- Six SEC schools will enter the 2018 season with a new head coach, including Texas A&M with Jimbo Fisher and Florida with Dan Mullen. Which are in position to contend now?
No conference underwent more head coaching turnover this cycle than the SEC. Six of the league’s 14 programs made changes, one of which involved a sitting HC in the West Division filling a vacancy in the East Division, and another of which included an embarrassingly haphazard search process following vigorous social media pushback to a potential hire. Some of these new leaders are well positioned to succeed right away, while others may need a season or two before providing tangible signs of improvement. The first-season outlooks of each of the SEC’s new head coaches will be hot topics at the conference’s annual media days in Atlanta later this month, but SI.com is breaking them down in advance. Here’s an early look at what to expect in 2018 from Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Ole Miss’s Matt Luke, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Arkansas’s Chad Morris, Florida’s Dan Mullen and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt.
Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher
Prior job: Florida State head coach
Replacing: Kevin Sumlin
If there was any doubt that the Aggies are confident Fisher can turn Texas A&M into an SEC power, it evaporated when they handed him a $75 million contract running over 10 years and celebrated his arrival with a scene befitting a head of state’s visit to an allied nation. The deal also signals that Texas A&M is committed to Fisher over the long haul. That’s important, because it feels highly unlikely that Fisher will have the Aggies competing for a conference championship or a College Football Playoff berth in Year One. Fisher inherits some talented pieces, like big-play running back Trayveon Williams and sophomore wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon. He also should be able to count on serviceable, if not spectacular, quarterback play from either dual-threat Kellen Mond or fellow sophomore Nick Starkel, who’s coming off a 499-yard, four-touchdown outing in Texas A&M’s Belk Bowl loss to Wake Forest. Plus, plucking defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Notre Dame was a big move that should bring instant results to a leaky unit that finished 71st in Football Outsiders S&P + ratings last season. There’s a solid foundation here, but for this season at least, it probably won’t be enough for Texas A&M to keep pace with the heavyweights in the SEC West. The Aggies face a brutal non-conference matchup with Clemson on Sept. 8, and they have to travel to Alabama (Sept. 22), Mississippi State (Oct. 27) and Auburn (Nov. 3).
Ole Miss: Matt Luke
Prior job: Ole Miss interim head coach
Replacing: Hugh Freeze
The Rebels’ decision to remove the interim tag from Matt Luke was an underwhelming conclusion to a job search that included mentions of coveted candidates like South Florida head coach Charlie Strong and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart. Luke had no experience as a Division I head coach prior to taking over in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s disgraced resignation last July, and it was difficult to see how settling for a continuity hire in the wake of a 6–6 season with a 3–5 SEC record would move the Rebels any closer to their Freeze-era peak of 2014–15. Ole Miss almost definitely won’t get there this season, but it could be one of the most entertaining teams in the Power 5. Senior Jordan Ta’amu acquitted himself well at quarterback after transfer Shea Patterson went down with a knee injury last October, and he’ll have a dangerous crop of pass catchers at his disposal led by projected first-round NFL draft pick A.J. Brown, plus another projected first-rounder protecting his blind side in junior left tackle Greg Little. The Rebels are probably going to have a hard time consistently getting stops against SEC opponents—the first of which is reigning national champ Alabama in Oxford on Sept. 15—but those same opponents are probably going to have a hard time figuring out how to slow down Ta’amu and Brown in Phil Longo’s up-tempo offense.
Mississippi State: Joe Moorhead
Prior job: Penn State offensive coordinator
Replacing: Dan Mullen
The short-term upside for Moorhead at Mississippi State is clear. He has a talented dual-threat quarterback, senior Nick Fitzgerald, who should take well to Moorhead’s fast-paced system, and a capable backup to take the reins in sophomore Keytaon Thompson if the ankle dislocation Fitzgerald suffered during the Bulldogs’ Egg Bowl loss last year lingers into the fall. A 1,107-yard rusher from last season, senior Aeris Williams, is back. There’s also a fearsome defensive line tandem, junior tackle Jeffery Simmons and senior end Montez Sweat, and four returning starters on the offensive line. (Worth noting: The one starter who’s not back is all-conference left tackle Martinas Rankin.) This is Moorhead’s first go running a Football Bowl Subdivision program, but his stints as Fordham’s head coach from 2012–15 and Penn State’s offensive coordinator from 2016–17 left no doubt that he was ready to make the jump to the SEC this offseason. As anyone who watched the Nittany Lions reach back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls with Moorhead calling plays the last two seasons can attest, his offense is a chore to contain. Whether that—plus whatever, if any, progress the defense can make under new coordinator Bob Shoop—will be enough to lift the Bulldogs this season back to the euphoria of their No. 1 AP Top 25 Poll ranking of four years ago is a different question altogether.
