Kingslayers or fresh meat? Six new SEC coaches look to dethrone Alabama's Nick Saban
With summer practice just around the corner, there's plenty of fresh meat holding whistles in the SEC
There is give and take to every coaching change.
For Mississippi State's Joe Moorhead, it was giving up a simple convenience when he arrived in Starkville.
"There is no Target," he said. "You have to go to Tuscaloosa for a Target."
That means driving 84 miles into the heart of Alabama – the home of an SEC West rival -- to get a spatula or a space heater. This was likely never discussed during contract negotiations with the former Penn State offensive coordinator.
There are just some things about being a first-time SEC coach for which you cannot prepare. But for $2.7 million a year, Moorhead will be expected to manage.
There is a lot of adaptation going around in the SEC. There hasn't been this many new full-time head coaches in the league (six) since 1946.
The changes range from Dan Mullen merely switching divisions (Mississippi State to Florida) to Tennessee's first-time head coach Jeremy Pruitt taking on the challenge of his life: trying to mollify Vol Nation.
In between, you have a national championship coach (Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M), a coach digging out of NCAA probation (Matt Luke at Ole Miss) and a coach getting his first Power Five top job (Chad Morris at Arkansas).
We already know there hasn't been this much SEC coaching upheaval in 72 years. But will the league be better off because of it?
That's a question that will be answered years from now. For now, all of them are lined up trying to knock off Nick Saban. In winning five national championships in 11 years in T-Town, Alabama's coach has watched 27 coaching changes in the SEC. Six more this season is nothing new.
Saban's own personal coaching tree has now grown to 17. That's the number of current or former head coaches that have been on at least one of his staffs. In the SEC alone this year, four current head coaches have worked for Saban. Two of them, Fisher and Pruitt, represent a third of the 2018 changes.
That's not counting Butch Jones -- hired as an Alabama analyst -- whose firing at Tennessee created that opening for Pruitt.
"I like to see guys get opportunities," Saban said. "I know that's what they work for. Most guys in this profession, that's what they're sort of driven to do."
What are the chances of any of them elbowing Saban out of the picture? That answer might lie in the combined 17 years of contracts handed to Fisher (10 at Texas A&M) and Gus Malzahn (seven at Auburn).
If nothing else, those coaches may outlast the 66-year-old coach Saban, if not beat him consistently.
Eight of the league's 14 coaches are entering their third season or less in their current job. The six new coaches represent almost 30 percent of the coaching changes in FBS.
Decide for yourself whether they have a chance to succeed.
Jimbo Fisher, 52, Texas A&M: The highest-paid coach in history (based on total dollars) is Florida State coachover the course of his 10-year, $75 million contract. Previous job:
Matt Luke, 41, Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze's former offensive line coach is in the second season of cleaning up Freeze's mess. Luke also heads into the second year of a bowl ban after posting an impressive 6-6 record in 2017. "Everybody counted them out," Luke said of his players. "If you asked them, they would be most proud of what they were able to accomplished" compared to the 2016 Peach Bowl season. Previous job: Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator
Chad Morris, 49, Arkansas: The offensive wizard set the foundation as offensive coordinator at Clemson kick-starting the Tigers' current championship run. While he didn't exactly turn around SMU (14-22 in three seasons), Morris is the antithesis of Bret Bielema's ground-and-pound style that had grown stale. Previous job: SMU coach
Joe Moorhead, 44, Mississippi State: One of the best coaching hires anywhere. Moorhead was a key part of Penn State's resurgence under James Franklin. Moorhead coached Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley to star status. Previous job: Penn State offensive coordinator
Dan Mullen, 46, Florida: Things could not have worked out better failing to land Chip Kelly. Mullen was the logical choice as a direct link the Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow glory days. "One of the benefits I have being at Florida: It's not on the job training," Mullen said. Previous job: Mississippi State coach
Jeremy Pruitt, 44, Tennessee: JP is exactly what athletic director Phillip Fulmer wanted and UT needed after the program's meltdown. Pruitt -- with an impressive staff -- will run the ball and play defense. It may be a while, though, before the Vols are a factor in the SEC. Previous job: Alabama defensive coordinator
"All these guys will find a way," said Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, who is suddenly sixth in SEC head coaching seniority. "They're good coaches."
