Ranking the college football coaching class of 2018: the good, the bad and the ugly
After three miserable years watching Jim McElwain’s offenses further lay ruin to Florida’s “Fun ‘n’ Gun” culture, the Gators faithful desperately wanted an offensive wizard to save them late in the fall of 2017.
Who would be more perfect for college football’s biggest coaching vacancy than Chip Kelly, the understated and quirky genius who turned Oregon into a national title contender and flamed out at a couple of stops in the NFL?
The Florida private jet with an envoy of school representatives reportedly flew to New Hampshire to court Kelly, which created the requisite buzz, but there was also a sense that Kelly could be a better personality fit for UCLA, which had fired Jim Mora Jr.
The Florida job was set up to win sooner than the Bruins’ position, but frequent College Football Playoff visits were in no way a gimme with the Gators, who have to contend with a resurgent Georgia in the Southeastern Conference East Division and Alabama, Auburn and Louisiana State coming out of the West each year.
Kelly ultimately chose the path of lesser competitive resistance — and lesser fan intensity — with UCLA and the struggling Pac-12 Conference, a league that he once dominated.
Florida moved on quickly, the next day scooping up Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, a former Gators offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.
One of the most thrilling and treacherous things about hiring season in college football is that you never know how it’s going to turn out, no matter what the data says beforehand.
Mullen’s then-No. 10 Florida team defeated No. 7 Auburn 24-13 on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla., in a battle of undefeated teams trying to stay in the hunt for the College Football Playoff in a loaded conference that will probably get two teams into the bracket. It wasn’t exactly “Fun ‘n’ Gun,” but being 6-0 is fun enough in Gainesville.
The UCLA football team fell to 1-5 when a late rally fell short against Oregon State. The Bruins might not have hit rock bottom yet.
Later, across the country in a somber Rose Bowl, UCLA lost to Oregon State 48-31, moving the Bruins to 1-5 this season and 4-14 overall under Kelly.
It’s easy to look at where Florida and UCLA are right now and say the Gators really dodged a bullet. Although it has never been said by any of the parties that Kelly was offered the Gators job, nobody can deny there was significant interest when the university piles a bunch of important people into a jet that flies to New Hampshire. And who knows? Maybe Kelly would have been a smashing success in the Swamp, and whomever UCLA moved onto in its search would have won over Westwood.
Frankly, halfway into Year 2, it’s a risk to make judgment, no matter how good or bad it looks. There were 12 new coaches hired in the Power Five conferences in the winter of 2017, and some of them — Kelly included — appear to be in trouble.
Here’s a look at where things stand for this highly pressurized dozen, the coaching class of 2018.
So far, so good
Dan Mullen, Florida: Mullen actually made way more sense for the Gators than Kelly or then-Central Florida coach Scott Frost, but Florida’s desperation for a sexy name nearly got in the way of logic. Mullen knew what it takes to win at Florida, took Mississippi State to new heights and had a strong relationship with Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin, who had been Mullen’s boss in Starkville.
There have been some rocky aspects to Mullen’s start at Florida — player behavior off the field has been a consistent issue. But the Gators’ 16-3 record, led by a talented defense, has allowed the offense to lag behind and continue to figure itself out.
This season has a chance to go the other direction really fast with road games against No. 5 LSU and South Carolina leading into the rivalry game with No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville, but the Gators probably have a floor of 9-3 and another New Year’s Six bowl berth at this point.
Herm Edwards, Arizona State: In Edwards’ first season, the Sun Devils finished 7-6 and contended for the Pac-12 South title with wins over USC and Utah. It was clear that Edwards’ message was resonating with college players.
In Year 2, it’s even more clear this was a terrific move for Arizona State. The Sun Devils have won road games against Michigan State and California, playing tough in the trenches against teams that should be further along in their development. The loss at home to Colorado was surprising, but it can be forgiven easily.
The future is bright too with true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels a talented piece to build around.
Mario Cristobal, Oregon: The Ducks blew a chance at a big victory in their opening loss to Auburn that would have kept them in the national championship picture well into the season. They also trailed Cal on Saturday night at Autzen Stadium well into the third quarter before pulling away for a 17-7 win, so Cristobal shouldn’t feel as comfortable with his performance as Mullen and Edwards.
The Ducks, because of a muddled Pac-12, won’t have another shot at a nationally relevant win until their bowl game, but regionally, going to Seattle and beating Washington on Oct. 19 would register a resounding note for Cristobal’s program.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: Fisher left Florida State, where he won a national championship, for the riches of Texas A&M — he signed a 10-year contract worth $75 million — and the chance to bring the Aggies up to the level of their new SEC West peers. It hasn’t happened yet, but Texas A&M is playing the long game with Fisher, and the Aggies are one of the youngest Power Five teams this season.
