Hot Reads: Martinez in the Top 10
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Hot Reads: How Does Frost’s First Year Stack Up Against Others?

November 26, 2018

The award for the strangest coaching hire of the 2017-18 cycle went to Arizona State in a landslide. Herm Edwards? The TV guy? The guy who had coached all of two years of college football and it was in the late-1980s? The guy who hadn't coached any football at all since 2008? I enjoy outside-the-box hires for their entertainment value, but the Sun Devils' choice seemed to mock the box. And they were mocked all offseason for it.

But here at the end of the regular season (mostly), Arizona State can hold its head high. The Sun Devils went 7-5 in Edwards' first season and finished second in the Pac-12 South. It was a far cry from the season that got Todd Graham fired. In 2017, the Sun Devils went (dramatic pause) 7-5 and finished second in the Pac-12 South.

Now I do view Edwards' first season in Tempe as a success, but maybe not quite the success others do. No matter where on the Edwards scale you fall, I think the general note of positivity around this hire, after an offseason of confusion, is grading Edwards on a curve. Nobody knew what an Edwards program would look like, so a program that looked a lot like Arizona State looked the previous season was at least proof it wasn't a disaster. And that was a success.

That's the problem with trying to compare coaching hires: They all require a lot of context. Simple win-loss records won't give you that. Nebraska just finished a 4-8 season, same as last season, but is there anyone who thinks the Huskers didn't get better? Not that I've encountered.

But if you wanted a super simple score-keeping method for coaching hires, I'd do it by comparing power rankings year-to-year. If the rankings are good rankings, that should tell you something about actual improvement or regression regardless of wins and losses (and I would argue knowing about either is actually more important than wins and losses in a Year 1).

So let's do that quick just to try and get a sense of what just happened at Nebraska. I'll use S&P+ as the power ranking of choice here as I like its component parts the best and understand them the most. (I like Sagarin, too, due to familiarity with the rankings but know nothing about what goes into the rankings themselves.) Change in rank isn't a perfect method as teams near the top are capped. The biggest jump Mike Riley could've made in Year 1 at Nebraska was 31 spots because Bo Pelini's final season in Lincoln ended with the Huskers ranked 32nd in S&P+. That said, teams near the top aren't typically making coaching changes so those instances are somewhat rare.

With that limitation in mind, here are the biggest S&P+ rank changes in Year 1 with a new coach of the past five seasons (2014-18):

COACH (School, Year) PY S&P+ Y1 S&P+ DIFF.
L. Kiffin (FAU, 17) 115 11 104
J. Tedford (Fresno St, 17) 116 23 93
D. Mullen (Florida, 18) 86 13 73
J. Brohm (Purdue, 17) 105 41 64
C. Lunsford (Ga. So., 18) 121 61 60
S. Frost (UCF, 16) 123 75 48
S. Frost (Nebraska, 18) 103 57 46
J. Harbaugh (Michigan, 15) 48 5 43
J. Fisher (A&M, 18) 63 20 43
J. Fuente (Va. Tech, 16) 59 17 42

Some general thoughts

>>Of course Scott Frost's first season at Nebraska is right next to his first season at Central Florida. After an offseason of one-to-one comparisons (because that was all there was to go on), maybe you thought an actual Frost season in red would change the narrative. I did. But here we are. The Huskers' 46-spot jump in the rankings was just two behind the Knights' jump from 2015 to 2016. That's not a bad thing for Nebraska by any means, but did it have to be almost exactly the same? Maybe the most remarkable thing about it is that it's almost exactly the same –– what if Nebraska's two-year trajectory actually ends up being exactly like UCF's? –– but for now it feels somewhat dangerous. I'm wondering if I should've brought it up. But maybe that's just me. If you're a Nebraska fan, by all means be excited.

>>The top spot on this list of coaching achievements belongs to Lane Kiffin? It belongs to Lane Kiffin. With additional context, however, the huge jump a year ago is tarnished some. The Owls were big preseason favorites to win a conference title in 2018, but aren't even going to a bowl game at 5-7. The departure of Kendal Briles, FAU's OC in 2017, probably isn't unrelated here. Florida Atlantic's Year 2, however, is a good reminder: Every fan hopes for an upward trajectory after a coaching change, but even a good Year 1 is no guarantee. (There, I feel a little better about the Nebraska/UCF stuff above.)

>>In Fresno, however, things are going just great. Jeff Tedford made a huge jump in Year 1 to No. 23 from 116 the year before. The Bulldogs are No. 10 in this week's S&P+ rankings and playing for a Mountain West title again. It's about as good as a G5 coaching change can go.

>>While Frost's 2018 was good, it only ranks third among this season's "freshman class" of coaches. Dan Mullen engineered the biggest jump at Florida, which might say more about just how bizarre the Gators' fall to 4-7 was a year ago under Jim McElwain. Chad Lunsford and Georgia Southern took second place in 2018. That one feels a little more emblematic of what's actually happening in Statesboro. Lunsford's jump would be closer to No. 1 this season if he hadn't taken over on an interim basis halfway through last season and went 2-4 no doubt bumping the Eagles' ranking slightly at the end of 2017. Jimbo Fisher's first season at Texas A&M also landed in the five-year top 10, though it's a lot easier to see with the naked eye thanks to Saturday's improbable, seven-overtime, 74-72 win over LSU. Lose that one –– and the Tigers had a 64-percent postgame win probability –– and the Aggies finish the regular season 7-5. Last year they finished the regular season 7-5. But that's why you look at things like this. Compared to this point last year, the Aggies are better even if the record is only a game better.

>>Since I led with him above should probably give Herm his due: The Sun Devils are 26 spots better than at this time last year.

>>Three of the top-10 spots belong to the Big Ten. Jeff Brohm's quick turnaround of Purdue in 2017 and Jim Harbaugh's revival of Michigan also made it. The Big Ten is on a pretty good run when it comes to coaching hires. Go get ‘em, Maryland.

>>The bottom of this list is somewhat less interesting, hence the reason it's not included here. You have a bunch of G5 teams trying to replace good coaches –– Bowling Green replacing Dino Babers in 2016, Western Kentucky replacing Brohm in 2017, Temple replacing Matt Rhule in 2017 –– but you also have a couple of "Year 0" scenarios that are clear with the passing of time. Chris Petersen had one at Washington in 2014. That same season, Babers had one his first year at Bowling Green trying to replace Dave Clawson, and Clawson had one at his new job, Wake Forest. With Minnesota making a bowl game by handling Wisconsin on Saturday, you could now probably say with greater certainty that P.J. Fleck's first season was Year 0. The Gophers are up 38 spots from the end of last season.

Frost's first season looked like it was going to be a Year Zero until all of the sudden it wasn't. Based on this score-keeping method at least, what Husker fans actually watched was something very similar to UCF's Year 1, just with different plot points.

Use that knowledge responsibly this offseason.

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