Year One Report Card
Evaluating College Football's New Head Coaches' First Season
Now that the conclusion of the 2020 college football season is upon us, I wanted to take a look back at the year and grade the job that the 24 new head coaches did in what was the most tumultuous year for the sport since at least World War II.
Before the season, I rated these new coach hires along a series of criteria, including potential long-term success, immediate impact and…also did it make sense for the program they were going to. To judge how these first year coaches did, I’ll first be grading on a curve, some coaches had to deal with a grueling, all-conference or mostly all-conference season while PAC-12, Mountain West and B1G teams played far fewer games. On the other hand, these conferences all dealt with bigger disruptions even in their shortened season as the SEC/Big 12/ACC programs did. I’ll be rating them in four categories including “Fans Should Be Over the Moon”, “Reasons for Optimism”, “Could Have Gone Better” and “Incomplete”
And – these rankings are for this year only – doesn’t mean that it means one coach is way better than others on the list for the long term. It’s important to remember, especially in the current “early signing day” recruiting era where many new coaches – unless they are internal elevations – will not have particularly great first signee classes, that first years for coaches are usually going to be a bit rocky or disjointed. Measured analysis is important for fans and observers to keep expectations realistic. Here we go:
Fans Should Be Over the Moon:
Karl Dorrell – Colorado: I openly questioned this hire in the offseason, only mitigating the bad score I gave it because the Buffalos were up against it after losing their head coach late (Mel Tucker to Michigan State). All Karl Dorrell did was come in and lead CU to the brink of a PAC-12 Title game berth and a trip to the Alamo Bowl. They ended the year 5-2 and, while it does remain to be seen if this was lightning in a bottle
Lane Kiffin – Ole Miss: Lane has done exactly what the Rebel fanbase wanted – made them exciting and relevant. Giving Alabama a scare, winning the Egg Bowl, and closing out the season with a big bowl win over a very good Indiana team in the Outback Bowl have folks in Oxford ready for more – and hoping Lane stays a long time. Only downside – defense is still pretty bad – Kiffin also needs to improve his late game management as it cost him against both LSU and Auburn. But overall – a success and recruiting is going really really well.
Sam Pittman – Arkansas: See Schiano below – 3-7 may not seem like “over the moon” but after three really dark years and two years without a single SEC win, Arkansas was really a 4 win team (win was stolen by officials in Auburn game) and close to winning several others. The program looks ready to break into bowl contention next year which would have seemed unlikely. Pittman was looked at as the fourth or fifth coach for the job but he’s a hard-nosed, detail oriented coach and seems to be exactly what the Hogs needed.
Greg Schiano – Rutgers: A 3-6 season may not seem like a great one…but if you’ve watched Rutgers the past few years you’d strongly disagree. Three wins in the Big 10, and a triple overtime loss to Michigan are an amazing turnaround in just a year for program that had been not just bad but often was getting destroyed on the field by 50-60 points by the power programs and rarely competitive with even the middle class of the Big 10. Schiano has done it before with the Scarlet Knights, getting them into the top 10 in 2006 even, and while this is a tougher conference than the Big East was, he clearly has a plan and has people believing in Piscataway.
Jeff Traylor – UTSA: I don’t know how many hardcore fans there are in San Antonio and around Texas of the Roadrunners but, a school that has a lot of potential in high school football rich central Texas, seems to have possibly found the right guy in Jeff Traylor who was a very successful high school head coach and college assistant. To go from 4-8 to 7-5, including a close loss in their bowl game to 11 win Louisiana, is really impressive. Hopefully they can continue the momentum in CUSA.
Reasons for Optimism:
Shawn Clark – Appalachian State: A nine win season was actually a step back from their last couple of years, but the Mountaineers have a coach from the school who will likely stay awhile after losing their last two head coaches in short order. They WILL have to compete now against Coastal Carolina and Louisiana, the two new powers in the Sun Belt Conference.
Kaelan DeBoer – Fresno State: Points for 197 versus points against at 180 points at least to competitiveness but 3-3 is really hard to judge in this season. Ultimately I’m going with optimism.
Eli Drinkwitz – Missiouri: I really wrestled with whether to have this up in the “over the moon” category. Ultimately I decided the 5-5 ending was just average enough to stay in this optimism section. However, Drinkwitz took a team that had been listless and 6-6 the year before and instilled a toughness and energy that led them to several solid wins. They also – in hindsight – played Alabama tougher than most teams did in the SEC. The future seems bright in Columbia – they will need more consistency.
Todd Graham – Hawaii: It’s not easy to build and sustain success in Honolulu and Graham had to come in late, after early signing day and right before spring practice, which then got cancelled, when Nick Rolovich left for Washington State. A winning season at 5-4 in the midst of a lot of program uncertainty is to be commended.
