Every December and January, the coaching market is so interesting and compelling that there are always plenty of interesting storylines to unpack. But the 2021-2022 coaching carousel was among the most enthralling ever. So many big-time programs were replacing their coaches with places like Notre Dame and Oklahoma, watching their coaches leave for other jobs. The Fighting Irish and Sooners were joined by USC, LSU, Miami, and Florida as legendary programs that were breaking in new eras of head coaches.
Just like any offseason, coaching changes typically start domino effects. There were some, but we saw a lot of coordinators taking over big jobs. Notre Dame, Oregon, Duke, Washington State, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma hired defensive coordinators to head their programs. Virginia went the offensive route.
So who did the best of the first-year head coaches? Well, let’s rank them 1 thru 30.
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Not bad taking your team to the national championship game in your first year. TCU has had some great moments as a program, but the four years before Dykes arrived in Fort Worth weren’t some of them. The Horned Frogs went 23-24 in Gary Patterson’s final four seasons at TCU. So for the Frogs to come out 12-0 and be able to lose the Big 12 championship game (in overtime) and still get into the College Football Playoff says something about what Sonny Dykes and his staff accomplished this season. His offenses were electric (hanging 51 on Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl) and this program could become the next power in the Big 12. Best first-year coaching job this season.
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2 – Brian Kelly, LSU
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Bad southern accents aside, Brian Kelly’s first season in Baton Rouge was a hit. The expectation for Kelly this season was to have LSU competitive in a loaded SEC West Division that had two teams eyeing a national championship. He went out and won the division instead. Along the way, he beat Alabama on one of the gutsiest play calls of the season and had the Tigers in position to go after a College Football Playoff spot. Sure, there’s much to improve on — the regular season finale loss to Texas A&M stings and getting run by Georgia in the SEC title game shows there is a ways to go before they are true title contenders, but blowing out Purdue in the Citrus Bowl was a nice rebound. Year 1 has LSU fans roaring for what the future may hold.
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If he could only beat Utah.
Lincoln Riley brought his brand of football to USC, and it paid off handsomely. After going 4-8 in 2021, the Trojans were on the brink of winning a Pac-12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff until a blowout loss to Utah (their second loss to the Utes of the season) ended those hopes. We already know that Riley can coach up some offenses, and USC was one of the best in the nation due to his rebuilding through the transfer portal. His defense let him down, just as they did in Oklahoma, but the hope is that he will be able to recruit talent that can at least make them serviceable. USC is on the rise once again.
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4 – Kalen DeBoer, Washington
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One of the most under-the-radar coaching jobs this season has been what Kalen DeBoer did in Seattle. Using the transfer portal to bring in Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. was a genius move and had the Huskies so close to reaching the Pac-12 title game. They still won 11 games, with their only two losses coming midseason at UCLA and (curiously) Arizona State. Not bad for a guy who had just 18 games of FBS head coaching experience at Fresno State before taking this job. Remember, though, that he also went 67-3 and won three NAIA national championships at Sioux Falls.
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5 – Mike Elko, Duke
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Mike Elko won the ACC’s Coach of the Year award in his first season in Durham, and if his Blue Devils had held off a North Carolina rally in their loss to the rival Heels, then they would’ve played for a conference title. The Blue Devils have become a more physical team under Elko on both sides of the ball and were no longer a pushover. The Blue Devils had their first winning season in the ACC since 2014 and just their third since 1995. They reached their first bowl game since 2018, beating UCF in the Military Bowl.
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6 – Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
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There’s a lot to be pleased about at Notre Dame. While Freeman was changing styles with the Irish, they managed to go 9-4 during the season, with two of those losses coming to Ohio State and USC. The losses to Marshall and Stanford were puzzling — and due to a lack of offensive efficiency — but they did beat Clemson and North Carolina rather handily and won the Gator Bowl over a streaking South Carolina squad. Expectations are always high in South Bend and it will be interesting to see if Freeman can take the next step in Year 2.
