You acknowledged everything I said in your article. It's just headline that has the potential to mislead.
Entering the 2013 season, the SEC welcomed four new coaches into its ranks. Looking at the talent inherited and the schedules set before them, most pundits predicted that Gus Malzahn would have the best first-year run. Moving down the table, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones were expected to finish ahead of Mark Stoops.
At the one-quarter pole, that’s pretty much exactly the way things have broken.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
While the Tigers finished 3-9 last season, it was widely believed there was more talent on their roster than appeared a year ago. This was a program that had won 14 games and a BCS crown in 2010 and eight games in 2011. Auburn recruiting — though there had been attrition — should have resulted in more than three victories in 2012.
Enter Malzahn with his flashy, up-tempo offense. The former Auburn offensive coordinator had been gone from the Plains for just one year (as head coach at Arkansas State). So he knew much of the Tiger roster. He knew the lay of the land in the AU athletic department. In terms of transitions, his figured to be the easiest among the league’s newbies.
Toss in a favorable early schedule and it’s not surprising that Auburn sits at 3-0. What is surprising is how they got there. If not for three Washington State turnovers in the season opener, AU might not have won that squeaker. And a touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds of play was needed to vanquish Mississippi State last Saturday.
Malzahn has had to break in a new quarterback in juco transfer Nick Marshall and his signal-caller has shown improvement from week-to-week. Leading the Tigers to a game-winning score versus MSU might give Marshall the confidence boost needed for a faster growth spurt.
Auburn’s coach has slowed the tempo of his offense when necessary, running a play once every 23 seconds of possession time. Malzahn wants to have the fastest offense in the country, but it takes time to get a team ready to move so quickly and so precisely. (For comparison, Oregon is running a play once every 18 seconds.)
Malzahn’s team will get its toughest test to date on Saturday night at 3-0 LSU. After that come games with 3-0 Ole Miss, FCS Western Carolina, and at 2-1 Texas A&M. But even though the schedule is about to get rougher, the Tigers’ own 3-0 start should put them in position to compete for a bowl trip in their new coach’s first season. Just as expected.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
No one should be shocked that Arkansas sits undefeated after an opening trio of games against UL-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss. Those teams can claim just one combined win over an FBS team this season (over Georgia State, itself a first-year FBS member).
The interesting thing about the Hogs’s start has been Bielema’s ability to put his stamp on his new squad so quickly. The questions we asked before the season: Can Bielema run with a roster built to pass under Bobby Petrino? How will Bielema and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney — a man who has lived by the pass — mesh?
In answer to the second question, quite well. Arkansas looks a lot more like Wisconsin under Bielema than Purdue or Tennessee under Chaney. The Razorbacks have thrown the ball just 51 times on the season. They’ve run it 160 times. Which leads us back to the first question. And, yes, Bielema has been able to create a run game with a roster built mostly to pass.
The Razorbacks lead the SEC in rushing yards per game (294.3). Sophomore Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins (whose mother should be happy she let her boy leave South Florida for Fayetteville) have both topped the 100-yard mark in each of Arkansas’ first three games. Collins is the first true freshman to do that since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. Collins (139.3) and Williams (131.0) trail only Georgia’s Todd Gurley on the SEC’s yards-per-game chart.
Bielema will take his team to New Jersey for its first road game this weekend. Remember, Rutgers offed the Razorbacks last season. After that, reality could set in for the folks in the plastic pig hats. Between September 28th and October 19th, Arkansas’ next four weekends will be filled with a visit from Texas A&M, a trip to Florida, a game at home with South Carolina, and then a date with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The final quartet of games looks daunting, too, with Auburn, Ole Miss, MSU and LSU closing out the season. As of Week Three, Bielema has successfully transformed Arkansas into Wisconsin-South. But over the next five weeks, the running — literally — figures to get quite a bit more difficult.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
The cupboard was nearly bare when Jones pulled into Knoxville from Cincinnati. The four players who made the Vol offense go last season — Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera — were all off to the NFL. A pass-blocking offensive line was the top tool left for Jones by predecessors Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin. But Jones had no proven quarterback or receivers to help take advantage of his O-line’s strength.
