Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2018

Examining which first-year coaches did the best job in 2018

The 2018 college football season featured 21 new coaches at FBS programs, and with the year completed, it's time to grade and rank the hires. The 21 coaching changes were down slightly from the 2017 season, as 23 different programs had a change in the full-time role. It’s no secret coaching changes can have an instant impact on a program, but some hires need a couple of years to rebuild a mess inherited from the previous staff. Arkansas' Chad Morris and Florida State's Willie Taggart rank low in the first-year grades and struggled in their first season, but both have a better outlook for 2019 and beyond. However, on the other side of the grades, Florida's Dan Mullen, Georgia Southern's Chad Lunsford and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher take the top spots for their coaching performance in 2018.

 

With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 21 full-time coaching hires from the 2018 coaching carousel. 

 

Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2018

 

1. Dan Mullen, Florida (10-3)

Mullen pushed all of the right buttons in his first year at the helm in Gainesville. After a 4-7 record in 2017, Florida finished 10-3, showed marked improvement on offense and claimed a Peach Bowl victory over Michigan. Additionally, the Gators knocked off Mississippi State in Starkville, beat LSU 27-19 and hammered rival Florida State 41-14 in Tallahassee. Mullen is known for maximizing talent, so it was no surprise the offense took a big step forward last fall. Florida averaged 6.2 yards a play (an increase from 5.2 in 2017) and 35 points a game (up from 22.1). Additionally, the Gators scored 28 times through the air, which is the most since 2009 (28). With Mullen at the controls, along with a strong core of talent in place for 2019, Florida has a good chance to start next season in the top 10 of most preseason polls.

Grade: A

 

2. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern (10-3)

Lunsford earned the full-time job in Statesboro after guiding the Eagles to back-to-back wins late in the 2017 season. And the decision to promote Lunsford certainly paid big-time dividends for Georgia Southern in 2018, as the program once again emerged as a Sun Belt title contender. The Eagles finished 10-3 – an eight-game jump from the previous year and also the biggest increase in the nation. Georgia Southern’s rushing attack returned to the No. 1 ranking in the Sun Belt, while the defense cut its points per game allowed from 32.2 in 2017 to 21.5 in ’18. Lunsford guided the team to wins over Arkansas State, Appalachian State and a postseason victory against Eastern Michigan in the Camellia Bowl.

Final Grade: A

 

3. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Texas A&M made the biggest splash of any team in last year’s coaching carousel. And after one season, the Aggies’ $75 million investment in Fisher looks like a wise decision. Fisher guided Texas A&M to a 9-4 record in his first year in College Station and nearly scored a huge upset win over Clemson (28-26) in Week 2. The Aggies defeated LSU for the first time since joining the SEC, beat Kentucky in overtime and finished No. 18 in the S&P rankings – a significant jump from the No. 61 rank in 2017. Fisher is regarded for his work on offense and with quarterbacks, so it was no surprise Kellen Mond had a breakout year, as Texas A&M improved its yards per play from 5.5 in ’17 to 6.3 in ’18.

Final Grade: A

 

4. Josh Heupel, UCF (12-1)

Heupel ensured UCF was a factor on the national level once again in 2018. After a 13-0 mark under Scott Frost in 2017, the Knights went 12-1, claimed the AAC title and earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl under Heupel’s watch. A season-ending leg injury to quarterback McKenzie Milton in November added a major obstacle to Heupel’s first season, but the offense performed at a high level behind backup Darriel Mack. UCF has a few holes to fill for 2019, but Heupel has this program positioned as the favorite to play in a New Year’s Six bowl once again.

Final Grade: A

 

5. Scott Frost, Nebraska (4-8)

Frost returned to his alma mater with high expectations in 2018. While the final record was only 4-8, it’s clear Nebraska is trending in the right direction. The Cornhuskers started 0-6 but finished 4-2 in the second half of the season. Of Nebraska’s eight losses, five came by a touchdown or less, including defeats to Troy, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa – a combined 41-13 last season. Also, the Cornhuskers ranked No. 56 in the final S&P rankings – a significant increase from a No. 103 finish in 2017.

