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Grading the Hires of the 2017 College Football Coaching Carousel

On the eve of bowl season, we’ve had nothing to entertain us for the past few weeks besides coaching hires—and oh, how entertaining they have been. Nearly three weeks into the frenzy, only Louisiana-Lafayette and Kent State (which reportedly interviewed Lincoln Riley’s 28-year-old brother this week) have jobs to fill. Now that the contracts have been inked and daily life in Knoxville has resumed, it’s time to take a step back and grade this year’s hires.

We’re doing this with a custom-made rubric, based on five criteria that I’ll lay out below. Each is ranked on a scale of 1 (the worst) to 5 (the best) and averaged, yielding our final rating.

Splash quotient: This looks at the reaction to the hire from media, fans, players, anyone. Did people like it, hate it, even realize it happened?

Geography: We’re talking recruiting, connections (be it to the school, the region, the conference), anything that might make a coach fit in culturally.

Stylistic fit: How smooth will the transition be to this coach’s system? How much does his system make sense given his new school’s recent identity?

Execution: This takes into account the ease and professionalism with which each program made its hire. Was there drama? Miscommunications? Civic unrest?

Instant impact: How safely can this team expect to be significantly better than—or, for the best teams on the list, at the same elite level as—it was this year in 2018?

With that, let’s get into the grades, starting with this year’s best hire.

Nebraska: Scott Frost (4.6 out of 5)

Splash quotient: 5
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 5

The former UCF coach led the Knights to an undefeated regular season in 2017, was Nebraska’s quarterback in 1996 and ‘97, winning a share of the national title in his second year. He’s a native of Lincoln, too. This couldn’t look any better on paper.

Frost was the obvious choice at Nebraska, but the timing of the announcement was impeccable, as the two sides waited until the Knights won the American Athletic Conference championship game to put out word, allowing Frost and UCF to part on good terms. (He’ll be back in black and gold to coach the Peach Bowl.)

Frost’s up-tempo offense should be a good fit with Nebraska’s personnel, especially considering the talent he should be able to recruit going forward. The Huskers had a horrendous 2017, finishing with four wins and its worst record since 1961. There’s only one path from here, and that’s improvement. Mike Riley wasn’t the right fit for the Cornhuskers, but it won’t take long to right the ship. Frost, with far fewer resources, took UCF from 0–12 the year before his arrival to 6–7 to 12–0, and if that timeline is any indication, Nebraska should be competing for its division within a year or two.

UCLA: Chip Kelly (4.4)

Splash quotient: 5
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

UCLA has never been known for swinging big in coaching searches, but it reversed course with this one, convincing Kelly to sign on despite advanced overtures from Florida, to the delight of fans in Westwood and college football observers who wanted Kelly back on the sidelines.

Kelly’s fast-paced offense will be a bit of a change to UCLA’s tempo, but it works, and the Bruins need something to steal the show from USC and get the attention of the top recruits in talent-rich Southern California.

UCLA will be better next season under Kelly, but it may take a few years to get the personnel in place for his offense to reach its peak. That said, in the NFL he became just the second coach to ever win his division in his first season, so it’s hard to doubt Kelly’s ability to achieve quick results.

Oregon State: Jonathan Smith (4.2)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 4

After Gary Andersen’s unexpected midseason departure left the team in lurch, handing the program over to a former fan favorite was a welcome move in Corvallis. Smith quarterbacked the Beavers to a Fiesta Bowl win following the 2000 season and has spent his entire coaching career in the Pacific Northwest, having served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Washington since 2014.

Smith is familiar with what Oregon State does well—and he affirmed that by bringing in two-time former Beavers head coach Mike Riley as associate head coach. What he did with Washington’s offense was nothing short of extraordinary, and if he can recreate some semblance of that at Oregon State, he’ll have success. Putting last year’s tumult behind it will give Oregon State an immediate boost, and getting back to its roots with Smith (and Riley in the wings) should set the tone for a return to better days. Plus, it’s not hard to improve upon 1-11.

