SEC Coaches in Year One

Setting a reasonable expectation is never easy in college football, especially in a new coach’s first year. For Jeremy Pruitt, five wins would be a literal improvement; six and a bowl berth would probably earn a nod of approval. But it’s not exactly the same as in Butch Jones’ first season, when a bowl appearance would have been the first in three years and a ranked win the first in four.

In a coach’s first year fans are more free with grace and more reliant on hope. The former will be there, particularly if recruiting is going well. And any opportunity you get to cash in on the latter can carry a coach and a program well into the future.

To help us figure out what a reasonable expectation for Jeremy Pruitt is in 2018, here’s a look back at the last year one for each of the 14 SEC schools. There’s quite the spectrum here, teaching us again that you just never know how these things are going to turn out. We’ve included Bill Connelly’s S&P+ data, which is helpful in showing the distance between a former coach’s final year and a new coach’s first year, especially when the records are often similar. Take a look:

ALABAMA: Nick Saban, 2007

  • Record: 7-6 (57th S&P+)
  • Previous Two Years: 6-7 (31st S&P+), 10-2 (15th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #16 Arkansas, #21 Tennessee
  • Bad Losses: Louisiana-Monroe
  • Was year one a success? Eh. It probably would have been considered one before the November 17 loss to ULM.
  • What did they build on? Recruiting, but also margin of defeat. Alabama lost all six games by one possession, three of them to ranked teams.
  • Did it work out long-term? I think so.

ARKANSAS: Bret Bielema, 2013

  • Record: 3-9 (67th)
  • Previous Two Years: 4-8 (39th), 11-2 (15th)
  • Meaningful Wins: none
  • Bad Losses: Rutgers
  • Was year one a success? No, though this was a tougher assignment following basically a lost year in 2012 with the Bobby Petrino scandal.
  • What did they build on? A late season surge: after losing their first six SEC games by at least 10 points, the Razorbacks lost to Mississippi State in overtime and to #15 LSU by four points.
  • Did it work out long-term? No. Bielema had the surest track record of any SEC hire in 2013, but never did better than 8-5 and was fired last fall after going 4-8.

AUBURN: Gus Malzahn, 2013

  • Record: 12-2 (5th)
  • Previous Two Years: 3-9 (73rd), 8-5 (43rd)
  • Meaningful Wins: Beat five ranked teams including #1 Alabama, won the SEC Championship and played in the BCS title game.
  • Bad Losses: none
  • Was year one a success? Definitely. It helps to inherit recruiting classes that finished 5th, 11th, and 10th from 2011-2013.
  • What did they build on? When you almost win the national championship in year one, what don’t you build on?
  • Did it work out long-term? Mostly. Auburn is only 33-20 in the last four years, but has a pair of New Year’s Six appearances and won the SEC West in 2017.

FLORIDA: Jim McElwain, 2015

  • Record: 10-4 (30th)
  • Previous Two Years: 7-5 (24th), 4-8 (33rd). Will Muschamp’s teams lost seven one possession games in his last two years at Florida.
  • Meaningful Wins: Tennessee, #3 Ole Miss, Georgia
  • Bad Losses: None, but did lose to Michigan 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl
  • Was year one a success? Definitely, but the end of the year soured it some and the loss of Will Grier would make a huge difference.
  • What did they build on? September and October, before the offense died.
  • Did it work out long-term? No. McElwain won the East again in 2016, but didn’t seem to be a good fit and was relieved of his duties after a 3-4 start in 2017.

GEORGIA: Kirby Smart, 2016

  • Record: 8-5 (68th)
  • Previous Two Years: 10-3 (45th), 10-3 (4th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #22 North Carolina in the season opener, #8 Auburn
  • Bad Losses: Vanderbilt
  • Was year one a success? Eh. It’s a tough ask for a coach to improve on back-to-back 10-win seasons in his first year.
  • What did they build on? Recruiting, and they were right to.
  • Did it work out long-term? Definitely. Mark Richt’s own recruiting left plenty of talent in Athens, and Smart cashed it in with a textbook year two surge last fall, one play short of a national championship.

