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Midweek Musing: Did Florida win the 2017 coaching carousel?

Florida’s got the best record of any Power Five team under a first-year head coach — and that’s not all.

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Florida seems to have come out of the 2018 coaching carousel ahead of where it was.

The Florida Gators being 6-1 under Dan Mullen in 2018 — and while erstwhile Florida targets Scott Frost and Chip Kelly struggle at Nebraska and UCLA, respectively — is a fun thing that Florida fans like to brag about, I have noticed. But I was curious about how Mullen’s 2018 stacked up against not just those reported Florida whiffs, but the whole of the Power Five — so I looked up the records of first-year Power Five head coaches, and tweeted this on Sunday:

A fairly popular tweet, that one — and one that puts into sharp relief not just how well things have seemingly worked out for Florida and Mullen almost a year removed from the Gators beginning a search that ultimately led to his hiring, but how well the other hirings of the 2017 offseason have worked out for the Gators.

Obviously, Mullen leading the list is a good thing. But you know Florida’s story.

You might not have thought as much about why him being followed closely by Mario Cristobal and Jimbo Fisher is also good for the Gators.

Cristobal, fresh off a dramatic win over Washington, is having success at Oregon in his first head-coaching job since an arguably premature firing by Florida International knocked him back to the assistant ranks, instantly making him a coveted coach: Cristobal was almost immediately hired by Miami after that firing, and then almost as immediately left his alma mater for Alabama when Nick Saban came calling. With the Crimson Tide, Cristobal — a South Florida native renowned as an excellent recruiter of the area and in general — opened a pipeline to the state of Miami, helping Alabama pry Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy, among others, out of the Sunshine State.

When Cristobal left Alabama for Oregon to serve as Willie Taggart’s offensive coordinator — after some speculation that he could come to Florida — it was seen as a coup for the Ducks. And when Taggart left for Florida State, it was hoped that Cristobal would follow.

Instead, though, he stayed in Eugene, where he’s now getting to build at a big-time program — something that many have thought he could do at one of Florida’s Power Five schools, most notably Miami. And most things about Cristobal’s early run with the Ducks suggest he will ultimately be successful — which will surely make him a more attractive candidate for Florida, Florida State, and Miami should any of their top jobs open up ... but which will also make it much harder for him to return to his old stomping grounds, as Oregon, burned very publicly by Taggart’s abrupt departure, takes every measure to retain a successful head coach.

So Florida may have lucked into the elimination of an existential threat — and by virtue of what befell Florida State in 2017, and how the Seminoles dealt with it.

The Seminoles’ relationship with Jimbo Fisher deteriorated after he piloted the Jameis-Winston-led 2013 team to the final BCS National Championship, with Fisher agitating for more and more investment in the program as his teams stagnated (and, in 2017, backslid), which culminated in an uncomfortable 13 months spanning 2016 and 2017, with LSU publicly courting Fisher in 2016 and Texas A&M ultimately extracting him from Tallahassee with an eye-popping deal that is one of the best for a coach in sports history.

That deal made Fisher the first college football coach to voluntarily leave a school where he won a national title for another one in decades, and also put FSU in the position of having to make its first head-coaching hire since plucking Bobby Bowden from West Virginia in 1975. The Seminoles also had to do so after many of the riders had disembarked 2017’s coaching carousel; among Power Five teams that fired head coaches in 2017, only Arkansas and Tennessee hired their coaches after Florida State did.

But FSU seemed to have hit a homer on a full count by getting Taggart to leave Oregon after a single year for a home-state school that he credibly sold as his dream job in press conferences and on the recruiting trail, even though Oregon retained Cristobal and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, two coaches with deep Florida ties who would’ve been even better lieutenants for Taggart in Tallahassee than they were in Eugene.

And then the 2018 season started with the Seminoles getting waxed by Virginia Tech at home in a primetime game on Labor Day.

It hasn’t gotten much better for Taggart since, with the Seminoles having compiled a 3-3 record by rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Samford (alma mater of one John James Fisher), getting trucked by Syracuse, pulling away from Northern Illinois, getting a gift from Bobby Petrino in an improbable win over Louisville, and blowing a 27-7 lead in the second half to fall to Miami.

FSU is No. 73 in S&P+ — and a staggering No. 116 in Offensive S&P+ despite Taggart’s rep as an offensive whiz and his promise to bring “lethal simplicity” to an offense that had been struggling to execute Fisher’s more complex scheme — and in very serious danger of missing a bowl for the first time in decades, as S&P+ suggests the Seminoles shouldn’t be favored in any game after this weekend’s home date with Wake Forest. And while Taggart obviously isn’t going anywhere, despite some irrational fans desiring his firing, this sort of miserable first year might hamstring his Tallahassee tenure, especially if Florida caps it with a blowout at Doak.

Fisher, meanwhile, would already appear to have Texas A&M pointed in the right direction. The Aggies are 5-2, with the two losses coming to Clemson and Alabama and two of the five wins coming over previously unbeaten Kentucky and a decent South Carolina team on the road. The next few weeks will be telling for Texas A&M, as they travel to Mississippi State and Auburn, but Fisher is all but assured of a winning season already, and will have a chance to score A&M’s first win over LSU as an SEC school at season’s end.

As it turns out, the coach who led Florida State to a national title after the lull of the late Bowden years might be better at coaching than a coach that Florida State was able to scramble and hire away from his first Power Five job after just one year in that big chair.

The jury’s still out on whether Taggart will eventually have success on FSU, and we obviously don’t yet know whether Florida will even beat FSU this year. But it sure looks like the Gators may have lucked out with a coaching downgrade at their greatest in-state rival.