Final Grade: B+

 

6. Herm Edwards, Arizona State (7-6)

Edwards exceeded all preseason expectations in his first year at the helm in Tempe. The hire of Edwards was met with a lot of skepticism (and criticism), but Arizona State finished 7-6 overall and second in the Pac-12 South at 5-4. En route to the seven-win season, Arizona State picked up victories against Michigan State, USC, Utah, UCLA, and rival Arizona. Additionally, all of the Sun Devils’ six losses came by 11 points or less. Under Edwards and coordinator Danny Gonzales, the defense showed solid improvement. Arizona State gave up 32.8 points a game and 6.3 yards a play in 2017. Those totals fell to 25.5 a contest and 5.7 a snap in ’18. Edwards will be tested once again in 2019, as the Sun Devils have to replace quarterback Manny Wilkins and All-Pac-12 receiver N’Keal Harry.

Final Grade: B+

 

7. Billy Napier, Louisiana (7-7)

Napier brought an impressive resume to Lafayette after working as an assistant at Alabama, Clemson and Arizona State. And Napier’s background on offense certainly paid off for the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2018, as a unit that averaged 6.6 yards a play (best in the Sun Belt) was the driving force behind the team’s division title. Louisiana started slow, as the program had to navigate non-conference matchups against Mississippi State and Alabama in September. But the Ragin’ Cajuns finished 2018 by winning six out of their last 10 games, including a road matchup at rival ULM and a 47-43 victory against Arkansas State. Of those four losses, three came against Appalachian State (twice) and Troy – the Sun Belt’s top teams in 2018.

Final Grade: B

 

8. Mario Cristobal, Oregon (9-4)

The Ducks have had good fortune in promoting from within to fill head coaching vacancies in the past, and Cristobal’s tenure in Eugene is off to a strong start after a 9-4 mark in 2018. Oregon opened 5-1 overall, which included a win over Pac-12 champion Washington and an overtime defeat to Stanford (38-31). Cristobal’s team suffered road defeats against Washington State, Arizona and Utah in the second half of 2018 but knocked off Arizona State and beat Michigan State in a low-scoring (7-6) Redbox Bowl. The Ducks will have a chance to fly even higher in 2019, as quarterback Justin Herbert is slated to return for his senior year. And that wasn’t all of the good news in Eugene this offseason. Oregon reeled in a standout 2019 recruiting class to help with a few personnel losses on both sides of the ball.

Final Grade: B

 

9. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (5-7)

After a lengthy coaching search last fall, Tennessee’s quest to find Butch Jones’ replacement eventually landed on Pruitt. After successful stints as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama, it was clear Pruitt was ready for this opportunity. The Volunteers showed some signs of life in Pruitt’s debut. Tennessee ranked No. 107 in the S&P rankings for 2017 but finished No. 88 in ’18. The Volunteers pulled off upsets against Auburn and Kentucky and lost at South Carolina by three points. Pruitt didn’t inherit a perfect roster on defense, but there were small signs of improvement. Tennessee allowed 5.67 yards a play (down from 5.94) and held opponents to 27.9 points a contest (down from 29.1). However, the Volunteers averaged only 22.8 points a game. The addition of veteran play-caller Jim Chaney should help this unit, while another standout recruiting class will add depth and talent to the roster this offseason. Pruitt has Tennessee moving in the right direction. However, it might be another year before this program shows marked improvement in the win column.

