Hot Reads: Which Class of 2018 Coaches Have Improved Programs the Most?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Which Class of 2018 Coaches Have Improved Programs the Most?

January 24, 2020

The new coaches with new jobs in what we'll call the "class of 2018" included some heavy hitters. Scott Frost had as much buzz as any of them, but the group also included Chip Kelly, Jimbo Fisher, and Dan Mullen, proven head coaches. There was also a group of intriguing coordinators getting a chance to run their own programs.

That group as a whole was the first to have to tackle early signing while also taking over a new program. You can read more about that and what's it has meant for players getting on the field early in the January issue of Hail Varsity, and it will be worth looking at the ramifications of that new challenge on the expected timeline for improvement.

But for today, to set the stage in a way, let's just look at which class of 2018 coaches have improved their programs the most through two seasons. To do that, I'm going to use points per play (PPP) differential. It's basically scoring differential (offense minus defense), but dividing per play rather than game, and is usually a pretty good indicator of a team's actual ability.

What we're looking at here is how much these coaches have improved that differential from the team they inherited. For example, the Nebraska team Frost inherited had a PPP differential of -.155. At the end of 2018, the Huskers' differential was -.004 (+.151) and at the end of 2019 it was -.013 (-.009). After two years under Frost, Nebraska has improved its PPP differential by a total of .142. That ranks ninth among 21 coaches in that class.

Here's the full rundown of programs that had a total PPP differential improvement after two seasons:

COACH SCHOOL 2-YR PPP DIFF.
Billy Napier Louisiana .375
Dan Mullen Florida .357
Sean Lewis Kent St. .326
Jonathan Smith Oregon St. .289
Chad Lunsford Georgia So. .245
Mario Cristobal Oregon .180
Mike Bloomgren Rice .152
Jeremy Pruitt Tennessee .151
Scott Frost Nebraska .143
Herm Edwards Arizona St. .109
Sonny Dykes SMU .100
Jimbo Fisher Texas A&M .066
Dana Dimel UTEP .047

There's a reason Billy Napier reportedly received interest from Ole Miss and Baylor this year. He's probably going to have his pick of jobs soon enough. Dan Mullen has, somewhat quietly, gotten Florida up and running quickly, but the biggest surprise here might be Jonathan Smith. The former Washington offensive coordinator––he spent a season with new Nebraska OC Matt Lubick in Seattle––took over a one-win team and two years later just missed out on a bowl game.

That's part of the reason for using PPP differential––it puts all of the coaches on the same scale. The improvement currently being made at Oregon State, Kent State or Rice are easy to miss if you're just waiting for the moment when you can't ignore them. Dana Dimel has won two games at in two seasons at UTEP, but you could argue that he's at least making some slow progress at one of the toughest jobs in the country.

Here's the other end of the spectrum, the coaches leading programs with a negative two-year PPP differential. Half of these coaches were fired this season, but none of those that were fired were at the bottom of the list after two years:

COACH SCHOOL 2-YR PPP DIFF.
Matt Luke Mississippi -.039
Steve Campbell S. Alabama -.083
Josh Heupel UCF -.087
Willie Taggart Florida St. -.092
Joe Moorhead Mississippi St. -.094
Chad Morris Arkansas -.104
Chip Kelly UCLA -.140
Kevin Sumlin Arizona -.264

The firings speak for themselves here, but the other four are interesting cases. South Alabama may have been a little too hasty in firing Joey Jones. The Jaguars improved in Year 2 under Steve Campbell but still aren't back to where Jones had them. Josh Heupel has done a fine job at UCF, but he's here in part because he inherited a UCF program that was probably near its ceiling. There was only one way to go.

The bottom two, however, are very interesting and both hail from the Pac-12. UCLA is showing no signs that it's impatient with Chip Kelly's revamp, but how much longer before some sort of progress is necessary? As for Arizona? It's early and I'm all for coaches getting more time, but Kevin Sumlin doesn't seem to have much momentum at all.

All of these situations are, of course, different and this isn't meant to be the final word on anything. It's more just the sort of thing you get curious about on a Friday in the offseason.

The Grab Bag

  • Dallas Cowboys linebacker Luke Gifford joins Derek Peterson and Erin Sorensen on the latest Varsity Club Podcast.
  • Jacob Padilla looks at the Huskers’ live-by-the-3, die-by-the-3 approach so far in his latest Padding the Stats column.
  • Greg Smith makes some bold predictions for 2021 recruiting. (Premium)

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