conquest of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. And then there was that little matter of a Heisman Trophy run by quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Some wonder how Sumlin's offense will hold up on its second tour of the SEC, especially with Cliff Kingsbury now calling plays as head coach at Texas Tech. But based on what happened last season, Sumlin will do just fine.
Nick Saban, Alabama - ½ flame
When you've won 49 of 54 games and three national championships over the past four seasons, you have the kind of job security normally reserved for popes and Supreme Court justices.
Saban hires quality assistants, recruits great talent and plots superior strategy. Considering the results, his annual salary of about $5.5 million is a bargain.
Saban, 61, shows no signs of slowing down or of looking elsewhere. In a conference where coaches are constantly on the hot seat, Saban's chair is as cool as the other side of the pillow.