As you may have heard, Texas A&M has a coaching vacancy to fill. Everyone is wondering who will be the man to replace Jimbo Fisher, and suggestions are flying in left, right, and center. If you're like me, you probably aren't intimately familiar with most of the candidates being tossed around. Fret not, dear reader! I've done my utmost best to review the candidates and build a statistics-based profile of each one. I'll be presenting my findings in a multi-part series, and this is Part 2!
Some quick ground rules: I haven't profiled anyone who has explicitly said no to the job or who I consider an unlikely candidate. This includes Dan Lanning, Deion Sanders, Dan Campbell, Dabo Swinney, and Urban Meyer. Also, comparing coaching histories is an inherently apples-to-oranges comparison. I've done my best to flatten out the numbers and compare coaches on an even footing, but it breaks down a bit when comparing someone who's been a long-time head coach to someone who's never been one. Lastly, I'm writing this before any games are played Saturday, 11/18. Let's get to it!
In this part, I'll be profiling current P5 head coaches in the Pac-12 (RIP) and the SEC. To start things off, we might as well rip this band aid...
Lane Kiffin - Ole Miss
Yep, we're starting with this guy. The Lane Train's been chugging along at Ole Miss for the last 4 years (including this year). Before that, he was head coach at Florida Atlantic and offensive coordinator under Saban at Alabama.
I've tracked Mississippi's team performances back to 2017, three years before Kiffin was hired. The years prior to his hiring are included in the greyed-out area of the table below for reference. I tracked team wins and losses, point differential, and team FPI ranking. I've also tracked points and yards per game (both scored and allowed), as well as offensive and defensive efficiency.
Ole Miss Before and After Kiffin:
As much as it pains me to say it, Coach Kiffin has the Rebels humming. They've consistently played like a top 30 team, and those recruit rankings are nothing to sneeze at.
The Case For: Coach Kiffin is maybe the most successful graduate of Nick Saban's Reform School for Lapsed Coaches. Through 4 years as a SEC head coach, his offenses have been consistently dangerous, and his defenses have been middling to good. He's no slouch on the recruiting trail, either. As far as availability, Kiffin doesn't strike me as the type to get attached to a place like Ole Miss. In fact, I think he'd relish the chance to troll Jimbo one last time by taking A&M higher than Jimbo ever could. If he feels like he's hitting the ceiling in Oxford, College Station is one of the few places offering a step up.
The Case Against: On the field, Kiffin has yet to notch a win against Bama or Georgia, and he's only 50/50 against LSU. Given the teams he's fielded, I would've expected better performance in big games. Off the field, Kiffin has a personality that could charitably be described as abrasive. He's never met a bear he wouldn't poke. Anyone who's heard the DeSanto Rollins recording knows that he only gets worse behind closed doors. Just as I don't think he's attached to Ole Miss, I have no doubt he'd leave A&M as soon as a better offer came along. I have no idea how he would work with all the meddlesome boosters and administration at A&M.
The Verdict: Again, it pains me to say it, but I think Coach Kiffin could do very well with the kind of talent A&M can accumulate. He's a proven offensive mind who's found and molded some very successful college QBs. If he can handle the boosters without pissing anybody off too much, he might finally be the guy to take us where we want to go. But at what cost?
Kalen DeBoer - Washington
Kalen DeBoer has been head coach at Washington the last two years, compiling an impressive 21 and 2 record. His Huskies are the frontrunners to win the Pac-12's final year and punch a ticket to the CFB playoff. Prior to taking over in Seattle, DeBoer was the head coach at Fresno State for two years.
I've tracked Washington's team performances back to 2019, three years before DeBoer took over, using the same metrics as I tracked for Coach Kiffin above. The years prior to his hiring are included in the greyed-out area of the table below for reference.
Washington Before and After DeBoer:
Coach DeBoer's Huskies are lighting up the scoreboard like a Christmas tree. QB Michael Penix Jr. is playing at a Heisman level. That defense isn't bad either. Recruiting is decent but has yet to rebound to previous highs.
The Case For: In the twilight of the Pac-12, Coach DeBoer has Washington in the national spotlight. The offense is clearly there. It's hard not to get excited about what he might accomplish for the Maroon and White.
