2018 New Coaches
By Joe Gavazzi Winning Sports Advice
There are now 130 teams on the weekly betting line in CFB action. It seems that every year there is an increasing number of new coaches. In an era of huge contract prices for a CFB coach, there is increasing pressure on these coaches to improve their new team immediately, or at the least show marked improvement. Just like in the business world, the investors wish to see a return on their investment. As a result, more and more coaches find themselves “on the hot seat” or, even worse, “walking the plank” each season.
This year, there are 20 new coaches among the 130 teams. That is 16%, or roughly 1 in every 6 jobs that have turned over. Along with the new coaches, it is highly probable that the important positions of Offensive Coordinator and Defensive Coordinator are new men as well.
The purpose of this article is to grade each TEAM on their new hire in terms of the way in which the new coach will improve the program in the next several years. The programs are graded on a traditional A, B, C, and D grade from, what is in my opinion, the best to the worst hires for each program.
Grade A – Dan Mullen – Florida
It has been since 2010 that Florida reached the type of offensive potential (under HC Urban Meyer) that the fans of Gainesville had become accustomed. Three years of defensive oriented coach Muschamp was followed by the uncelebrated reign of HC McElwain whose hire was meant to spruce up the offense. In those three years, Florida averaged 23 PPG and 338 YPG. Combined with a spate of suspensions to start the year and injuries throughout the year, the Gators reached the nadir of their discontent in going 4-7 SU, 3-8 ATS, closing 1-6 SU, ATS with a lone victory vs. UAB. Enter new HC Dan Mullen, the former HC of Miss. State, who boosted the Bulldogs to the top spot in the polls in 2014. Prior to that, he worked under HC Meyer as the OC. Along with QB Coach Brian Johnson, despite no superstar signal caller on the roster, this looks like the best upgrade on the coaching board. Adding to the above is the fact that Mullen inherits 19 returning starters making them among the most experienced team in the land. It will be up to this bureau to let you know if there is any value in Florida or whether the linemaker has overreacted to the above positives.
Grade A – Scott Frost – Nebraska
As my #2 choice for improved programs with new coaches, the return of Scott Frost to his alma mater, where he won a pair of Big 10 titles as a starting signal caller, may look a bit obvious. Unhappy with an average of 10 wins a year under former head man Bo Pelini, the Nebraska brass went out and hired HC Riley of Oregon State fame whose pro style offensive sets fell flat on their face in averaging just 26/383 the last two seasons. Even worse was the decline on defense which saw the Huskers fall from allowing 24/363 in 2016 to 36/436 LY. Clearly that was not going to fly in Lincoln as it predictably transformed into a 4-8 SU, ATS season. The Huskers lost their final four games of the season while giving up 166 points. While all that was transpiring, Scott Frost was working his magic at UCF. Taking over a program that went 0-12 in 2015, Frost lifted the Golden Knights to a mark of 13-0 SU, 9-3 ATS in just 2 short years. The defense improved, in that period, from 38 to 25 PPG. But it was the offense, a specialty of Frost, that zoomed from 14/268 to 48/530 last year. Even after he had been hired by Nebraska, he remained loyal to UCF and led them to victory by a score of 34-27 vs. a quality Auburn team proving the Golden Knights were the top rated undefeated nugget on the CFB landscape. This is not the ground and pound days of College Football yore, even though some old school Husker football fans may yearn for that along with consistent double digit winning seasons. There is little doubt that Scott Frost has proven he has what it takes, with his balanced, explosive offensive sets, to bring the crowd to their feet in Memorial Stadium in the very near future.
Grade A – Jeromy Pruitt – Tennessee
With a stadium that seats over 100,000 and money of little concern in (Fort)Knoxville, Volunteer fans were forced to endure the 9 year run of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, and Butch Jones (for the last 5 of those years). Enter the return of former HC Phil Fulmer as AD, who immediately will profit from what I predict to be a home run hire in Jeromy Pruitt. The bottom fell out last season when, amid a slew of injuries and the firing of Jones, the Vols fell to 4-8 SU, 2-9 ATS with a 1-7 SU finish. They could average just 20/291 on offense and were outrushed 251/5.4 to 117/3.4. Is there anywhere to go but up for this proud program who went 0-8 SU, 1-7 ATS in SEC play. Enter what this bureau considers to be an outstanding hire in Pruitt. Though lacking head coaching experience, Pruitt was DC on the Florida State National Title team of 2013 and has recently worked in that same position with Saban at Alabama. Like the above two “A rated programs” there will be plenty of value, with this opinion of the Volunteers, unless the linemaker turns handicapper.