South Alabama: Steve Campbell (4.2)

Splash quotient: 5
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 4

For a Sun Belt team, South Alabama is getting plenty of accolades for hiring Campbell, a 51-year-old who’s spent most of his career coaching at the junior college and FCS levels. That’s in large part because Campbell has never coached a losing team. The Jaguars job will be his first as a head coach at the FBS level, but that seems to be of little worry to those within the program.

Campbell has been versatile throughout his career: He’s played pro-style ball, run a no-huddle offense and even the triple-option, which will help South Alabama mold its attack to whatever talent it can mine, especially from the junior colleges where Campbell is so well-connected.

Florida State: Willie Taggart (4.0)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 4

This one makes perfect sense. Taggart has major recruiting inroads in Florida and the rest of the Southeast from his time at USF and Western Kentucky, and being a former prep standout from Bradenton doesn’t hurt, either. His name was in the conversation for the Florida State job weeks before Jimbo Fisher decided to leave, even if Taggart’s teams have never reached the heights Florida State routinely expects.

Most of the drama at Florida State came before the coaching search began, as the uncertainty over Fisher’s future dragged, but once the coach bolted to Texas A&M, the Seminoles handled their hire swiftly—although Taggart left Oregon in lurch about his future plans for several days, souring some around the program.

Florida State struggled after Deondre Francois went down this year and has been criticized for playing too traditional (read: slow) of a scheme since Jameis Winston left for the NFL. Taggart is describing his approach for the Seminoles as “lethal simplicity,” which purports to be the opposite of Fisher’s attack. If he can achieve that simple, fast-paced offense, Florida State will be on the right track, and with a roster packed with as many athletes as the Seminoles, he has the personnel to do it.

Georgia Southern: Chad Lunsford (4.0)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

For a program like Georgia Southern, making a splash in the national media probably isn’t going to happen, but Lunsford was a hit among the school’s fan base and current players. The interim for the team’s last six games, Lunsford went 2-4 but inspired loyalty in his players; he’d been the Eagles’ special teams coordinator, recruiting coordinator, tight ends coach and receivers coach in prior seasons since arriving at the school in 2013.

What happens next depends on which direction—especially offensively—Lunsford goes in once he takes over. He was on staff during the team’s success with the triple-option during the tenures of Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz, and many around the program believe a return to that offense is the key to winning going forward. Lunsford knows the ins and outs of that scheme, and should he embrace it, he might find a quick path back to success in the always-fluid Sun Belt.

Rice: Mike Bloomgren (4.0)

Splash quotient: 5
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

Bloomgren was widely applauded as a great hire for Rice, considering programs have long been hoping to lure him away from Stanford. He was widely seen as David Shaw’s heir apparent—should Shaw ever leave, that is—and has reportedly been offered jobs both at the college and NFL level in years past.

For Rice, it’s almost irrelevant what Bloomgren’s preferred playing style is. Sure, he’s led some impressive offenses at Stanford. At Rice, he’ll be starting from scratch, and perhaps what matters most is his ability to coach effectively at a school with high academic standards. He knows the ropes from Stanford, and everything he learned there will apply at Rice. Bloomgren will have a learning curve as he reshapes the Owls after a 1–11 finish, so this turnaround may take a few seasons.

UTEP: Dana Dimel (4.0)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 4

Dimel hasn’t been a head coach since 2002, but he’s spent years under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, learning from one of the most respected coaches in the game. The former Kansas State offensive coordinator has spent much of his career (20 years) in the Big 12 or old Big Eight, which means he knows how to recruit the states UTEP draws its talent from. Luring Dimel away away from Manhattan was an opportunistic move as the staff there wonders about Snyder’s succession plan and when it might begin to unfold.

Dimel knows how to take a loser and make it a winner, whether as a head coach or a coordinator, and no matter the on-field philosophy, that’s what UTEP needed. The Miners went winless in 2017, and under Dimel next year, that almost certainly won’t be the case. He was on board for a major turnaround at Kansas State and took Wyoming successfully through its transition from the WAC to the Mountain West. With his experience during higher-stakes transitions than the one at UTEP, change should be swift.

