The biggest names hired in the last coaching cycle had mixed results, ranging from Nebraska’s 4-8 season under Scott Frost to Florida’s 10-3 campaign under Dan Mullen. The first season of a new head coach’s tenure doesn’t make or break his future at the school, as long as there’s positive momentum in years two, three and four – assuming he gets that much time.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest coaching hires from last offseason, how they fared in Year 1 and what their outlook is entering their second season at their respective schools.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
2018 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
2018 recruiting class ranking: 17th
2019 recruiting class ranking: 3rd
Fisher led Texas A&M to a 9-4 season, the school’s second-best record since it joined the SEC in 2012 – tying the Aggies’ record in 2013 and second only to their 11-2 campaign the year prior.
The Jimbo Fisher era nearly started with a bang last September as Texas A&M pushed No. 2 Clemson in College Station before falling 28-26.
While losing a three-possession game to a conference foe is hardly a moral victory in the slightest, Texas A&M’s 45-23 loss to No. 1 Alabama was the Crimson Tide’s closest game prior to the SEC Championship.
The Aggies finished the season ranked No. 16 in the final AP Top 25 Poll after starting the season unranked and they had wins over No. 13 Kentucky and No. 7 LSU during the regular season, giving Fisher a couple of signature wins in Year 1.
The biggest impediment for Texas A&M in Year 2 under Fisher is likely the Aggies’ schedule, which includes road games at Clemson, Georgia and LSU. All three schools are going to start next season ranked in the top 10 with the Tigers returning most of their key offensive players from their national title team, and the Bulldogs will likely be the favorites in the SEC East. Texas A&M will host Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State.
Fisher and his staff have recruited at an incredibly high level for the 2019 season with the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, including a pair of five-star linemen in offensive tackle Kenyon Green and defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal.
Texas A&M will face the difficult task of replacing First-Team All-SEC running back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jace Sternberger. Williams set the school’s single-season rushing record and Sternberger led the team in receptions (48), receiving yards (832) and touchdowns (10).
But quarterback Kellen Mond, who threw for 3,107 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore, will be back to lead an Aggies offense that ranked 16th nationally in efficiency last season, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings.
Scott Frost, Nebraska
2018 record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)
2018 recruiting class ranking: 23rd
2019 recruiting class ranking: 22nd
Nebraska football is like the Rorschach test in the sense that how one sees the Huskers depends on the subject’s unique perspective. They started last season 0-6, including a home loss to Troy, and two of their four wins were against Bethune-Cookman (FCS) and Big Ten cellar dweller Illinois.
However, Nebraska won four of its final six games, pushed Ohio State in a 36-31 loss on the road and now have 25/1 odds to win the national title next season, which are the eighth-best odds in the country.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost went 6-7 in his first season at UCF before leading the Knights to a 13-0 record the following season, so while the Huskers aren’t expected to go undefeated next season, they’ll surely improve in Year 2.
See how reasonable minds can disagree about Nebraska?
Nebraska currently has the fourth-best 2019 recruiting class in the Big Ten, headlined by four-star inside linebacker Nick Henrich and four-star running back Wandale Robinson, behind only Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. The Huskers’ 2018 class, which included dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez, held the same standing in the conference, so if Frost can continue to recruit at a level that’s only bested by Big Ten East powers, Nebraska can reasonably expect to contend for the Big Ten West in the near future.
Martinez was named the team’s starter as a true freshman last August, and he had a productive first season in Lincoln, completing almost 65 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was the team’s second-leading rusher with 629 yards and eight touchdowns, behind senior running back Devine Ozigbo, whose carries will likely be given to Martinez’s classmate Maurice Washington in 2019.
JD Spielman, an All-Big Ten selection who had 66 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore, will give Martinez a No. 1 target, and All-Big Ten defensive back Dicaprio Bootle will be the team’s most talented returning player on that side of the ball.
Nebraska should be pleased with its 2019 schedule. Two of the Huskers’ three games against teams in the Big Ten East are against Indiana and Maryland. You can make the case that they’ll play their four toughest opponents – Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa – at home, so if Nebraska were to take a UCF-in-2017-esque jump in Frost’s second season, maybe it can contend for a spot in the Big Ten Championship.
Chip Kelly, UCLA
2018 record: 3-9 (3-6 Pac-12)
2018 recruiting class ranking: 19th
2019 recruiting class ranking: 48th
UCLA experienced a three-game drop-off in the win column in Chip Kelly’s first season in L.A as the program went 3-9 one year after a 6-7 campaign. The Bruins’ non-conference schedule last season was actually tougher in hindsight than it was in the moment as they faced a College Football Playoff team in Oklahoma and two Group of Five teams that finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25 in Cincinnati and Fresno State.
