May was quite eventful when it came to evaluating college football coaches. We ranked all the Power Five coaches against each other (| ), from previous years and to be a Power Five head coach in the near future.
Oh yeah – and we had aBetween the two national championship-winning coaches, as Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher went back and forth on NIL, recruiting, narcissism and more.
But now we’re changing the tone a little bit from that spat, taking on another look at the 2021-22 coaching carousel as though it were a graduating class. It is graduation season, after all, and one thing we’ve enjoyed is handing out some high school-style superlatives.
While we were tempted to go all in on the motif and identify “best hair,” this group mostly sports the high-and-tight look. And you could make an argument for several coaches as the “biggest flirt” considering the 29 job changes and high-profile moves involved in this year’s coaching carousel. Instead, though, we tied these superlatives (mostly) to college football.
Most likely to win big early
The way Rileyhas allowed USC’s offense to quickly become one of the most dangerous in the entire country, raising the ceiling even more with the recent addition of Biletnikoff Award winner and 2021 All-American Jordan Addison. Belief in Riley flipping the switch in Los Angeles does require a lot of confidence in Alex Grinch bringing the defense up to speed – or at least playing well enough to get stops against the best Pac-12 teams – but the defensive coordinator’s history provides evidence that it can be done.
What’s somewhat less discussed is how Oklahoma, which hired one of its own in Brent Venables to replace Riley, is equally prepared to compete for a conference championship and contend for a College Football Playoff spot. Venables made strong staff hires that included offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and found a Caleb Williams replacement with former UCF star Dillon Gabriel. Some talent left Norman after the coaching change, but the projected depth chart is still as strong as you’re going to find in the Big 12.
Most likely to win big later
There’s an argument that Cristobal carries ACC Coastal championship expectations in Year 1. However, that’s not “win big” status when you consider the perceived gap between the Hurricanes and Clemson, even as the Tigers look to rebound in 2022 after failing to win the ACC for the first time since 2014. Florida, similarly, will require a process to chase down Alabama and Georgia in the SEC and get back to contending for championships and College Football Playoff spots. The process will include building out depth and player development, stacking strong recruiting classes and getting on-field results this fall that build confidence in the program’s future.
But the good news for Miami and Florida fans is that there is plenty to suggest that Cristobal and Napier are the right coaches to lead those programs back to big-time success. Both have made impressive investments in their coaches and support staff, quickly making their impact felt long before the first snap of competitive football. If those investments pay off, then we should see both of these proud programs back in the mix for championships in the coming years.
It may be a little excessive leaning in on the end-of-year superlatives with “Cutest couple,” but there is something unique that occurs when rivals make coaching changes at the same time. The two coaches, sometimes to their advantage and other times to their detriment, end up being compared to each other at every step in their tenure. There will inevitably be one coach who had a better season at the end of Year 1, and if the other coach can’t close the gap in Year 2, it raises the pressure from fans and those around the program. These coaches didn’t ask to be linked together or sign up for this head-to-head battle, but it’s the reality of how fans feel about their coach when two rival schools make changes in the same offseason.
In the Apple Cup rivalry, the early edge goes to Dickert, who led the Cougars to a second-place finish in the Pac-12 North after taking over midseason for Nick Rolovich. That adds pressure on DeBoer to bring the Huskies back into the top tier of the conference and especially to get revenge on the Cougars in that regular-season finale. The situation in the Commonwealth Cup is much higher level heading into Year 1 for Tony Elliott and Brent Pry, with both coaches entering their first-ever season as a head coach following extended and successful tenures as Power Five coordinators. The end of each season will include a grading of Elliott’s success against Pry’s success, providing fans with extra context for how to feel about these new hires.
Future Power Five hire
- Rhett Lashlee, SMU
- Joe Moorhead, Akron
SMU’s last two head coaches both left for Power Five opportunities, so it’s not wild to consider that Lashlee could be the next in line to follow that trend. A longtime Gus Malzahn assistant (and star high school quarterback for Malzahn in Springdale, Arkansas), Lashlee saw his stock rise after a pair of successful two-season stints as the offensive coordinator at SMU in 2018-19 and Miami in 2020-21. Returning to Dallas is a stellar fit for Lashlee, as he can continue to implement the kind of tempo and focus on explosive plays that helped make him a head coaching candidate. The key will be how he manages the defense and whether the Mustangs become the premier program in the AAC under his leadership.
While Akron has not sent as many coaches to the Power Five ranks recently, it has hired a proven coach to lead a turnaround for a Zips program that has just seven wins across its last four seasons since making its most recent bowl appearance in 2017. Moorhead’s Coaching past includes a successful rebuilding project at Fordham, but also two years of Power Five experience at Mississippi State, where he went 14-12. If he can get Akron back into the postseason, it won’t take long for other programs to take notice and make him a valued candidate once again.
Timmy Chang, Hawaii
The future of Hawaii football needed someone like Chang, arguably the best player in program history, to come and take the reins after a tumultuous 2021 season. Todd Graham’s reported issues with players brought the unique challenges for Hawaii football into the forefront, so the job needed to go to someone who had familiarity with the program. Chang not only has passion for his alma mater, but strong Mountain West experience as an assistant for Jay Norvell at Nevada, so the Warriors are getting some breaks as it pertains to making the right hire to turn things around. Still, the roster experienced a ton of transfer portal turnover and the ongoing facility concerns make these next few years crucial for Chang and his efforts to stabilize the program and its spot among its peers in the Mountain West.
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
There had to be some thinking that Freeman would eventually take over the Notre Dame program based on how Brian Kelly talked about him as an assistant and the decision by the school to promote him after Kelly’s departure. The school might have thought the promotion was going to come a few years down the line, but when Kelly’s exit to LSU prompted the opportunity, the Fighting Irish didn’t want to let Freeman get away. That strong connection likely helps Freeman as it pertains to overall job status, because it’s going to take a lot to overturn Notre Dame’s expectation for what he can be as a head coach. That’s not to say that he’s free of criticism, but continued success on the recruiting trail under his leadership and competitiveness against the biggest and toughest rivals on the schedule should be enough. More College Football Playoff appearances would be great, but I don’t think they’re a requirement here in Freeman’s first couple of years.
Brian Kelly, LSU
There is a hefty contract that suggests plenty of financial stability for Kelly, but that contract also comes with expectations from the LSU fans that he can guide the Tigers back to championship contention. There is no “culture fit” concerns here for the Massachusetts native, because the only culture that really matters to LSU is winning. However, if those wins aren’t coming on the field, and Kelly can’t properly defend the borders of Louisiana on the recruiting trail, then things will start to heat up for the Tigers’ new coach. It’s a really tough proposition for Kelly – which is probably why he’s so well-paid to take it on – because the floor for a talented LSU team with him as the coach is probably 8-4 with the ceiling being an SEC Championship. That’s a small space to operate between success and failure when LSU already has one of the toughest conference schedules in the country. Even after a successful season, those razor-thin margins mean Kelly’s only a few bad bounces from seeing his stock take a sharp turn the other direction.