Florida: Dan Mullen (3.8)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 3

Despite being the third big name Florida considered—Chip Kelly and Scott Frost garnered plenty of early attention, then chose to go elsewhere—Mullen holds a special place in Gators fans’ hearts; he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator for Florida’s championship seasons in 2006 and ’08, before jumping to Mississippi State and bringing the Bulldogs into the national conversation. Scott Stricklin, who helped lure him to Starkville, is now Florida’s AD, making the transition as smooth as possible.

What Mullen has been able to do with quarterbacks during his time as a coordinator and head coach—see: Dak Prescott, Alex Smith—should be a welcome sight for an offense that’s foundered in recent years. This might not be as easy of a turnaround as some might predict; the Gators’ recent double-digit-win seasons were inflated by a weak SEC East that’s now on an upward trajectory. Mullen won’t be able to snap his fingers and turn this team into an SEC contender, but he should be able to get the program on the right path in short order.

Mississippi State: Joe Moorhead (3.8)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

Mississippi State got plenty of kudos for looking outside the SEC bubble to replace Dan Mullen, and deservedly so. In the past two years as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Moorhead led one of the nation’s best offenses through a schedule stacked with tough defenses. He should be plenty accustomed to SEC-caliber attacks, and the Bulldogs get credit for being more innovative than most as they move on from one of the best coaches in school history.

For a program that’s found success with dynamic, resourceful offenses, Moorhead is a perfect fit. The fact that he’s already been a head coach, albeit at FCS Fordham, as well as having coached in a Power 5 conference known for its stout defenses, bodes well for Moorhead’s ability to steer Mississippi State after a successful, if up-and-down, season.

Although the Bulldogs have shown they’re capable of double-digit wins, it’s a stretch to see them making a giant leap in 2018 from this year’s 8–4 campaign, and they don’t need to. As long as Moorhead preserves what Mullen built and keeps Mississippi State contending in the SEC, he’ll have plenty of rope at his new job.

Arkansas: Chad Morris (3.6)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 4

Arkansas getting anyone but Gus Malzahn was going to feel like a bit of a letdown, but in Morris, the Razorbacks got a coach who looks uniquely positioned to succeed where Bret Bielema failed. Before embarking on his career as a college coach—with stops at Tulsa and Clemson as an offensive coordinator and then as SMU’s head man—Morris was a long-time high school coach in Texas. A native of Edgewood, Texas and a Texas A&M graduate, he has deep ties to the state most crucial to recruiting beyond Arkansas’s border.

Morris’s teams are known for high-scoring offenses, and he’s been able to adapt his scheme to quarterbacks of different styles, which bodes well given his many options under center next year. The Razorbacks under Morris will score, which is not something they were always able to do under the previous regime.

Arkansas isn’t winning the SEC West next year, or the year after. But Morris has a track record for turnarounds—in three years at SMU, the Mustangs went from 2-10 to 5-7 to 7-5—and he’s taking Arkansas from one of its lower points in recent memory. To think the Razorbacks should be bowl eligible a year from now is reasonable, and Morris might just be the guy to bring them back to double-digit wins. Plus, he’s already making recruiting waves barely more than a week in.

Ole Miss: Matt Luke (3.6)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 3

Some were surprised when Ole Miss announced on Nov. 26 that it would retain Luke, the interim coach put in place after Hugh Freeze was ousted before the season. In a year when the Rebels self-imposed a bowl ban, Luke led them to a 6–6 record that included an Egg Bowl upset over a ranked Mississippi State team. That was a better outcome than most predicted for a team ravaged by sanctions and scandal—but the fact that Ole Miss’s athletics department had hired a search firm to look for a new coach, and that firm had settled on the guy right in front of it seemed, well, underwhelming.

It makes more sense now considering the NCAA sanctions that came down soon after Luke lost the interim tag. The Rebels have another year of a bowl ban and reduced scholarships, so they’ll be hamstrung for a few seasons recovering from the Freeze era. Luke, an Ole Miss grad, knows the territory and did well with limited resources in 2017, so it’s possible that once he has a full arsenal of recruits and support behind him, he might be able to do even more. Recruiting-wise, being the alum who stuck with the team through hard times does seem like a decent sell.

