It wouldn't be surprising if we saw a unique trend play out with the SEC's first-year coaches
It’s June. What happens in June? Without so much as football practice, my mind tends to wander. I find myself trying to think about trends, and how they could impact the following season.
Every once in a while, I spot a trend that I probably wouldn’t catch in the heat of the season. That was the case for the latest one that put my brain in a pretzel.
It’s weird, and I’m not even sure that it makes sense, so stay with me.
Excluding Matt Luke, I believe there’s a legitimate chance that every new SEC coach’s team is better in the opposite area of their new coach’s expertise in 2018.
Confused yet? Don’t be. Here’s what I mean.
These are all of the new SEC coach’s areas of expertise:
- Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M — offense
- Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State — offense
- Chad Morris, Arkansas — offense
- Dan Mullen, Florida — offense
- Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee — defense
What I’m saying is that I believe Fisher, Moorhead, Morris and Mullen — all of whom are offensive-minded coaches — will have better defenses in Year 1. And Pruitt, who’s a defensive-minded coach, will have a better offense this year.
I know. That’s a strange opinion, but it actually makes a lot of sense when you flesh it out.
Why don’t I just do that.
If you’d read anything I’ve written about Moorhead or Mississippi State this offseason, you’re probably wondering why I could possibly say that the offense would take a back seat to the defense. I don’t. I think they’ll both rank in the top 40 and put up big numbers.
A massive part of the reason that I’m so high on the Bulldogs — and have gone on record with a 10-win prediction — is because of that defense. I’ve written plenty about why having a returning first-team All-SEC duo like Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat to rush the passer is massive in this conference. I also feel like Mark McLaurin (leading tackler, 6 interceptions in 2017) and Gerri Green (11 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles) aren’t getting enough preseason love.
The MSU defense doesn’t have Todd Grantham anymore, but it does have a whopping 82 percent of its 2017 tackles back and 92 percent of its 2017 tackles for loss returning (via SBNation). That’s from a unit that finished 10th in FBS in total defense last year. That’s absurd.
While I do expect big-time things from Moorhead’s offense down the road, it’s not crazy to suggest that there’s more talent and more returning production on the defensive side of the ball.
There are two stats worth pointing out before I get into the Aggies’ defense. One is that Florida State’s scoring offense ranked No. 71 in FBS last year. The other is that Texas A&M’s scoring offense ranked No. 34. And here’s a little bonus stat. The Aggies rank No. 70 in returning offensive production, and they are still figuring out whether Nick Starkel or Kellen Mond is going to be the guy.
That’s my kind way of saying, no, I don’t expect Fisher’s Year 1 offense to be a juggernaut. I do expect his defense to be plenty solid, though. Part of that is the addition of Mike Elko, who went into Notre Dame and completely flipped that unit in his lone season in South Bend. Elko has plenty of pieces to work with in College Station, too.
The Aggies should have one of the country’s better front sevens with Tyrel Dodson, Kingsley Keke, Landis Durham (35 tackles for loss combined) all of whom earned preseason All-SEC honors from Athlon. That doesn’t include Daylon Mack, who has shown flashes of being a difference-maker on the defensive line.
Are there questions in the secondary? Absolutely. A unit that ranked 85th against the pass and lost its best player (Armani Watts) will have to be better in order for Texas A&M’s defense to lead the way. But with Elko, a former safety and defensive backs coach, that could certainly happen.
Don’t be surprised if the Aggies have a defensive-focused identity in Year 1 of the Fisher era.
This isn’t a knock on Morris, but I just don’t think the Razorbacks have the roster needed to successfully run his offense yet. I don’t think that they have the speed or the route-runners to successfully execute the up-tempo style that he hopes will light up the scoreboard. I’m a bit more sold on the defensive weapons returning.
What if I told you that Arkansas actually had as many Athlon preseason All-SEC selections (5) as Georgia? McTelvin Agim and De’Jon Harris are going to lead what should be a significantly improved front 7.
Wait. Didn’t the Hogs finish 114th in scoring defense last year? Why yes, devil’s advocate. They did.
But I think bringing in someone as experienced as John Chavis was key to inject some life into this unit and at least make it average as Morris works through a transition year with the offense.
Gators fans don’t want to hear this, but I believe this isn’t an overnight fix with the offense. Let me rephrase that. I believe this isn’t an overnight fix with the passing game. The Gators are my dark horse team to have the SEC’s top rushing attack with all of those weapons returning. And while I like Kyle Trask to ultimately win the starting job, I’m not ready to say the Gators will harken back to the days of Tim Tebow’s offense.
What I am higher on is Florida’s ability to put together a stout defense. I was big on the high-priced addition of Grantham for the job he did turning around MSU’s defense last year, and I think with that secondary and a healthy Cece Jefferson, the Gators can have a top-30 defense.
I worry that there will still be plenty of 17-16 games that Florida fans will have to sweat out in Year 1. But remember, this is about the long-term. Putting long-term faith in Mullen to rebuild the offense seems a whole lot smarter than giving Jim McElwain that task. Patience in Gainesville will be key in 2018.
So, did y’all watch the spring game? I did. What I saw was Pruitt rail into how bad his first-team defense was. That was against Tennessee’s first-team offense, which was, um, not good last year. Like, a point per game better than the likes of Kansas and Rutgers. But as any Tennessee fan will tell you, it’s not like the Vols lacked talent on offense.
Getting Jauan Jennings back will be big, and it feels like a major boost to the Tennessee skill players like Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler that Butch Jones won’t be coaching them. Addition by subtraction or whatever.
I’m still in wait-and-see mode with Tyson Helton because while he has a nice little track record, the Vols paid him a boatload of money after he was the quarterbacks coach for a team that already had an offensive-minded coach and an offensive coordinator (I’m referencing VFL Tee Martin, of course).
In Year 1, though, I’d expect Tennessee’s offense to get a shot in the arm after the disaster that was 2017. They can make some mediocre quarterback options look better than they are and at least act like a competent team against Power 5 defenses. Long term, I’d still bet my money on Pruitt’s defense to be the team’s identity.
I just think that with sooooo many new pieces, it’ll be a major challenge to stay on the field against teams loaded with proven offensive players in the SEC.
Is there a reason this could play out?
Maybe. Often times, teams will hire the coach that A) satisfies the biggest immediate need or B) is a complete opposite of the last head coach. Mississippi State is really the only team that didn’t do that.
Under the A) scenario, that implies that a team isn’t good in that area to begin with, so it needs a rebuild. The B) scenario implies that a new coach who’s the complete opposite of the last coach (Morris, Pruitt) can lead to roster attrition on the side of the ball they specialize in.
Is that why this trend could play out? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is just a wandering thought I had in July that could just be something that happens randomly.
Either way, thanks for letting me get your wandering brain a few minutes closer to college football season.