The Mountain West has had 4 teams make head coaching hires since 2016. The hires have led to varying degrees of success, but each coach has areas to focus on improving. A great way to evaluate what a team does and doesn’t do well is to use Bill Connelly’s five factors: explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. Explosiveness is your team’s ability to create or limit big plays, while efficiency describes how often a given play is “successful”. Connelly defines a success as achieving 50% of the required yardage on first downs, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth downs. In case you’re not convinced on the importance of advanced statistics, Connelly notes that you win a game 86% of the time when you win the explosiveness battle and 83% of the time when you win the efficiency battle. It’s a great tool to use when looking at head-to-head matchups during the season, but we’ll use them to look at what areas new Mountain West head coaches need to work on to get their team to the next level.
Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
1 season, 10-4
In 2002, Tedford inherited a Cal team that had gone 1-11 the previous season and turned them into a 7-5 team with a top ten scoring offense. Cal reeled off eight straight winning seasons while Tedford became the winningest coach in team history. Fifteen years after directing Cal’s turnaround, Tedford once again took over a 1-11 team and led them to a winning record – this time in even more dramatic and improbable fashion as he took Fresno State to the Mountain West championship game with a 10-4 record.
The only problem with overachieving so drastically in year one is the lofty expectations that follow. Luckily for Tedford, Fresno State returns the bulk of its starters from last season. Defense was unquestionably the team’s strength last season as they ranked 10th in scoring and 19th in total yards per play. The defensive line was the team’s biggest casualty to graduation, but their linebackers and defensive backs come back even stronger.
With the defense expected to maintain their high level of play, what areas on offense can Tedford and the Bulldogs improve this season to stay on track? Fresno State ranked 104th in 4th quarter offensive S&P+ last season. In their 4 losses, they scored a total of 10 4th quarter points, all 10 points coming in garbage time against Alabama and Washington after the games were out of hand. In their 2 close losses to UNLV and Boise State, Fresno entered the 4th quarter tied and with a 4-point lead, respectively, and got shutout in both.
Their lack of success on passing downs (S&P+ rank: 103) may be an underlying issue to their struggles in the 4th quarter when they’re forced to throw more often. Their running game was very efficient (success rate rank: 29), but they lacked explosiveness (IsoPPP rank: 129), while the passing game was mediocre in both. Combine the two and you have a team that can’t convert when they get behind in downs. Expect the passing game to improve this year as quarterback Marcus McMaryion gains another year of experience, and a deep stable of wide receivers returns.
Nick Rolovich, Hawaii
2 seasons, 10-16
Hawaii’s last winning record came in 2010 when Rolovich, as offensive coordinator at the time, orchestrated one of the nation’s most potent offenses. They’ve had little success since then. Rolovich’s first year as head coach was promising as Hawaii went 7-7 in 2016. All the progress they made seemed to dissipate during last year’s 3-9 season, and now Rolovich must evaluate what went wrong. Rolovich is re-installing the run-and-shoot offense that he ran as offensive coordinator in the hopes of re-capturing the success he found almost a decade ago.
This year’s outlook is grim when you look at everybody they lost. The offense returns just 3 starters while the defense returns 6. It’s tough to evaluate what to improve when there are so many weaknesses and so few returning pieces, but we’ll focus on the defense since it was the worse unit of the two. The defense finished last season ranked 124 out of 130 teams in S&P+. Rolovich brought in new defensive coordinator Corey Batoon from FAU over the offseason. Batoon coached safeties and special teams while serving as co-defensive coordinator at FAU. While no aspect of the defense played well (they gave up 6.8 yards per play), passing defense particularly struggled, ranking 127th in passing defense S&P+. Batoon’s expertise in the secondary may help stop the bleeding. His Owl’s ranked 12th in interceptions, and he had similar success coaching safeties at Ole Miss. The Rainbow Warriors lost their top 3 safeties but return their starting cornerbacks. If Hawaii can find some stability on defense against the pass, it could go a long way towards making progress as a team.
Jay Norvell, Nevada
1 season, 3-9
After serving as an offensive assistant and, more recently, offensive coordinator in college and the pros, Norvell started his first head coaching job last season at Nevada. The Wolfpack got off to a rocky start but found some stability towards the end of the season. The offense progressed well throughout the season and has potential to be really exciting in 2018 with Matt Mumme implementing the air raid offense that his father helped architect. The defense, however, never really hit its stride.
While they were decent at limiting explosive plays (IsoPPP rank: 66), they ranked 125th in defensive efficiency with a success rate of less than 50%, meaning the opposing offense could gain their required yardage on over half of their plays. This style of defense can be effective in a bend-but-don’t-break manner, but only if they don’t break. Nevada gave up 33.9 points per game, a good sign that they broke all too often.
If the defense can improve even marginally in success rate while maintaining status quo in explosiveness, it could make a huge impact. How to actually make the improvement is a bit harder to determine. While the run defense was bad last year, the pass defense was atrocious. They ranked 125th in completion percentage and 111th in passing yards per game. Both all-conference starting safeties return, but they’re desperately thin at cornerback. In Nevada’s case, it’s easy to identify the issues, but solving them is another matter. Let’s hope they find some answers on defense to complement what should be a stellar offense.
Brent Brennan, San Jose State
1 season, 2-11
Last season, San Jose State’s starting quarterbacks were a freshman and a sophomore, their starting running back was a freshman, and their receiving corps consisted of 2 freshmen, 2 sophomores, and 1 junior. It would be difficult for any coach to find success with that much youth playing important roles let alone a first-year head coach. Brennan developed a good track record as a wide receivers coach at San Jose State and Oregon State prior to beginning his head coaching career at SJS. The energetic, young coach relates well to players, and he is known to be a good recruiter.
The Spartans ranked 126th in points per game on offense and 127th in points per game allowed on defense last season. It’s hard to choose any one area that they need to improve, but it will be interesting to see how the young offense progresses with a year of experience. The passing game struggled last year as indecision and injuries plagued the quarterback position. They finished the season ranked 121st in passing S&P+.
Sophomore Josh Love began the season as the starter prior to an injury. Freshman Montel Aaron assumed the starting role after week 2 and played decent through his first few games. Aaron suffered a mid-season injury, and his performance regressed in the second half of the season. He’ll likely be the starter in week 1 against UC Davis as he aims to become a leader for the team. If he can, the Spartans’ offense will at least improve from last year’s abysmal performance.
While some teams just have a few adjustments to make and could compete for a conference championship (Fresno State), others have a lot of work to do and are just hoping to make reasonable progress (San Jose State). A coach’s ability to identify and address their team’s issues is crucial to their long-term success. As the season provides answers, we’ll get an idea of which coaches are here to stay and which won’t last long.