Making the Most Progress: SEC Coaches & Historical SP+ in the First Two Years

How much progress can a program make in a coach’s first two years?

One of the things I’ve enjoyed playing with the most these past few weeks is Bill Connelly’s historical SP+ data. Using a simplified version of his SP+ formula based on points scored/points allowed, Connelly has a rating for every team, ever. Back in June, we used this to examine the greatness of 2022 in comparison to every other Tennessee team.

So how does what Tennessee did – making this much progress in just two years – compare to what we’ve seen from other new coaches?

Patience vs. Progress

I’m wrong a lot; the real disappointment is in being wrong in the least fun ways possible. A dozen years and several lifetimes ago, I wrote on how Tennessee’s ceiling in basketball would never be higher than it was under Bruce Pearl. Turns out, we’re not always good at eyeballing that distance.

It’s true to the floor as well, though with football I’m still not sure there was a healthier way to be in the past few years. Considering the unique vulnerability the program faced in the transition from Butch Jones to Jeremy Pruitt, then the month we spent at the end of 2020 into 2021 not knowing if Pruitt would be retained? All of that, on top of 13 years of varying levels of frustration, made it seem like the healthiest path was patience, with a heaping dose of honesty and self-awareness.

And I still think that was right, given the circumstances. The missing piece of that awareness was how quickly things could, in fact, change.

It did not change by hiring the “sure thing” or seeking primarily to win the press conference. And there’s also an overall awareness college football is still trying to wrap itself around. The one where TCU goes 5-7 with losses to Oklahoma State and Iowa State by a combined 80 points, then plays for the national championship the very next year with a new coach.

There’s little that is fully understood about NIL and the transfer portal. It certainly seems to have created the possibility of an accelerated rebuild at a number of different places.

But all of that to say this: in historical SP+, Tennessee made more progress in the first two years under Josh Heupel than any other team in the SEC since divisional play began.

Most Improved Programs in Historical SP+ in a Coach’s First Two Seasons (SEC, 1992-2022)

  1. Tennessee, Josh Heupel (+30.1 in SP+ from 2020 to 2022)
  2. Vanderbilt, James Franklin (+27.5)
  3. Arkansas, Sam Pittman (+27.1)
  4. Ole Miss, Houston Nutt (+25.5)
  5. Florida, Dan Mullen (+24.8)

(full Top 25 at the bottom of this post)

Consider the company this keeps.

Florida under Mullen is a tiny version of the names we’ll find much further down the list. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are obviously two of the best in the business. But they also stepped in at powerhouse programs with relative recent success. Alabama went 10-2 two years before Saban was hired. Georgia was 10-3 in Mark Richt’s final season. That kind of improvement led to multiple national championships on both counts…but because the starting point was higher, the program’s overall progress doesn’t rate as high on this particular list. Same rules apply for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina in following Lou Holtz; some version of this is what we would’ve been hoping for had Lane Kiffin stayed around for a second season, etc.

Mullen inherited a program that won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016, but hit a steep drop-off in 2017. The Gators went 4-7, losing to Georgia by 35 and Missouri by 29 on consecutive Saturdays. Jim McElwain was out, Dan Mullen was in, and Florida went 10-3 then 11-2 the next two seasons.

And of course, Mullen at Florida is a great example that nothing remains guaranteed; the Gators won the SEC East in 2020 and were the only team to play Alabama within two possessions. But in 2021 Mullen was out as Florida’s season spiraled.

Ole Miss under Houston Nutt is a good example of following a prolonged down period. Nutt followed Ed Oregron, who went 10-25 in three years in Oxford. He immediately turned things around with a pair of 9-4 seasons, but was fired two years later after going 4-8 then 2-10 (those wins were later vacated). In historical SP+, Orgeron’s first team and Nutt’s last team have the lowest ratings at Ole Miss in the modern era. I am far from the expert on Ole Miss (and stay tuned for a Hugh Freeze sighting), but the numbers obviously suggest a lack of sustainable growth for the program during those tenures.

That’s a good word for the current hope at Arkansas, where Sam Pittman took over following one of the lowest-rated seasons for any SEC program in the modern era. The 2019 Hogs went 2-10 and lost five games in a row by at least 27 points, one of them to Western Kentucky. Pittman started in the covid year, and while Arkansas went just 3-7, they lost to Auburn, LSU, and Missouri by a combined seven points.

