Ranking Most Likely Candidates to Replace Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State
Mississippi State is on the market for a head football coach a little later than you'd normally see for a team starting a search process.
The Bulldogs parted ways with Joe Moorhead only two years after they tabbed the former Penn State offensive coordinator to replace Dan Mullen, who left for Florida and turned around the Gators. Things didn't go so smoothly for Moorhead.
A 10-point loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl was a disappointing finish to a mediocre season, and leading up to the game, an altercation at practice led to starting quarterback Garrett Shrader being injured, per the Clarion Ledger's Tyler Horka.
Perhaps all those things factored into the decision to part ways with Moorhead. So, the only remaining question is: Where do the Bulldogs turn?
Stadium's Brett McMurphy reported Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Billy Napier turned down the opportunity to talk with MSU about the job, so that removes one expected candidate from the list. Napier has long been a name associated with the Bulldogs if they moved on from Moorhead, and so that's a big blow to the early search process.
The situation isn't dire yet, though. Yes, the pressure is on after hated rival Ole Miss made a splash pickup in Lane Kiffin, but the Bulldogs don't have to match the headline hire. They just need the right fit who can turn around a program currently in better shape than the Rebels.
Several lower-tier options could be big gets. Let's take a look at several viable candidates to replace Moorhead in Starkville.
10. Butch Jones, Alabama Offensive Analyst/Former Tennessee Head Coach
Butch Jones would probably love to return to the sideline as a head coach, but it's a matter of who is going to give him an opportunity.
Rumored to be a candidate at Rutgers and Colorado State this year, the former Tennessee head coach was fired partway through one of the Volunteers' worst seasons ever in 2017 and has been trying to rehabilitate his reputation as an intern/analyst under Nick Saban at Alabama.
The Vols finished 5-7 in his first year in Knoxville in 2013 but followed that up with a 7-6 record and back-to-back 9-4 campaigns before he was let go following a 4-6 start. Tennessee went on to have the only eight-loss season in school history with Brady Hoke as interim coach for the final two games.
Prior to UT, Jones had successful tenures at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, and he experienced recruiting success with the Vols. He struggled to develop that talent, however, and Tennessee was in poor shape after he was canned.
It would be a gamble for the Bulldogs to move in Jones' direction considering his low ebbs at his last SEC head coaching stop, but he has rebuilt programs brick-by-brick before. It's not easy luring talent to Starkville, and Jones' reputation for convincing prospects to join him would be considered a good quality.
If he surrounded himself with the proper staff, perhaps he's learned enough under Saban have more success. He'd also need to adapt his offensive system and improve his strength-and-conditioning program.
The Bulldogs probably could do better, but they could turn this direction if a few others say no.
9. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State Head Coach
It's been a difficult year for Blake Anderson, whose wife, Wendy, died of cancer.
Still, he was able to lead his Arkansas State Red Wolves. They responded with a second consecutive 8-5 season and finished with a 34-26 win over Florida International in the Camellia Bowl.
It was the second consecutive 8-5 season, and the two years before that, he finished 8-5 and 7-5. He's never had a losing campaign at Arkansas State and is 47-30 in six years.
He also broke the streak in which the Red Wolves replaced their head coach. The past three coaches—Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin—all got new head coaching gigs after one season there, and two of those were at SEC schools. Freeze took the Ole Miss job, and Malzahn went to Auburn, where he still is. Harsin replaced Chris Petersen at his alma mater, Boise State.
Could Anderson be the next Arkansas State coach to get an SEC job?
He has enjoyed explosive offenses throughout his career and did well as the coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi and North Carolina, teaming with Larry Fedora over the last two stops.
Anderson's star hasn't surged recently, with the coach not posting huge win totals in Jonesboro, but at 50, he's a solid young coach who could take off with the next gig, especially if he can bring along a few coaches he's familiar with and convince some strong recruiters to join him.
8. Sonny Dykes, SMU Head Coach
The last SMU head coach who tried his hand in the SEC didn't fare so well. Arkansas fired Chad Morris before his second season was finished after the Razorbacks (2-10) failed miserably in 2019.
Maybe Sonny Dykes would be better.
He took the Mustangs to a 10-4 record with Texas transfer Shane Buechele as his signal-caller, and that was the program's most wins since the Pony Express days of 1984. It took a 5-7 season in Dallas before Dykes got his system installed, but it worked wonders this year.
If Morris' lack of SEC success gives Mississippi State pause, the Bulldogs may cringe at Dykes' inconsistency at his only other Power Five stop at California. After starting 1-11 with the Golden Bears, he improved to 5-7 and 8-5 before a 5-7 season in 2016 got him fired. His defenses were dreadful, though his offenses put up big numbers.
Dykes started his head coaching days at Louisiana Tech, where he etched his offensive resume, and he has continued that in the American Athletic Conference this year (ninth out of 130 FBS teams in total offense). But what is his ceiling against top-tier competition?
