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Forde-Yard Dash: How Do 10 First-Year Coaches Stack Up So Far?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Busch Light sold separately—and sold out?—in Ames):

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They arrived at their new institutions last winter, and shortly thereafter so did COVID-19. Since then it’s been a completely abnormal ride, sans playbook on how to handle a job transition amid a pandemic.

Ideally and objectively, we all would draw a line through the results of 2020 and set the odometer back to zero in 2021 for those coaches. But how much fun is that in the middle of a season? Let’s check in on how this drinking-from-a-firehose year is going so far for these 10 men:

Sam Pittman (21), Arkansas. Expected record at this point: 0–2. Actual record: 1–1.

The least-heralded Power 5 hire of 2020 has gotten off to the best start. Pittman broke the Razorbacks’ 20-game Southeastern Conference losing streak Saturday in a shocking upset of Mississippi State, a game in which the Hogs never trailed. Combine that with leading mighty Georgia for more than two quarters in the opener, and Pittman looks like Frank Broyles in comparison to predecessor Chad Morris. Credit new defensive coordinator Barry Odom (formerly the head coach at Missouri) with a competent gameplan against State. Still early, of course, but this could be Arkansas’s best defense in six years. They love their XXL head coach in Fayetteville; of course, they loved the last XXL head coach for a while, too (Bret Bielema).

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin

Lane Kiffin (22), Mississippi. Expected record at this point: 0–2. Actual record: 1–1.

Kiffin is who we thought that he was: architect of an entertaining and efficient offense; indifferent toward defense; absolutely willing to stir the SEC pot. The Rebels are second nationally in pass efficiency, after Kiffin made the right call for his offense by going back to Matt Corral at quarterback and benching dual-threat John Rhys Plumlee They’re also dead last nationally by a wide margin in total defense, surrendering 600 yards per game. And Kiffin delighted Ole Miss fans (and much of the rest of the SEC) by slipping the needle to former boss Nick Saban with this comment Monday, five days ahead of facing Alabama: Kiffin was asked about one of his own players who opted out, and he turned the question around, pointing it toward Tuscaloosa: “I don’t know how Alabama did this. It’s amazing. Coach did a great job of somehow keeping these guys happy and, you know, not feeling like they need to get ready for the draft with all these first-rounders. These guys around the country opting out but none are Alabama guys. Coach must have had a great plan.” Incentive for Saban to try to hang 60 in Oxford Saturday? Perhaps. But know this: Kiffin came within a blocked field goal on the last play of beating Alabama the only time he has faced the Tide as a head coach, in 2009 at Tennessee. ‘Bama went on to win its first national title under Saban.

Mike Leach (23), Mississippi State. Expected record at this point: 1–1. Actual record: 1–1.

Befitting the iconoclastic Leach, the Bulldogs are where they should be but the route has been the exact opposite—upset LSU on the road, then be upset by Arkansas at home. State might well be 2–0 if Kylin Hill hadn’t left the game early Saturday, after just one touch from scrimmage, but that’s football. The Bulldogs’ Red Zone travails and three interceptions by K.J. Costello brought everyone in Starkville back down to Earth in rapid fashion. In two weeks, Mississippi State has gotten the full Pirate Experience: some good wins, some weird losses, some entertaining quotes, some churlish moments. It won’t be dull.

Eli Drinkwitz (24), Missouri. Expected record at this point: 0–2. Actual record: 0–2.

When the revised SEC schedule came out with the Tigers opening with Alabama, at Tennessee and at LSU, expectations were low. Thus far, Drinkwitz has met them. But while starting 0–2 was expected, the extent of the domination in Knoxville was either an indication of the Volunteers’ new prowess or a warning sign for Mizzou. Drinkwitz’s quarterback switch from Shawn Robinson to Connor Bazelak early in the Tennessee game likely will be permanent—Bazelak has been better in every facet of the game.

Dave Aranda (25), Baylor. Expected record at this point: 2–0. Actual record: 1–1.

Aranda inherited a program due to take a significant step back from last season’s fate-kissed 11–3 season. That is underway. The Bears were 5–2 in games decided by one score last year, and thus far in 2020 they’re 0–1 after an overtime loss to West Virginia. Baylor is 1–4 in the field goal department thus far, but the most disappointing thing about the loss in Morgantown was a plus-two turnover margin—that should be enough to tip the balance in a relatively even matchup.

Mike Norvell (26), Florida State. Expected record at this point: 2–1. Actual record: 1–2.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren might be the only person in college football who has had a more difficult transition year than Norvell. There was a brief player protest in the summer over inaccurate comments Norvell made about being in touch personally with every player after George Floyd’s death. There were at least two player opt-outs. And then, after an awful debut performance in a loss to Georgia Tech, Norvell himself tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the Seminoles’ annihilation against rival Miami. Florida State finally won a game Saturday, but it was against FCS Jacksonville State and it came after falling behind 14–0. Instead of appearing markedly better after firing WIllie Taggart, FSU actually looks worse.

Jeff Hafley (27), Boston College. Expected record at this point: 2–1. Actual record: 2–1.

Combine a sharp defensive coach with nine returning starters and you get an Eagles D that is vastly improved over recent editions. That, plus the immediate eligibility of Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, should give BC the chance to be in almost every game this season—it was within a failed two-point conversion of tying North Carolina in the final minute Saturday. Notably missing from the Eagles’ offensive arsenal thus far: any semblance of a consistent running game. The hole left by the departure of all-time leading rusher A.J. Dillon has not been filled.

Willie Taggart (28), Florida Atlantic. Expected record at this point: 0–1. Actual record: 1–0.

It took a long time for the Owls to play a game, but the payoff was a Taggart debut win over Charlotte Saturday. It basically all happened in a quarter: FAU scored three touchdowns in the span of 6 minutes and 19 seconds for a 21–17 victory. (A pair of missed 49ers field goals and a fumble inside the Charlotte 20-yard line helped.) Noteworthy departures from Taggart’s Florida State teams: the Owls did not commit a turnover and were only penalized three times. Taggart’s new life in Boca Raton has started far better than his successor’s new life in Tallahassee.

Jeff Scott (29), South Florida. Expected record at this point: 1–2. Actual record: 1–2.

The former Clemson assistant now knows what life is like without Trevor Lawrence, after watching his quarterbacks throw five interceptions Saturday against Cincinnati. The Bulls have played two very good teams (Notre Dame and the Bearcats) and one overmatched FCS opponent (The Citadel). The biggest problem is that they’ve only scored four offensive touchdowns, and Scott still appears far from settled on his best offensive personnel at this point. A Saturday date with defensively helpless East Carolina should help clarify that.

Ryan Silverfield (30), Memphis. Expected record at this point: 1–1. Actual record: 1–1.

The Tigers were in virus purgatory for weeks and it showed—their first game in 28 days began with them falling behind SMU 24–3. Memphis eventually rallied to tie the game and had chances to pull out a stirring victory in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Brady White fumbled late to set up the Mustangs’ winning field goal. Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre, the former head coach at Colorado and the DC at Ole Miss last year, needs to get his unit performing better after giving up 500-plus yards in both games to date.

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