KENTUCKY: Mark Stoops, 2013

  • Record: 2-10 (84th)
  • Previous Two Years: 2-10 (75th), 5-7 (93rd). Not all 5-7’s are created equal; UK was actually worse play-for-play in 2011 than 2012.
  • Meaningful Wins: none
  • Bad Losses: Western Kentucky
  • Was year one a success? No.
  • What did they build on? Recruiting.
  • Did it work out long-term? It’s been a slow burn, but Stoops went 5-7 the next two years, then 7-6 the last two years.

LSU: Ed Orgeron, 2017

  • Record: 9-4 (19th)
  • Previous Two Years: 8-4 (4th), 9-3 (11th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #10 Auburn
  • Bad Losses: Troy
  • Was year one a success: If we count Orgeron’s 6-2 run as the interim in 2016, maybe. If we count last season…it’s indistinguishable from the end of Les Miles’ tenure in results, and the quality of play on the field was worse in S&P+.
  • What did they build on? The coach’s personality?
  • Did it work out long-term? DaCoachO has to wait and see.

OLE MISS: Hugh Freeze, 2012

  • Record: 7-6 (19th)
  • Previous Two Years: 2-10 (76th), 4-8 (56th)
  • Meaningful Wins: Auburn, #25 Mississippi State
  • Bad Losses: none
  • Was year one a success: Definitely, and relatively speaking maybe the biggest one of this group of 14. Not only did Ole Miss make its first bowl game in three years, three of their six losses came by six points or less. This was a huge jump from a 2-10 season the year before.
  • What did they build on? All of this, plus recruiting.
  • Did it work out long-term? It definitely did until Hugh Freeze had to be fired for off-the-field issues.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Dan Mullen, 2009

  • Record: 5-7 (33rd)
  • Previous Two Years: 4-8 (95th), 8-5 (55th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #25 Ole Miss
  • Bad Losses: Houston
  • Was year one a success: The answer to this might be “eh”, but look at the jump they made in S&P+. Sylvester Croom’s last team lost four games by at least 25 points. Mullen’s first team only had two such losses despite playing five ranked teams, three in the top seven. Even though they didn’t get bowl eligible, that Egg Bowl win was a huge note to end on.
  • What did they build on? Competitiveness
  • Did it work out long-term? Yes.

MISSOURI: Barry Odom, 2016

  • Record: 4-8 (69th)
  • Previous Two Years: 5-7 (83rd), 11-3 (28th)
  • Meaningful Wins: Arkansas
  • Bad Losses: MTSU
  • Was year one a success: No. Odom wasn’t in year one because the previous coach didn’t work out, but the Tigers did slightly improve in S&P+.
  • What did they build on? …I’m unsure, I think we all thought this one wouldn’t work.
  • Did it work out long-term? Mizzou was 7-6 last year, so we’ll see. Odom’s fate may now be tied to Derek Dooley’s as offensive coordinator.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Will Muschamp, 2016

  • Record: 6-7 (89th S&P+)
  • Previous Two Years: 3-9 (85th), 7-6 (40th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #18 Tennessee
  • Bad Losses: none
  • Was year one a success: Compared to 2015, definitely. Compared to South Carolina’s resume from 2010-13, less so.
  • What did they build on? Recruiting
  • Did it work out long-term? Carolina bounced to 9-4 last year, in line with the expectations Steve Spurrier created.

TENNESSEE: Butch Jones, 2013

  • Record: 5-7 (47th)
  • Previous Two Years: 5-7 (38th), 5-7 (30th)
  • Meaningful Wins: #11 South Carolina
  • Bad Losses: none
  • Was year one a success: As was the case with most of Butch Jones’ tenure, almost.
  • What did they build on? Recruiting
  • Did it work out long-term? It almost did, and then it really didn’t. Critical for Jones in year one were a pair of missed opportunities against Georgia and Vanderbilt, either of which would have earned bowl eligibility and a significant dose of early credibility.

TEXAS A&M: Kevin Sumlin, 2012

  • Record: 11-2 (2nd)
  • Previous Two Years: 7-6 (8th), 9-4 (22nd). Very sneaky sir: Mike Sherman’s last team lost four games to ranked teams by a combined 10 points, one of them in four overtimes. They also lost to Missouri in overtime and blasted #20 Baylor by 27 points. We didn’t know it in their first year in the SEC, but these guys were already a great team in disguise. Add in Johnny Manziel, and you get 11-2.
  • Meaningful Wins: Four ranked teams, including #1 Alabama
  • Bad Losses: none
  • Was year one a success? Definitely
  • What did they build on? Johnny Football
  • Did it work out long-term? Surprisingly, no. Sumlin went 9-4 the next year, then three straight 8-5’s, then 7-5 before A&M made a change.