He gets the nod over guys like Tulane's Willie Fritz (possibly a shade past his prime at 59 years old) and Army coach Jeff Monken (concerns over his option system in the SEC) because of his proven ability to develop quarterbacks.
With Garrett Shrader solidified as the starter next year, Dykes may be a solid fit. There are still probably more likely candidates.
7. Dave Aranda, LSU Defensive Coordinator
One of the hottest young names on the coaching circuit right now should be LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who has a brilliant defensive mind and has been in the conference since 2016 and helped Ed Orgeron build an elite program in Baton Rouge.
The Bayou Bengals offense (rightfully) gets most of this year's headlines ahead of the national championship tilt with Clemson next Monday, but Aranda's defense has been a consistent bright spot. The unit produces top-tier NFL talent, and Aranda's ability to scheme is impressive.
Before coming to LSU, the 43-year-old was a mastermind at dialing up defenses for the Wisconsin Badgers.
It's tough to have your first head coaching job in the SEC, but defensive-minded guys like Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt have enjoyed success. Aranda would be an intriguing selection, and he probably has enough connections to build a solid staff in Starkville.
It's a definite knock that he's never had a head coaching gig, but with Lane Kiffin bringing his strong, diverse offense to the rival Ole Miss Rebels, but Aranda's defense would be a fun matchup.
His name is being mentioned as a possibility for the Bulldogs on several lists, including that of the Clarion Ledger's Tyler Horka. It's a strong bet MSU will give him a long look, perhaps after the title game. But considering that is a week away, it would be a risk recruiting him.
He may be worth the wait.
6. Jeff Monken, Army Head Coach
If Mississippi State wants a tough, hard-nosed approach, Army head coach Jeff Monken may be the Bulldogs' man. The current head coach at Army has helped turn that program around, and he's also been an assistant at Navy, too.
But will his triple-option system translate in the SEC? If he winds up the man in Starkville, would he diversify his resume, run elements of the current system but also sprinkle in spread elements? Much of his career has been spent running that system, including as a running back coach at Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson.
He's compiled a 40-36 record at Army with double-digit wins in both 2017 and '18. Monken has been a winner everywhere he's gone, but hiring the 52-year-old would be a bit of a gamble because of system fit.
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg tweeted MSU has spoken with Monken, though, so the school is at least kicking the tires on this possibility.
In the rugged SEC West, it may not be a bad idea to go out of the ordinary and try to shake things up with the style of offense that would throw off opponents who aren't used to defending it every week. Plus, with the type of athletes Mississippi State can land, the option could thrive.
Also, it's possible Monken would be able to recruit a better passer to make that part of the offense a bigger threat.
It's hard to get used to the idea, but Georgia Tech had some positive seasons with Johnson, and the service academies are proving when the option is run to perfection, it's difficult for anybody to defend.
There are more traditional options out there, but this is at the very least one to watch.
5. Mark Hudspeth, Austin Peay Head Coach
When you cover the SEC, names continually pop up as potential candidates if a school goes in a different direction. That's why Billy Napier saying he isn't a candidate at Mississippi State is such a big deal; it seems Starkville would have been a great starting point for his foray into big-time football.
Before Napier was the "hot name" with the Bulldogs, it was another Louisiana head coach, former Ragin' Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth.
After four consecutive 9-4 seasons from 2011 to '14, Hudspeth was thought to be an up-and-comer in the business. Then, things crashed and burned with the Cajuns going 4-8, 6-7 and 5-7, leading to Hudspeth losing his job.
He resurfaced as the head coach at Austin Peay in the FCS, replacing Will Healy after he left for the Charlotte job. Hudspeth led the Governors to an 11-win season and the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title, and they love him in Clarksville, Tennessee.
He would have to consider the Bulldogs if they came calling.
Hudspeth was an assistant coach for three seasons in Starkville and was the tight ends coach under Joe Moorhead. He enjoyed plenty of success as the head coach of North Alabama before his days at Louisiana, and he also spent time as an assistant in Mississippi at Delta State.
If the Bulldogs want a coach with ties to the school, Hudspeth is the direction they need to turn, and while it probably wouldn't be the "splash" hire fans want after the way his tenure with the Ragin' Cajuns ended, Hudspeth has experienced success at every stop.
It would be an uphill battle in the SEC West, but this would be a dream job for the coach.
4. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech Head Coach
It's time for Skip Holtz to get a Power Five coaching job.
The son of longtime Notre Dame and South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz has spent a long career leading lower-tier programs at East Carolina, South Florida and Louisiana Tech, and he's done a strong job everywhere he's been except for his three-year stint in Tampa, which set his career back some.
With the Pirates from 2005 to '09, he went 38-27. He went 16-21 with the Bulls after following up his winning inaugural season with two losing years. He has spent the past seven seasons in Ruston, Louisiana, where he's gone 56-36 and built some strong teams.
This past season was his best, leading the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record. Yes, he's 55 years old, but he also has enjoyed consistent success at Tech, winning at least eight games in five of the past seven years. They beat Miami this season on the way to the school's best record since 1984.