Kelly went 10-3 in his first season at Oregon in 2009 and it will clearly take longer for UCLA to get rolling, even in a Pac-12 that’s currently experiencing a down period. The Bruins’ offense ranked 67th in terms of efficiency last season and they were even worse on defense at No. 103 nationally.
Kelly recruited Michigan transfer Wilton Speight at quarterback, but he was limited to just seven games due to a back injury and he threw as many interceptions as he did touchdowns on the season. Junior running back Joshua Kelley, the team’s featured back who rushed for 1,243 yards, 5.5 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns, could declare for the NFL Draft, which would be a major hit in Kelly’s rebuild at UCLA.
While there’s still time to improve, UCLA’s 2019 recruiting class has been a disappointment, ranking 48th nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, just one season after the Bruins signed a top-20 class. UCLA only had two players on the All-Pac-12 First- or Second-Team last season and if Kelly isn’t enrolling top talent at the university, the Bruins may not be able to capitalize on playing in the winnable Pac-12 South.
Their 2019 schedule may not do them any favors, either. UCLA travels to Cincinnati for a Week 1 matchup and it hosts Oklahoma in Week 3. While the Bruins avoid playing defending Pac-12 champion Washington, they have to travel to Washington State, Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC. Stanford and USC both had down seasons in 2018, but it’s unlikely they both finish outside of the AP Top 25 again next season.
Dan Mullen, Florida
2018 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
2018 recruiting class ranking: 14th
2019 recruiting class ranking: 11th
Florida appears to have made the right coaching hire last offseason, when it hired former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. The Gators went 10-3 last season – their highest win total in four seasons – and they throttled a top-10 Michigan team in the Peach Bowl. Just over a decade removed from winning two national championships in three seasons, Florida has dreams of winning the SEC East, playing for the SEC Championship and contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but for Year 1 of the Mullen era, a 10-3 season was a success.
Florida is still chasing Georgia, which won the SEC East for the second year in a row and beat the Gators by 19 in Jacksonville last season, but beating a top-five LSU team at home and a ranked Mississippi State team on the road are encouraging signs. The Gators’ 41-14 win at Florida State in Week 13 will also earn Mullen credibility with the fan base.
The Gators were efficient on both sides of the ball last season with a No. 21 offensive efficiency and a No. 23 defensive efficiency nationally, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings. They’ll lose First-Team All-SEC edge rusher Jachai Polite to the NFL Draft, but All-SEC cornerback CJ Henderson will be back.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks completed almost five percent more of his passes and threw for 1,000 more yards as a sophomore, posting a 24-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio a year after throwing nine touchdowns to eight picks. If Franks can take another leap in his junior year, the return of running back Lamical Perine (826 yards, 7 TD) should offset the loss of Jordan Scarlett in the Gators’ ground game.
Florida has five big games that are away from home next season – vs. Miami in Orlando, vs. Georgia in Jacksonville and at Kentucky, LSU and Missouri – but it has bye weeks before it faces both Georgia and Florida State. After their bowl win, the Gators will enter the 2019 season with lots of hype and likely a top-10 preseason ranking, but it’ll be the game against Georgia, Florida’s SEC standing and its chase of its first-ever playoff appearance that will determine how valid the buzz is this offseason.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
2018 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
2018 recruiting class ranking: 21st
2019 recruiting class ranking: 16th
Tennessee finished a game shy of bowl eligibility in the first year of Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure after the Volunteers fell short of a sixth win in Weeks 12 and 13. Tennessee beat No. 21 Auburn on the road and No. 11 Kentucky at home after going 0-4 against ranked teams in 2017.
After former Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky, Pruitt hired Georgia’s Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator, a role he previously held at Tennessee from 2009 to 2012. His job is to provide a spark to an offense that averaged just 22.8 points per game last season, which ranked 108th nationally.
Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano improved in his second season, completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,907 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, but Tennessee was one of four SEC teams to average less than 200 yards through the air per game.
While the Volunteers have challenging crossover games next season against the SEC West (home against Mississippi State and at Alabama), five of their first six games are at home and they have a bye week before facing Georgia in Week 6. They have eight home games in 2019, so the expectation should be for the Vols to make a bowl game and improve upon their last-place finish in the SEC East.
Tennessee’s recent recruiting classes have ranked in the middle of the pack in the SEC. Butch Jones’ final recruiting class ranked seventh in the SEC. Pruitt’s first two recruiting classes have ranked eighth and seventh in the conference, respectively, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
The school’s highest-rated 2019 recruit is five-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris, who’s joined by eight four-star recruits heading into the spring. Tennessee could use an influx of talent after not having a single player make the All-SEC First- or Second-Team on offense or defense, as voted on by the conference’s head coaches.