At some point early in the 2021 season, I remember thinking how we’d be doing backflips for what Pittman accomplished at Arkansas in year two: a beatdown of Texas, then a 10-point win over #7 Texas A&M, and suddenly you’re ranked eighth. The Hogs finished 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl.

Is it sustainable growth? Last year Arkansas went 7-6 with four one-possession losses. When we play this exercise out over a coach’s first three years, you’ll see Pittman continues to be right at the top.

And we know better than most other programs about James Franklin at Vanderbilt. The Commodores are an apples-to-oranges comparison not just to Tennessee, but really any other program in this league; what Franklin was able to accomplish really only grows in stature when you look at both the coach and the program since then. What he did in Nashville is the off-the-top-of-your-head answer to which program made the most progress under a new coach.

And in historical SP+, Josh Heupel’s first two years at Tennessee top even that.

The 2020 season rates the lowest in the modern era at Tennessee, with the Vols at a -2.0 rating (points worse than the average team on a neutral field). In 2021, Tennessee finished at 15.7. Then last season, we jumped to 28.2. Play-for-play, the 2022 Vols rate as the third-best team in program history in historical SP+; they’re the only UT team with three ranked wins of three-plus possessions. From one of the lowest points, to one of the highest points, with a ton of uncertainty and pending NCAA sanctions and playing Alabama and Georgia every year, etc. etc.

The truth is, Tennessee could’ve gone 5-7 in Heupel’s first year, then 9-4 in year two, and we would’ve called it significant progress. And it would’ve been! We’d be excited right now to find out if Tennessee could take the next big step.

And instead, the Vols leaped into the national championship conversation in year two, and positioned themselves to stay there going forward.

Speaking of going forward:

Most Improved Programs in Historical SP+ in a Coach’s First Three Seasons (SEC, 1992-2022)

  1. Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze (+29.3 in SP+ from 2011 to 2014)
  2. Arkansas, Sam Pittman (+24.3)
  3. Vanderbilt, James Franklin (+23.9)
  4. South Carolina, Lou Holtz (+22.9)
  5. Alabama, Nick Saban (+22.5)

If the Vols ended up level in 2023 compared to 2022, Josh Heupel would top this list as well. Being in position to win 11 games again would be an incredible accomplishment, of course. There remain no guarantees, but Tennessee is positioning itself to be in the championship conversation every season; that’s the real prize of all of this, to be in the hunt every year as the field prepares to expand.

What’s been done here is truly remarkable, and by this metric, beyond any progress in any other coach’s first two seasons in the expansion-era SEC.

So…where to next?

Go Vols.

Here’s the full Top 25 research on the first two years:

TeamYearsNew CoachSP+ Change
Tennessee2020-2022Josh Heupel30.1
Vanderbilt2010-2012James Franklin27.5
Arkansas2019-2021Sam Pittman27.1
Ole Miss2007-2009Houston Nutt25.5
Florida2017-2019Dan Mullen24.8
Ole Miss2011-2013Hugh Freeze22.8
Mississippi St2008-2010Dan Mullen22.6
Auburn2008-2010Gene Chizik21
South Carolina2020-2022Shane Beamer20.1
Auburn2012-2014Gus Malzahn19.6
Arkansas1997-1999Houston Nutt19
South Carolina1998-2000Lou Holtz18.6
LSU1999-2001Nick Saban17.6
Kentucky1996-1998Hal Mumme17.4
Auburn1991-1993Terry Bowden17.3
Alabama2000-2002Dennis Franchione16.5
LSU1993-1995Gerry DiNardo16.1
Kentucky2000-2002Guy Morriss15.9
Vanderbilt2020-2022Clark Lea13.5
Kentucky2012-2014Mark Stoops13.4
Ole Miss2019-2021Lane Kiffin13.3
Auburn1998-2000Tommy Tuberville12.8
South Carolina2004-2006Steve Spurrier12.7
Georgia2015-2017Kirby Smart12.2
Alabama2006-2008Nick Saban11.8
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Mr B
Mr B
11 months ago

Nothing beats data driven analysis, Go Vols!

10 months ago

Nicely played, Will. I dixn’t realize how statistically driven your articke get. Really well-crafted analysis as well as the exposition. I’m too lazy to do such work, but I certainly admire those who are willing to do the work; thank you!