Five Coaches Who Reached SEC Championship Game Fastest

    These five new coaches reached the SEC Championship Game the fastest in history. Only two coaches made it in their first year - Les Miles and Jim McElwain.

    November 11, 2015

    These coaches wasted no time in leading their teams to the SEC Championship Game.

    There’s one word and one city on the mind of every Southeastern Conference head coach at the beginning of each season: Atlanta.

    Sure, the chicken and waffles are great. And Ray Charles couldn’t have made the metropolis sound any better, but those aren’t what the coaches in college football’s most elite conference are looking to enjoy in “Hotlanta.”

    No, they have their sights set squarely on the SEC Championship Game.

    The Florida Gators, under a new regime with Jim McElwain, are going back to Atlanta once again. The Florida job was seen as a multi-year process. McElwain needed lots of recruits to rebuild the roster — seemingly the ones Florida State was raking in by the dozens. But he proved those notions wrong, trumping all expectations with the players former coach Will Muschamp left behind and a few elite athletes he brought in during the 2015 recruiting cycle. When McElwain walks into the Georgia Dome on Saturday, Dec. 5, it will be exactly one year to the date that he touched down in Hogtown. 

    So his success begs the question: Which new coaches have reached the SEC Championship Game the fastest, from the time they were hired to the day they clinched their respective division?

    Honorable Mentions

    While, this list is solely focusing on coaches who were new to their programs, there are three names worth mentioning. Gene Stallings and Steve Spurrier were already established at Alabama and Florida before the SEC implemented a conference championship game in 1992.

    Spurrier needed nine games to clinch the SEC East for the Gators, and Stallings clinched the West division in 10 games. Alabama ended up beating Florida 28-21 in that first championship game.

    Mark Richt bounced the Georgia Bulldogs back to the SEC championship game in his second year, clinching a berth in 23 games, but he missed the cut by a matter of days.

    Gary Pinkel also took the Missouri Tigers to the title game fairly quickly. He needed 23 games to clinch the East, but Pinkel was already at Missouri for 11 years before the Tigers joined the SEC. So, while all four were impressive, they don’t qualify for this list.

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    5. Nick Saban, LSU – 23 games (730 days)

    While Nick Saban later took Alabama to the conference championship game, his first head coaching job in the SEC came with the LSU Tigers.

    Saban was hired on Dec. 1, 1999 and clinched the SEC West exactly two years later.

    After an 8-4 season and a win in the Peach Bowl in his first season, Saban led the Tigers to a 10-3 record in year two. Losses to Tennessee and Florida early in the year didn’t hold the Tigers back. They ripped off six straight conference wins to clinch an appearance in the title game.

    LSU went on to exact revenge against the Volunteers in the championship with a 31-20 win before beating Illinois in the Sugar Bowl, 47-34.

    4. Urban Meyer – 21 games (700 days)

    Many people wanted Spurrier to return to his old stopming grounds in Gainesville, Fla. after the Gators fired Ron Zook. However, Florida’s athletic director, Jeremy Foley, decided to go with the guy who turned quarterback Alex Smith into a No. 1 overall draft pick: Urban Meyer.

    Florida hired Meyer on Dec. 4, 2004, and he improved the Gators from 7-5 in Zook’s last year to 9-3 with a win in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.

    With two phenomenal freshmen named Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow, combined with the leadership of quarterback Chris Leak, Meyer led Florida to a 13-1 record in his second season. He needed 700 days after being hired to clinch a spot in the SEC title game, and it was decided by a 25-19 win against Vanderbilt on Nov. 4, 2006.

    The Gators went on to beat Ohio State in the national championship — the first of two in three years.

    3. Gus Malzahn – 12 games (361 days)

    The Auburn Tigers were lost for two years after Cam Newton left for the NFL following a national championship run in 2010. Gene Chizik finished 11-14 in his final two seasons before Gus Malzahn replaced him as head coach.

    With Nick Marshall and Tre Mason combining for arguably the deadliest quarterback-running back duo in college football, Malzahn led the Tigers to a 12-2 season. Auburn clinched a spot in the SEC Championship Game after beating Alabama in one of the wildest finishes ever. Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards to capture the first Iron Bowl win for Malzahn and send Auburn to Atlanta.

    The Tigers ended up beating Pinkel’s Missouri Tigers 59-42 in the conference championship before eventually losing to Jameis Winston and the Florida State Seminoles in the national championship.

    2. Jim McElwain – 9 games (310 days)

    The Florida Gators seemed utterly lost less than a year ago. Will Muschamp, though respected by many of his players, had been on the hot seat for a while and had lost the fan base.

    After Muschamp was fired, the Gators hired Jim McElwain on Dec. 5, 2014. Florida did not have a recruiting class ranked in the top 25, but McElwain ended up securing commitments from top-ranked prospects like Martez Ivey, Cece Jefferson and Antonio Callaway, who has put together one of the best freshman seasons in school history this year.

    The Gators’ only loss this season was on the road against LSU. The Tigers needed Miles to transform into “the Mad Hatter” in order to pull the 35-28 win out with a fake field goal. 

    McElwain led his team to wins against Georgia and Vanderbilt to clinch a spot in the SEC championship — returning the Gators to Atlanta for the first time since 2009.

    Florida is still waiting to see whom it will play in the title game, which will take place exactly one year after McElwain was hired.

    1. Les Miles – 9 games (306 days)

    When Saban left to coach the Miami Dolphins following the 2004 season, LSU turned to Miles, who had just spent four years with Oklahoma State.

    With an eventual No. 1 overall draft pick, JaMarcus Russell, at quarterback, Miles led the Tigers to an 11-2 season. LSU lost to Tennessee, 30-27, in Week 2 but churned out nine consecutive wins after — the seventh being a 16-13 win against Alabama to clinch the SEC West.

    The Tigers would lose to Georgia, 34-14, in the SEC Championship Game, but capped off the season with a 40-3 win against Miami in the Peach Bowl.

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