The Case Against: With the Huskies rolling, why would DeBoer leave Washington for A&M? DeBoer has zero coaching experience in the south. He's been great for two years, but he's had Penix Jr. for both those years. Is Washington's success more a product of the coach, or the QB? Would he be able to make it all work again with a new QB in a new conference?
The Verdict: If we could pull Coach DeBoer out of Seattle, it would almost certainly be reported as a coup on par with the Fisher hire. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about replicating his success with the Aggies. All that being said, this is certainly a move I could easily get behind. When you have a coach who has been this successful at the highest level, it's hard to argue against hiring him.
Jonathan Smith - Oregon State
Jonathan Smith has been head coach at Oregon State for the past 6 years. Before that, he was Chris Petersen's offensive coordinator at Washington and Boise State. Coach Smith played his college ball at Oregon State, so he's "home."
I've tracked Oregon State's performance back to 2015, three years before Coach Smith rolled in, using the same metrics as I tracked for Coach Kiffin above. The years prior to his hiring are included in the greyed-out area of the table below for reference.
Oregon State Before and After Smith:
It took a few years, but the Beavers have taken a massive leap the last two seasons. Coach Smith's offenses have been the strength of the team, but the defense is catching up, and recruits seem like they're taking notice.
The Case For: Coach Smith has Oregon State playing at a level we haven't seen in a long time. His offenses might not be hitting the same highs as Washington, but it's been consistently good through multiple roster iterations. Defense has been pretty good as well, landing in the top 30 two years running. It's only natural to wonder what he could accomplish with the kind of talent A&M can muster.
The Case Against: Convincing a successful head coach to leave his alma mater is a tough sell, and money might not be enough. Like DeBoer, Smith has zero coaching experience in the south. Would he be able to translate to the SEC?
The Verdict: Given Coach Smith's long track record of offensive success at the P5 level, I'm fairly confident he'd get that side of the ball working at A&M. His defense and recruiting for the Beavers has been strong enough that I'm not overly worried about that, either. I could see him being a kinder, gentler Lane Kiffin. Smith might not be our first choice, but he's one of the best options we could reasonably get.
Jedd Fisch - Arizona
From one J. Fish to another? Jedd Fisch has been the head coach of Arizona for 3 years. Before that, he was an assistant in the NFL and offensive coordinator at UCLA under Jim Mora. One of the odder paths to CFB head coach.
I've tracked Arizona back to 2018, three years before Coach Fisch took over for some guy named Kevin Sumlin, using the same metrics as I tracked for Coach Kiffin above. The years prior to his hiring are included in the greyed-out area of the table below for reference.
Arizona Before and After Fisch:
In 3 short years, Coach Fisch has revived the Wildcats program, led by the offense. After some early stumbles, they're playing some really strong football to end the year, and recruiting seems to be ticking up. If they continue on this trajectory, they'll be contenders in the Nu Big 12 next year.
The Case For: Coach Fisch's offense has led a revival in Tucson. Could he make Jimbo's pieces fit in C-Stat? He's seemingly more available than either DeBoer out of Washington or Smith out of Oregon State. There's also an argument to be made that his program has been a stronger recruiter than either of the coaches from the Pacific northwest.
The Case Against: Fisch hasn't had the highs of DeBoer nor the longevity of Smith. The defense took a step forward this year, but the Wildcats still lag behind the Huskies and Beavers.
The Verdict: Coach Fisch is the first P5 coach who doesn't feel like a clear-cut improvement over the non-P5 HC candidates I profiled in Part 1. He has Arizona competing again, but do I feel confident that he could compete against the gauntlet in the SEC? I'm not so sure. He's worth a look, but my optimism would be tempered if Fisch is ultimately chosen as the guy.
I think I just about rank this batch of coaches in the order I've profiled them. I'll move DeBoer ahead of Kiffin just because he's reached higher in a shorter amount of time.
Honestly, I think any of the first 3 would be great hires for A&M. DeBoer offers the most upside of this bunch. Kiffin and Smith are both extremely strong candidates with a mind for offense. I'm not sold on Fisch yet; I really wish he had one more year to see where he takes Arizona. What do y'all think?
If you found this guide useful, check out Part 1, in which I profiled 5 candidates from the coordinator and non-P5 head coaching ranks. I plan to release one more of these with a focus on a few more P5 coaches that have been mentioned as potential successors to the Jimbo era. Thanks for reading!