What we don't know is how this positions the league for the future. Nine national championships in the last 12 years is quite a standard.
Together, the six new coaches have at least had a hand in 13 FBS conference championships and eight national championships. Their combined winning percentage is .643 as full-time FBS head coaches. Only three have held such a position before 2018 (Mullen, Fisher and Morris).
"There is a comfort level," said Mullen, returning to Florida where he was Meyer's offensive coordinator from 2005-08. "When things go wrong … and decisions are made … I've kind of lived through it. It's not like 'Uh-oh.' It doesn't shock me."
Pruitt is the only one of the six without previous college head-coaching experience. But that's not the first thing you think about when considering his prospects.
Pruitt has four national championship rings with Alabama and Florida State. After picking up his third with the Tide last season, this is his time.
Irony alert: There may not have been a time at all.
"What's interesting," Pruitt joked last week at the SEC spring meetings, "I look around the room. I've got a bunch of friends in the profession but none of them has offered any help."
There is a difference, after all, between being a first-time head coach and being a first-time head coach in the SEC.
"Out on the practice fields, we all follow the same set of rules. We all play the same game," Mullen said. "It's when you walk off the practice field and you walk out of the stadium on game day that makes the SEC different."
Take that any way you want. Mullen knows the turf, Morris knows offense, Pruitt knows the culture, Jimbo knows how to win, and Luke knows Ole Miss.
Moorhead knows it's his time. A "Yankee" from the Northeast, Moorhead was last a head coach at FCS Fordham from 2012-15.
"From a transitional standpoint, it's been relatively seamless," the Pittsburgh native said. "A lot gets made of the regional aspect of coaching and recruiting. I think it's incredibly overblown."
In 2017, Moorhead helped land the Big Ten's No. 3-ranked team, according to 247Sports. He helped developed McSorley and Barkley at Penn State. Mullen left him 18 starters at Mississippi State, including quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
Moorhead got a glimpse of his new quarterback last year watching the Egg Bowl on TV while at Penn State. That is, until he ducked out briefly to buy his son a birthday gift at -- you guessed it -- Target.
"It took me a year to really figure out my team," Mason said. "I know Kirby Smart played in the national championship, but you go back to Kirby in Year 1 [and] it was a different story. Everybody is questioning whether or not he can be successful."
Year 1 of Kirby in 2016 -- his first as a head coach -- ended with an 8-5 record, a tie for Georgia's worst since 2010. "I'm not here to give advice to anybody who's a first-time head coach in the league," Smart said.
Maybe, but he is currently the epitome of hope for the newbies getting Georgia to the College Football Playoff National Championship in Year 2. That certainly beats going 8-5.
Last week, Smart was being asked how he got over being walked off by Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama.
"We had to recruit two days after that," Smart said. "I'm in a home selling the season we had and the progress we've made. You can't let that play beat you twice."
Even Saban didn't get to the national championship in his second season. His influence, though, hangs over this whole process. In at least a tangential way, Saban has had a hand in all of it. These days, you're either a victim of his excellence or a part of it.
There is a tattered seven-year old notebook on Billy Napier's desk. It might as well be a Bible.
"Has all my notes from 2011," said Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette's first-year coach.
That national championship year at Alabama was a turning point in Napier's career. Having been fired from Clemson where he had been the nation's youngest coordinator, he needed a lifeline. Saban threw it to him in offering him a spot as the then-little known position of offensive analyst. Napier remade himself and his reputation over the years rising to become Arizona State's offensive coordinator in 2017.
If you squint, the former Clemson/Alabama/Colorado State/Arizona State assistant could soon be a first-time SEC head coach himself.
"I would not be where I am," Napier said, "without that [Alabama] experience."
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