SEC West unpredictable after coaching carousel

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher talks to the crowd at Reed Arena during a timeout of an NCAA college basketball game between Prairie View A&M and Texas A&M Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher talks to the crowd at Reed Arena during a timeout of an NCAA college basketball game between Prairie View A&M and Texas A&M Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

— Immediate expectations for the four new head coaches in the SEC West are as diverse as their experience running a program and that’s a major reason why getting a handle on the Razorbacks, Aggies, Bulldogs and Rebels in 2018 is tricky.

Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Mississippi’s Matt Luke should have a better feel for the opposition than Arkansas’ Chad Morris at Arkansas and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State simply because scheming against teams in the American Athletic Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision is different than trying to make first downs vs. the talent at Alabama, Auburn and LSU.

Check out the resumes of the four men:

— Fisher won the final BCS championship at Florida State and tutored Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. In six of his first seven years in Tallahassee, the Seminoles of the ACC won 10 or more games and wound up in the Top 10 of AP’s final poll on four occasions. Although Clemson was overwhelmed by Alabama in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, the best in the ACC can compete with the SEC.

— Ole Miss through and through, Luke did an admirable job of keeping players together after Hugh Freeze departed and the school imposed a one-year bowl ban. This will be the first year that interim did not precede his title and he knows the tall task ahead after watching the division’s three best teams outscore his Rebels 150-50 last fall.

— Morris’ 12 victories in his last two years at SMU marked significant progress for the Mustangs. But, the high-scoring Mustangs were in a league with the top two scoring teams in the country. Alabama and Georgia, SEC opponents in the finals of the College Football Playoff, are first and fourth in the country in scoring defense and the Bulldogs’ 15.8 per game includes Oklahoma’s 48 in the CFP semifinals.

— Moorhead’s four years as head coach were at Fordham, an FCS school. Inheriting a 1-10 team, he went 6-5, 12-2, 11-3, and 9-3 and made the playoffs three years in a row. But, the schedule included Bucknell and Lehigh, not ’Bama and LSU.

One thing all four have in common is a penchant for calling plays and piling up impressive statistics as offensive coordinators — Fisher at LSU and Florida State, Morris at Clemson, Moorhead at Penn State, and Luke in the odd position as offensive line coach and coordinator of Duke’s running game.

For sure, Fisher will call plays and tutor quarterbacks. Asked about giving up the job, Fisher once said, “It is hard because that’s what you cut your teeth on.”

Mark Richt does it at Miami. So does Bobby Petrino at Louisville and David Shaw at Stanford.

Morris brought Joe Craddock, promoted to play-caller at SMU after one year, with him and Luke has already had a year with Phil Longo in charge of the offense.

A no-huddle proponent, Moorhead might be a different story. When he was hired, MSU athletics director John Cohen cited Moorhead’s “innovative offensive philosophy …”

That is pretty much what you would expect from an administrator, but a quote from Tim Zetts, who worked under Moorhead at Fordham, is more meaningful. “The thing that Joe did which was phenomenal was finding the next thing to be innovative,” he said. “Before he did that, he was always saying, ‘If you can’t block him, read him. He’s too good to block.’”

Moorhead and the others are going to see lots of players of that ilk.

When it comes to a grace period, Arkansas’ Morris has more latitude than Fisher or Moorhead.

Following a 4-8 disaster in Bret Bielema’s fifth year, even a 6-6 record against a favorable schedule would be hailed as progress after only 11 SEC victories in five years and Arkansas getting shut out on first-team All-SEC players for the first time in 20 years.

On the other end of the spectrum is Fisher. Signing up for 10 years and $75 million comes with certain minimums such as eight wins this fall and making the SEC championship game very soon. Maybe, dangerous wide receiver Christian Kirk leaving early for the NFL is worth a little leeway in the fall.

Certainly, more is expected of Moorhead than of Morris in 2018, particularly with the return of a healthy Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback. But, fans in Starkville should realize that Florida-bound Dan Mullen might have been the No. 2 coach in the West behind Nick Saban.

Meanwhile, Luke is in a unique situation, dealing with a slew of circumstances not of his making, including the transfer of quarterback Shea Patterson and the NCAA’s two-year ban on postseason participation.

As always, recruiting is prominent in any assessment and there is no doubt Morris got the short end of the stick when it comes to the 2018 recruits. Moorhead and Luke were in place before the end of November and MSU’s 20 signees during the December period add up to ESPN’s 21st ranked class. The Rebels’ class of 17 is ranked 39th. Hired less than a week before Morris, Fisher signed only 15, but the group has enough talent to be No. 27.

Morris signed eight and could add some in February, but I wonder about the quality of the available athletes. Already, 15 of the top 18 ranked recruiting classes have 20 or more players.

No matter how creative a team is on offense, two or three solid recruiting classes in a row is a prerequisite for competing with the best in the SEC West. Counting this year, Alabama’s last four classes have been no worse than sixth and the Crimson Tide will move up after the February signing date. During those same four years, Auburn’s classes have been no worse than ninth, and LSU’s have been no worse than 11th. Among the others in the West, only Ole Miss has had one top 10 class in those four years and I have no idea how many of those transferred when Freeze departed.

Contemplating the recruiting classes, keep in mind Bielema’s ill-advised remarks to the Saline County Razorback Club’s fish fry in March 2013: “The reason the SEC is talked about all the time is one team, because of their dominance. But I didn’t come here to play Alabama. I came here to beat Alabama.”

Without talent, there is no way.

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