Jeff Haifley – Boston College: A winning season (6-5) in an incredibly challenging year, taking Clemson to the wire, playing Notre Dame pretty tough, and finding their quarterback (Phil Jurkovec) are all reasons for optimism for the Eagles and Haifley who clearly seems to be schematically excellent on defense while understanding the modern game offensively something long missing in Chestnut Hill.
Brady Hoke – San Diego State: A “retread” hire by the Aztecs, going back to Hoke who had success there before taking the Michigan job in 2012, I did not grade it all that highly. However, Hoke had a winning season to start, we will see if he can sustain success and build the program further picking up where he left off.
Mike Leach – Mississippi State: If we were doing this list after the first week, Leach would have been in the “over the moon” list. Likewise after an upset bowl win over Top 25 Tulsa to close the season (although it was marred by an ugly brawl at the end of the game). However, about five games in the ranking would have been “could have gone better”. Truthfully, it’s not surprising that Leach’s first year had a lot of disappointments followed by real improvement including close losses to Georgia and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs have found their QB and will have a full offseason program under their belt for 2021.
Ryan Silverfield – Memphis: See Shawn Clark at Appalachian State…a solid season, maybe a step back from last couple, but a coach who is continuing the quality of performance and competition and who will likely stay awhile.
Willie Taggert – FAU: Here’s why a 5-4 season for a team that was much better the year before inspires optimism – Taggert was coming off of a rough two year stint at Florida State and the Owls had lost a lot from Lane Kiffin’s last team. For a program like FAU which is dependent on two star and the occasional three star recruits and needs JUCO transfers and Power 5 transfers, consistency and competitiveness can really come and go quickly. Taggert’s first year, finishing second in their division in CUSA, shows the Owls can hang in there despite big changes.
Could Have Gone Better:
Dave Aranda – Baylor: While not totally unexpected by experts, Baylor dropped from a 10 win Sugar Bowl appearance season to 2-7 with a pretty pitiful offense. Any time you hire a defensive specialist like Aranda there are questions about whether the defensive-minded coach can recruit and scheme on the offensive side. So far the results aren’t great – but recruiting and season 2 with a full spring practice may be a more fair judge.
Marcus Arroyo – UNLV: An 0-6 shortened season – while not totally unexpected – still has to classify as a disappointment for a program hungry to be a factor in the exploding Las Vegas market. This is a long-term rebuild but there wasn’t a lot of visible evidence of growth yet.
Danny Gonzalez – New Mexico: Coach Gonzalez will have time to turn this around but the Lobos were nearly doubled up on the scoreboard and – with very little Division I high school talent in the state – it’s going to be a tough climb.
Mike Norvell – Florida State: A once proud program that obviously needed A LOT of rebuilding that will take more than one or two years, the Seminoles nonetheless had way more down than up including an opening loss to a not-very-good-as-it-turned-out Georgia Tech team, and blowout losses to Miami, Clemson and Louisville didn’t make FSU backers feel great. One positive note was an upset win over North Carolina…but they followed that up with some duds. I’m pretty confident Norvell will have success at FSU but it wasn’t a great “Year Zero”.
Jeff Scott – South Florida: Clearly the Bulls were a rebuild job for this former Clemson co-offensive coordinator, but a winless season didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I’m betting it will improve but, yeah, not great.
Steve Addazio – Colorado State: Not a great start at 1-3, and there was some pre-season controversy regarding player treatment, but four games in because of shortened Mountain West schedule then complicated by COVID makes it a little hard to judge Addazio – though I’m really not optimistic.
Jimmy Lake – Washington: They went 3-1 and “technically” won the PAC-12 North but couldn’t go to the conference championship game. I think Lake will be fine and probably very good – but hard to judge on four games.
Ricky Rahne – Old Dominion: The Monarchs cancelled their season playing in CUSA due to COVID19 so this is obviously an incomplete here.
Nick Rolovich – Washington State: The Cougs were 1-3 but basically see Jimmy Lake, hard to judge on four disjointed games.
Mel Tucker – Michigan State: At 2-5, yes Tucker had more than four games unlike some of the folks on this list, but was hired so late (late January) and had so little time to prepare coming off of COVID Spring cancellation and former head coach Mark Dantonio’s exit, that this felt like the most “Year Zero” of all year zeros. They had some blowout losses but also had two big wins over rival Michigan and a very good Northwestern team. I just think it’s hard to judge considering all these factors. I can’t say there’s much reason for optimism yet but I also don’t want to say there’s cause for concern. Truly an incomplete.
Check back next week for new hire grades on the coaching carousel for this year – what started as a trickle ended up a pretty strong flood, including 800 lb gorilla job Texas, a top 20 job (Auburn) and another SEC blue blood – Tennessee. Hit me up on Twitter with your thoughts at @readycfb.