O'Gara: Why Jeff Lebby has the most daunting Year 1 climb of anybody in 2024
Jeff Lebby is entering a 16-team super conference with 15 coaches who have multiple years of experience coaching at the Power 5 level.
Take a guess who the 1 coach on the outside is. You know. It’s Lebby.
That’s not a knock on Lebby’s résumé. He spent 4 years as an OC establishing himself as one of the better offensive minds in the sport. Two of those years were with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss and the 2 most recent years were with full autonomy of Oklahoma’s offense on Brent Venables’ staff at Oklahoma.
Let’s also not pretend that you need to be a head coach somewhere before taking over an SEC program. Kirby Smart and Mark Stoops are 2 of the many who have debunked that.
But Year 1 for Lebby is incredibly daunting for another significant reason. I’ll go so far as to say it’s the most daunting Year 1 that anybody in America is facing.
Yes, that includes Kalen DeBoer at Alabama. He at least inherited a team that’ll be led by the guy who finished No. 6 in the Heisman Trophy voting at the game’s most important position. Long term? Yes, DeBoer’s task of replacing the greatest coach of all-time is the most daunting of any new coach in America.
In Year 1, though, Lebby’s situation is a straight uphill climb.
Think about it. He’s inheriting a 5-win team that ranks dead last in the SEC and No. 122 in FBS in percentage of returning production. Never mind the fact that Mississippi State has 1 winning season in SEC play in the 21st century, which is the same amount as Vandy.
This is different from what Mike Leach or Joe Moorhead inherited in Starkville. In the world of the transfer portal without restrictions, Lebby’s task is different.
He had 15 players hit the transfer portal, which doesn’t include losing defensive anchors Bookie Watson and Jett Johnson to the NFL. Again, that’s from a 5-win team that went 1-7 against SEC competition with the lone conference win coming in that train wreck of a 7-3 game at Arkansas.
(Don’t do the thing where you tell me that I hate defense for dumping on that Mississippi State-Arkansas game. I love this sport and I love great defense, but I wanted no part of that game and you didn’t, either.)
Oh, and the Bulldogs were No. 131 of 132 FBS teams with 12.6 points per game vs. conference foes, and now they’ll undergo another scheme change following last year’s unsuccessful transition to the more pro-style offense under Kevin Barbay.
Yes, I know. It’s a 2-way street with the portal. Lebby deserves credit for getting just as many players back (15) via the portal, 9 of which are from Power 5 programs.
That includes the quarterback with Baylor transfer Blake Shapen. Technically, it’ll be Lebby’s first time working with a new quarterback since he arrived at Ole Miss in 2020. Don’t forget that he and Dillon Gabriel reunited at Oklahoma after they spent the 2018-19 together at UCF. Each of Lebby’s past 3 offenses was led by a quarterback who had at least a year of experience with him. Shapen lacks experience with Lebby, but the Shreveport, La., native is one of the most experienced starting quarterbacks in the conference, having thrown for 5,574 yards and 36 touchdowns during his 2-plus seasons as Baylor’s QB1.
Lebby is doing the offensive play-calling, meaning he’s taking on even more burden than Year 1 coaches who delegate those duties. Offensive struggles will fall directly on Lebby.
But even if Shapen can be a Graham Mertz-level, middle-of-the-pack SEC quarterback, there’s something else worth remembering with Mississippi State. Lebby is taking over for a one-and-done head coach in Zach Arnett. In 2023, Mississippi State lost 25 players to the portal. That’s 40 players in the past 2 years who left Starkville with remaining eligibility.
Daunting? You bet.
Also daunting? The schedule. Duh.
Mississippi State will play 5 SEC teams that won at least 9 games last year, 4 of which will be true road games.
- at Texas
- at Georgia
- at Tennessee
- vs. Mizzou
- at Ole Miss
That’s not including a tricky Week 3 game against 11-win Toledo, nor does it include a home game against a Texas A&M team that also has a Year 1 coach. The difference is that Mike Elko’s squad ranks No. 1 in the SEC in percentage of returning production. Consider that another reason Elko’s Year 1 task isn’t as daunting as Lebby’s.
Elko’s job turning around Duke is why Manny Diaz’s Year 1 task isn’t as daunting as Mississippi State, even though the Blue Devils have less historical success. It also helps that Year 1 coaches at Duke, Boston College and Syracuse are facing ACC competition and not Big Ten or SEC competition.
Perhaps you could argue that Jedd Fisch’s Year 1 task at Washington is particularly daunting with all that the Huskies lost to the NFL Draft and the transfer portal. They’re even lower than Mississippi State in terms of percentage of returning production at No. 130 in FBS. But at the same time, it’s still a team that just finished as the national runner-up. There’s juice and support there that doesn’t need to be manufactured as it enters the Big Ten.
That’s different than a school like Oregon State, which just watched one of its best coaches in program history, Jonathan Smith, bolt for Michigan State instead of staying at his alma mater after it was left out of a Power conference. Long-term, yes, that’s more daunting than what Lebby is taking on. But in Year 1, Oregon State is moving to an easier schedule that’ll feature just 1 matchup against a Power 5 team that had a winning record.
(By the way, it’s no longer the Power 5. I’ve banged the drum for a transition to “Core 4.” Now is when that should begin.)
Maybe that team that Smith left for, Michigan State, has the more daunting Year 1 task. The Spartans certainly have a more daunting 4-game stretch than Mississippi State with consecutive matchups vs. Ohio State, at Oregon, vs. Iowa and at Michigan. Those teams went a combined 48-8. That schedule is just as grueling as Mississippi State’s. But Smith’s squad is at least closer to the middle of the pack at No. 73 in percentage of returning production, which could be why the oddsmakers have the Spartans’ over/under at 5.5 regular season wins.
Compare that to 4.5 regular season wins for Mississippi State. That’s tied for the lowest among Power 5 — or Core 4 — programs with a Year 1 coach (via FanDuel):
- Mississippi State: 4.5 wins
- Boston College: 4.5 wins
- Houston: 4.5 wins
- Indiana: 5.5 wins
- Michigan State: 5.5 wins
- Northwestern: 5.5 wins (David Braun lost the “interim” tag)
- Duke: 6.5 wins
- Syracuse: 6.5 wins
- Texas A&M: 7.5 wins
- Washington: 7.5 wins
- Arizona: 8.5 wins
- Alabama: 9.5 wins
- Michigan: 9.5 wins
Add it all up and Lebby is entering more of a Year 0 than a Year 1.
This will sound strange at a place that just had a 13-year bowl streak end, but getting to the postseason would be no small feat for Lebby. It would be the byproduct of him hitting on some portal additions, nailing his defensive coordinator hire and/or showing that he can still run an offense even with all of those extra duties on his plate as a first-time head coach.
There’s a long list of boxes for Lebby to check in Starkville. The steep climb is underway.