Which new FBS head coaches are most likely to succeed?

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Dan Mullen, the new head football coach at the University of Florida, is introduced to the media and handful of former players and other officials during a news conference Monday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mullen was hired Sunday. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]
AP College Football Writer
Among the many emails former Tennessee athletic director John Currie received when he began to search for a coach to replace Butch Jones was one from an Alabama athletic department staffer with the subject “Head Coaching Analysis.”

It included six pages of charts, graphs, numbers and pictures that told the story of every head coach hired since 2000 by the “Top 25 historic football programs,” determined by using decades of The Associated Press rankings.

Using a weighted formula that combined winning percentage, percentage of top-10 finishes in the AP poll and percentage of seasons winning a national championship, and putting extra emphasis on the most recent five seasons, each coach’s stint at a school was given an efficiency rating.

What the numbers revealed was mostly what we already know: Nick Saban is doing great at Alabama; Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State has been excellent; and hiring Pete Carroll worked out really well for Southern California.

The numbers also showed that coaches most likely to succeed at those schools had previous Power Five head coaching experience. Also, coaches who were previously a Power Five assistant had higher efficiency ratings than coaches who were previously a head coach at a Group of Five school.

While far from scientific, the research is interesting and probably useful.

Instead of grading the newly hired head coaches in college football —a truly flawed and impossible exercise— here is another approach: A most-likely-to-succeed list that takes into account program expectations and recent history, along with that coach’s potential and fit for the job. Remember that this is a long play; last year’s most likely to succeed was Purdue’s Jeff Brohm , which looks pretty good right now but is still to be determined.

With that, the most likely to succeed list among the head coaches starting new jobs in 2018:

1. Chip Kelly, UCLA

UCLA is one of the nation’s most confounding programs. With all that talent around them, the Bruins are rarely relevant nationally, and haven’t played in a Rose Bowl game since 1999. It is fair to question whether Kelly can recreate his Oregon success (46-7), but it’s not as if he returns to a Pac-12 with imposing obstacles.

2. Willie Taggart, Florida State

Sky-high expectations and Taggart’s .485 winning percentage make for some skepticism about this marriage. But at every place Taggart has worked, the team was bad before he took over and got better during his tenure. The native Floridian has already showed he is capable of recruiting at an elite level.

3. Dan Mullen, Florida

Mullen benefits from taking over a program that has been underwhelming since Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow flirted with repeat national titles. At Mississippi State, Mullen consistently maxed out a program that lags behind the rest of its division competition in tradition, history and resources. Now he moves toward the front of the pecking order in the SEC East.

4. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

Moorhead comes to Starkville from Penn State, where he was offensive coordinator for two seasons, but he also has been a head coach at FCS Fordham — a tough place to win where he went 38-13 in four seasons. In the SEC West, Mississippi State fans generally have the most realistic expectations for their favorite team. Mullen raised the standards. Moorhead seems well-situated to continue to meet them.

5. Scott Frost, Nebraska

Few topics fuel the college football content machine like the question: How can Nebraska be fixed? It has been nearly 20 years since the Cornhuskers won a conference title. The Bo Pelini era was the peak of the last 15 years. All that is to say, Frost is taking over a program with adjusted expectations. The job is challenging, but Frost has the highest upside of any coach Nebraska has had since Tom Osborne and what qualifies as success in Lincoln has never been lower.

6. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Texas A&M last won a national championship in 1939. Aggies fans expect Fisher, who won a title with Florida State, to do the same with A&M. He also has the craziest contract in college football at 10 years, $75 million guaranteed. Unless Fisher goes on a Saban- or Meyer-like run, it’s hard to envision this deal ending well, but there should be some good times before the fall.

7. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

Sumlin had a nice run at Texas A&M and if he can duplicate it at Arizona, which has never played in a Rose Bowl, the folks in Tucson would be content. Here’s the question: What’s the conversion rate on SEC West success in the Pac-12 South?