Holtz has yet to lose a bowl game while at Louisiana Tech.
Again, he wouldn't be a splash hire that Kiffin is, but he would be a strong hire who has enjoyed success as an assistant in the Power Five, has the bloodlines and has really prospered in the Group of Five.
Holtz would probably love an opportunity to coach in the SEC, and, at this point, a job like Mississippi State would be a mutual strong step for both sides. Of course, there will always be the questions about whether his record at USF is an indication of how his system translates against better competition, but that was long ago.
This is a seasoned coach who has Southern recruiting ties and a long, impressive resume. He'd be a good pick by the Bulldogs.
3. Todd Grantham, Florida Defensive Coordinator
Dave Aranda is on this list because he is one of college football's top coordinators, he's already in the league, he's young and it's just a matter of time before he gets a head coaching job.
Another coordinator who should fit in this search and may even be higher on the probability list is Todd Grantham, the Florida Gators defensive coordinator who left Mississippi State with coach Dan Mullen and led UF to a ninth-ranked defense in the country this season.
With the Bulldogs in 2017, Grantham led a unit that was ranked 10th nationally, and the experience he has at the SEC level is invaluable. He was also Mark Richt's defensive coordinator for four years at Georgia before moving onto Louisville for three seasons.
Grantham's defenses are aggressive but disciplined, and the career assistant would love to get an opportunity to instill that mentality throughout his own program. The 53-year-old getting the Mississippi State job would be a lot like Sam Pittman replacing Chad Morris at Arkansas.
The Bulldogs would probably love to get someone with a little more head coaching experience, as Grantham would need a year to learn how to build his program, but former defensive assistants have experienced success in the SEC as first-time head coaches.
Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports said Grantham was a name "gaining traction" in the Mississippi State search, and the Bulldogs definitely could do worse.
In two years with Florida, the Gators are 21-5 and just went 11-2 this season. The defense has led the way in both years, and hearkening back to the Mullen era wouldn't be a bad turn for a program that sputtered under Moorhead. This would be a hire with deep-rooted SEC ties and a history in Starkville.
2. Bill Clark, UAB Head Coach
Someday really soon, a program is going to pull the trigger on UAB head coach Bill Clark, and it is going to be very happy it did.
The man can coach, and it's just a matter of time before he gets to prove it at a Power Five school. Mississippi State would be an ideal proving ground.
Clark is a defensive-minded head coach who helped the Blazers bring football back from the dead and amass a 34-19 record over four seasons. Considering UAB got rid of football for the 2015 and '16 seasons, this feat is even more remarkable.
Much of Clark's career has been spent in Alabama, where he was defensive coordinator at South Alabama for five seasons before moving on to Jacksonville State where he was 11-4 his only year there. His work with the Blazers has garnered national attention.
After earning Conference USA Coach of the Year honors in 2017, the Blazers have won back-to-back division titles. No, he's never had a Power Five job, but he knows how to run a program and he's proved himself in a big way.
Clark doesn't have the big name of some splash coaches out there, but he is a more proven commodity than Arkansas' Sam Pittman or Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz. This is a 51-year-old coach who has enjoyed recruiting success and developed players.
Another important element Mississippi State fans should love about Clark is his experience luring transfers during the time after UAB's program was shuttered. The Bulldogs hit the Mississippi JUCO ranks hard historically, and Clark already has experience with that.
He'd be a home run hire for MSU, even if it's not a national-headline coup.
1. Joe Judge, New England Patriots WR Coach and Special Teams Coordinator
If you haven't heard of Joe Judge, you can probably count yourself in the majority among SEC fans. It's not every day you familiarize yourself with an NFL assistant.
But Judge has been a successful assistant coach under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, and he has ties to Mississippi State. If the Bulldogs convince him to return to the college game, it would probably be a coup from an X's and O's standpoint.
He has been mentioned with several head coaching gigs in the NFL, and according to NBC Sports' Josh Alper, the New York Giants set up an interview with Judge for their head coaching job on Monday.
But if Mississippi State wants to interview him, Judge would probably listen to his alma mater. He and his wife are alumni, and Judge played for the Bulldogs beginning in 2000. He also was a graduate assistant in Starkville and then moved onto a full-time job at Birmingham Southern.
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg continues to mention Judge as a strong candidate, too.
He coached for three years under Nick Saban at Alabama and moved on to New England, where he has become a fixture in the Belichick system and garnered attention from other franchises around the league, too.
With his NFL ties and his playing and coaching career in the SEC, he'd likely be able to build a strong staff, and at just 38 years old, he has a high ceiling and a lot of youth and energy. Would that translate to recruiting? That's uncertain, and, as noted before, it's an element the Bulldogs need.
All the coaching chops are already there for Judge. He just needs to lay out a recruiting plan on how he will lure prospects to Starkville. He's never led his own program and would be a bit of a wild card, but this would be a gamble worth taking.