VANDERBILT: Derek Mason, 2014

  • Record: 3-9 (110th)
  • Previous Two Years: 9-4 (68th), 8-4 (55th). Franklin’s teams didn’t set the world on fire in S&P+, but this is still the steepest year one drop for any SEC team on this list.
  • Meaningful Wins: none
  • Bad Losses: Temple, 37-7 in the season opener
  • Was year one a success? No.
  • What did they build on? No idea.
  • Did it work out long-term? He hasn’t been James Franklin, but Mason improved to 4-8, 6-7, and 5-7 the last three years.

What can we learn?

Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin can create unrealistic expectations; Malzahn could rely on Top 10 talent, Sumlin on a Heisman Trophy winner with a team that was already close. The Vols have some talent left behind from Butch Jones, but not enough to expect the unexpected in terms of this team’s ceiling.

The better comparison is in the state of Mississippi. Dan Mullen didn’t get MSU to a bowl game in his first year, but secured a lasting memory by beating Ole Miss and made his team far more competitive. Hugh Freeze got seven wins from a group that won just two the year before and backed it up with elite recruiting, getting his team to 8-5 the next year then two straight New Year’s Six appearances.

Tennessee finished 107th in S&P+ last year, worse than any team on this list when it made a coaching change. Five of Tennessee’s losses came by 18+ points. In many ways there’s nowhere to go but up. We’ll learn more about Pruitt’s recruiting between now and September 1. But just as important as the final record between 5-7 and 7-5 is how the Vols get there: are we more competitive, and can Pruitt create a lasting memory to build on in year one?

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daetilus
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daetilus

Competitiveness without feeling like we let wins escape us. That’s a difference from the last regime I want as well. The teams were often competitive but absolutely collapsed late losing games they should have won (I’m looking at you OU and UF especially). If we’re competitive in most games and make a bowl game, I think that’s a successful season. No matter the result of the bowl game beyond competitive again. I’d be pretty happy if a 7-5 regular season mark was achieved. I don’t think that mark is impossible, but I recognize it won’t necessarily be easy

Gavin Driskill
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Gavin Driskill

Some betting site just put out their SEC O/Us and had the Vols at 5.5, which feels…about right? We already know they’re sizable underdogs to WVU. Taking a loss there would require 3 SEC wins to get to a bowl game, and after going 0-8 in conference last year, it’s hard to look at any one game and say, “Oh, yeah, the Vols should absolutely win that.” I’d settle for a) seeing development from individual players who were around last year, b) feeling like there is a cohesive strategy on both sides of the ball, and c) not getting run… Read more »

Ben Farr
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Ben Farr

5 seems to be a reasonable number to me too. I look at the schedule and three frankly gimme games plus hopefully a couple of games from Vandy, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina are about all I can reasonably hope for. It saddens me that I am honestly “hopeful” that we win 5 games but that is the state of the program. The good news for Pruitt is my expectations are the lowest they have ever been. They have all the room in the world to pleasantly surprise me. I am still looking forward to football season no matter what.

Gavin Driskill
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Gavin Driskill

I think that’s an interesting question, and one that probably breaks down somewhat along generational lines…have you ever had less hope/fewer expectations for UT football than you do right now?

I was born in 1986 and came of age during the crazy run in the 90s, so I’ve almost always had hope. 2013 is possibly the only other season where I had equally low expectations.

Ben Farr
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Ben Farr

You do bring up a good point. Taken in the context of how “the search” went it could have been worse. *shudders*

Ben Farr
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Ben Farr

For me it is the low point. I was born in ’72 so I remember much of Majors and was really becoming a die hard fan when Fulmer was hired. I think what makes this the low point for me is the historic lows we hit last year. Not only did we lose to every SEC team on our schedule last year but we also have less returning production (combined offensive and defensive ) than every SEC team on our schedule. I think we will be better this year because of better coaching and hopefully less injuries. The question in… Read more »