8. Mario Cristobal, Oregon

Cristobal did a pretty solid job at FIU in his first turn as a head coach. He then spent four seasons at Saban’s career rehabilitation center and launching pad in Tuscaloosa before landing in Eugene as Taggart’s offensive coordinator. Cristobal faces the same challenges as Taggart, who bailed for his dream job after just one season. Oregon became one of the rarest things in college football, a pop-up superpower. It remains to be seen if any coach can repeat Kelly’s success, but that’s what Ducks fans want.

9. Chad Morris, Arkansas

Morris’ deep ties to Texas high school football should pay dividends for the Razorbacks, and a return to a more pass-oriented attack should appease those Hogs fans who miss Bobby Petrino. What success looks like at Arkansas is hard to pin down. Would something like Sumlin’s record at Texas A&M or Mullen’s at Mississippi State do? It should.

10. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

By virtue of not being Greg Schiano, Pruitt has Vols fans fired up about possibly having their own Kirby Smart — a Saban assistant who can implement the process. Or maybe Pruitt will be Will Muschamp? Unlike Nebraska, it does not seem as if expectations have been adjusted in Knoxville. And Alabama is still on Tennessee’s schedule every year.

11. Josh Heupel, UCF

Point: There could not be a better time to become head coach at UCF. The roster is loaded and the program has “national championship” momentum. Counterpoint: UCF fans think last year is the new normal. For a first-time head coach, this looks like a boom-or-bust deal.

12. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern lost its triple-option way for a couple years, and Lunsford, a longtime assistant in Statesboro, is tasked with getting things back to normal. Competing in the FBS could lower the Eagles’ ceiling permanently, but just getting the offense right shouldn’t be too tough.

13. Sonny Dykes, SMU

Talk about terrible first impressions: Dykes gave coaching SMU’s bowl on short notice a try and the Mustangs tanked. Really, though, this looks like a good match if Dykes can just do what he did at Louisiana Tech (22-17 overall and 14-7 in conference).

14. Matt Luke, Mississippi

Luke got the job, in part, because it is going to be a tough one. He will have to deal with the fallout from NCAA sanctions while competing in the toughest division in college football with a program that has traditionally resided in the lower half of the standings. Luke could be successful by simply owning the Egg Bowl rivalry with Mississippi State, which has never been more heated.

15. Steve Campbell, South Alabama

Campbell has had great success outside of FBS as a head coach, but will it translate? South Alabama is still a relatively new FBS program so it’s hard to know what the ceiling is. Perhaps Campbell’s time in Division II (Delta State) and junior (Mississippi Gulf Coast) prepared him for some of the challenges of a program still in its infancy.

16. Mike Bloomgren, Rice

One of the ideas behind hiring Bloomgren is that Rice, a small private school with high academic standards, could use some version of Stanford’s blueprint to be successful in Conference USA. Sure, why not?

17. Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette

Another school hoping to get a taste of what Alabama is cooking by hiring one of Saban’s sous chefs.

18. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

Oregon State is traditionally the most difficult job in the Pac-12. The 39-year-old first-time head coach brings with him the credibility that comes from having been a star player at the place where he will be coaching and six years as an assistant to Chris Petersen. Smith’s low position in these rankings is more about how tough it is to win in Corvallis than his potential.

19. Dana Dimel, UTEP

The 55-year-old Dimel did stints as head coach at Wyoming (pretty good) and Houston (not so good), but has been an assistant for the last 15 years. It doesn’t look like a big-upside hire, but you can understand why UTEP would go the veteran coach route. The Miners’ last run of respectability came under Mike Price and there is hope that Dimel can keep UTEP out of the Conference USA basement.

20. Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Arizona State’s grand experiment with a 63-year-old former NFL head coach who has been out of the business for 10 years is impossible to forecast. Much of the fan base is skeptical, but maybe the lowered expectations work in Edwards’ favor.

Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAp

34 COMMENTS

    • Boyfriend Mikey:

      These articles are just off-season fluff. Stuff that every hometown newspaper in any college football hometown writes over the Spring and dog days of Summer. These articles are strictly for Homers like us and not intended to personally insult the trolls such as yourself. Fans such as I ignore our rivals newspapers because they are full of the same stuff. In other words, just ignore it and go away. Really.

