Where’s the Greener Grass?

In the hierarchy of college football coaching, it's apparent where the "top flight" sits. Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer (for the moment) ... their seats are solidified. However, there's always new blood either stirring around or bubbling up from one sideline to another.

This round of coaching changes creates some interesting scenarios. Comparisons are always a part of sports. Whether it's players, schools, or eras, we want to pit our interests against those of our siblings, peers, and rivals. We don't do it as much with coaches, at least when they start out at a new location. In my mind, some of the stops that the coaching version of the "Spin to Win" wheels landed on provide some questions ... and not about whom ended up where, but how one whom will fare with respect to another whom.

Jeremy Pruitt vs. Jonathan Smith

Of these two "true rookie" head coaches, Pruitt has the bigger resume and pedigree. He's been in the coaching business since his 1997 stint as a grad assistant at alma mater Alabama. He later returned to his Crimson Tide roots for two stints under Saban (with trips to Florida State and Georgia in between). Now, he'll take over a program that might not have 'Bama expectations, but they're really close. He'll try to be the one that becomes the big rival to Mentor Saban. And he'll strive to bring Rocky Top Orange back to glory.

The orange-clad fans at Oregon State don't have as high of expectations. UT lays claim to six national championships. OSU lays claim to three top-10 seasons and two double-digit winning campaigns. If you rely on the school's account of the program's all-time record, the Beavers would need to have four consecutive undefeated seasons to get back over the .500 mark (including bowl wins). This is the kind of environment Smith enters for his first head coaching job. He's nearly five years younger than Pruitt, which actually equates to five less years in the coaching profession. He's also only served as a assistant coach at one major college program. Pruitt's ladder to contention is shorter, but if Smith can deliver a winning consistency back to Corvallis, it may be more impressive.

Dan Mullen vs. Willie Taggert

This could be fun. Mullen spent the last nine seasons guiding Mississippi State to the brink of national championship contention. Former QB Dak Prescott is now the starter for the Dallas Cowboys. Now, the coach returns to the place where he helped Urban Meyer win two national titles. As across most of the SEC, expectations will be sky-high. The East division, however, is still pretty "getable." Georgia is tops at the moment, but I don't think you can call their lead a dominant one. Mullen has shown that he can compete with Saban and in the SEC West. That might give him a leg up on the rest of the division.

Taggert also knows the Sunshine State. After a successful stint at his alma mater (Western Kentucky), he turned around a fading South Florida program. After a 2-10 start, The Bulls found themselves racking up their first 11-win season in the program's short (20-year, to that point) history. The two wild losses of that season came to Temple (which prevented a shot at the AAC title) and, strangely enough, Florida. The success of 2016 led to Taggert finding pastures even more green than found in the USF color scheme. But we'll never know if Oregon was a true fit for the coach. After a 7-5 campaign in Eugene, he found a color more suited to his WKU background. As he embarks on his first season leading Florida State, the pressure will be immense.

And, as long as they both stay in their new homes, these two will have more than a hypothetical battles. We'll see the tangible results each Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Like I said, this could be fun.

Chad Morris vs. Scott Frost

Last year, the "hot shots" of the coaching carousel included Tom Herman, P.J. Fleck, and Matt Rhule. Morris might fit most into the Rhule camp. In all honesty, though, he may be more heralded from his time as the OC at Clemson. There are a few school names that evoke a "lost in the desert" image in college football. Since the Death Penalty of the mid-1980s, SMU has been stuck in this category. Yes, there have been a couple winning seasons. For the most part, though, mediocrity is a welcome site in Dallas.

Morris did improve the record each of his three seasons there. But the biggest impression must have come from the big boost in offensive numbers. The 2015 and 2016 seasons were basically even (72nd both years; 27.8 & 27.7 ppg, respectively). Last year, the scoreboard lit up to the tune of 37.8 ppg, 13th-best in the nation (40.2 ppg discounting the Frisco Bowl that Morris never coached). That brings hope of "Pig Sooey" land basking in the days of ole Clemson's attack, where (again as OC) his team's never scored less than 30 ppg and never dipped below a top-30 scoring offense.

For the comparisons to 2016, many might assign Frost's situation to that of Tom Herman. Really, though, the path is more reminiscent of Fleck. Morris moving the needle from 2-10 to 7-5 is good. As most know, Frost basically pulled the Complete 180. When he ascended to head coach, the Golden Knights were coming off of a 0-12 season. He got them to 6-7 after year one. In 2017 ... well, you know the story. A 13-0 year, capped off with wins over 10-win Memphis (AAC title game) and SEC West champ Auburn (Peach Bowl). It was the half-cut version of Fleck's run at Central Michigan, going from 1-11 initially to 13-1 (with a Cotton Bowl berth) in the fourth and final installment. Frost will have to shoot for the moon at Nebraska. But, hey, he's done that with worse circumstances.

Chip Kelly vs. Herm Edwards

So, you say you wanna go back to school. If anyone can convince you, maybe it's these two. Both hold two head coaching stints in the NFL. Even though Kelly's was much shorter, he has the clear advantage here. The former Oregon coach has experience at this level, a familiarity with the West Coast, a more recent connection to roaming the sidelines, and a pretty good backdrop in Westwood. He not only knows what professional talent looks like. Kelly has also built players to a pro-caliber level. Plus, imagine that spread offense running up and down that Rose Bowl grass. If the people in Los Angeles like a show, they should be in for a big treat.

Herm Edwards might be not just the head-scratcher of the year ... he may be the biggest one this decade. Who knows? He may be the second coming of Pete Carroll. However, the last time he toed the sideline for competitive action was a decade ago (for my beloved K.C. Chiefs). I, like most, wonder if the game has passed him by. Dick Vermeil bucked that trend. Out in the Bay Area, Raider fans hope Jon Gruden can do the same. All I know is that I'll be following this pretty closely.

Oh, and these two will play one another on an annual basis, too.

Jimbo Fisher vs. Kevin Sumlin

These have to be the biggest dominoes that fell during the whole process. Of course, all eyes will be on Fisher for a host a reasons. Can he supplant Saban as the SEC West king? Heck, can he even beat Saban head-to-head? Will his national championship pedigree win out in the conference recruiting battles? Is he able to maintain the momentum that Sumlin just couldn't seem to hold on to in October and November? You can't say that Fisher doesn't welcome pressure. The man won one national title and got in the hunt for a second while under the shadow of Bobby Bowden. But there'll be a lot of pressurizes steam building in that cauldron called College Station.

For Sumlin, this is all about two things ... redeeming an image and finishing on a high note. In his six season coaching Texas A&M, his teams never had a record worse than 4-1 through the first five games of any campaign. 2017 was the first time any of his squads failed to be 5-1 through the first half of the year. However, 2012 (his first year) was the only one in which the Aggies played winning football over the last six games of the regular season (5-1, 3 others were at 3-3, 2 others were 2-4). That didn't end up cutting it at a program that, exaggerated or not, has a lot of history in the sport.

I'm not saying that Arizona is a bad program. It's a good one (a .557 winning percentage versus A&M's .582 percentage). They've won or shared a conference championship six times. They played in the Pac-12 title game in 2014. There are expectations. Mike Stoops and Rich Rodriguez didn't live up to them, but they also had time.

Sumlin's biggest downfall at A&M may have been his instant success. We'll see if things repeat themselves, both for Sumlin at his new place and for A&M with their new boss.

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