Grade B – Chad Lunsford – Georgia Southern
Hidden Gem hire, or maybe it just looks that way because former HC Summers did such a miserable job. He was fired midway through last season with Lunsford taking his place on an interim basis. This could be considered a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! Yet that is exactly what the Eagles brass did when they hired Summers to take over for Willie Fritz at the end of the 2015 season. All Fritz did for the Eagles, known as a historically strong football program from their time in lower divisions, was lead the Eagles to an 18-7 SU, 15-8 ATS record, 14-2 SU in the SBC, in his first two years in the new league. In so doing, Georgia Southern was the best rushing team in the nation with a two year average of 373 RYPG on 6.9 YPR. With ball control to the max, the team fielded a 23 PPG defense. The following year and ½ under Summers was a disaster as they immediately strayed away from the dominant running attack and, with players unsuited to the new offensive formations, went a combined 5-13 SU, 4-12 ATS. When Lunsford took over in mid-season of last year, the team immediately transitioned to a return to the ground game running for 356 and 389 YPG in consecutive games in late November against USA and LA LaFayette. This year, Lunsford returns 17 starters including a Top 20 experienced OL to open holes for the return to the ground game. With 81% of their lettermen returning, there is new hope in Statesboro with a Top 5 experienced team. Little doubt in the mind of this bureau that the Eagles will soar high once again this year.
Grade B – Kevin Sumlin – Arizona
The combination of some bad (sexual) behavior, along with a 17-21 SU, 12-23 ATS record, made it an easy choice to dump “good hit, no field” Rich Rod and his $6,000,000 annual contract. Enter what I consider to be an outstanding hire in Kevin Sumlin who has the potential to immediately turn around the Wildcat fortunes. Note that Sumlin became available when all he did at Texas A&M in 6 years was go 51-27 SU with nary a losing season. But the combination of last year’s 7-6 SU record and a typical Sumlin 2-4 SU finish, combined with the previous 4 year spread record of 17-35 ATS, was enough for the Aggies to search elsewhere for a new coach whom they were willing to pay $75 million dollars. It is well possible that it is Arizona who may be getting the last laugh, for Sumlin is inheriting 16 returning offensive starters led by Heisman hopeful QB Tate, a player whom Sumlin could well parlay into a double digit win season much as he did with Johnny Manzel in his first year at A&M. One thing is for certain, Sumlin will certainly enjoy the PAC 12 defensive sieves more than banging his head against the SEC West as he did annually in College Station. Look for plenty of scoring in Arizona games while they slowly improve on a defense that allowed an average of 36/469 each of the previous 3 seasons.
Grade B – Jimbo Fisher – Texas A&M
With $75,000,000 to spend, it was easy for the powers that be in College Station to lure Jimbo Fisher from Florida State while replacing a coach (Sumlin) who had not had a losing year in his 6 year tenure. Fisher gladly accepted as he was experiencing an injury-plagued season with the Sems that was interrupted by a September storm that prevented his team from playing for 3 weeks. Following that disruptive part of the season in which Florida State started 3-6 SU, 0-9 ATS, Fisher cemented his hire by finishing 4-0 SU, ATS with his team averaging 50 PPG while allowing just 15 PPG. Now it’s on to College Station where nothing less than a National Title will suit those who doled out the big bucks. Remember that before last season, Fisher’s teams were 59-9 SU in the previous 5 years. Realizing that he is moving to the SEC West, the best defensive conference in America, he made a savvy hire in DC Elko whom he lured from Notre Dame. New OC Dickey, who piloted a top 5 Memphis attack last season, will join Fisher in managing the offense. With 76% of their lettermen returning and a top 25 experienced team overall, expect the Aggies big bucks to pay off immediately. Playing Clemson and Alabama in their first 4 games will certainly be an indicator of whether Fisher’s Aggies need to improve.
Grade B – Chip Kelly – UCLA
Following consecutive losing seasons, with a combined record of 10-15 SU and 8-17 ATS, is it any wonder that former HC Mora got the hook following his 6th season in Westwood? Last year’s defense was abominable as it allowed 288/5.8 overland enroute to a 37/484 defensive season. Enter new hire, Chip Kelly, who had a mediocre pro career with a 28-35 SU record (Philly and SF) following his tenure with Oregon in which his teams went 46-7 SU including a trip to the Title game in 2010. Many believe that Kelly will provide instant offensive success after his high flying Oregon teams lit up PAC 12 defenses. Before buying into that concept, be aware that Kelly, during his time as innovator at Oregon through 2012, had offensive (along with players) that served as the model for much of the open-field style of offense that has swept the CFB landscape. In the opinion of this bureau, the Bruins offense will be a notch ahead of where it was last season. Key to an immediate turnaround, however, will be the work of DC Azzinaro, a long time Kelly aide in both College and NFL, with a team that is in the bottom 10 of experience in CFB this season. Improvement may not be immediate yet this is clearly a vast improvement over the recent years under former HC Mora.
