- Scott Frost is winless while Chip Kelly has a single victory to boast midway through the 2018 season. After being heralded at their previous college jobs, which coach faces a tougher road ahead?
Both Nebraska and UCLA made big-name hires this offseason in attempts to breathe life into two middling programs. Nebraska brought in prodigal son Scott Frost—who started 26 games and won a national title as the Cornhuskers’ quarterback in the ’90s—a move that made heaps of sense. Frost, 43, had just led UCF to an undefeated season and a famously self-proclaimed national championship. A young, charismatic leader with deep ties to the university, Frost was an ideal hire for a once-great program that had lost its way.
UCLA’s hiring of Chip Kelly was a bit more controversial. Kelly hadn’t coached a college football game since 2012, the final year of his innovative and indisputably successful four-year tenure at Oregon. In the ensuing years he brought his signature up-tempo offense to the NFL with the Eagles, where he had some on-field success but did not endear himself to that locker room or front office. A disastrous 2–14 campaign with the 49ers all but sealed Kelly’s NFL career, but he found himself back in big-time college football after one season as an ESPN analyst.
Not much was expected of either coach in his first season at the helm—you’d like to see a competitive group that plays hard, buys into the new system and wins a few games. Nothing more, nothing less.
So far, it’s been significantly less. After blowing a 10-point lead in 2:21 to lose to Northwestern, Nebraska finds itself 0–6 for the first time in program history. UCLA finally won its first game of the year this past weekend with a win over Cal, but that has only marginally improved an ugly 1–5 start that included a 22-point home loss to Fresno State and an 0–3 record at the Rose Bowl.
Are these starts normal growing pains or cause for legitimate concern? Let’s take a look at each program’s unique situation.
Despite the winless record, the Cornhuskers could easily have three wins right now. They had no business losing the Northwestern game. They held a lead deep in the fourth quarter of their eventual 33–28 loss to Colorado. And their season opener against Akron, a clearly winnable game, was canceled due to inclement weather. Nebraska probably should have at least two wins right now, and if it did, we wouldn’t be alarmed by Frost’s debut season at all. In that sense, the Huskers’ record can be deceiving.
Frost’s main challenge at Nebraska is recruiting. First, high schoolers today are too young to remember Nebraska’s glory years when Frost was running the offense. Nebraska doesn’t have the national prestige that other Big Ten programs like Michigan, Ohio State or even Wisconsin do. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the state of Nebraska simply doesn’t have very much elite talent. The highest-ranked player in the class of 2018 from the state of Nebraska was No. 249 Cameron Jurgens (who did end up committing to the Huskers). Cleaning up in-state won’t be enough for Nebraska to bring in the type of talent needed to compete for Big Ten championships.
Will this 0–6 start adversely effect recruiting? Unlikely. The unbelievable season Frost had last year with UCF, and the national media attention the run received, will not wear off in one season. He has built more clout than that. But the early recruiting results aren’t exactly mouth-watering: As of Oct. 18, Nebraska ranks 26th in the class of 2019 recruiting rankings. For comparison, former coach Mike Riley’s three classes ranked in the high teens to mid-20s.
Part of what makes this winless start so surprising is that Frost was able to quickly turn around UCF—it went 0–12 in the season before he took over and ran the table two years later—without the luxury of high-powered recruits (his two classes there finished 65th and 55th). He was simply able to get more out of his players, so there was some legitimate hope that he’d be able to engineer a similarly rapid improvement at Nebraska. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
All that being said, this is a young football team led by a true freshman quarterback in Adrian Martinez. They’re adjusting to a new system and a new coach without much upperclassmen leadership on a roster that went 4–8 last year. Frost has proven he can flat-out coach, and while this start is certainly less-than-ideal, there wasn’t much in place to expect a UCF-like turnaround in terms of pace. Frost deserves another season before Nebraska fans can begin to worry about the program’s direction under him.
UCLA has considerably less reason for optimism despite that 30-point win over Cal to ease the suffering a bit. A big part of what made Kelly so successful at Oregon was the novelty of his offense. He was a true pioneer of the up-tempo, extremely spread-out, RPO-heavy attack. Now, that’s the norm in college football. Defenses prepare for a variant of that offense virtually every week, so Kelly’s teams can no longer expect a bump on offense simply by playing a style you don’t otherwise see.
And unlike Frost, Kelly’s national reputation isn’t free of blemishes. He has lost some shine from the days when he was as an offensive genius getting Oregon off the ground, due in no small part to his abrasive leadership style. And there have already been signs pointing to some unrest in Westwood. After the Bruins dropped to 0–3, the father of UCLA true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson publicly criticized Kelly’s playcalling. Of course, that’s not coming from someone within the program, so there shouldn’t be too much put into it. But Kelly badly needs to avoid any and all negative headlines after the way things ended in Philly and San Fran, and things like that popping up don’t help his chances at rebuilding the Bruins.
Under Thompson-Robinson, a four-star recruit who was pressed into the starter’s role when graduate transfer Wilton Speight was injured in the season opener, the offense has been a work in progress, to put it mildly. Saturday was the first time the Bruins had put up more than 24 points in a game, and UCLA ranks 102nd nationally in yards per play. UCLA’s remaining schedule is brutal, too, as matchups with USC, Stanford and Oregon loom. There’s a good chance this team finishes with one win.
Will that impact recruiting? It very well could. UCLA recruits itself to a certain extent—it’s an incredible academic school in an ideal college town, nestled between Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, and has a rich athletic tradition. Jim Mora was able to routinely pull in top-20 classes during his up-and-down tenure. But the early returns on Kelly’s recruiting efforts are poor. Really, really poor. UCLA currently ranks 85th in 247Sports’ class of 2019 team rankings, with just three Power 5 schools ranking lower—Utah, Kansas State and Kansas.
That’s extremely concerning for the Bruin faithful. When you couple a coach whose previous success was built on a system that’s been adopted everywhere with poor recruiting … that’s not a recipe for success.
Frost worked as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Oregon, back in the Ducks’ glory days. Although both coaches will be given time to build at their new jobs, don’t be surprised if pupil—Frost—lasts significantly longer in his new digs than teacher does.