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WINTER 2017: THE TWO WEEKS WHEN THE HIRING CYCLE WENT TO HELL
Nobody knew how things would transpire at the time, but between Nov. 25 and Dec. 7, 2017, the college football world made a series of coaching hires that have not panned out very well. Yet. (Maybe several of the guys listed below are one 50-point second half on the Palouse away from turning it all around. Dare to dream.)
With 15-17 games of hay in the barn, The Dash takes a look at where things stand for 10 Power Five hires:
Jeremy Pruitt (11), Tennessee. Hire date: Dec. 7, 2017. Grade thus far: F. We all know the sheer insanity of that Volunteers coaching search, and now we know the collateral damage from it. Tennessee is 6-10 under Pruitt, the third-worst record through 16 games of any coach in school history — J.D. DePree was 4-10-2 in 1905-06, and Johnny Majors was 5-10-1 in 1977-78. Majors, of course, turned it around and had a successful tenure in Knoxville. But it looks like Pruitt’s record will get worse before it can conceivably get better. The next three opponents for this 1-3 Tennessee team are Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama, a combined 11-1 thus far. This week could be the longest, saddest open date in Vol history.
Chad Morris (12), Arkansas. Hire date: Dec. 6, 2017. Grade thus far: F. Who could possibly have foreseen that hiring someone with a 14-23 record at SMU would not quickly translate to success in the SEC West? Morris is off to a blazing 4-12 start, made worse by the fact that he’s played a feather-bed non-conference schedule and still taken bad losses to Colorado State, North Texas and San Jose State. He’s 0-9 in SEC games, and the Razorbacks figure to be prohibitive underdogs in its seven remaining conference matchups this year. Despite playing the No. 149 schedule thus far according to the Sagarin Ratings, Arkansas is 82nd nationally in total defense. That number figures to get much worse.
Willie Taggart (13), Florida State. Hire date: Dec. 5, 2017. Grade thus far: F. A monster buyout all but guarantees Taggart a third season in 2020, but nobody will be excited about it if the current season continues the ragged course of his first 16 games. Taggart oversaw a dysfunctional 5-7 debut season, the Seminoles’ worst since the mid-70s, and the 2-2 start this year has been rife with error as well. It took a missed extra point in overtime to survive Louisiana Monroe, and there have been blown leads in every game thus far (losses to Boise State and Virginia, wins against ULM and Louisville). Of course, this year’s ACC is so bad that there is an opportunity to scrape together enough wins to go bowling.
Chip Kelly (14), UCLA. Hire date: Nov. 25, 2017. Grade thus far: D-plus. This was an F grade until the Bruins perpetrated their miraculous comeback at Washington State on Saturday night, a game that was off the charts even by #Pac12AfterDark standards. In the history of FBS football, a winless FBS team playing on the road against an undefeated FBS team has never stormed back from 32 down to win. But prior to that epic moment, Kelly’s UCLA record stood at 3-12, with an 0-4 record against non-Power Five opponents. We’ll see whether there’s any carryover from PalousePalooza this week at Arizona, which is led by its own currently undistinguished second-year head coach, Kevin Sumlin (hired in January 2018).
Matt Luke (15), Mississippi. Hire date: Nov. 26, 2017. Grade thus far: C. This was another questionable SEC West hire that has turned out questionably. True, Ole Miss was fairly toxic at the time Luke was elevated from interim to permanent head coach, and playing in the toughest division in America can discourage interest from qualified coaches, and a bunch of players hit the transfer market. But the school’s investment in big-game coordinators this past offseason (Rich Rodriguez on offense, Mike MacIntyre on defense) hasn’t translated too well on the field. To date, Luke is 7-9 with his only two SEC wins coming against Chad Morris and Arkansas.
Jimbo Fisher (16), Texas A&M. Hire date: Dec. 1, 2017. Grade thus far: C. He was given a $75 million contract, and elevated expectations tend to come with that amount of loot. So far, those expectations have not been met. It’s hard to look at the remaining schedule this year and see anything better than 7-5, which is a regression from last year’s 9-4. Still, the only major disappointment to date was Saturday, when the Aggies laid a large egg at home against Auburn, a team A&M needs to beat to move up the SEC West pecking order. In both that game and at Clemson on Sept. 7, Jimbo’s offense scored three points in the first three quarters.
Scott Frost (17), Nebraska. Hire date: Dec. 2, 2017. Grade thus far: C. The Second Season Kool-Aid was chugged not just in the state of Nebraska but by preseason Top 25 voters, who mystifyingly ranked the Cornhuskers coming off last year’s 4-8 muddle. The transformation he worked in Year 2 at UCF is not yet translated to Lincoln. Nebraska blew a big lead at Colorado and needed a big rally to beat Illinois on Saturday. Frost is 0-2 against the Buffaloes, has a loss to Troy on the résumé and is 4-6 in Big Ten play. Upsetting Ohio State this week would certainly change the grade and put the Kool-Aid cups back on the table.
Herm Edwards (18), Arizona State. Hire date: Dec. 3, 2017. Grade thus far: B-plus. Not many people thought this would work, but so far it’s working pretty well. A two-game sweep of Michigan State added credibility to the Herm Era, though both seasons it was followed by an upset loss (San Diego State last year, Colorado on Saturday). The 2018 Sun Devils were the school’s best scoring defense since 2012, and this year’s unit is on pace to improve again. Edwards gets an opportunity to increase his stock — and further diminish the Pac-12’s stock — at unbeaten California on Friday.
Josh Heupel (19), UCF. Hire date: Dec. 5, 2017. Grade thus far: A. He’s 15-2 at the moment, but just suffered his first regular-season loss as a head coach at Pittsburgh. That wasn’t a bad loss — the Panthers are pretty good and it was on the road, by a single point — and the Knights pulled themselves out of a 21-0 hole to take the lead before Pitt rallied. Heupel has kept the UCF train rolling despite having to play quarterback roulette — he’s gone with true freshman Dillion Gabriel the last three games, his fourth starting QB in the last seven games going back to 2018.
Dan Mullen (20), Florida. Hire date: Nov. 26, 2017. Grade thus far: A. Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin was french-kissed by fate in November 2017. He pursued but failed to land both Kelly and Frost, and instead wound up with one of the best third-choice hires in a while. Mullen is 14-3 in Gainesville, with blowouts of rivals Tennessee (twice) and Florida State and a bowl rout of Michigan. His offense has arguably been better since the season-ending injury to starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, with backup Kyle Trask leading a rally at Kentucky and playing well (two interceptions aside) against the Volunteers on Saturday. But the schedule beefs up soon: Auburn Oct. 5, at LSU Oct. 12, Georgia in Jacksonville Nov. 2.
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