Grade B – Willie Taggart – Florida State
For some, it will be hard to fathom this grade considering that Taggart is replacing a legendary Florida State HC in Jimbo Fisher who had a 9 year run in which he recorded double digit victories in 7 of those seasons, including a National Title in 2013. That, however, is the kind of respect given to Taggart by this bureau, in the wake of his accomplishments at former stops on the CFB landscape. Following a 7-6 SU season of last by the Sems, this new season will have as little pressure on Taggart as any he could have imagined in the recent decade. A partial reason for this grade is that loving your job plays a big role in success in this world. This is Taggart’s dream job, and one for which he has been well groomed. Taggart has long been one of the favorite pointspread coaches of this bureau. During his tenure while rebuilding Western Kentucky and USF, he went a combined 39-15 ATS in 4 seasons. Though he was only 6-7 ATS with Oregon last year, that step upward to a higher level of competition will serve him well as he returns to Tallahassee. Taggart steps in to coach a potentially great offensive team with a pair of experienced signal callers in Francois and Blackman. Along with 6 experienced OL players including RB Akers, the Noles are ticketed for an outstanding offensive season. How far they can go in year #1 of the Taggart regime may rely, in no small part, on the work done by new DC Bennett (former Michigan State) whose attack-style defense seems to be a perfect fit for the fleet defenders that have for years characterized the Florida State roster.
Grade B – Mario Cristobal – Oregon
After having just written of my respect for Willie Taggart, last year’s head coach of the Ducks who has transitioned home to Florida State, it is hard to believe I could give this grade to the incoming mentor. Yet that is the respect given to Cristobal by this bureau who was incredibly dismissed by FIU after guiding Florida International to a pair of Bowl games. After honing his wares for 4 years as an assistant at Alabama, under Nick Saban, Cristobal transitioned to OC here at Oregon. This promotion to the level of head man at a major program is one for which Cristobal is well prepared. A huge part of the reason why he may at least have the success I expect, is that he is well liked by the players who lobbied for his appointment. His transition year as head man will be eased by the appearance of returning QB Herbert to the roster. Note that in the 7 games Herbert played, the Ducks went 6-1 while averaging 52 PPG. Compare that to the 5 games Herbert missed with a broken collar bone in which the Ducks went 1-4 SU averaging 15 PPG. Good news for the Oregon defense is that 7 starters return to a unit that improved from 41/519 under formerly deposed HC Helfrich in 2016, to 29/369 last season.
Grade B – Josh Heupel – UCF
Seems crazy to give such a high rating to a coach who takes over a team who was 13-0 SU last year, and for whom there is nowhere to go but down. Yet I believe Heupel, much like his predecessor Scott Frost, is an ideal fit for a UCF offense who averaged 48/530 last season passing for 332 YPG. Much like many of the schools in Florida, UCF has recruited speed. In fact, all 6 of their fastest defenders return. Who to know better about their potential than prime-time returning QB Milton who says that along with the speed of the defense, he can hand the ball to any of a quintet of RBs who can take it to the house, “these guys are going to be something special” says Milton. And with Milton at the helm, it will be no surprise if the Knights heat up the scoreboard much like last season. Though new coaches often mean a transition in schemes, this UCF team seems well qualified to again position themselves atop the AAC this season. Based on his work with the Missouri offense L2Y, it will be no surprise if, even though this is Heupel’s first time as head man, he will set the bar as high as it was last year. In doing so he will create a team in future seasons who will be capable of challenging for National superiority once again. Big addition to the staff is DC Randy Shannon, a veteran coordinator at major schools such as Florida, Miami-FL, and TCU. The Knights may have a collective target on their backs this season but they will be hard to shoot down once again this year.