This year set up well for Texas A&M to pull a big upset, but the Aggies have whiffed on that promise in losses to Clemson and Auburn. On Saturday, they welcome No. 1 Alabama to Kyle Field. If Fisher’s team keeps the game tight into the fourth quarter, that should be plenty encouraging.
Scott Frost, Nebraska: Cornhuskers fans aren’t feeling as overjoyed to have Frost back in Lincoln as they were when the season started with hopes of a Big Ten West Division crown. Nebraska choked the game away at Colorado and was blasted by Ohio State 48-7 in a prime-time contest that brought ESPN’s “College GameDay” to town.
But the program still feels like it has momentum with Frost and is building a new identity. It’s just clear that this is not going to be some overnight rebuild. It’s going to take time, and Nebraska fans will give it to one of their own.
Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State: In Moorhead’s first season as a head coach, the former Penn State offensive coordinator had a dependable senior quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald and three first-round NFL draft picks on defense. The Bulldogs pulled off a win over a top-10 Auburn team in Starkville and dominated rival Mississippi 35-3 to go to 8-4 and play in a New Year’s Day bowl game. They lost to Iowa 27-22 in the Outback Bowl.
Now comes the hard part. The Bulldogs are in a rebuilding season without a reloaded roster. At 3-2 with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M still on the docket, another bowl berth, even at 6-6, would be viewed as an acceptable Year 2.
Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: Sumlin’s first year in Tucson was pretty hard to watch. He inherited quarterback Khalil Tate, who began the season as a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate, and with Tate nursing a lingering ankle injury the Wildcats limped to a 5-7 finish.
Sumlin’s job this offseason was to reactivate Tate in his senior season. The returns are positive enough with Arizona at 4-1 and coming off a win at Colorado to say that Sumlin now has the Wildcats where they should be in his second season. Then again, 2019 has a long way to go. A bowl trip would signify progress.
Too early in massive rebuild
Jonathan Smith, Oregon State: The former Beavers quarterback has built a competent offense in Corvallis around sixth-year senior Jake Luton and wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins. At a minimum, if Oregon State can be exciting and fun to watch, then Smith has accomplished something big.
Oregon State pulled off a road win over beleaguered UCLA on Saturday, which Smith can now try to build on. To this point, he has shown enough to be given the full amount of his contract to mold the program. Still, the Beavers are just 2-3 on the season and a bowl berth feels a year or two away.
Chad Morris, Arkansas: The Razorbacks went 2-10 overall and winless in the SEC in 2018. Bret Bielema left the program in bad shape, and it doesn’t look much better in Year 2. Arkansas lost 31-24 to visiting San Jose State on Sept. 21. But a week later, the Razorbacks put a real scare into Texas A&M at Cowboys Stadium before falling 31-27.
Morris looks like he could be in trouble with Arkansas fans sooner rather than later, but for now he deserves a pretty forgiving leash.
Running out of patience
Chip Kelly, UCLA: How could it really be this bad for Kelly and the Bruins? Are Cristobal, Edwards, Sumlin and Smith really this far ahead of Kelly in their respective rebuilds? It appears so.
The Bruins have no buzz in recruiting and now play in front of a half-empty Rose Bowl. A new athletic director will take over in Westwood with the No. 1 priority of deciding whether Kelly is the guy to get this done.
Willie Taggart, Florida State: In Taggart’s first season, the Seminoles did the unthinkable, missing a bowl game with a 5-7 record. Fisher probably got out for a reason. Even his last few Florida State teams had lost their swagger, often getting dominated in the trenches.
Taggart, who was successful at South Florida and went 7-5 in his one season coaching Oregon, appears like he might be overmatched in Tallahassee. The Seminoles lost their home opener to Boise State and fell on the road to Virginia. They nearly were embarrassed at home by Louisiana-Monroe before being saved by a missed extra point.
If Clemson blows out Florida State on Saturday, Taggart better watch his back.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: No program has been more embarrassed by 2019 than Tennessee, which lost to Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference in the opening game and followed that up with another home loss to Brigham Young. At 1-4, there aren’t many potential wins in sight, but for Pruitt, getting to four or five in 2019 could buy him a third year.
Tennessee landed on Pruitt after a coaching search so poorly executed that athletic director John Currie was fired in the middle of it. Tennessee legend Phillip Fulmer marshaled power, taking over for Currie, and hired Pruitt, then the Alabama defensive coordinator. If anyone has the cache to be patient in Knoxville, it’s Fulmer, but that fan base has suffered enough.
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