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Eyes on the Nation: Ranking the best and worst first-year head coaches

Dan Mullen at Florida. Mario Cristobal at Oregon. Some first-year coaches are doing just fine. Then there’s the Scott Frost’s and Chip Kelly’s of the world...

Florida v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Florida head coach Dan Mullen returned to Gainesville last Saturday after helming the Mississippi State Bulldogs for nine years.

The former Gator offensive coordinator left Starkville in late November as the second-winningest coach in school history. Only 10 months later, the New Ball Coach led his new ball club back into the Magnolia State for a matchup against the No. 23 ranked Bulldogs.

Did fans greet him with their signature cowbells, or a smattering of boos?

The 13-6 Florida victory was defined by promising SEC first-year head coaches. Mullen faced Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead, the former Penn State offensive coordinator, in a battle of respected offensive minds.

Mullen and Moorhead represent two of the 21 head coaching hires from the 2018 offseason. With Mullen elevating himself above Moorhead for the time being with the win, let’s rank the good, the bad and the Chip Kelly of the new coaches.


Mario Cristobal, Oregon

It’s easy to overlook Cristobal’s 27-47 overall record coming into Eugene, but he did that at Florida International. Considering he led a program — less than a decade old at the time — to a conference title and two bowl games is pretty impressive. Also, the Golden Panthers were most known for this before he arrived:

Now, he’s just a blown fourth-quarter lead against Stanford from leading the No. 18 Ducks to an undefeated record.

With a Pac 12 North tilt with No. 10 Washington on Oct. 13, the fact he has Oregon in divisional contention in Year 1 makes him the most successful first-year coach.

Dan Mullen, Florida

He’s got the Gators ranked at No. 22. He has the same record as Cristobal at 4-1. However, there’s no way he’s getting Florida to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.

With Kentucky breaking the 31-year losing streak to Florida earlier this month, and the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs primed to seize the SEC East, the goal for Mullen this year should be a January bowl game.

With road scalps against Mississippi State and rival Tennessee — the latter in a blowout — he is well on his way.

Once he finds a quarterback with better wheels than Feleipe Franks, his pedestrian offense will take flight.

Josh Heupel, UCF

The starting quarterback for the 2001 National Championship Oklahoma Sooners, Heupel rose through the coaching ranks to land on Scott Frost’s staff in Orlando. After “winning” the title a year ago, he’s extended the Knights’ unbeaten streak to 16.

One of those was a 45-14 beatdown of Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. It’s hard to tell whether or not Heupel is simply shepherding what Frost built.

If he returns UCF to a New Year’s Six bowl, or even an outside shot at the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff, expect his stock to rise.

Herm Edwards, Arizona State

You play to win the game.

At 3-2, Edwards is on the brink of being merely okay, like many new hires. His two losses came on the road to plucky San Diego State and conference favorite Washington — both by a touchdown.

The advanced stats are seeing a mediocre team at No. 53 overall per S&P. In the Pac 12 South, with Southern Cal, UCLA, Utah and Arizona struggling, that might be good enough for a bid to Santa Clara.

Have to beat Colorado on the road, first.


Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

This is not a good look.

Football folk such as Mark Schlereth disapproved, so this isn’t simply outside overreaction. With player abuse issues in college football existing well before Jordan McNair and Maryland this year, this behavior should be troubling.

For what it’s worth, the Aggies have claim to two moral victories, losing to No. 4 Clemson by two and nearly gaining 400 yards on No. 1 Alabama.

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

Speaking of Texas A&M, the former head coach is now leading the Arizona Wildcats. Shockingly, Kevin Sumlin and dual-threat Khalil Tate have not been a happy marriage.

The spread guru has opted for Tate’s arm instead of his legs, as last year’s late Heisman bloomer has just 69 yards through five games.

With home losses to Brigham Young and a very young Southern Cal, plus an noncompetitive blowout at Houston, Sumlin has likely blown a golden opportunity for a division title. While Wildcat fans likely licked their chops at having him over Edwards, the latter is closer to meaningful wins this fall.

Willie Taggart, Florida State

In fairness, Fisher’s replacement in Tallahassee has scrapped the Seminoles back to a winning record. Taggart inherited a program that barely made a bowl in 2017, as well as an offensive line that can’t keep quarterback Deandre Francois upright.

With a trip to No. 17 Miami (Fla.) this weekend, he has a chance to endear himself to the faithful with a rivalry win, potentially putting early pratfalls in the rearview mirror.

Other bad starts: Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee), Sonny Dykes (SMU) and Chad Morris (Arkansas)


Chip Kelly, UCLA

All seemed calm in the Rose Bowl on Sep. 1. Chip Kelly, face of the Oregon dynasty, roamed the sidelines for UCLA. Hearts fluttered as grad transfer quarterback Wilton Speight led the Bruins to a 10-0 lead over visiting Cincinnati.

In a blink of an eye, the game turned. Speight went down for his second injury in two years and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson couldn’t muster more than a touchdown in a 26-17 defeat.

Since then, UCLA has lost by double-digits in every game, falling by an average of 20.7 points. Kelly’s offense has cleared 20 points just once, thanks to garbage time points against No. 7 Oklahoma.

There’s even Thompson-Robinson’s dad doing his best Lavar Ball impersonation.

This team is likely going 0-12. At least 0-4 Nebraska gets a date with Bethune-Cookman to get off the schneid.

Scott Frost, Nebraska

Nebraska is 0-4 for the first time ever. Frost is having a bad time.

He even describes the foundation he inherited as full of “termites.”

When Adrian Martinez starts, outside of the Michigan debacle, the Husker offense averages 573.5 yards and 28 points a game. There’s an offense brewing in Lincoln, but as Michiganders learned two weeks ago, the defense is abysmal.

Unlike UCLA, Nebraska won’t go 0-12. Outside of Oct. 27 versus Bethune-Cookman, Frost has enough firepower to top Illinois, Minnesota and possibly even pull an unexpected upset.

The reason he’s in the ugly spot is the expectations combined with the depressing rhetoric.


  • No. 19 Texas over No. 7 Oklahoma (Noon, FOX)

The Red River Shootout produces upsets on the regular, including two by unranked Texas over ranked Sooner outfits in 2013 and 2015.

If the Wolverines beat Maryland, they would pass Oklahoma and also stay in front of the Longhorns due to their Week 1 loss to the Terrapins.

  • Texas A&M over No. 13 Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN)

Wildcats lose, Wolverines pass. On the other hand, Kentucky impersonating a football school is a breath of fresh air.

  • Mississippi State over No. 8 Auburn (7:30 p.m., ESPN2)

Same deal. Michigan would pass a two-loss SEC team.

  • No. 24 Virginia Tech over No. 6 Notre Dame (8 p.m., ABC)

Notre Dame proved it’s a quality program by routing previously top-10 Stanford. Here’s the narrative now: Michigan lost to a College Football Playoff contender on opening weekend by a touchdown on the road.

However, do Wolverine faithful really want the Irish to reach the playoff? Depending on the perspective, the Hokies are likely the last-ranked team on Notre Dame’s schedule.

A Notre Dame win all but punches a ticket to football’s Final Four.