Arkansas: Chad Morris
Prior job: Southern Methodist head coach
Replacing: Bret Bielema
The Razorbacks pulled the plug on Bielema after a five-season run during which his smash mouth ethos failed to elevate the program above the middle of the pack in the SEC, bottoming out with a 4–8 campaign last fall that included only one conference win. In Bielema’s place, they tabbed a stylistic opposite from the American Athletic Conference with deep recruiting ties outside of the conference’s traditional footprint. There may come a time when Morris, after stocking his spread offense with speedy recruits from Texas, molds Arkansas into a double-digit-game winner in arguably the most challenging division in the Power 5. But the Razorbacks should shoot for more modest goals this season. There’s no obvious successor to two-year starter Austin Allen at quarterback, with unproven junior Ty Story and power forward-sized sophomore Cole Kelley (6’7’’, 263 pounds) set to compete for the starting job in fall camp. Tabbing SEC veteran John Chavis to run the defense read like a shrewd move for a head coach with no previous experience in the conference, but Chavis’s most recent run as a defensive coordinator, at Texas A&M from 2015–17, was far from a rousing success. Like his previous head coaching job, where Morris improved SMU from 2–10 to 5–7 to 7–6 from 2015–17, he may need a season or two to make major gains in the win column.
Florida: Dan Mullen
Prior job: Mississippi State had coach
Replacing: Jim McElwain
The Mullen hire represented a sensible bet on a familiar name with a strong in-conference track record. After the end of his four-year stint as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida, Mullen spent nine seasons building an unheralded SEC program into a consistent winner—a run that coincided with Nick Saban overseeing a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut in the same division. At Florida, Mullen won’t have to deal with Alabama every season like he did at Mississippi State—though he may have to beat the Crimson Tide in the conference title game to get the Gators into the CFP—but he is taking over in Gainesville at a time when one of Saban’s protégés, Kirby Smart, appears on the way to crafting his own version of the Bama destruction machine at East member Georgia. The Bulldogs will open this season as the odds-on favorites to take the division, but the Gators might be their No. 1 challenger. There’s talent in the secondary (sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson, junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson) and on the defensive line (senior Cece Jefferson), and Mullen’s offensive pedigree is cause to believe in the possibility of a considerable bump from last season’s finishes of 100th in offensive yards per play and 108th in points per game. The schedule breaks favorably for Florida, too: Division competitors Missouri and South Carolina both travel to The Swamp in back-to-back weeks, as does annual cross-division rival LSU, for the second year in a row.
Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt
Prior job: Alabama defensive coordinator
Replacing: Butch Jones
A bungling head coaching search that included a robust social media backlash to one possible hire, a stream of reports about contact with several other candidates, the firing of athletic director John Currie and the naming of a program legend as his replacement finally ended in early December with the announcement that Pruitt would leave his position as Alabama’s defensive coordinator to take over the Volunteers. There’s a good chance Pruitt’s first season in Knoxville will be smoother than the slipshod process through which the school settled on him as Butch Jones’s successor, but not by much. While Pruitt’s recruiting prowess and defensive credentials are plain, Tennessee loses leading rusher John Kelly from an offense that ranked last in the SEC at 4.77 yards per play and 19.8 points per game last season. (Double-middle-finger-saluting defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, maybe the Volunteers’ best defender in 2017, likewise decided to enter the draft rather than return for another season.) Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst brings experience to a quarterback room lacking a clear No. 1—Chryst is expected to compete with sophomore Will McBride, redshirt sophomore Jarret Guarantano and three-star true freshman J.T. Strout for the top spot on the depth chart—and Michigan State graduate transfer Madre London can help fill the rushing void left by Kelly. That said, this looks like a multi-year re-tooling project for new OC Tyson Helton. Bowl eligibility feels like a reasonable goal.