It takes time to build a champion. Just ask Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban. Kirby Smart went 8-5 – just 4-4 in the SEC – in Year 1 at Georgia, but things started trending upward in Year 2. Will the same happen for Year 2 coaches in 2019? It’s quite possible a Year 2 head coach will turn his program around and maybe even end up this year’s College Football Playoff. Who will it be?
JEREMY PRUITT, TENNESSEE Another Saban disciple was hired in Tennessee to help resurrect the fallen Vols program. Pruitt enjoyed some success. The Vols went 5-7, a one-game improvement from the previous season. Tennessee won just two SEC games, but the wins were substantial. The Vols beat a 21st-ranked Auburn team 30-24 on the road. A few weeks later, Tennessee beat rival Kentucky, a team that was ranked No. 12 in the country at the time.
With a year under his belt, Pruitt is going to have to find a way to improve the run game. The Vols were 113th in the nation and dead last in the SEC in rushing yards per game. When you can’t run the football, your offense is going to have problems.
The defense is on the rise. The Vols were 52nd nationally in defending the run and Pruitt returns about three-quarters of the starting unit. He will also add key pieces like blue-chip linebacker recruits Henry To’oto’o and Quavaris Crouch.
Pruitt likely won’t take Tennessee to the SEC title game, but it is quite possible that his Vols go at least 4-4 in conference play. If so, Pruitt should finish the regular season no worse than 8-4 and a bowl win could give him nine wins in Year 2.
DAN MULLEN, FLORIDA Mullen’s first season in Gainesville was a success. The Gators went from 4-7 under Jim McElwain to 10-3 and they finished the season ranked No. 7 in the final polls. What will Florida do for an encore in 2019? For Mullen, an SEC East title, as well as a conference title, is not a stretch. Consider what he did at Mississippi State. In Year 1 with the Bulldogs, Mullen went 5-7. The following year, Mullen and MSU went 9-4.
His quarterback, Feleipe Franks, has had a year to digest the spread offense and he should improve upon his 58.4 percent completion percentage. The Gators were 76th nationally in total offense, something that should be much better in 2019. The defense, as usual, is uber-talented and the schedule is favorable. Florida crosses over against Auburn and LSU, though they must travel to Baton Rouge. Still, another double-digit win total is likely as is a division title.
SCOTT FROST, NEBRASKA Of all the Year 2 head coaches, the one that will make the biggest splash is Frost. Remember when Frost was at UCF? The Knights went 6-7 in Frost’s first season. Then, they won 13 straight games capped off by a Peach Bowl win over the SEC’s Auburn. UCF finished 13-0 in Frost’s second year, which led him to his current job – Nebraska.
Frost, of course, led the Cornhuskers to the 1997 national championship as the team’s quarterback. Frost passed and ran for over 1,000 yards each to lead Nebraska to a 13-0 season. He has the kind of quarterback now in Adrian Martinez that could do the same.
Martinez, who played hurt for some of the 2018 season, threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns while running for another 629 yards and eight more scores. Martinez was instrumental in Nebraska’s 4-2 finish last season. The only losses were by five to No. 8 Ohio State and by three to rival Iowa.
The 2019 schedule is favorable. They start off with the Sun Belt’s South Alabama. They get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home and the Cornhuskers do not play Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State. Do not be surprised if Frost turns Nebraska into a 10- or 11-game winner in 2019.