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What can Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava do for Vols coach Josh Heupel?

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We love ranking stuff. In fact, college football has officially entered the ranking season. As pointless as many of the rankings may be, college football lends itself to such lists. It’s a good way to pass the time in the offseason.

There are some, including Connor O’Gara of Saturday Down South, that rank Tennessee coach Josh Heupel near the bottom half of the SEC in terms of current coaches. Heupel is lucky Saban retired or he might be bottom-of-the-barrel territory. 

I don’t agree with O’Gara, but I’m certainly not jealous of him either. These lists are brutally hard and bound to elicit some pretty strong criticism – and clicks. It seems I see Heupel a bit different than others, including O’Gara, who brings up some insightful, pertinent points in his coaches ranking column post-Saban.

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O’Gara points out that the Vols are 2-7 against Tennessee’s biggest rivals, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. O’Gara also points out that the wins against the vaunted trio came by a combined eight points and the seven losses were by double digits. All fair points.

Heupel is listed behind Mark Stoops of Kentucky, Steve Sarkisian at Texas, Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, Kalen DeBoer at Alabama, Brian Kelly at LSU and, of course, Kirby Smart at Georgia. 

I could certainly nitpick this, or any column, with my opinion and allow you to agree or disagree. For the record, I think Heupel is ranked a bit low. However, arguing his current standing is a moot point. Let’s discuss where Heupel should – and could – be ranked among SEC coaches in this post-Saban era, which should be no worse than third within three seasons. Why did I pick three seasons? There’s this guy named Nico Iamaleava that should provide a boost in the near future.

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Let’s get this out of the way. Kirby is Kirby. Until he retires, he’s likely going to rule the roost, so he’s No. 1 until further notice. Now, let’s move on. It’s hard for me to imagine LSU’s Brian Kelly not having success at LSU with Louisiana’s in-state talent. Projecting ahead to the end of the 2026 season, Kelly will still likely be No. 2. Then, it gets interesting.

Kalen DeBoer at Alabama is walking into elephant-sized expectations. Few are able to overcome and survive such a backdrop. I’m betting that DeBoer will flame out, albeit slowly, at Alabama because he’s a good, but not great, coach. So let’s bump up Heupel a notch on our Way-Too-Early 2027 coaching rankings, which encompasses the Nico era, since I think DeBoer will be stumbling out of Tuscaloosa.

You might remember Ole Miss’ head coach. Former Vol Lane Kiffin has been building the Rebels into a contender over the past four seasons, winning 11 games last season and living up to his offensive guru reputation. Heupel and Kiffin are comparable in that they’re both innovative offensive coaches. However, Tennessee’s NIL is more stable than it is at Ole Miss and so is Tennessee’s coaching staff. 

Will Kiffin be in Oxford in 2027? I think not. Bump Heupel up again UNLESS Kiffin ends up at another SEC school. Then, it’s a coin flip, but for the sake of this argument, Heupel pulls alongside Kiffin with Iamaleava at the helm.

Then, there’s Steve Sarkisian at Texas and Mark Stoops at Kentucky. As for the latter, this really depends on what you consider a great coach. Stoops has been solid at Kentucky, but there’s a glass ceiling in Lexington that will always limit him – or has he hit his own personal best? Either way, I’d take Heupel, who is 3-0 against Stoops, now and in the near future.

Sarkisian is tough to rank. He’s had personal difficulties, but overcame them and has Texas at a championship level. After what he’s been through, I’m predicting alcohol won’t be in the way anymore for Sark and he’ll dominate the teams that were formerly in the SEC West, which will just further fortify his recruiting. Therefore, I’ll keep Sarkisian ahead of Heupel for now.

So what does this all mean? First, I’d have Heupel ranked a bit higher than most, perhaps as high as third in the SEC, given what other coaches have achieved and where their careers are headed. Personal traits are also a factor.

So let the current rankings be damned! Here is where I have SEC coaches ranked following the 2026 season:

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia

2. Steve Sarkisian, Texas

3. (TIE) Josh Heupel, Tennessee/Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss

There I said it. I believe Heupel will be a Top Three coach in the SEC in a relatively short amount of time. That means Heupel will at least be a Top 10 coach in the nation before the end of the decade. Does that mean that I’m sold on Heupel or Iamaleava? Actually, both.

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