Mailbag: How Much Blame Should Chip Kelly Get for UCLA's Mounting Losses?

In this week’s mailbag, we wax poetic about Chip Kelly and the worst part of being a college football coach; we predict where Sam Howell and North Carolina go from here; and we explore a hypothetical involving Army, America’s Team, that nearly upset Michigan.

Now, onto your questions.

From Brian B (via email): With the struggles Chip Kelly is having, would it be a fair assessment to say that he, like many other coaches are overrated? It's always bugged me that coaches are viewed as people who are able to perform feats of alchemy when in fact it's the talent on the field that brings the success ... Kelly had a run of success at Oregon which seems like a long time ago now and since then he's been average at Philadelphia, bad at San Francisco and to this point doing a pretty poor job at UCLA. I've always held the notion that it's players that win championships, not coaches and yet it's the coach, especially in college football, that almost always receives the accolades.

This is a good point, Brian. In college football, the coach is often the one who receives the most praise, the most credit, especially when a program has success over an extended period of time. Good players move on, and are replaced by more good players, and the coach remains. It’s easy then for the media and fans to focus on the common factor there: the coach. The coach obviously calls the plays, sets the culture, and recruits the players. But what’s it all for if the players on the field are not executing?

Here’s a quick shameless plug: this season, I think, the Sports Illustrated college football team has already done a lot of great stories highlighting talented players. You should read Joan Niesen on Jonathan Taylor, Laken Litman on Sam Ehlinger, and Ross Dellenger on Trevor Lawrence and the rise of freshmen quarterbacks across the country.

But now, let’s explore the coach in question here: Chip Kelly. I think his status as an offensive genius is pretty secure, considering how he brought the spread offense to the forefront at Oregon and the success he had there. But as you said, Brian, you can’t win without talent.

Take a look at UCLA’s last five recruiting classes, which include Jim Mora’s last three classes and Chip Kelly’s first two. According to Rivals.com, here’s how they ranked:

• 2015: ranked 13th
• 2016: ranked 12th
• 2017: ranked 21st
• 2018: ranked 19th
• 2019: ranked 44th

That last class was particularly awful, and also consider, UCLA has lost a lot of that talent over the last year or so, as the program has transitioned from Mora to Kelly. After going 3–9 last year, in Kelly’s first year in charge, UCLA reportedly had 18 players enter the transfer portal, including several former top recruits who didn’t really pan out anyway.

As a result, the Bruins have a real dearth of talent right now, and it’s showing up on the field. UCLA is 0–2 and hasn’t broken the 300 yard mark in either game, and all the blame should fall on Kelly, because that’s the cruelty of coaching college football. You may receive all of the credit when you win, but you also take all the blame when you lose. In both instances, it may be unwarranted. But that’s the way the system works, as of now.

From Tyler M (via email): Are the "Fighting Mack Browns" for real? Young quarterback, two big wins, a head coach in Year 1... Should the ACC start paying more attention to North Carolina?

In a word: Yes. True freshman quarterback Sam Howell looks like a keeper. In his first two games—wins over South Carolina and Miami—he’s thrown for 519 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Now, he’s got two tune-up games against Wake Forest and Appalachian State before No. 1 Clemson comes to town on Sep. 28.

Say North Carolina loses to Clemson. It’s possible the Tar Heels win out from there. UNC only plays one other team that’s currently ranked, No. 25 Virginia, and North Carolina gets the Cavaliers at home, on Nov. 2. Having Mack Brown, an experienced head coach, could help the Tar Heels run the table, too. He should have them ready for tricky road games at Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.

If Howell continues to play steady, mistake-free football, I could see North Carolina going 10–2, 11–1, and earning a re-match against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.

From @FantasyStatGuru: What would Army’s record be if it were in the Big Ten or SEC?

This is a fascinating thought experiment. Army’s option offense grinds down opposing defenses, controls the game and serves as The Great Equalizer against more talented opponents. Just look at what the Black Knights did last Saturday in the Big House, nearly beating Michigan, or last year, when they took Oklahoma to overtime in Norman. The Black Knights went 10–3 in 2017 and 11–2 in 2018, and seem poised for another double-digit win total again this year.

If Army played in the Big Ten, though, I think the Black Knights would be a middle-of-the-pack team. They’d play Navy and Air Force, which aren’t always easy games, and a few cupcakes in their non-conference slate. Then I think, during a good year, they could handle teams like Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois, and, due to their style of play, they could probably surprise a few other Big Ten teams. Add that all up and they could probably win seven or eight games.

In the SEC, I think, Army would have a harder time stealing games. At this point, the SEC has better athletes than any conference in the country, top to bottom. I think the Black Knights probably squeak out 5–6 wins in the SEC. Who’d you pick right now, Tennessee or Army? Probably Army, right?

Note: Questions were edited for style and grammar and/or condensed for clarity.

Have a question you'd like to see answered next week? Email it to sicollegefootball@gmail.com for a chance to be featured in our weekly mailbag.

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