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7 – Jim Mora, UConn
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Jim Mora had a phenomenal first season at UConn. After inheriting a program that went 1-11 last season, Mora went 6-7 and got the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2015. Sure, UConn beat up on a lot of struggling opponents but they did pop Fresno State which began their 5-2 run to end the regular season. UConn became a physical running team, and Mora will look to expand the offense as he builds the program.
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8 – Dan Lanning, Oregon
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Give Dan Lanning some credit, as he could’ve lost the team and the season after getting spanked by Georgia in their first game of the season. Instead, the Ducks worked and continued to get better and won their next eight games. Late-season losses to rivals Washington and Oregon State kept the Ducks from reaching the Pac-12 title game (and possibly a College Football Playoff spot). Lanning, known for running those physical defenses at Georgia, has a lot of work to do on Oregon’s defense but give him some time.
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9 – Jon Sumrall, Troy
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Give it up to Jon Sumrall. After three straight 5-win seasons, Sumrall got the Trojans to a 12-2 record and a Sun Belt championship. They won their final 11 games of the season, and their lone losses were to Ole Miss and Appalachian State to begin the season 1-2. As the former Kentucky defensive coordinator, Sumrall and Troy got back to their defensive roots and allowed less than 18 points per game. Troy is trending way up … as is Sumrall.
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10 – Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
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Tedford’s return to Fresno has been a success. After beginning the season 1-4, the Bulldogs won their final eight games, the Mountain West championship game and the LA Bowl. Of course, much of that streak can be attributed to the return of quarterback Jake Haener from injury. The offense was more efficient and much more potent over the final three months of the season. Tedford was wildly successful at Fresno State before he resigned due to health reasons. If his health keeps up, he could have the Bulldogs as a force in the Mountain West for the foreseeable future.
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11 – Billy Napier, Florida
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Billy Napier’s first season at Florida is quite an interesting case. After stunning Utah in the opener, the Gators went on a 4-2 start to the season. The second half of the season was the opposite (2-5), which included a curious loss to Vanderbilt and an awful showing in the Las Vegas Bowl (30-3 loss to Oregon State). That’s what makes Napier’s season so uneven. Sure, losing to Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Florida State and Kentucky is understandable … but the Vanderbilt loss raised eyebrows. But that win over Utah was a start and they did pound South Carolina just before the Gamecocks took out Tennessee and Clemson. Napier is building the program in the style he wants, which will take more than one season.
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12 – Jerry Kill, New Mexico State
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From 2018 to 2021, New Mexico State went just 8-30, so a 7-6 season in Jerry Kill’s first year is progress. In fact, Kill’s Aggies began the season 1-5 but would win 6 of their last seven games … including a 49-14 beatdown of Liberty in Lynchburg, VA. This was one of the worst passing offenses in the nation but Kill … who is known for resurrecting programs … found ways to win games. New Mexico State is set to join Conference USA next season, and the Aggies look like they’ll be able to compete. Hey, he got them to a bowl game!
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13 – Jake Dickert, Washington State
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For starters, Jake Dickert has brought stability to a program that needed it. He took over as interim head coach last season and has kept the momentum going in 2022. Simply put, they were what they were. They beat the teams they were better than and lost to the top teams in the Pac-12, but getting trounced by Fresno State in the LA Bowl left a bad taste in their mouth at the end of the season. The defense … his specialty … played well all year and is a solid foundation to build on.
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14 – Rhett Lashlee, SMU
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Lashlee ascended from the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator to the head job and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Tanner Mordecai threw for nearly 4,000 yards and helmed a top-ten offense while putting up over 38 points per game. They went 7-6 during the season with losses to TCU, Tulane, UCF, Cincinnati, Maryland and BYU in the New Mexico Bowl. Of course, the defense was bad (allowing nearly 35 ppg) and they continue to find themselves in shootouts. So, basically, the Sonny Dykes era continues. Mind you, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston leave for the Big 12, which means the Mustangs could become an AAC power in the near future.