Final Grade: B-

 

10. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State (8-5)

Moorhead inherited one of the best situations for a first-year coach in 2018. Mississippi State returned 16 starters from a program that finished 9-4 in ’17. The Bulldogs nearly matched their win total from 2017 in ’18 but fell short after a loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Mississippi State started 3-0 and picked up key SEC wins against Auburn, Texas A&M and Ole Miss to reach eight overall. The Bulldogs were led by a strong defense, which limited teams to just 13.2 points a game and 4.13 yards a play. However, Moorhead’s side of the ball (offense) struggled to put the pieces into place last fall. Mississippi State scored seven or fewer points in each of its four SEC losses and watched its average drop from 26.3 in ’17 to 19.3 a contest in conference-only matchups.

Final Grade: B-

 

11. Sean Lewis, Kent State (2-10)

After five consecutive losing seasons under Paul Haynes, Kent State handed the keys to the program to Lewis. The former Syracuse assistant was the nation’s youngest coach (31) last year, but Lewis brought some much-needed energy into the program. Kent State finished 2-10 and No. 120 nationally in the S&P (up from 126) but also lost by just seven to Illinois, by one to Ohio and Akron, and by eight to Eastern Michigan. The Golden Flashes showed marked improvement on offense. After averaging just 12.8 points a game and 4.4 yards a play, Kent State increased those totals to 23.9 per contest and 5.04 in ’18.

Final Grade: C+

 

12. Chip Kelly, UCLA (3-9)

With a major change in scheme and roster holes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that featured non-conference games against Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Fresno State wasn’t very forgiving for Kelly in his first year in Westwood. UCLA opened 2018 with an 0-5 mark but eventually rallied with three wins – California, Arizona and USC – over its last seven contests. Additionally, of the Bruins’ nine defeats, four came by 10 points or less. With a good chunk of the roster returning, UCLA should show improvement in Kelly’s second year at the helm. In addition to generating more out of his high-powered offense, the Bruins have to improve a defense that has finished 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed for back-to-back seasons.

Final Grade: C+

 

13. Dana Dimel, UTEP (1-11)

UTEP was the only team to not win a game in 2017 and opened the ’18 season on an eight-game losing streak. However, the news wasn’t all bad for Dimel in his first year at the helm. The Miners snapped their 20-game losing mark by defeating Rice 34-26 on Nov. 3. While the final record for Dimel’s debut was 1-11, this team was more competitive than the previous year, as UTEP lost four games by 10 points or less. Additionally, the Miners averaged 4.92 yards a play (up from 4.09) and posted 17.7 points a contest (up from 11.8). After allowing 6.24 yards a play in ’17, UTEP cut that total to 5.94 in Dimel’s first year. The Miners bottomed out in 2017, so small signs of progress are a step in the right direction for Dimel as he looks to rebuild this program in '19 and beyond.

Final Grade: C

 

14. Sonny Dykes, SMU (5-7)

A brutal schedule welcomed Dykes in his first full year at SMU, as the Mustangs played at North Texas, Michigan and UCF and hosted TCU and Navy through the first six games of 2018. Despite the 2-4 start, SMU rallied over the second half of the year and picked up wins against Tulane, Houston and UConn and lost to Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa by no more than 10 points each. As a result of the two-win regression from the previous year, the Mustangs fell from No. 67 in 2017 to No. 96 in S&P ratings for ’18.

Final Grade: C

 

15. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State (2-10)

Smith returned to his alma mater after Oregon State finished 1-11 in 2017. And as expected in Smith’s debut, the 2018 season showed the Beavers have a long climb back to a bowl game. Oregon State gave up 77 points in its opener to Ohio State, and thanks to a furious second-half rally, scored its only Pac-12 victory against Colorado on Oct. 27. However, outside of the win against the Buffaloes and a non-conference victory versus FCS opponent Southern Utah, only one other game (Nevada) was decided by less than 17 points. Smith’s offense did take a step forward by averaging 26.1 points a game (up from 20.7 in ’17). But the defense gave up a whopping 281.8 rushing yards a contest and ranked last in the Pac-12 by surrendering 45.7 points a game. With a relatively young roster, combined with the addition of a couple of impact transfers, Smith’s 2019 team should show some progress in the win column.