SMU: Sonny Dykes (3.6)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

In hiring Dykes, SMU went with the proven commodity over taking a shot on a new name to replace Chad Morris. Dykes spent 2017 as an offensive analyst for TCU, and he was an assistant at Texas Tech from 2000-06. Furthermore, his father, Spike Dykes, was a long-serving and successful coach for the Red Raiders for more than a decade. The Dykes name goes a long way in Texas, and that’ll work to the coach’s advantage.

SMU under Morris was known for scoring more than defense, and that’ll likely still be the case. Dykes has never been a defensive mastermind, and he’ll need to do more than talk the defensive talk (as he did in his opening press conference) if the Mustangs want to continue their slow climb up the standings in the American Athletic Conference.

Dykes now needs to take SMU from good to very good, which won’t be easy. I envision a few more six- and seven-win seasons in the future.

UCF: Josh Heupel (3.6)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 2

Heupel’s name came from out of almost nowhere, but it was met with as much optimism as surprise. Any successor for Scott Frost was going to be building off a dream season, so athletics director Danny White needed to make a smart hire. This looks like it, even if it is a bit risky. Heupel’s offense at Missouri this season was flashy and entertaining, but he’s barely three years removed from being fired at Oklahoma for a subpar offensive season.

Heupel isn’t a Florida guy—although neither was Frost, and recruiting UCF isn’t as much about shaking the best players out of the state as it is having an eye for overlooked talent. From his time with the new-to-the-SEC Tigers, he knows a thing or two about recruiting as an upstart.

UCF moved quickly and silently, announcing not only Heupel but also defensive coordinator Randy Shannon after a 48-hour coaching search. By locking Shannon down as well, the Knights added a defensive veteran to a staff led by a relatively inexperienced offensive mind. Going undefeated takes a lot of work and a lot of luck, and my money is on a bit of a dip next year. The Knights under Heupel may still be the pick to win the American in 2018; it just seems reasonable they’d do it with a loss or two.

Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt (3.2)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 1
Instant impact: 3

Any hire Tennessee made was going to face a level of national criticism after the insanity that preceded it. That said, there’s no arguing the Pruitt hire made sense on several levels. For one, the Vols’ first target, Greg Schiano, was the defensive coordinator of one of the best teams in the country. Pruitt also fits that bill, which shows (maybe?) Tennessee knew (again, maybe?) what it wanted. Hiring someone with no head coaching experience for a job as big as the Vols’ is always going to be a risk, but Pruitt has the résumé to push back against any early criticism.

Pruitt was Nick Saban’s ace recruiter at Alabama, and he knows the SEC through and through after two stints in Tuscaloosa and one at Georgia. He should be able to recruit the same territory, and if he can swing a few Alabama-level recruits, Tennessee will be well on its way.

You know what happened to get here, though. Schiano. A campus revolt. Mike Gundy? Jeff Brohm? Dave Doeren? Mike Leach? Athletic director John Currie suspended. Former coach Phillip Fulmer in to replace Currie. And finally, finally, Pruitt. This search will be a case study into how not to hire a new coach.

Butch Jones’s Tennessee teams had a lot of talent and never quite got the most out of it. That won’t fly under Pruitt, the coordinator at least partially responsible for some of Alabama’s most feared defenses of the past decade. Last season was the worst at Tennessee since 1977, so it won’t be hard for the team to improve in 2018, and even though he came after a revolving door of candidates, Pruitt—though he’ll certainly hit a few bumps as a first-year head coach—could be the guy to get Tennessee back to where it wants to be.

Oregon: Mario Cristobal (3.0)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 2
Instant impact: 4

Cristobal, named the interim coach for Oregon’s bowl game in the wake of Taggart’s protracted departure and then promoted a few days later, was part of a long list of potential hires for the Ducks, ranging from Mike Leach to Cal’s Justin Wilcox. The choice to retain him was met with large internal praise, especially among current players and the top recruits he’d signed in his first year at Oregon.

