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  • It's too early to panic, but of the nine new Power 5 coaches that have already sustained at least one loss, a few should be more concerned than others.
By Joan Niesen
September 11, 2018

Twenty FBS programs welcomed in new head coaches this fall, 12 of them belonging to the Power 5 conferences. Through two weeks of the 2018 season, those coaches are a combined 19–20, which seems about right for a collection of teams that won at a .407 clip last season. But among those 20 losses lurk a few surprises. Let’s exempt the Group of Five guys and consider only the nine Power 5 newbies who have sustained at least one loss so far. (Only Herm Edwards at Arizona State, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Mario Cristobal at Oregon are undefeated.) It’s early, of course, but it’s never too early to wonder what those losses portend—everything from looming doom to nothing at all.

We’ll begin with a disclaimer: Do not panic. No number of pre-October losses is high enough to foretell the football apocalypse for a new coach. It is early. Many of these situations are wholesale rebuilds. But some of these new coaches have been tasked with turning stalled powerhouses back into their dominating selves, and some within that group are working with significant established talent left behind by the previous regime. No two losses are created equal in college football—although for the purposes of this exercise, they’re created equally enough to be categorized by their impact on the sentiment surrounding each coach’s first season.

The moral victory

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (1–1): The Aggies’ upset bid of No. 2 Clemson fell short in the final minute on Saturday night on a failed two-point conversion attempt that would have sent the game to overtime. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond tossed an interception in the end zone, handing the Tigers the 28–26 win. Even the strongest hater of the term “moral victory” has to give Fisher credit here; a team that went 7–6 a year ago came within inches of going to overtime against Clemson. The Aggies went 0–3 against ranked teams in 2017, coming closest to a win in a 27–19 home loss to No. 1 Alabama. No matter the final outcome Saturday, Texas A&M’s performance against Clemson—Mond’s performance, the comeback, its stout defensive front—bodes well for Fisher making an impact in year one.

“Wait ... what?”

Scott Frost, Nebraska (0–1): Frost’s scheduled Nebraska debut against Akron in Week 1 was cancelled due to weather and his actual first game went even worse; the Cornhuskers gave up a second-half lead, allowing Colorado to score a touchdown at the end of the third quarter to get within one and the game-winner with a minute left in the fourth. It was hardly the way Frost—he of the undefeated UCF season a year ago—wanted to start his tenure, but a loss to a Power 5 opponent hardly dooms Nebraska’s season, and Colorado has shown that it might actually be decent in the season’s opening weeks. The worst part of Frost’s opener? Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez’s fourth-quarter knee injury. The team has said there’s no ligament damage, and he could play Saturday against Troy, but walk-on Andrew Bunch is the next man up after Tristan Gebbia transferred to Oregon State when Martinez was announced as the starter.

Chad Morris, Arkansas (1–1): Morris’s tenure with the Razorbacks started out with a 55–20 win over Eastern Illinois. Then they traveled west to take on a Colorado State team that had lost its first two games by a combined 41 points. Arkansas led 27–9 late in the third quarter, but the Rams scored on each of their final four possessions to steal a 34–27 win. The complete meltdown masked the fact that the Razorbacks just looked off-step all game. After going 4–8 in Bret Bielema’s final season, Arkansas was always in for some growing pains in its dramatic shift to Morris’s spread offense. Colorado State did a good job of reminding Razorback fans of that.

Dan Mullen, Florida (1–1): Mullen’s Florida tenure started off just about as promising as one can, with a 53–6 romp over FCS opponent Charleston Southern. Things took a turn in Week 2 when Florida opened SEC play against Kentucky, a program it hadn’t lost to since 1986. Less than an hour after the loss, Gators running back Adarius Lemons announced his intention to transfer, compounding the panic from fans. After all, not even Jim McElwain—or Will Muschamp, or Urban Meyer, or Ron Zook, or Steve Spurrier, to get an idea how far back this goes—had lost to Kentucky. Still, Kentucky is a program on the rebound, and Florida’s weak line play, among other issues, wasn’t an overnight fix. As Mullen’s first season plods on, the extent of the rebuild necessary in Gainesville may become more evident.

Unfortunate, but expected

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State (1–1): The Beavers are coming off a 1–11 season, and in Week 2, they matched their win total of a year ago with a win over Southern Utah. With that in mind, it’s hard—impossible, even—to bemoan a Week 1 loss to Ohio State. Even Oregon State’s margin of defeat, 77–31, is nothing to bemoan. This is a rebuild, through and through, and if Smith wins even one conference game, he’ll have done more than the 2017 team could.

Chip Kelly, UCLA (0–2): Kelly’s first two games at UCLA are harder to categorize. Most recently, his team’s drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma, 49–21, was certainly a predictable outcome. But in Week 1, the Bruins looked confounded against Cincinnati—which was less excusable. Still, it’s prudent to cut Kelly some slack here. He inherited a UCLA team that was loaded with talent for the past few years and is now something close to devoid of it. Its quarterback situation has been fluid, its defense shaky, and to expect the Bruins to match their 6–7 record of a year ago would be a stretch.

Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (1–1): Pruitt inherited a Tennessee team with a decent talent well and one of the most demanding fanbases in the game—and got dealt a difficult Week 1 opponent in West Virginia. In his Vols debut, Pruitt lost, 40–14, and though his team could have looked stronger at home—it barely put up 300 yards of offense and logged fewer points than Youngstown State was able to score against West Virginia in Week 2—losing to the Mountaineers was a predictable outcome. Lucky for Pruitt, his team managed to look dominant on the scoreboard on Saturday, beating FCS doormat East Tennessee State, 59–3.

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Reasons to maybe actually start to consider panicking

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona (0–2): Sumlin took over a team that won seven regular-season games a year ago and featured a quarterback with Heisman hopes in Khalil Tate. Through two games, he’s managed to neutralize Tate and make his team look worse each week. Not ideal. Sure, Tate hurt his ankle in the second half of Saturday’s 45–18 loss to Houston, but even when he was healthy, the Arizona offense hardly looked designed to play to his dual-threat strengths. In a 28–23 Week 1 loss to BYU, Tate rushed for just 14 yards. Sure, offensive growing pains make sense as the team learns a new scheme under a new coordinator, but the unit looks completely hamstrung through two games, and the Wildcats' defense, which was expected to improve thanks to continuity, has been atrocious. It gave up 551 total yards to Houston Saturday. This isn’t a team that just needs to settle in to change; rather, Sumlin needs to tweak his approach to avoid all-out disaster.

Willie Taggart, Florida State (1–1): After a 24–3 Week 1 loss to Virginia Tech (against which it was favored), the Seminoles came all too close to losing to Samford on Saturday. Eventually, they pulled out a 36–26 win, but the damage was done after four quarters of uninspiring football. A season ago, Florida State started slowly as well, and the year was rocked by Jimbo Fisher’s rumored scheming to leave town, but something about this start feels like a different kind of worrisome. There’s no injured quarterback; instead, the Seminoles have Deondre Francois and James Blackman at the ready. They’ve recruited well in recent seasons, so there’s no talent shortage. Instead, this start hints at a program that needs a cultural reboot while it transitions from one of the country’s slowest-paced offenses to one of its most up-tempo—and that’s going to be a lot for Taggart to undertake while pulling off a winning record in his debut season.

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