Southeastern Conference football media days are next week. Four days filled with Nick Saban complaining with a strategically placed Coke bottle by his side, Ed Orgeron speaking in an accent so thick you’ll need a Cajun translator, and four other coaches all denying that they’re on the hot seat.
But what about the new guys? Let’s rank the most interesting first-year coaches in the SEC. Not the best hires. Just the most compelling ones. (NOTE: Ole Miss’ Matt Luke is excluded from this list since he was the Rebels’ interim coach last year.)
1. Jimbo Fisher
New job: Texas A&M
Old job: Florida State
Fisher is a good coach with magical hair. But his $10-year, $75 million contract seems crazy. If you’re going to pony up that kind of cash, you have to be absolutely certain that you’re eventually going to get Saban-type results. From what we know so far, Fisher is not Saban. With Jameis Winston at quarterback, Fisher went 27-1 with a national championship. Without him, he’s 56-22 with no titles. At Alabama, Saban could put a garden gnome behind center and still win the national championship.
Fisher could have stayed a long time at Florida State. At Texas A&M – his alma mater, the pressure will be ramped up to unreasonable levels. Welcome to the SEC. Fisher has to not only compete directly with Saban in the West Division but also has to overcome traditional powers LSU and Auburn. The good news for Fisher is that Texas A&M has the second wealthiest athletic department in the nation (Texas is No.1). Texas A&M is the nouveau riche of the SEC, having joined the league in 2012. It so badly wants to get the respect of an old school SEC program. Fisher will be the face of that success or failure.
Consider this: Texas A&M hired a guy who was 5-6 in his final season at Florida State. Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin who never lost that many games in a single season in six years at College Station.
2. Dan Mullen
New job: Florida
Old job: Mississippi State
Has Florida finally gotten it right? This is Florida’s third try post Urban Meyer. Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain were both decidedly underwhelming. In comparison, when Steve Spurrier bolted for the NFL’s Washington Redskins in 2002, the Gators suffered through one misfire – the forgettable Ron Zook era. Then they hit a home run with the next hire: Meyer.
Of all the new hires in the SEC, this is the safest choice. At least with Mullen, there is a track record of some SEC success. This guy won at one the most difficult jobs in the league. In 2014, Mississippi State went from being unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll to being No.1 after the first five week. That had never happened before. Can Mullen win at the highest level? It’s easier to recruit at Gainesville than Starkville. First-year expectations will be measured since the Gators are coming off a 4-7 season. And he’s worked there before at Florida as an assistant coach (2005-08).
Something else in his favor: at Mississippi State, Mullen battled SEC West foes: Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Life will be easier in the SEC East where only Georgia is a regular proven winner.
3. Chad Morris
New job: Arkansas
Old job: SMU
Here’s a fair question to ask: Is Chad Morris an upgrade? Don’t get us wrong. Bret Bielema went 1-7 in the SEC last year and 4-12 over the past two seasons. He had to go. But how much better will Morris be over Bielema’s best season: 8-5, 5-3 in the SEC in 2015? Morris is not lacking confidence. He’s already talking tough, vowing to make Arkansas the nation’s premiere offense. The Razorbacks haven’t been known for scoring points since Bobby Petrino (2008-2011).
Morris oversaw a rebuild at SMU. The Mustangs went from 2-10 in his first season in 2015 to 7-5 last year. The Mustangs ranked No. 12 in the nation in scoring (37.8 points per game). Here’s how Morris described the offensive revolution he wants to lead at Arkansas:
“Offensively, you won’t find a more explosive offense in all of college football,” Morris said. “You’ll see an excited brand of football that will be spread sideline to sideline, end zone to end zone. There won’t be many times to sit in your seats. We’ll go fast, we’ll play fast and we’ll have fun doing it.”
Bold words coming from a man who just got his first Power 5 coaching gig. Let’s see how confident he is when Alabama comes to town in October.
4. Joe Moorhead
New job: Mississippi State
Old job: Penn State offensive coordinator
Just three years ago, Moorhead was an anonymous FCS coach. Now, the 44-year-old is the Head Bulldog at Mississippi State. That’s quite a jump for someone without much star power. Moorhead went 38-13 in four seasons at Fordham. He then spent two years at Penn State’s offensive coordinator. He got a ton of good press for the job he did. Of course, it helps to have Human Highlight Film Saquon Barkley. Moorhead will try to succeed at a place where it’s tough to win. Mullen built a lot of momentum with his recruiting. Moorhead has been an East Coast guy all his life. He has never had to recruit in the South where competition is fierce.
Moorhead’s long-term success will be determined on whether or not Mississippi State can continue to get good players. For the immediate future, he has some talent returning. Can Moorhead match the hype?
5. Jeremy Pruitt
New job: Tennessee
Old job: Alabama defensive coordinator
It takes zero imagination to hire the guy standing next to Saban. There are four SEC coaches with ties to Saban. Only Kirby Smart has enjoyed significant success at his current gig. Will Muschamp was fired at Florida and is a losing streak away from being in trouble at South Carolina. Pruitt has spent plenty of time as an assistant in the SEC, coaching at Alabama and Georgia. Alabama has had elite defenses in his two seasons. But when you’re stocked with that much talent, you should have elite defenses.
Pruitt also has three national championships at Alabama. Still, it feels like he’s set up to fail. Tennessee’s football coaching search was a national joke after the Greg Schiano fiasco. Numerous coaches with good credentials turned this job down.
Good luck to you, sir.