There’s less hedging to be done with five other hires — two of coaches that could’ve been Florida’s, and three that materially affect the Gators, albeit in different ways.

The first two of those are obviously the hirings of Kelly at UCLA after Florida’s public pursuit of him and Frost at Nebraska despite reported 11th-hour interest from the Gators.

Kelly’s Bruins just got their first win over a mediocre Cal team, and have been about as bad as Taggart’s Seminoles (UCLA is 76th in S&P+) thus far this year. And while they have some talent on hand — Dorian Thompson-Robinson could be a star down the line, though his father has publicly vented about Kelly already — their future looks more dire, with a mere eight commits comprising what is presently the nation’s No. 85 recruiting class.

Kelly got along just fine even after a poor start without truly outstanding recruiting at Oregon, thanks largely to his schemes, but he also inherited a strong program from Mike Bellotti. At UCLA, he’ll be building, and doing so in the shadow of the top dog in Los Angeles, a USC program that is not at its peak but is also better-insured against Lane Kiffin- or Steve Sarkisian-level collapse under the steady hand of Clay Helton.

Frost is also building at Nebraska — but, as at UCF, any building is seemingly going to be done after bottoming out, as the Huskers’ 0-6 record is their worst start in program history. But while the narrative of Frost’s first year has been about being unlucky losers, S&P+ paints a different picture, with Nebraska at No. 69 nationally and having better than a 55 percent Win Expectancy — a post-game measure that estimates the likelihood of a team winning a given game based on statistical factors — in just its opener against Colorado and its most recent loss to Northwestern. And those games were second-half collapses, with Nebraska blowing an eight-point lead to the Buffaloes and a 14-point fourth-quarter lead over the Wildcats.

At 0-6 and with FCS Bethune-Cookman hastily scheduled to get a 12th game after weather scrubbed its season opener against Akron, Nebraska — which is yet to keep a Power Five opponent under 33 points this year, by the way — needs to win out to make a bowl, which would require wins over all of Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa.

Instead, it seems likely that the Cornhuskers will follow their first season with fewer than five wins since 1961 — a season that got Mike Riley fired and Frost hired — with an even worse season, quite possibly their worst in half a century.

That doesn’t mean Frost won’t ultimately succeed, of course, and no one else in college football has experience with rebounding quickly from rock bottom like he does — he built UCF into a juggernaut from next to nothing, and he left a foundation good enough for the Knights to have maintained their undefeated run into 2018, though their close call against Memphis suggests it may be nearing an end. But it also looked to most of the world like Nebraska had already hit rock bottom, and the expectation for Frost in 2018 was to start the rebound.

Instead, he and his team seemingly have some distance left to fall. And though there are differences in talent on hand and situations inherited, it should really go without saying that Mullen starting 1-5 or 0-6 at Florida would have been very poorly received.

And then there are the non-Mullen/Fisher newcomers to the SEC — none of whom are lighting the world on fire thus far.

Joe Moorhead has Mississippi State at 4-2, but one of those losses is to Florida in a game the Bulldogs and their fans desperately wanted and that Mullen and the Gators were gratified to get. Jeremy Pruitt — who was, remember, Tennessee’s second choice, after a maybe more self-righteous than righteous fan revolt led to a rescinded offer to Greg Schiano, the departure of John Currie, and the reinstallation of Philip Fulmer as the godhead of Tennessee athletics — did just lead Tennessee to its first SEC win in years and its first win over an SEC West team in nearly a decade, but the Vols were also routed by Florida and Georgia, and still look likely to miss a bowl. Chad Morris is having one hell of a time getting the muddin’ trucks that Bret Bielema brought to Arkansas traded in for quicker vehicles, and his Razorbacks just blew a late lead to Ole Miss for their sixth straight loss.

The only program that Florida sees on its schedule even occasionally that thus far seems to have definitively upgraded on its previous coach after a spin on the coaching carousel is Texas A&M — and the Aggies very rarely cross paths with the Gators, either on the recruiting trail or the field (Florida’s next game with won’t happen before 2022 unless it comes in an SEC Championship Game or the College Football Playoff) and, more importantly, seem to have significantly weakened one of Florida’s more proximal foes by improving their own fortunes.

Pruitt and Taggart might be improvements on the last years of Butch Jones and Fisher at Tennessee and FSU when all is said and done, but they seem to have a long way to go right now, and Taggart has to go much farther than Pruitt to reach his predecessor’s peak. Morris is embarking on what will be a long transition to spread offense in the brutal SEC West, and leads a program that only rarely crosses paths with Florida. Moorhead has to prove he can at least maintain what Mullen built — and losing with Mullen’s players at home to a team that Mullen didn’t get to hand-pick is potentially telling.

Meanwhile, Florida is off to its best start in three years, has pleasantly surprised and refreshed its fan base, and is pointed toward a successful and satisfying season that Mullen can use as a springboard. Ask even the most pessimistic Florida fans, and they’ll concede that Mullen has been successful so far.

It would seem that his hiring is going to go down as a win for Florida, at least in the near-term — and Florida can also look at SEC foes and Florida State and see lateral moves or downgrades, look around the country to note other in-state threats neutralized before they became truly dangerous, and look at the struggles of two high-profile targets — ones it would perhaps have preferred to Mullen last fall — and feel as though it dodged two bullets.

Right now, it’s hard to see a move on the coaching carousel in 2017 that didn’t benefit the Gators, in truth. And, even though the full verdicts on all of those moves won’t be made for years to come, I’m hard-pressed to not consider Florida the front-runner to come out the best for its turn in the whirlwind when all is said and done.