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Grading Year One Coaches with SP+

KNOXVILLE, TN - October 09, 2021 - Defensive back Jaylen McCollough #22 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

There were 18 coaching changes on the FBS level heading into the 2021 season; that number jumped to 29 on the carousel’s latest round this winter.

Timing – not often Tennessee’s friend these last 15 years – is definitely on our side in this regard. Last year, the Vols rode the carousel with Texas and Auburn among major powers, plus South Carolina as our contemporary. The only other power five openings were Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, and Vanderbilt. Boise State came open when Bryan Harsin went to Auburn, UCF when Josh Heupel came here. That’s about it.

The 2022 year one cycle includes Florida, LSU, Miami, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, TCU, USC, Virginia Tech, and Washington. That’s ten schools who were in the hunt for a national championship at some point during the BCS/CFP era. Then add in Duke, Texas Tech, Virginia, and Washington State in the power five pool.

You need timing to work in your favor to help get these things right. And then, you know, you need to get it right.

It’s impossible to know anything for sure after one year. We’ve seen that play out at Tennessee before. We regularly use Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings on our site, both because they value every snap, and because they’re helpful in separating two teams with similar records.

Here’s a look at Tennessee’s four previous year one seasons in SP+:

CoachYearPrev. RecordPrev. SP+Year OneYear One SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Jeremy Pruitt20184-81.25-75.514.3
Butch Jones20135-715.15-75.10-10
Derek Dooley20107-616.26-77.7-1-8.5
Lane Kiffin20095-7127-616.224.2

This has gone one of two ways the last four times we’ve tried it. Lane Kiffin and Jeremy Pruitt were able to take a step forward in year one, for two very different reasons. Kiffin’s team was solid, which you’d expect just two years removed from Atlanta, and more competitive than their 2008 predecessors. Pruitt’s first team had the luxury of following the program’s low point; even though they lost six games by 25+ points, it was still an improvement over 2017.

Year one for Derek Dooley and Butch Jones took a step backwards in overall competitiveness. Both of those seasons followed two of the better teams we’ve seen around here in the last 15 years. Kiffin’s one-year stint automatically put Dooley’s first team behind the eight ball, and the 2010 Vols finished 8.5 points worse in SP+. Dooley’s final team was competitive with almost everyone, but couldn’t beat any of the ranked foes they faced. Meanwhile, Butch Jones’ first team the next year beat #11 South Carolina, but suffered a handful of blowout losses, ultimately finishing 10 points worse in SP+.

Again, no guarantees after one year: Butch Jones turned in a -10 in 2013, but led easily the best Tennessee team from 2008-2021 two years later by any metric. Some situations just naturally lead to more difficult year ones (or year zeroes, as Derek Dooley would say). And that’s what we thought Josh Heupel was walking into: NCAA investigation, rough finish the year before, late to the carousel, massive transfer portal exodus.

How did Heupel actually do?

Let’s compare him to the rest of the freshman coaching class of 2021.

Uh oh, we changed coaches in the summer

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Tim AlbinOhio2-1-2.33-9-11.61-9.3
Maurice LinguistBuffalo6-15.34-8-9.5-2-14.8

I don’t recommend it. Both of these guys followed local legends too: Frank Solich had been at Ohio since 2005. Lance Leipold won two division titles and finished the 2020 season in the Top 25 at Buffalo. As a result, both of these programs were significantly worse in 2021. No surprise here.

A missed first step

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Will HallSouthern Miss3-7-9.13-9-14.20-5.1
Gus MalzahnUCF6-410.99-44.83-6.1
Steve SarkisianTexas7-316.45-78.5-2-7.9
Butch JonesArkansas State4-7-9.12-10-17.9-2-8.8

Again, some struggles make more sense than others. Jay Hopson resigned after one game of the 2020 season at Southern Miss, an unusual situation Will Hall inherited this fall.