Grade B – Dana Dimel – UTEP
What? Where did this come from? 21 new coaches and yet the final class B grade is given to the UTEP Miners. Seems incomprehensible. But remember, these grades are given to coaches who have the potential to turn around teams from where they have been in recent seasons. AND NO PROGRAM ON THE CFB LANDSCAPE HAS BEEN LOWER THAN THIS UTEP TEAM WHO WAS 0-12 SU, 2-10 ATS LY WHILE BEING OUTSCORED 37-12, OUTGAINED 446-232. That must surely be the nadir of discontent for this UTEP team. Dimel brings former head coaching experience from his time at Wyoming and Houston as well as a former assistant under K. State HC Snyder. He is also bringing in veteran coordinators in OC Canalis and DC Cox, lifelong football coaches with over 60 years of experience between them. Dimel starts the Miners resurgence with some quality transfers coming to north of the border. Along with a ton of coaching experience, the Miners could be one of the surprise pointspread teams in the nation this season.
Grade C – Billy Napier – LA LaFayette
It may take until November to decide whether this C grade is accurate. Mainly because it is tough to instill confidence in your kids when, by the end of September, you will have made road trips to Miss. State and Alabama, where Napier was a former WR coach under Saban. The years of former HC Hudspeth were characterized by rampant success, followed by abject failure the previous 3 seasons, when they went a combined 15-22 SU, 14-20 ATS. Main culprit in last season’s debacle was a “200 Club” defense that allowed 40 PPG and 237 or more YPG BOTH RUNNING AND PASSING. With a Napier resume clearly geared toward the offensive end, it is a good bet that 9 returning offensive starters will clearly outperform the 4 returning defenders who are responsible for last year’s decline. The future could, nonetheless, look bright in the Sun Belt for Napier whose time spent under successful HCs such as Swenney, Saban and last year as OC at AZ State (where the Sun Devils averaged 32/431) could well key a successful run and potential leap to a better job.
Grade C – Jonathan Smith – Oregon State
With nowhere to go but up, there is little risk for new HC Smith. Former HC Anderson was a disaster at the helm of the Beavers with a 7-29 SU record mostly because of the defense that allowed an average of 37/480. Jonathan Smith returns to his alma mater in what must certainly be a dream job for Smith who, when he left as Beaver quarterback, was the school’s leader in passing yards and TDs. Working under Chris Peterson, 1st at Boise State and last year as OC at Washington (36/405), lends credibility to this hire. There is little doubt that Oregon State will improve on their 21/334 offense of LY but, oh that defense. Any improvement will largely be a result of the work of new DC Tibesor (former Wisconsin) who must shore up the stop troops and help reverse the -14 net TO margin of last season. To aid in the development of Smith, long time veteran former Oregon State HC Riley has been enlisted as mentor. At least in his inaugural seasons, this appears to be a long upward trek to PAC 12 mediocrity.
Grade C – Sonny Dykes – SMU
As most of the faithful followers of this bureau are well aware, I am not a Sonny Dykes fan. Any success Dykes has achieved in former stops as head man at LA Tech and Cal have largely been a function of his offensive coaching abilities. A microcosm of what is to come could well be the 51-10 loss to his former affiliation, LA Tech, when he was thrust into the helm for last season’s Bowl game. Complicating the issue is that Dykes takes over from Chad Morris, yet another offensive coach, who led the Mustangs to 38/479 on the attack end last year, but in whose 3 year tenure saw his team allow 40 PPG. Dykes’ “Air Raid” offense will be entertaining, aided by new OC Lashlee, the former OC at Auburn, and veteran QB Hicks. But you don’t go very far in CFB with a perennial 40 PPG defense that led the team to a 1-7 ATS mark down the stretch last season.
Grade C – Chad Morris – Arkansas
It is no coincidence that new Arkansas HC Morris ends up right beside Sonny Dykes who replaced him at SMU. He replaces 5 year coach Brett Bielema who entered Fayetteville known for his “ground and pound” offensive MO at Wisconsin. But by the time the Razorbacks began to throw the ball more and enjoy it less, they slipped to 4-8 SU, 4-7 ATS last year when they allowed 36/439 and a near “200 Club” defense which culminated a straight line decline from 19/323 allowed in 2014. Morris, who had success as OC at Clemson and in rejuvenating the SMU offense for the previous 3 seasons, is a long way from being the answer for the Hogs defensive problems, in which he has far little interest than the offense. That will fall on the shoulders of newly hired John Chavis, the former DC at LSU. Unlikely, in the opinion of this bureau, that the Morris formula of “good hit, no field” is the first to achieve lasting success in the SEC. Three years, at most, before Morris returns to his Peter Principle, as OC.