    • Tim. I agree Taggart should top the list, but Mullen is rightly placed at 3 if the ranking forecasts where the coaches/programs will end up eventually. I expect FSU and UF to both improve going forward. Kelly will have his hands full with USC.

      • GatorG. I assumed it was success next year. If it’s eventual success then I agree 3 (if not higher) is appropriate for Mullen. My biggest fear is that the fanbase won’t give 4-5 years for Mullen to get there (which is what I think he needs). No way it happens before then with the roster we have.

        • Tim – I know you keep saying this but I just don’t think Gator Nation is really that impatient. Certainly no more impatient than many other schools (here’s looking at you Knoxville). Unless Mullen just lays an egg, I think this fan base will give him plenty of time and I think he’ll deliver. The impatience that you mention stems, IMHO, from #1 the Muschamp era where we were fairly patient until it just finally became apparent that he didn’t care about offense and #2 we gave up on McElwain pretty quickly because……well, we just should have. McElwain was never going to take this program anywhere.

        • Tim- what’s your rationale for thinking it would take 4-5 yrs to get the program on track? Florida will always be able to recruit at a high level. If Mullen shows improvement this year he should pull a top 10 class pretty easily. Mac didnt recruit great but it wasnt terrible, there is talent there.Guys don’t even have 5 yrs of eligibility and great players usually leave after 3 yrs. You say 5 years all the time, just wondering why you think it would take 5 years and wondering what program, other that miss state, would give a coach a 5 year leash.

          • You’re assuming that one recruiting class will turn it around. What Tim is likely saying is that it will take 2 recruiting classes. We aren’t knocking it out of the park with 4-and-5 stars. No, 5-star guys aren’t automatically All-SEC, but the better. Also, it takes at least 2 recruiting classes to change to your offensive (primarily, for UF) philosophy. So, yes, the top guys will leave after 3 years, and you get at least 2 great years out of them, but that doesn’t mean you get those guys in the first recruiting class. Also, any guess what Saban’s record was his first 4 years at Michigan St? 25-22-1, with an 0-3 bowl record. Had he done that at UF, he’d have been fired. Face it, we’re impatient. We tried to quick-strike in the past, and it failed. Let’s build something.

          • Matt. We simply don’t have the players to legitimately compete with UGA, FSU, Bama and other national powers. My biggest concern is that Mullen is a known commodity in the SEC and is unlikely to surprise anyone — heck, Saban’s has been facing Mullen for years and is very familiar with his coaching style. Recruits know this which is why I think it will take some time for the program to get back in the national conversation.

        • Tim did you watch the MSU/Bama game last season? MSU was leading most of the 4th quarter and almost knocked off the eventual national champs, and that’s with not even close to the same talent Bama had. Give him a year or two to bring in equal talent and that outcome will be completely different. Like I said to you yesterday, if he can take MSU from a 4 win team to 9 wins in 2 years, he should have no problem bettering that at a program like UF, where it’ll be much easier to bring in top talent. Just curious, do you think Smart has a better chance at beating Bama than Mullen? I’m only asking cause you seem to think Mullen is a known commodity, but I’m pretty sure Saban knows Smart more than any other coach in college football. I’m assuming if you’re truly a Gator fan, you must be going the reverse psychology route, cause no way in hell it should take that long to turn the program around. FSU’s coming off a 6 win season in which they were playoff favorites cause they lost one player. That doesn’t scream deep with talent to me, especially with some of the talent they’re losing to the NFL, so I’m not sure how you lump them in with UGA and Bama and somehow think we don’t have the players to compete with them. I’d say FSU is pretty much in the same boat we are only they just hired a coach with a .485 winning percentage at lower tier programs that hasn’t proven anything at this level, while the Gators hired a guy with a .600 winning percentage at a program competing in the toughest division in college football. I know which one I’d put my money on for having more success.