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15 – Joey McGuire, Texas Tech
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How do you assess Joey McGuire’s first season in Lubbock? It has to be a success, albeit choppy at times. Texas Tech beat both Texas and Oklahoma in the same season for the first time in history. They won 8 games and reached a bowl — beating Ole Miss — and they won all three overtime games they played. The patented Red Raider offensive attack looked potent once again — at times. Again, this was a choppy season but not bad for a guy in his first season as a D-I head coach.
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This is just the 9th season of FBS play for the Eagles, yet Georgia Southern has been pretty successful in such a short time. They reached their fifth bowl game during that time and had a very successful turnaround from their disappointing 2021 season. The Eagles beat both Appalachian State and James Madison, they also beat Nebraska, and they played Coastal Carolina down to the wire before losing by four. The Eagles are soaring back towards the top of a Sun Belt Conference that got a lot better over the last year. Helton did a fine job at a place people weren’t sure he could succeed.
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17 – Brent Venables, Oklahoma
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This isn’t what Sooners fans expected when Brent Venables finally left Clemson to head up Oklahoma’s program. To be fair, Venables is a defensive-minded coach who took over a program that was all about the offense and less focus was spent on the defense. The defense was still bad, allowing nearly 30 points per game this year, including 51 to Texas Tech in the regular season finale. Losing 49-0 to Texas in the Red River Rivalry is also a huge no-no in Norman. Oklahoma’s 3-6 Big 12 mark is the worst since going 2-6 in 1997 in the ill-fated John Blake era. You want to think Venables is reshaping this program to be more about running the football and physical defense and this is just a restructuring season, but he can’t be this bad next season.
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18 – Mike MacIntyre, Florida International
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The good? MacIntyre took over a program that went 1-11 and got them to four wins. The bad? Those wins were over Bryant, New Mexico State, Charlotte, and Louisiana Tech. The defense was really bad and let them down with a four-game losing streak. So they are improving and Conference USA will go into a massive overhaul this offseason. There is an opportunity for the Panthers to become one of the heavy risers in the league.
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19 – Jay Norvell, Colorado State
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Colorado State is a program that’s really struggling right now. Steve Addazio was fired after just two seasons and 16 games and this will be the 5th straight year the Rams will not reach a bowl. The offense hasn’t produced at all — their 13.9 points per game in among the worst in college football and they only scored more than 17 points just once this year … and that was 19 points is a loss to Middle Tennessee in Week 2. The defense had its moments but there’s a lot of work to be done. Remember that Norvell also went 3-9 in his first season at Nevada before getting the Wolf Pack to four consecutive bowl games.
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20 – Mario Cristobal, Miami
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Disappointing. Think about a year ago when Miami essentially wooed Mario Cristobal from Oregon while Manny Diaz was still the head coach. They gave Cristobal a huge contract and there were promises of money finally being injected into the program. All that may happen, but the buzz around the program didn’t resonate on the field as the Hurricanes landed with just a 5-7 record with two of their three ACC wins coming against lowly Virginia and Virginia Tech (both went 1-6 in conference play). In their last four losses, Miami was outscored 172-50, including a humiliating 45-3 loss to rival Florida State in Tallahassee.
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21 – Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana
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You knew Louisiana was going to take a dip when Billy Napier left for Arkansas State, so a 6-7 mark in a very good Sun Belt isn’t awful. Still, after the Ragin’ Cajuns went 34-5 over the last three seasons, a losing campaign doesn’t infuse confidence in a program that was middling at best before 2019. Losses to ULM and Rice stung. Desormeaux was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach but continued to play-calling duties. Perhaps he looks to find someone to take over those responsibilities this offseason.
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22 – Joe Moorhead, Akron
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This was a terrible season in Akron, and quite surprising that there wasn’t just a little more progress this season. The Zips have been an awful program — Moorhead inherited a team that went 3-27 over the last three seasons — so there weren’t many expectations going into the season. Their 2-10 record is technically a step in the right direction, though wins over St. Francis and the MAC’s other doormat, Northern Illinois, doesn’t scream potential. On the plus side, the Zips were much more competitive than under Tom Arth, and Moorhead is a proven coach that should be able to keep digging Akron out of that hole.