Grade C – Steve Campbell – South Alabama
In helping to transition the Jaguars from FCS status to the Sun Belt, former HC Joey Jones did a great job. Under Jones, it was never a shock when the Jags pulled the major upset. Last year, however, with only 5 returning offensive starters, they slipped to 4-8 SU with the major culprit being a 97/3.1 ground game. A 52-0 late season loss at Georgia Southern may have sealed Jone’s fate. Enter new HC Campbell with no experience at this level. What he does have is a National Title at D-11 Delta State and with JUCO program Mississippi Gulf Coast. More recently, he led C. Ark to a 20-5 SU record the last two seasons including 17-1SU in the Southland where his Bears won the Conference Crown. Major step up for a relatively unproven commodity means the Jags may take their lumps in the early going and that the jury is still out on Campbell’s long term success.
Grade C – Sean Lewis – Kent State
The agony of the Paul Haynes era is at last at an end. The previous 4 seasons saw the (not so) Golden Flashes record a record of 10-37 SU including 5-19 SU the previous 2 years. Last year, Kent was outscored 35-13, a year in which they could average only 275 YPG. Can we really expect a lot more from incoming Sean Lewis considering that, only once in the previous 30 years, has Kent won more than 6 games. At least Lewis, who honed his wares under Dino Babers, and his uptempo offense, will surely shift the offensive game plan. Unfortunately, the available personnel is far from capable of succeeding in these types of offensive wide-open spread sets. With limited possession time, that leaves the Kent defense ripe for the plucking. With opening month games at Illinois, Penn State and Ole Miss., it may soon be confirmed that the mind is willing but the body unable. A downward spiral into the abyss of another losing season is sure to follow with long term success improbable unless Lewis suddenly turns incredible recruiter.
Grade D – Joe Moorhead – Mississippi State
It’s not that I believe that Moorhead is a bad hire. But as the introduction to this article clearly states, this is about the direction of the program with the new hire. In short, it will be tough for Moorhead to match the prowess of previous 9 year HC Mullen who has now transitioned his talents to the head man spot at Florida. Mullen led the Bulldogs to a Bowl game in each of the last 8 seasons. 3 times in the last 4 years, State recorded 9 or more wins. In fact, in 2014, Mullen even led Miss. State to the #1 ranking for a span of weeks in the middle of the season. His head coaching ability will be surely missed in Starkville. Enter Moorhead, who has made a big splash as OC at Penn State in no small part as a result of talents such as RB Barkley, QB McSorley and the Head coaching acumen of James Franklin whose Lions have gone 22-5 SU the previous 2 years. Not that Moorhead hasn’t done his job in leading Penn State to an average of just shy of 40 PPG L2Y. Inheriting 9 offensive returning starters and returning dual threat QB Fitzgerald, offers major momentum for Moorhead in his 1st season. It is, however, a well proven fact that defense is a necessity to achieve the type of success that previous HC Mullen authored at Davis Wade Stadium. Until Moorhead proves he can do it with his own recruits and continue with a defense in the tradition of recent seasons, I have little reason to believe that the Bulldogs will maintain the excellence they achieved under Mullen.
Grade D – Mike Bloomgren – Rice
As the David Bailiff era drew to a close, the search for his successor turned to other academic institutions. The Owls had slipped from 8 to 5 to 3 to a single win last season when they were outscored by an average of 36-16. Then a light bulb went off in the AD office in Houston “hey, why not hire the OC, Mike Bloomgren, from the fine academic institution of Stanford, where he led the Cardinal to highly successful overland campaigns the last 3 seasons in which they averaged a combined 213/5.4 overland”. One of the main reasons this does not work is that Stanford RB Bryce love, nor any of his outstanding predecessors, are not going to show up in the Rice backfield this season. In fact, even against the traditionally weak defenses of CUSA, it is improbable Bloomgren can translate the current talent on the Rice roster to a successful season. It is an equally large leap to believe that new DC Smith, the former DB coach at Michigan, can turn around a defense that brings back 5 starters who allowed 36 PPG each of the last 3Y. You’ve got a scoop if Rice “blooms” under this new mentor.
Grade D – Herm Edwards – Arizona State
This is the only hire who, in the opinion of this bureau, is more ludicrous than the one immediately above. But that’s when your egotistical AD, Ray Anderson, decides to hire one of his former clients, Herm Edwards. For those not paying attention to the NFL broadcasts on ESPN, Edwards is the guy who has been out of coaching (the NFL) for the last 10 years while working as an ESPN analyst. Note that Edwards was just 54-74 in his NFL head coaching tenure and must surely have no clue as to how to communicate with these young millennials. With only 4 returning starters to a defense that got torched for 33/449 LY, it looks like “Death in the Dessert” for Sun Devil followers until someone in Tempe comes to their senses.