Evaluating College Football Head Coaching Changes: Part 2
Welcome back to Part 2 (see Part 1 of Evaluating College Football Coaching Changes) of our in-depth breakdown of this year’s college football head coaching changes. Today we’ll continue to analyze the changes in the power conferences.
Chad Morris – Arkansas
Out of all 21 first-year head coaches, Morris ranks as one of my favorites. He’s got a keen eye for talent and boasts an incredibly bright and innovative offensive mind. Morris has holes in his game — overly aggressive blitz-heavy defenses, subpar special teams — but they oftentimes work in bettors’ favor. And compared to many on our list, the issues he inherits are minimal with the Razorbacks projected to return as many as 17 returning starters. Given Morris’ pedigree, the biggest change bettors can expect is more scoring — from both sides. The ongoing quarterback situation needs to be monitored. At both Clemson and SMU, Morris was patient in in the development of Tajh Boyd and Ben Hicks. Both eventually posted video game-type numbers but both were also more talented than what Morris has at his disposal in Year 1 in Fayetteville. Former coach Bret Bielema managed to stick around for five lackluster seasons. Hopefully Morris will be afforded the time needed to get the program on solid footing. In the end, Morris is a coach I rarely bet against and always look to play over the total due to his aggressive nature on both sides of the football.
Chip Kelly – UCLA
Arguably the biggest name of the ‘18 class but also the biggest wild card. Kelly was the innovator of some of college football’s greatest offensive teams during his tenure at Oregon. He returns to the college game after a tumultuous three-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly inherits a fair amount of talent and back-to-back top 25 recruiting classes. The expectations would be high no matter who UCLA hired but with Kelly, they are even higher. His first task is to completely rebuild the Bruins’ run offense and defense which was outrushed by 174 ypg last season. He must also find a replacement for quarterback Josh Rosen who single-handedly kept UCLA semi-competitive last season. Kelly obviously has extensive knowledge of the Pac-12 and does a great job at maximizing his talent. And despite not having the ideal quarterback to fit his system, I trust UCLA will find ways to move the football. The real issue comes on defense as last year’s unit was one of the nation’s worst at tackling and ultimately checked out on former head coach Jim Mora. Will Kelly will be as motivated as past seasons? Despite the paycheck, this is a step back. I could very easily see one of two outcomes: Kelly struggles and eventually bails or Kelly succeeds and parlays it into another NFL gig.
Mario Cristobal – Oregon
This is the biggest opportunity Cristobal will ever have as a head coach. A master recruiter and well-traveled coordinator on both sides of the ball, he’s a change of pace from what we’ve grown to expect from the Oregon program. Like Alabama, Cristobal likes to play it close to the vest, control the ball, and play for field position. He’ll do so with arguably the best quarterback in the country in Justin Herbert and a top five defensive coordinator in Jim Leavitt. I currently have the Ducks power rated as a top 20 team despite the fact that their recruiting and quality of depth have slipped severely over the last three seasons. It’s tough for programs to immediately bounce back after going through three head coaches in three years. That said, if Herbert can stay healthy and Leavitt is given the keys to the defense, there’s a lot of upside in Eugene.
Jonathan Smith – Oregon State
The epitome of a long-term hire, Smith is starting from scratch. He inherits zero all-conference selections, multiple subpar recruiting classes, and a JUCO starting quarterback. Calling this Year Zero is an understatement. Smith however has the ideal pedigree having played quarterback at Oregon State and coached under Chris Peterson at Boise State and Washington. It’s difficult to peg exactly how Smith will approach this season. He was fairly conservative as a play caller at Washington though that was likely influenced by Peterson. And like a lot of first-year coaches dealing with a total rebuild, the focus to win or even stay competitive will at times take a backseat to the development of younger players. Catching +37 in Week 1 at Ohio State tells us all we need to know about what the betting markets think about the Beavers.
Jeremy Pruitt – Tennessee
It has to hurt a bit that many of your peers passed on this gig and you’ve been labeled a “safe hire.” Pruitt’s best attribute is that he fixes and builds great defensive lines. Tennessee ranked 126th nationally in run defense efficiency a season ago. I’m onboard with the concept that the Volunteers will improve at stopping the run. But outside of that, there are a slew of concerns. For one, Pruitt has never coached on offense. And he’s going to war in the SEC with former Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst. Chryst lost his job despite working behind a great offensive line and handing the ball off to Bryce Love. Pruitt also inked a handful of JUCO recruits which suggests there’s a desire to win now rather than build towards to the future. The problem is there isn’t enough talent to win now and what Pruitt does inherit needs time to develop. When you’ve lost three straight to rival Vanderbilt, it’s more than a quick fix. I have a feeling I’ll be on the opposite side of Tennessee for a number of games this season.
Jimbo Fisher – Texas A&M
My, how fast things can change. In 2013, I rated Fisher as the top coach in the country. Now he resides outside the top 30. Fisher gets labeled as a defensive-minded coach and recruiter but his stop units at Florida State have eroded over the last few seasons. It was also alarming how quick he lost last year’s FSU team. And despite a wealth of talent afforded to him on a yearly basis, Fisher’s offenses can hardly be considered innovative. Nevertheless, Texas A&M decided to ink him to a 10-year, $75 million deal. He’ll be able to recruit in College Station and inherits a very experienced defense and two blue-chip quarterbacks. In the end, A&M basically traded the offense of Kevin Sumlin for the defense of Fisher. The results may end up being not all too different.
Herm Edwards – Arizona State
The oddest hire I have encountered in 12 years of researching coaches. ASU fired Todd Graham who recruited well, beat rival Arizona, and also took down Washington who was ranked no. 2 at the time. But it all made sense when Edwards’ agent was named AD in December. Edwards is 64 years old and hasn’t coached any form of football in over a decade. He hasn’t been on the sidelines of a college game since 1989 and sounds completely dated and lost during his press conferences. The guy openly admitted that coaching again never crossed his mind before somehow stumbling upon a power conference gig. Quarterback Manny Wilkins and wide receiver N’Keal Harry provide all-conference-level talent but there are already rumblings the offense will be far more conservative. Edwards has some pieces but what he does with them is up for debate. An obvious situation where I’ll be looking to bet against early and often.
Read all four installments evaluating new hires for the 2018 college football season:
Part 1: Power Conference Coaching Changes
Part 3: Mid-Major Coaching Changes
Part 4: Non-Power 5 New Hires