Dan Mullen's familiarity with the SEC should help him navigate his first season as Florida's head coach
The head coaching landscape has certainly changed in the SEC. Five schools - Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Texas A&M - hired new head coaches this offseason while a sixth (Ole Miss) removed the interim tag from Matt Luke's title.
While the addition of a national championship-winning head coach like Jimbo Fisher certainly raises the profile of the conference's coaching fraternity so does the arrival of some of the up-and-comers in the profession - namely Joe Moorhead, Chad Morris and Jeremy Pruitt. The last of the "new" faces is a familiar one, as Dan Mullen has returned to Gainesville looking to build Florida back into a title contender.
But while there's plenty of excitement surrounding these changes, their task remains the same - win enough games to keep your job. Alabama is the defending national champion, Georgia has its sights on getting back to the College Football Playoff and Auburn makes it a third SEC team with title aspirations.
So which SEC first-year head coach will make the most of their debut? We posed this question to Athlon's editors and contributors to find out which is their favorite to make the strongest first impression.
Which First-Year SEC Head Coach Will Have the Most Success in 2018?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State will have the most success of the first-year coaches in the SEC. The Bulldogs are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, returning 16 starters from last season’s team that won nine games. There will certainly be a transition period for Moorhead as he moves from coordinator to head coach, and the players will have to adapt to a new staff and schemes on both sides of the ball. But considering the success Moorhead had with Penn State’s offense, he should be able to maximize Nick Fitzgerald’s talent at quarterback and improve a passing attack that finished last in the SEC in 2017. Coordinator Bob Shoop inherits two of the SEC’s top linemen in Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, giving Mississippi State a relentless pass rush to help take the pressure of a secondary that features some turnover at cornerback. Road trips to LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Kansas State are challenging, but the Bulldogs host Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida. Another nine-win season is within reach for Mississippi State.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Texas A&M hit the proverbial home run in luring Jimbo Fisher to College Station. Florida did the same in bringing Dan Mullen back to Gainesville, while Mississippi State did very well in landing his replacement, Joe Moorhead. I really don't have a problem with any of the hires made in the SEC this offseason, but I think Fisher, Mullen and Moorhead are the best positioned when it comes to enjoying success in their debuts.
However, among that impressive trio, I have to eliminate Fisher because of the Aggies' schedule (hello again, Clemson). So between Mullen and Moorhead, who gets the nod? I lean the former because of his familiarity with the SEC and slightly friendlier schedule that features seven home games. In fact, the toughest true road game for Mullen's Gators could end up being his return to Starkville. How's that for irony?
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
While I wouldn't put it past the most accomplished coaches on the list (Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen) to surprise in their debut campaigns, the obvious pick would be the league outsider in Joe Moorhead. He's the only one to inherit a quarterback who's played at a high level in the conference and he will likely field the best defense of the group as well. Add in a manageable schedule and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the Bulldogs won 10 games, which should easily top this list.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
While the outlook for Joe Moorhead and Chad Morris at Mississippi State and Arkansas, respectively, is enticing, Dan Mullen may be in the best spot to see some recognizable success out of the gates in his new job this season. All of the pieces may not be in place for Mullen to have the Gator offense ticking to his liking right away, but this team should at least be more fun to watch when it has the football.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
Of all the new head coaches in the SEC for the 2018 season, Dan Mullen has the best shot at the greatest success in Year One. Florida is loaded with talent, and Mullen is accustomed to molding all levels of talent into winning teams. The Gators' schedule lays out well with seven home games, and two SEC road games against fellow first-year SEC coaches at Tennessee and Mississippi State. The lone non-conference road game in the regular season finale (vs. Florida State) also pits Mullen against a new head coach to his program (Willie Taggart). The big game against LSU is at home and the Georgia showdown is once again a neutral-site contest in Jacksonville. If Florida makes it past Georgia unscathed, the Gators' return to national prominence with a shot at the College Football Playoff will have happened quicker than anticipated.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
Florida's quarterback struggles are well documented, as is Dan Mullen's history of finding unheralded signal-callers and developing them into standout performers. The Gators already have a more talented roster than Mullen ever had at Mississippi State, and though most fans seem to have given up on Feleipe Franks, he has plenty of untapped potential. Specifically, Franks has a huge arm and is athletic enough to be a factor in the QB run game. It's difficult to imagine another first-year head coach making a run at a division title, but there's room to maneuver in the SEC Easy standings. Given Mullen's history, it wouldn't be a shock to see Franks take a big step forward as a third-year sophomore. And if Franks becomes an impact player, the Gators could challenge Georgia in the East.