          • Big difference — Saban has faced Smart only once (and won), whereas he’s been scouting and preparing for Mullen for years and has NEVER lost. See my comment below regarding Taggart.

          • Tim again the talent gap was massive every time they faced each other the last 9 years. It’s pretty safe to say MSU will never beat Bama as long as Saban is there no matter who the coach is. You have to go all the way back to 2008 when #1 Bama faced #2 UF in the SEC Championship and Mullen called a great game and handed it to Saban. Like I said, once he has equal talent it will be a different story.

  1. Taggart has not sustained success anywhere and he hasn’t exactly “wowed” them in Tallahassee since arriving on campus. I get the Kelly fascination and he should have some success at UCLA… but Mullen will have far more success. I’ll bet my retirement on it.

  2. One thing you forgot to mention is that Mullen has been here before when we were winning. He knows the climate in Gainesville. We do have some fans who will expect at least an SEC Championship this year or next as well as a NC by 2021. Many Gator fans only became Gator fans after Spurrier and Meyer had taken us to the top. They don’t remember the 0-10-1 in 1979 or the NCAA probation in the 80s when they robbed us of our first SEC title. Many don’t know about the years of frustration of having good teams and losing that one SEC game we should have won and again missing out on the title. They only know about the NCs and SEC titles of the 90s and 2000s. Their expectations will be ridiculous. Any bets on how long it will be before the Firedanmullen.com springs up? There is talent here and Mullen has the staff to move it forward with solid coaching and recruiting. He will however need time. It didn’t get like this in a couple of years so it will take more than a couple to fix it.

    • Ag8tor. Exactly my concern. We also forget that we’ve been the third best program in the state for more than 40 years — losing records to both FSU and Miami in that time span. Plus, the Tebow years coincided with historical low points for both FSU and Miami. Even Spurrier had losing records to FSU and Miami. No way Mullen defies history in less than 4-5 years.

    • O brother…… Amen! I was born and raised in Gainesville and I remember too well the “wait till next year” days of Doug Dickey. 0-10-1…. yup, I was there. Thank you Steve Spurrier for finally bringing a winner to Hogtown.

  3. I think you’re underestimating the job Taggart did at WK, USF and Oregon. All three had decidedly losing records when he arrived, and he left all three with winning records. Show me one year where a Taggart coached team did worse the next year. Also, check your sources, the players and recruits are loving Taggart’s approach in Tallahassee, and he’s already out-recruited Mullen this past year (despite starting the FSU job later in the year). Do not underestimate that guy.

    All that said, I still think Mullen can surpass Taggart, but it will take 4-5 years and a few breaks here and there to do so. Of more concern, though, are UGA and Bama, the media darlings that have a stranglehold on the SEC and 5 star recruits. I don’t see a scenario where we compete with (much less surpass) them in less than 4-5 years.

    • Tim come on man, he took over programs that were so down in the dumps they had nowhere else to go but up. That’s like saying Mac’s a great coach cause he turned around CSU in 3 years and took a Gator team that won 10 games combined the previous 2 years and won 19 games and 2 division titles his first 2 seasons. Coaching on this big of a stage is a completely different animal than coaching at lower tier programs and Mac proved that first hand. You’re all over Smart too like he’s just going to dominate for years to come. He still has to prove he can develop and win with his own players instead of inheriting amazing talent that was winning 10 games before he took over. Ask Larry Coker how difficult that is. Being a Gator fan and after watching Muschamp win 11 games with inherited talent and bringing in top 3 recruiting classes, you should be fully aware of the fact that that doesn’t guarantee success. Let’s see how good Smart does this season when he has to replace 90% of his offensive production and pretty much his entire defense before handing him the SEC East crown for years to come.

      • Joe. Fair enough, let’s wait and see. But let’s not forget Mullen was our third choice behind Kelly and Frost. There were even reports that we reached out to Taggart but he was not interested. Just trying to keep our expectations in check. We’ve suffered enough as a fanbase.

