Which of 5 new hires in SEC has best chance for success in 2018?
The job was vacant for 26 agonizing days, but Tennessee finally hired a head football coach Thursday in Jeremy Pruitt.
The coaching carousel has now stopped spinning in the SEC, with five of the 14 member institutions making a change at the top. Dan Mullen made an in-conference move, but Bret Bielema, Butch Jones, Jim McElwain and Kevin Sumlin are all gone.
If a school finds the right guy, then success can be right around the corner. Look at Georgia, which jettisoned Mark Richt — see what he’s done already at Miami? — in favor of alumnus Kirby Smart and has already been invited to the College Football Playoff in Year 2. Even if the Bulldogs were sleeping giants, that’s impressive.
On the other hand, the wrong guy can keep a team hopelessly spinning its wheels for seasons on end. Especially in this league, where there are no cupcakes, you can’t fake your way into being a consistent winner.
Of the five new hires, who’s set up to succeed right away in 2018? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.
5. Chad Morris, Arkansas
Previous stop: head coach at SMU
Noteworthy: coached Deshaun Watson
Understand that Morris isn’t expected to engineer some sort of quick turnaround. The Razorbacks are hitting the reset button again.
Bielema appeared to be heading in the right direction, going from three to seven to eight wins in his first three seasons. However, he took a step back to 7-6 in Year 4 and then completely fell apart to 4-8 in Year 5.
While the Hogs will occasionally steal a 4- or 5-star kid out of Florida or Texas, they’re never going to attract a class full of elite prospects to Fayetteville. If this program wants to compete in the West, then it needs to do it with superior design and execution. Bielema was behind the times with his style of play.
Morris went from 76th to 55th to 13th nationally in total offense during his three seasons with the Mustangs and did it with inferior horses.
Biggest strength: innovation on offense
Biggest weakness: record as head coach
4. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Previous stop: defensive coordinator at Alabama
Noteworthy: multiple-time recruiter of the year
Similar to Arkansas, the Volunteers totally went to pieces in 2017 after showing some signs of life the previous two campaigns.
The coaching search was long and eventful, but Pruitt is still considered a great hire and could be just what UT needs. While the Vols have tried to pluck Nick Saban’s coaching tree before, he’s much more qualified than Derek Dooley ever was.
Unfortunately, Pruitt inherits a roster with obvious deficiencies both offensively and defensively that just went winless in SEC play for the first time in history. Even Smart was a mediocre 7-5 in his first season at Georgia, which had better players and a clearer path on the recruiting trail at the time than they do right now in Knoxville.
Pruitt has never been a head coach at any level, but neither had Smart. There’s definitely reason for optimism on Rocky Top. Patience is still required, though.
Biggest strength: game-planning on defense
Biggest weakness: no head-coaching experience
3. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
Previous stop: offensive coordinator at Penn State
Noteworthy: back-to-back No. 2 offense in Big Ten
Much more than the other four programs listed here, Mullen left the Bulldogs in a lot better shape than he found them.
This squad was under .500 historically until Mullen arrived, so the fact that he took it all the way to No. 1 in the country in 2014 is nothing short of remarkable. It’s fair to wonder if MSU will ever again climb to such heights.
The good news is that, like Mullen, Moorhead comes to the ‘Dogs with a reputation as a forward-thinking offensive mind. With Trace McSorley at quarterback and Saquon Barkley at running back, the Nittany Lions were 21st in the country in scoring offense last year and seventh this year. While Aeris Williams is no Barkley, Nick Fitzgerald is every bit as gifted as McSorley.
Moorhead was a head coach before at Fordham, his alma mater, and went 38-13. But his career has never taken him anywhere near a place like Starkville before.
Biggest strength: creative Xs and Os on offense
Biggest weakness: unfamiliar with SEC culture
2. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Previous stop: head coach at Florida State
Noteworthy: national championship (2013)
The Aggies may not be an upgrade from the Seminoles for Fisher, but Fisher is an upgrade from Sumlin for the Aggies.
Another Saban protégé, Fisher tends to build his organization more like an NFL franchise than a college team. Supposedly, he’ll never have to beg for facilities upgrades anymore. That was a constant issue for him at FSU. It won’t be at A&M.
While Sumlin ran a version of the spread system that’s become almost ubiquitous in this conference, Fisher operates a pro-style scheme that relies more on razor-sharp precision than hurry-up speed. It takes a special kind of signal caller to handle his perfectionist nature, and it remains to be seen if Nick Starkel or Kellen Mond will mesh with him at all.
The Ags have recruited well and had a lot of youth see the field in 2017, plus Fisher will attract more blue-chippers to College Station.
Biggest strength: development of quarterbacks
Biggest weakness: complicated offense to run
1. Dan Mullen, Florida
Previous stop: head coach at Mississippi State
Noteworthy: school-record 8 straight bowl games
He may have been the third choice for the Gators after Chip Kelly and Scott Frost, but Mullen was still a home-run hire.
Considering the fact that he was able to turn the Bulldogs into a relevant program, he should work wonders with the toys he’ll have in Gainesville. McElwain couldn’t make lemonade at QB. That’s Mullen’s specialty.
That being said, the orange-and-blue depth chart in McElwain’s wake leaves a lot to be desired. Most of those defensive recruits signed by Will Muschamp are now gone. Injuries, suspensions and early entries into the draft have thinned the roster. Most important, Feleipe Franks doesn’t have the look and feel of a Mullen field general.
Still, Mullen was part of two national title-winning teams at UF under Urban Meyer and overdue for a fresh challenge.
Biggest strength: previous success in SEC
Biggest weakness: recruiting elite talent