Sure, Cristobal’s roots are in the Southeast and on the East Coast, but for a recruiter of his talent, that’s almost irrelevant. within months of arriving in Eugene, Cristobal had helped Taggart put together what was at one point 2018’s No. 1 recruiting class. Cristobal is an offensive coach, which tends to work well at Oregon, and with quarterback Justin Herbert returning from injury.

This one wasn’t pulled off seamlessly, with plenty of names floated alongside Cristobal’s in the search and Taggart’s messy exit making for a rocky week in Eugene. But there will be no rebuild, only a continuation of a trajectory that’s been in large part powered by Cristobal’s recruiting. And with much of that 2018 recruiting class intact thanks to the Ducks’ decision to promote from within, big things could be in store.

Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher (2.4)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 2
Instant impact: 2

Fisher was given the biggest deal in terms of total contract value in the history of college football—so yeah, that’s a splash. The former Florida State coach didn’t exactly surprise anyone by the time he took the job in College Station, but between the Aggies’ commitment to their program and the sense that things had gone sour in Tallahassee, the hire made sense for both sides. Fisher is bringing along top recruiter Tim Brewster, but this staff will be playing recruiting catch-up as Texas looks to pull in a deep class of in-state talent.

This hire didn’t go off seamlessly, although it’s hard to blame Texas A&M so much as Fisher, who chose silence over full disclosure and ultimately resigned before his team’s regular season finale. There was the contentious radio show, the Christmas tree on the curb and the players who were forced to hear about it all secondhand.

Aggies fans and the school’s administration have high expectations for a team that’s perennially good but not as often great. Predecessor Kevin Sumlin became a star in his early years in College Station because of Johnny Manziel before settling into a frustrating routine of eight-win finishes, and there’s no Johnny Football in the wings for Fisher. Can he retool the program and recruit with the rest of A&M’s rivals? Sure. It’s just hard to see a major jump happening right away.

Arizona State: Herm Edwards (2.0)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 1
Execution: 2
Instant impact: 1

If this were a grade for the element of surprise—or merely thinking outside of the box—the Sun Devils would pass with flying colors. When the hire went public last week, most of college football was dumbfounded. Athletics director Ray Anderson emphasized the importance of finding a coach who’d retain the team’s coordinators—only one is staying—and then went on to hire a former client from his days as an agent. Edwards hasn’t coached in 10 years, and not at the college level since 1989. The Edwards news was all anyone in the college football world talked about for much of the day last Monday, and for monopolizing the conversation, the Sun Devils should get some credit.

Edwards grew up in Monterey, Calif., went to school at San Diego State and (many moons ago) coached at San Jose State, so he has ties to a region Arizona State will need to recruit well in order to succeed. In Tempe, he will be a big fish in a big pond that has plenty of other sports teams to cheer for, including the resurgent men’s hoops team. If there was an N/A option in our grading rubric, I’d use it for Stylistic Fit. Edwards has been billed as some sort of football CEO, according to a bizarre press release that read more like news of a corporate takeover than a coaching search. From that original release and his meandering introductory press conference, the idea seems to be that Edwards will motivate the team while everyone else coaches it.

The fact that Arizona State was even looking for a head coach this winter is bizarre. Former coach Todd Graham led his team to a 7–5 record in 2017 and got a top-five win over Washington, and the program looked to be on the upswing after a dip in 2016. Firing winning coaches is not something that usually works out well for programs, especially middle-of-the-pack ones like the Sun Devils, and it’s hard to see how Edwards—in whatever form his coaching approach takes—does anything more than ride some of the momentum Graham built in 2017.

FOTODELDIA- TEG30. SAN PEDRO SULA (HONDURAS), 13/12/2017.- La policía de honduras monta guardia hoy, miércoles 13 de diciembre de 2017, tras lanzar gases lacrimógenos debido a una invasión de campo de los aficionados provocada por un error arbitral en el segundo tiempo, durante la semifinal del torneo Apertura de fútbol hondureño, entre España y Marathon, en el Estadio Morazán de San Pedro Sula (Honduras). EFE/José Valle

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