The other three in this group all brought previous power five experience at championship contenders, with Sarkisian being the hottest commodity in the cycle. And yet, play-for-play, all three teams went backwards in year one. The last time UCF lost 4+ games in the regular season was 2016. Tom Herman’s worst season at Texas was 7-6 in his first year in 2017; Charlie Strong’s two 5-7 campaigns in Austin were far more competitive than what Sarkisian turned in. And Butch Jones got off to a similar start in his first year at Arkansas State in SP+ as he did at Tennessee, though the won-loss record is certainly worse.

Again, no guarantees here – Texas did finish fifth nationally in recruiting – but these were all backward first steps.

About the same

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Terry BowdenUL Monroe0-10-22.14-7-20.341.8
Bryan HarsinAuburn6-511.46-7110-0.4
Clark LeaVanderbilt0-9-18.12-10-19.42-1.3
Lance LeipoldKansas0-9-18.42-10-19.72-1.3
Jedd FischArizona0-5-9.11-11-12.61-3.5

Terry Bowden is the biggest winner of this group, which includes a lot of, “Wait and see.” Vanderbilt, Kansas, and Arizona were all winless in 2020, and combined to win five games in 2021. The situation at Auburn probably deserves its own category; in SP+ and in total wins they Bryan Harsin’s first year was almost identical to Gus Malzahn’s. Stay tuned.

A good first step

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Charles HuffMarshall7-337-6805
Andy AvalosBoise State5-25.47-59.424

Marshall is an interesting case study, 7-3 in Doc Holliday’s final season, 7-6 in Charles Huff’s first. But the Thundering Herd lost four one-possession games last year, and were dominant in several of their seven victories. Boise State fans probably aren’t satisfied at 7-5, but three of those were one-possession losses and the Broncos also beat BYU and Fresno State on the road. If form holds here, these programs are off to better starts than their win/loss total might suggest.

A really good first step

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Kane WommackSouth Alabama4-7-16.15-7-7.218.9
Bret BielemaIllinois2-6-4.15-74.338.4
Shane BeamerSouth Carolina2-8-2.97-63.956.8

Kane Wommack’s first-year squad almost got both Billy Napier (20-18) and Jamey Chadwell (27-21 OT). They also lost a four overtime game at Texas State and by a touchdown at Troy. Bielema recovered nicely from a 1-4 start to beat Penn State and Minnesota on the road.

And credit Shane Beamer, whose Gamecocks lost to the Vols and Texas A&M by 25 and 30, and almost lost to Vanderbilt in a three-week span in October. Since then, they beat Florida and Auburn, and ran away from North Carolina in the Mayo Bowl. It was a really good year one, good enough to earn him a share of the Steve Spurrier award for best year-one coach with…

A transformational first step

CoachTeam2020 Record2020 SP+2021 Record2021 SP+Wins ChangeSP+ Change
Blake AndersonUtah State1-5-16.311-30.11016.4
Josh HeupelTennessee3-74.67-617.5412.9

First, shout out to Blake Anderson. A +10 in wins is twice as good as anyone else on this list, and would be most years. Along the way they smoked San Diego State for the Mountain West title. No complaints about his name at the top of this list.

But Josh Heupel is clearly above everyone else.

He followed one of the toughest and least competitive years at Tennessee with one of the most competitive teams we’ve had here in 14 years. In SP+, the 2022 Vols are the second-best team in Knoxville since 2008, bested only by the 2015 team. The Vols went 1-3 in one-possession games, with two of those losses to New Year’s Six teams from Pittsburgh and Ole Miss.

One forward-looking piece of good news here: when we get overly cautious about the Vols being #9 in 2022 SP+ projections? Tennessee’s rating there is 18.7: just 1.2 points better than last season. The model doesn’t project the Vols to be drastically better than they were last season, because it already believes the Vols were really good.

Again, no guarantees after one year. But not only did Josh Heupel do it better in 2021 than any year one we’ve seen around here, and every other first-year coach last season but one? His team also was better play-for-play than every Tennessee squad save one in the last 14 years. For first impressions, you can’t ask for much more. And it’s created a hope based in performance as much as possibility.

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