Final Grade: C-

 

16. Steve Campbell, South Alabama (3-9)

The 2018 season was the first time Campbell recorded a losing mark in his 17-year career as a head coach. The 3-9 record in Mobile wasn’t a surprise, as South Alabama was picked by Athlon Sports to finish No. 112 nationally in the preseason. The Jaguars knocked off Texas State, Alabama State and Coastal Carolina but only two other games were decided by 10 points or less. South Alabama showed small signs of improvement on offense from its 2017 version, but the defense was gashed 38.8 points a game and 6.7 yards a play. Campbell is set to lose a handful of key players, so the 2019 season could be another rebuilding year.

Final Grade: C-

 

17. Matt Luke, Ole Miss (5-7)

Luke was promoted to the full-time role in Oxford after leading Ole Miss to a 6-6 record as the team’s interim coach in 2017. The former offensive lineman for the Rebels inherited a tough situation, as the program was ineligible to compete for a bowl in 2018 and a handful of players – namely Shea Patterson and Van Jefferson – left the team to play elsewhere prior to last fall. Scoring points certainly wasn’t a problem for Ole Miss in 2018. The Rebels averaged 33.9 a game and 7.1 yards a play. However, the scoring average slipped to just 22 points a contest in SEC play. After giving up 34.6 points a game in 2017, the defense was even worse in ’18. Ole Miss allowed 36.2 points a contest and 6.3 yards a play (6.8 in SEC games). Luke took steps to address the defense by hiring Mike MacIntyre as the new coordinator, while former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez will take control of the offense.

Final Grade: C-

 

18. Mike Bloomgren, Rice (2-11)

Rice is one of the toughest jobs in college football, and Bloomgren inherited a rebuilding project coming off three consecutive losing records under former coach David Bailiff. The Owls barely escaped with a win over FCS opponent Prairie View in the 2018 season opener and did not win again until the finale against Old Dominion. Of Rice’s 11 losses, only one came by less than 10 points. Injuries hit the quarterback position hard, which limited the offense to just 18.9 points a contest. The Owls also allowed 6.89 yards a play on defense and surrendered 23 plays of 40 yards or more. Bloomgren is a good fit for the program, but as evidenced by his 2018 debut, he’s going to need a few years to rebuild the on-field product.

Final Grade: C-

 

19. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona (5-7)

With 17 returning starters – including quarterback Khalil Tate – and a favorable schedule, Arizona had high expectations in Sumlin’s first year. However, those high hopes of a division title quickly fizzled. An early-season ankle injury to Tate limited his explosiveness on the ground, and the Wildcats gave up 30 points a game on defense for the fourth consecutive year. While Sumlin’s debut was a disappointment, Arizona brings back a good chunk of its roster and Tate will be back at full strength.

Final Grade: D

 

20. Chad Morris, Arkansas (2-10)

Transitioning from Bret Bielema’s style of play to Morris’ spread attack on offense is going to require an adjustment period for the Razorbacks. Arkansas finished 2-10 in Morris’ debut but also blew fourth-quarter leads against Colorado State and Ole Miss. The Razorbacks ranked last in the SEC in scoring (21.7 ppg) and allowed more than 30 points a contest for the third consecutive year. Thanks to a favorable non-conference schedule, Arkansas should improve in the win column next fall. However, in order for Morris to move this program forward, solidifying the quarterback position and the offensive line remain a top priority.

Final Grade: D

 

21. Willie Taggart, Florida State (5-7)

Taggart inherited a mess along the offensive line, so it’s unfair to pin all of Florida State’s 2018 record on his watch. However, the program finished with a losing record for the first time since 1976 and watched a 36-year bowl streak also end. The Seminoles lost just one of their seven games by less than 18 points, ranked 13th in the ACC in scoring offense and allowed 31.5 points a contest. With better depth in the trenches and another year to implement his style of play on offense (along with the addition of play-caller Kendal Briles), Taggart should have Florida State back in a bowl next fall.

Final Grade: D

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