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23 – Stan Drayton, Temple
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Look, this is going to take some time. Drayton took over a program that had won just four games over the last two years and went through some more hard times in 2022. The Owls lost 7 of their final eight games and had the doors blown off of them several times. Their lone AAC win was over 1-11 South Florida and their three wins were over two FBS teams that combined for a 2-22 record and an FCS school that went 4-7. Still, E.J. Warner (son of Hall of Famer Kurt Warner) set a few Temple freshman passing records and showed signs that the Owls could be trending in the right direction.
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24 – Tony Elliott, Virginia
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Let’s first start on the field. Tony Elliott’s first Virginia team struggled, going just 1-6 in ACC play and 3-7 overall. Eliott, the former offensive coordinator at Clemson, saw the Cavaliers offense score just 17 points per game this season and just 14.6 ppg in ACC play. Of course, Elliott also had to deal with unspeakable tragedy as three of his players, Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler were killed by a gunman on November 13th while another player, Mike Hollins was wounded. Virginia’s final two games of the season were canceled and there will be a lot of healing for the program, university and community for a long time to come. It is also a reminder that a college coach’s job isn’t just about the wins and losses but as a leader and a father figure.
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25 – Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech
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Year 1 of the Sonny Cumbie era wasn’t a good one. Louisiana Tech went 3-9 on the season after losing six of their final seven games. Tech had one of the worst defenses in the nation this year, allowing 37.9 points per game. Skip Holtz went to seven straight bowl games (winning six in a row) before a 3-9 season in 2021 caused his firing. Cumbie’s first Bulldogs squad looked like a continued regression instead of the beginnings of a turnaround.
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26 – Timmy Chang, Hawaii
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Hawaii had one of the worst offenses in college football while also struggling to move the ball on offense. Hawaii, along with New Mexico and Nevada formed a trio of just awful-ness in the Mountain West, but the Warriors did win two league games (one was against Nevada) and seemed to get better as the season wore on. Hawaii opened the season losing to Vanderbilt, 63-10, but was a much more competitive team over the second half of the season. Still, going 3-10 is never good.
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27 – Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
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2022 has been a historically bad season for Virginia Tech. The Hokies 3-8 record is the worst in the program since 1987. Athletic Director Whit Babcock is publicly stressing patience but it isn’t known if Pry can survive another season like this. Expectations are typically high in Blacksburg and, as Justin Fuente can tell you, and this season fell far from what may have been too lofty of hopes for the season. The administration knew this would be a rebuild, but how quickly this gets turned around will be key to how long Pry will run this program.
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28 – Don Brown, UMass
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Look, how much of this is really on Don Brown? After all, this program went 2-26 under Walt Bell and has not had a winning record since entering the FBS in 2012 and are 20-92 since joining. The Minutemen just can’t get off the ground. Brown’s team went 1-11 this year with their lone win coming against Stony Brook. Their losses to Eastern Michigan and Arkansas State were the only losses to come in single digits. Brown was there went UMass was a contender in the FCS, losing the national championship game in 2006. If anyone were going to pull this program to at least respectability in the FBS, it would be Brown. It just may not happen.
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29 – Bryant Vincent, UAB
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This is one of the more interesting situations on this list. Bryant Vincent took over UAB after former head coach Bill Clark abruptly retired just prior to the 2022 season. Vincent was named interim head coach and led the Blazers to a 6-6 season, down from Clark’s final season of 9-4. Vincent was not given the permanent job — former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer was hired on November 29th.
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30 – Ken Wilson, Nevada
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This has been a mess. In a Mountain West that featured three horrible teams, Wilson’s Wolf Pack may be the worst. Nevada went winless in conference play and after a 2-0 start lost its final 10 games. They had their worst attendance figures since becoming an FBS program 31 years ago. Why would anyone show up to sit through cold night games and watch their squad routinely get rolled? Nevada lost five games by at least 20 points.