College football coaches entering Year 2 who are facing defining seasons in 2019
The coaches on this list have big years ahead that will determine whether they sink or swim
Year 2 of a college football coaching tenure can be a pivot point. The first year almost always comes free of expectations, but by the end of the third season, there is a body of work that can be fairly judged. In between, coaches have a roster that is a mix of their first recruiting classes, veterans recruited by the previous staff and -- increasingly in the year of the transfer portal -- a handful of players that have transferred in from other schools or the junior college ranks. Managing that hybrid roster and settling in with the lessons learned in Year 1 is a tremendous challenge, but it's also presented incredible opportunities in years past.
Urban Meyer won a national championship in Year 2 at Florida, Nick Saban notched top-10 finishes and conference title game appearances in both Year 2s at LSU and Alabama and recently Scott Frost, in Year 2, led UCF to an undefeated 13-0 record.
Year 2 was particularly fateful this past season for Tom Herman. Texas knocked off Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, took the Sooners to the finish of the Big 12 title game and then beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to finish in the top 10 of the rankings. The season has reverberated throughout the state, and now there is more optimism, excitement and buzz around Texas football than we've seen in nearly a decade.
On the flip side, Year 2 can signal to a school and fans that a coach isn't the right fit for the job. Sometimes that's warranted and other times it's not, but if lowered expectations aren't met in Year 1, and Year 2 doesn't present some sort of turnaround, then it can be the first signs of a short end to a coaching stint.
Let's now have a look at some of the college football coaches that are facing defining seasons ahead in their second seasons at the helm.
Most to gain
Scott Frost, Nebraska: As a coach, Frost has proven to be elite communicator, and his message is resonating deeply throughout the community at his alma mater. An 0-6 start last season has been all but forgotten thanks to a 4-2 finish to the year, and the improvement throughout the end of 2018 has Cornhuskers fans on the edge of their seats heading into 2019. With quarterback Adrian Martinez back in his second year, Nebraska has the potential to make some noise in the Big Ten West and cement Frost's place among the league's top tier of coaches.
Dan Mullen, Florida: No one connected to Florida needs me or anyone else to point out the aforementioned Urban Meyer national title in Year 2. That's especially true for Mullen, the offensive coordinator for that 2006 championship team. Mullen has already received favor from fans that an outsider like Jim McElwain was never going to receive, and he's been assisted by inheriting a talented roster that is hungry to compete at the highest level in the SEC. Mullen has the roster to overcome Georgia and get the Gators back to the SEC Championship Game, and doing that in 2019 would likely carry far more long-term significance than McElwain's consecutive trips to Atlanta in 2015 and 2016.
Mario Cristobal, Oregon: Improved recruiting following a drop-off on the trail has been the first sign of Cristobal's positive impact on the Oregon program. Now he's tasked with the challenge of delivering the sort of results that Oregon fans became accustomed to in the first half of the last decade. A big part of Cristobal's "most to gain" status in Year 2 comes hand-in-hand with Justin Herbert's status as one of the top quarterback talents in college football. All year there will be an NFL Draft-powered focus on the Ducks, regardless of record. Cristobal and the Ducks program can benefit from that spotlight if Oregon is in the College Football Playoff race. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on result -- the reality of that playoff contention hinges on a kickoff weekend game against Auburn.
Most to lose
Willie Taggart, Florida State: The worst imaginable start for any Power Five coach is to see a decades-long bowl streak come to an end in Year 1. The Seminoles' inability to consistently compete at a high level served as a troubling sign of issues that could be lingering from the sudden and stunning drop-off at the end of the Jimbo Fisher era. Taggart walked into ACC Media Days a year ago with his two player representatives consistently throwing around words like "culture" and "accountability" to signal that times were changing in and around Tallahassee. When 2018 resulted in a worse record than the year before and no bowl game trip, the pressure ramped up. The Seminoles don't have to take down Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, but there needs to be marked improvement in 2019 for Taggart to avoid witnessing Florida State fans move on from his promise of rebuilding the dynastic program.
Chip Kelly, UCLA: There are two sides to the Chip Kelly analysis. Some look at the strides the Bruins made a year ago with hope for a strong rushing offense led by Joshua Kelly and a big step forward for Dorian Thompson-Robinson in his second year as quarterback. The thinking, similar to Martinez and Frost at Nebraska, is that the trial by fire in Year 1 will have benefits when UCLA's offense takes the field in 2019. The flip side of the Kelly analysis suggests that a "smartest guy in the room" approach to recruiting and the on-brand stubborn commitment to his beliefs and systems don't set up well after inheriting a roster with talent deficiencies.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee: There was a clash last year between Pruitt and a roster of Butch Jones-recruited players that weren't on board with a change in culture. Jones boasted about his recruiting classes with "five-star hearts" and frequently applied a warm touch to the program's harder moments. Pruitt brought a different approach to adversity and his hard honesty -- most memorably voiced after losing in embarrassing fashion to Alabama at home -- indicated a hard shift in the way this staff handles defeat in the SEC. When you're tough on the team, and tough on yourself, it compounds the mental and emotional impact of losses while driving up the urgency to end those losing ways.
Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State: Now comes the real test for Moorhead as the recruits of the Dan Mullen era begin to cycle out of Starkville and the highly-touted offensive mind will take his stab at replicating that success at Mississippi State. The kind of SEC success that Mullen brought to the Bulldogs was a high-mark in the program's history, and the pressure is on Moorhead to match that while, conversely, traditional thinking suggests a cycle down might be in their future.
Chad Morris, Arkansas: Rewind back to the beginning of Clemson's rise -- back when "Clemson-ing" was a thing -- and you'll remember that Morris was one of the hottest coaches in the game for his work as offensive coordinator with the Tigers. He entertained a couple of offers before eventually taking over at SMU, and then last year finally took the Power Five leap at Arkansas. But does Morris still hold that cache as a rising star in the industry? More than a decade of Texas high school dominance got him here, but now Morris needs wins.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: A 10-year contract isn't necessarily the key that allows Fisher to defer some pressure. Rather, it's the hefty enough buyout that's attached that leads one to believe fans wouldn't be thrilled with reversing course early in his tenure. What Fisher has going for him heading into Year 2 is a debut season in College Station that saw the Aggies remain competitive in the SEC while also building hope for the future with wins on the recruiting trail. Fisher has the reputation of a dogged recruiter and excellent closer, so as long as the top-ranked classes continue to arrive, it will keep the angry mob at arm's length.
Herm Edwards, Arizona State: Last season, the Arizona State win total in Las Vegas was 4.5, so it's clear that Edwards has already exceeded expectations in the early years of his tenure with the Sun Devils. Replicating that success is going to be tough without stars like Manny Wilkins and N'Keal Harry, but Arizona State was competitive enough to believe this hire is less of a wild experiment than some imagined after it was announced.
Josh Heupel, UCF: It's a tough task taking over for Scott Frost after a record-setting 13-0 season that put UCF football on the map in new and forever-changing ways. To nearly replicate that success with another undefeated regular season, conference championship and New Years' Six bowl appearance has allowed Heupel to receive plenty of leeway leading one of the most prominent programs outside of the Power Five. The best sign for Heupel, as a former coordinator and offense-first coach, might have been how the Knights were able to keep things together both on the field and off following the loss of star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a horrific injury when a drop-off would have been completely understandable.
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