The Vols’ new coach managed to get off to a hot start by buying into Tennessee’s history (unlike Dooley and Kiffin) and by selling the Volunteer brand. Despite three seven-loss seasons in a row, Jones has UT sitting at #2 in the Rivals’ national recruiting rankings. His team also got off to a quick start on the field against Austin Peay of the FCS and Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky squad.
The WKU game figured to provide Jones’ Vols a challenge, but the Hilltoppers turned the ball over seven times total and five times in a six-play stretch. Credit Tennessee for forcing some of those, but there was just no way to use that game as a proper measuring stick for UT’s talent level. Instead, that wake-up call came last Saturday.
Jones’ first squad was picked toward the bottom of the SEC East due to the aformentioned, attrition-drained roster and its brutal schedule. Second-ranked Oregon crushed the Vols 59-14 at Autzen Stadium over the weekend. Next comes a trip to Florida, then a game with South Alabama (who beat Western Kentucky this past weekend), and then dates with Georgia (home), South Carolina (home), and Alabama (road).
Add in the fact that Tennessee’s thin roster is already losing key players to injury and its easy to see some of the 50/50 games toward the end of the schedule — at Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt, at Kentucky — breaking against the Volunteers.
Jones is opening up his starting quarterback job this week and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of going with a freshman, though it’s more likely one of his rookies — Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs — will take over for Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman around November, not October. Why break the young pups’ spirit against the SEC’s (and America’s) best?
Jones’ inherited a mess and it looks like UT’s record will once again be a mess as a result. But it’s a bit early for Tennessee fans to start comparing Jones to the Vols’ last two failed coaches. With four conference titles in six seasons as a head coach, the Volunteers’ latest hire at least has some wins on his resume.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Talk about your bare cupboards. The Wildcats are having to build from scratch in just about every way. Roster, fanbase, facilities, etc. So far, Stoops has done a very good job on the roster front. Perhaps even more remarkable than Tennessee’s recruiting rank of #2 is Kentucky’s rank at #7. And, yes, that’s a national recruiting ranking. While the Vols’ Jones has tradition and a splashy new football complex to pitch to prospects, Stoops is selling only playing time and a dream. That’s a tougher sell. And Stoops has so far succeeded in making it.
As for the UK fanbase, the excitement of a new coach, a new commitment to football and the return of the Air Raid offense seemed to wane following the Wildcats’ season-opening loss to Western Kentucky and Petrino, a man many Big Blue fans wanted to hire instead of Stoops. That’s disappointing for the Cats’ new coach who needs as much fan support as he can get. It is understandable, however. Kentucky has just two football championships in school history (1976 and 1950). No wonder, then, that many Wildcat fans moaned, “Same ol’, same ol’” after the WKU loss and turned their eyes toward basketball season.
But Stoops’ team has shown some spunk. First, in whipping Miami (OH), and then in battling #7 Louisville longer and harder than most had expected. The ex-defensive coordinator changed his defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 against the Cardinals and, apparently, caused Teddy Bridgewater and crew some confusion before finally wilting a little in the second half.
After an open date on Saturday, UK will face a three-week run of Florida, South Carolina (road) and Alabama. That probably won’t be pretty. And keep an eye on quarterback Maxwell Smith who left last Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury. He is clearly Kentucky’s best passer and if he falls, the Cats’ season get worse quick.
UK was picked for last place in the SEC East and from the looks of Kentucky’s first three games, that’s probably where they will indeed wind up. But it’s not fair for anyone to blame Stoops for that. Kentucky Football needs a complete top-to-bottom overhaul a la Vanderbilt. Whether Stoops — a first-time head coach — is the man to lead that revival, only time will tell.
For now, Wildcat fans needing to calm themselves should spend more time looking at their new coach’s commitment list than UK’s overall record.