May was quite eventful when it came to college football coach ratings. We’ve compared all the Power Five trainers (65-26 | 25-1), upgraded coaching carousels from previous years and identified coordinators who could make the leap to become the head coach of Power Five in the near future.
Oh yes – and we had one legendary battle of words between two coaches who won national championships as Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher went back and forth about NIL, recruitment, narcissism and more.
But for now, let’s change the tone of that argument a bit and take another look at the 2021-22 coaching carousel as if it were a senior year. It’s senior season, after all, and one thing we’ve enjoyed is handing out some high school-style superlatives.
While we were tempted to elaborate on the subject and identify “best hair,” this group mostly sports the high-and-tight look. And one could speak of “biggest flirt” for several coaches, given the 29 job changes and high-profile moves that made up this year’s coaching carousel. Instead, we associated those superlatives (mostly) with college football.
Most likely to win big early
As does Riley use the transfer portal has allowed USC’s offense to quickly become one of the most dangerous in the country, raising the cap even further with the recent addition of Biletnikoff honoree and 2021 All-American Jordan Addison. Believing that Riley will flip the switch in Los Angeles takes a lot of faith in Alex Grinch, who can nail the defense — or at least play it well enough to last against the top Pac-12 teams — but the defensive coordinator’s story proves it this it can be done.
What’s getting a little less debate is how Oklahoma, which hired its own player in Brent Venables to replace Riley, is equally poised to contend for a conference championship and contend for a spot in the college football playoffs. Venables hired strong staff including offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and found a replacement for Caleb Williams in former UCF star Dillon Gabriel. Some talent left Norman after the coaching change, but the projected depth chart is still as strong as you’ll find in the Big 12.
Most likely to win big later
There is an argument that Cristobal lives up to the expectations of the ACC Coastal Championship in Year 1. However, that’s not “big win” status when you factor in the perceived gap between the Hurricanes and Clemson, even as the Tigers look to bounce back in 2022 after failing to win the ACC for the first time since 2014. Florida will, too need a trial to chase Alabama and Georgia in the SEC and compete again for championships and college football playoff spots. The process includes building depth and player development, stacking strong recruitment courses and delivering on-field results this fall that inspire confidence in the future of the program.
But the good news for fans of Miami and Florida is that there is evidence that Cristobal and Napier are the right coaches to bring those programs back to full glory. Both have made impressive investments in their coaches and coaches, which quickly became apparent long before competitive football began. If those investments pay off, we should see both of these proud programs back in the championship mix for years to come.
It might be a bit of an overstatement to lean on end-of-year superlatives for Cutest Couple, but there’s something unique that happens when rivals make managerial changes at the same time. The two coaches are compared, for better or for worse, at every step of their tenure. There will inevitably be one coach who has had a better season at the end of Year 1, and if the other coach is unable to close the gap in Year 2, it increases the pressure from fans and program staff. These coaches haven’t asked to be linked or signed 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 advantage goes to Dickert, who led the Cougars to second place in the Pac-12 North after taking over midseason for Nick Rolovich. That increases the pressure on DeBoer to bring the Huskies back into the top division of the conference and, most importantly, get revenge on the Cougars in the regular-season finals. Things are much more balanced in the Commonwealth Cup heading into Year 1 for Tony Elliott and Brent Pry as both coaches enter their first-ever seasons as head coaches after long and successful tenures as Power Five coordinators. At the end of each season, Elliott’s success is compared to Pry’s success to provide additional context for fans to think about these new hires.
Rent Future Power Five
- Rhett Lashlee, SMU
- Joe Moorhead, Akron
SMU’s last two head coaches have both gone to Power Five, so it’s not rash to think that Lashlee could be next in line to follow this trend. Lashlee, longtime assistant to Gus Malzahn (and star high school quarterback for Malzahn in Springdale, Arkansas), saw his stocks soar after two successful two-year stints as offensive coordinator at SMU in 2018-19 and Miami in 2020 -21 increased. The return to Dallas is a great fit for Lashlee as he can continue to set the pace and focus on explosive plays that made him a head coach contender. The key will be how he manages defense and whether, under his leadership, the Mustangs will become the premier program in the AAC.
While Akron hasn’t sent as many coaches into the Power Five ranks recently, it has hired a veteran coach to lead a turnaround for a Zips program that has been running for the past four seasons since its last bowl appearance of the year only achieved seven wins in 2017. Moorhead’s coaching past includes a successful rebuild project at Fordham, but also two years of Power Five experience at Mississippi State, where he won 14-12. If he can bring Akron back into the postseason, it won’t be long before other programs take notice and make him a valued candidate again.
Most difficult conversion
Timmy Chang, Hawaii
The future of Hawaiian football needed someone like Chang, arguably the greatest player in the program’s history, to come and take the reins after a tumultuous 2021 season. Player issues reported by Todd Graham brought the unique challenges of Hawaiian football to the fore, so the job had to go to someone familiar with the program. As well as being passionate about his alma mater, Chang has plenty of experience at Mountain West as an assistant to Jay Norvell in Nevada, giving the Warriors some pause when it comes to finding the right mindset to turn things around. Still, the roster saw a ton of revenue in the transfer portal, and ongoing concerns about the facility make these next few years crucial for Chang and his efforts to stabilize the program and its place among its Mountain West competitors.
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
There must have been some reasoning that Freeman would eventually take over the Notre Dame program based on how Brian Kelly spoke about him as an assistant and the school’s decision to promote him after Kelly’s departure. The school might have thought the promotion would be coming in a few years, but when Kelly’s departure to LSU presented the opportunity, the Fighting Irish Freeman wasn’t about to let it slip away. That strong connection is likely to help Freeman in terms of overall job status, as it will take a lot to surpass Notre Dame’s expectations of what he can be as a head coach. That’s not to say he’s free from criticism, but the continued success down the recruiting path under his leadership and the ability to compete 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 needed here in Freeman’s early years.
Brian Kelly, LSU
There’s a hefty contract that suggests plenty of financial stability for Kelly, but that contract also comes with LSU fans expecting him to lead the Tigers back to the championship fight. For the Massachusetts native, there are no “cultural suitability” concerns here, as the only culture that really matters to LSU is winning. However, if those wins don’t come on the field and Kelly can’t properly defend Louisiana’s borders down the recruiting path, things will heat up for the Tigers’ new coach. It’s a really tough job for Kelly—which is probably why he gets paid so well for it—because the playing field for a talented LSU team he coaches is likely 8-4, with the cap being an SEC championship. That’s a small margin 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 only has a few bad shots as he sees his stock take a sharp turn the other way.