        • I’ve never heard anything about reaching out to Taggart, in fact there’s several articles where he specifically said Florida has not reached out to him. It was pretty obvious in these commenting sections as well that most Gator fans had Taggart behind Mullen in the pecking order due to the fact that he was so inexperienced at this level, and was only being mentioned cause his recruiting abilities. Yes Kelly and Frost were the first options, but it’s been widely reported as to why that was. Clearly Strickland was hoping to not have to pull Mullen away from his Alma mater. It’s certainly not an indictment on his coaching abilities. I agree with tempering expectations and I’ll be the last to jump all over him if he doesn’t succeed right away, I just think with his track record he should have no problem turning it around quicker than 4-5 years.

        • Not true because there’s more to it than that. There was mutual interest with Kelly and he was the only one where terms were discussed prior to DM. He did eventually back away because there were simply some things we wanted that he was not willing to comply with. This; I’m 100% certain on. SS was gauging interest with a few others but did not pursue beyond that. It was clear that DM had the resume, the desire to be here and has an intimate understanding of the this particular job and the pressure. It was absolutely the right fit.

          You can spin this however you want but saying he was our 3rd choice is not accurate. SS had to cast a wide net and explore as many options as he could but was pulled back to Dan. It was the right choice.

          • Even if all of that is true, the point is that we would have taken Kelly or Frost over Mullen — thus, he’s our third choice. But I agree with you that Mullen is the better fit given our geographic location and culture.

  4. My first skeptism about this article was when Kelly was ranked first at UCLA. It won’t happen. The most interesting topic for Gators and Noles is the relative position of Taggart and Mullen. I am okay with Taggart slightly edging out Mullen in this ranking given Taggart’s showing in the recruiting rankings. Listen, it’s not lost on me that Taggart seems to be following the blueprint being laid out by Mullen. We open practice to the media, Taggart opens practice to media, we open practice to the public, Taggart opens practice to the public, and so on and so on. All that said, the energy level being shown by Mullen will be almost impossible to match. It seems Mullen has found his calling. I believe he is going to show immediate dominance. I hope Miami and FSU have success too. We wont judge the Gator program on the failures or successes of our in State brethren. We will measure the Gators by championships and honors that the athletic program brings to the privilege of being a Florida Gator! Go Gators!

  5. these analyses, like any data, are indicators. they don’t tell you with certainty what will happen, but over a large enough population they are somewhat useful. Expecting immediate dominance is a bit optimistic, and really not a very good idea. we lost several seniors, several more to credit card fraud, still shaky at qb and offensive line, didn’t have a top 5 recruiting class and haven’t had one for years (which is also a major indicator) If things go well, great, but they all deserve time. no one had a lower opinion of champ coming in than I did, yet his second year he (and really Dan Quinn, who no one knew anything about) won 11, and with some luck could have been in a national championship game. I thought when will grier scorched ole miss mac was gonna be like the ole ball coach and have the thing the way it should be. so you never know.

  6. Also, either the articles description of the formula is wrong or this just looks off. ranking jimbo 6 doesn’t look right to me. I love Dan Mullen but Jimbo turned around a sinking FSU and did win a national championship, what else can a guy do? Chip Kelly may be equal to Nick Saban but its hard to think UCLA is going to be the platform he needs to do his thing. To win big, you need a true captain. a leader that gets the rest of the guys to play at the level they need to be. that’s what I would like to see an article on – and I don’t see one in Gainesville since Tebow left, not even sure who would be a candidate on this years team.

    • Jimbo caught lightening in a bottle with Winston. Beyond those 2 years he has underperformed. He was prickly with the administration, doesn’t embrace the fan base and has developed a dishonest reputation in recruiting circles. Not saying he won’t have some early success but he is not anywhere close to being worth the contract he signed AND will not last beyond 5-7 years. Very thin skinned from what I’ve heard.

      • Scotty. All good points, but I would still rank Jimbo ahead of Mullen. TAM and UF are comparable programs and all things being equal Jimbo gets the slight edge. Doubt that he’ll be able to repeat the success of FSU, but that’s an unfair comparison given the quality players he had at his disposal in Tallahassee. No way he gets the same level of talent at TAM.