Ranking college football's new head coaches in a wacky season that saw 28 teams make changes
A wild and wacky coaching cycle kicked off earlier than ever. Seven Football Bowl Subdivision programs, five in the Power Five, made changes before the end of October.
What unfolded was a series of high-profile moves involving some of the biggest programs and head coaches in the country. Come next season, new coaches will make their debuts at Southern California, LSU, Notre Dame, Miami, Florida and Oklahoma, among others.
Twenty-eight programs in all, representing more than a fifth of all teams in the FBS, will enter the 2022 season with a new head coach. The only conference to stand pat during this cycle was the Big Ten.
Time will tell which coaches will succeed and which will flop from next year's crop of first-year coaches. For now, let's attempt to look forward and rank every FBS coaching move based on best fit and the chance for immediate and long-term success.
1. Mario Cristobal, Miami (Fla.)
It's hard to imagine a more perfect fit. The former Oregon coach is from Miami, played for the Hurricanes and was a key assistant under Larry Coker before taking the job at Florida International. He was a winner at FIU and a winner with the Ducks, and is expected to do the same at Miami after refreshing a roster that should always have as much as if not more talent than every team in the ACC. He's an absolute home run for the Hurricanes.
2. Lincoln Riley, Southern California
Riley wasn't lying when he said after the Sooners' loss to Oklahoma State in late November that he wouldn't be the next coach at LSU — instead, he'd be next at USC. He's an offense-driven coach who will know how to take advantage of the talent outside his back door. And at only 38 years old with five years of pressure-cooker Power Five experience at OU, Riley may be a long-term answer for the Trojans.
3. Sonny Dykes, TCU
Dykes will switch zip codes but stay in very comfortable territory after turning SMU into one of the top teams in the Group of Five. His touch with quarterbacks, ability to develop high-scoring offenses and success recruiting the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex makes Dykes and TCU one of the best and most obvious marriages in this cycle.
4. Joe Moorhead, Akron
Akron pulling in a coach with Moorhead's track record is a total coup. The former Akron assistant (2004-08) has served as the offensive coordinator at Penn State and Oregon and was previously the head coach at Fordham and Mississippi State, giving him a résumé that seems almost overqualified for one of the bottom programs in the MAC. Look for Zips to take a noticeable step forward in his first season.
5. Brian Kelly, LSU
Kelly's next challenge is to bring LSU back to the top of the SEC and the FBS. After turning Notre Dame into an annual College Football Playoff contender, Kelly takes over a program that doesn't lack for talent but needs direction. The only question is how he fits from a cultural perspective, but even that concern is overblown. (Kelly's magically appearing southern drawl notwithstanding.)
6. Billy Napier, Florida
Napier patiently waited his turn after several strong seasons at Louisiana and reeled in one of the premier jobs in the country at Florida. The former Alabama assistant knows how to run a program but will have to steer through an SEC East dominated by Georgia. There is also a question of what would constitute success for a program that has jettisoned its past two coaches not long after playing for the conference championship.
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7. Clay Helton, Georgia Southern
Fired by USC two games into this season, Helton made a soft landing at the off-and-on Sun Belt contender. This may not be a total rebuild: Georgia Southern dipped to 3-9 in 2021 but had reached three straight bowl games from 2018-20. Helton is the right coach to lead this proud program back to a place among the most consistently successful teams in the Group of Five.
8. Brent Venables, Oklahoma
It's a testament to the depth of quality hires in this year's cycle that Venables comes in eighth among first-year coaches. After a memorable run at Clemson, the former OU assistant returns to Norman more than ready to run the show at one of the elite programs in the country. Look for OU to play with increased energy and activity as the Sooners take a cue from one of the fieriest coaches in the sport.
9. Jay Norvell, Colorado State
Norvell pulled off a rare in-conference switch in leaving Nevada for Colorado State, which offers terrific facilities and resources compared to most of the Group of Five. Norvell's acumen as a recruiter and developer of skill talent will pay immediate dividends for the Rams. But there should be a bit of a hiccup as he transitions CSU from a run-based offense to his version of the Air Raid system. (The staff did sign 19 players set for offense during the early signing period, which could help.)
10. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
Tedford is back out of retirement and back at Fresno State after winning 26 games with the Bulldogs from 2017-19. His familiarity with the program and region, his extensive experience as an FBS head coach and history of building top-tier quarterbacks all point toward another successful run. At 60 years old and with health issues in the recent past, Tedford may not be a long-term solution for the Bulldogs but he checks all the boxes.
11. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
Freeman was destined to get a major job at some point in the near future. Is this too soon to take over one of the biggest jobs in coaching? Maybe. Freeman's lack of experience as a head coach and overall lack of experience in the Power Five are clear drawbacks. But he's drawn the overwhelming support of the players, is surrounded by a strong staff and will be able to learn on the job with a roster that's good enough to compete for the national championship. If given time to grow on the job, Freeman may end up the best hire of the cycle.
12. Joey McGuire, Texas Tech
McGuire has done outstanding work on the recruiting trail since being hired midway through the regular season. With another two full classes, Tech could have the talent to be a real factor in the Big 12 race. This is a very difficult place to win, however, and McGuire will need to rely on all his connections and experience to make the Red Raiders more than just a team capable of winning seven or eight games.
13. Tony Elliott, Virginia
Much like Napier, Elliott bided his time for the right opportunity. That may very well be at Virginia, where he takes over a very strong foundation left by former coach Bronco Mendenhall. Getting quarterback Brennan Armstrong back in 2022 gives him a good building block on offense, but whether his first team contends for the ACC Coastal depends on what sort of improvement he milks out of a bottom-dwelling defense.
14. Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana
Desormeaux is a former Louisiana quarterback who had a front-row seat during the Ragin' Cajuns' run of 40 wins in four years under Napier. The administration is looking for a continuation of that same philosophical approach, and why not?
15. Stan Drayton, Temple
In Drayton, Temple has brought in one of the top recruiters in the nation and a longtime assistant with links to some of the top programs in the FBS. That he's never been a coordinator is far less important than Drayton's ability to connect with recruits and build the sort of chemistry and culture that were the hallmarks of the Owls' recent success under former coach Matt Rhule. His connections should help Drayton hire a strong staff for a first-time head coach in the Group of Five.
16. Dan Lanning, Oregon
Much like Freeman, Lanning was on a collision course for an elite Power Five job. Is this too much, too soon for the 35-year-old former Georgia defensive coordinator? Again, as with Freeman, he'll have the chance to learn on the job with a roster that's good enough to win the Pac-12 and contend for the playoff from the start.
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17. Jerry Kill, New Mexico State
With successful runs at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota under his belt, Kill is one of the most accomplished college coaches of the past 30 years. NMSU represents the biggest challenge of his career. The one big question relates to Kill's health; a series of epileptic seizures forced him to resign as the coach at Minnesota and as an assistant at Rutgers. But from a purely coaching perspective, Kill is an outstanding hire for the Aggies.
18. Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech dipped back into the Air Raid pool to nab Cumbie, who has spent most of the past decade coordinating offenses in the Big 12. The Bulldogs made a run under Sonny Dykes before shifting gears under Skip Holtz, so Cumbie does make sense from a schematic perspective: Tech will be a little different than the rest of Conference USA and be an attractive landing spot for quarterbacks and other skill talent.
19. Kalen DeBoer, Washington
The moment might not be too big for DeBoer, who did a nice job in his two seasons at Fresno State and previously won three NAIA national championships at Sioux Falls. But he'll have to prove he can recruit with the top teams in the Pac-12 and quickly update an offense in dire need of a top-to-bottom reboot. In the end, DeBoer's tenure may be defined by how he develops quarterbacks. If so, his recent work with the position at Indiana and with the Bulldogs breeds optimism.
20. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
Pry's experience as a graduate assistant under Frank Beamer in the 1990s and his success recruiting the talent-rich region are immediate positives. But he takes over a roster in need of an overhaul and a program slipping down the ladder in the ACC, so the rookie head coach will need to show he's capable of solving the problems that have plagued the Hokies for the better part of a decade.
21. Jake Dickert, Washington State
Dickert impressed the WSU administration enough as the interim coach to earn the permanent job late in the regular season. Getting consistency at head coach is a huge positive after several years of controversy from Dickert's two predecessors in the position. He should get credit for making a good initial hire at offensive coordinator in former Texas Tech assistant and Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris.
22. Jon Sumrall, Troy
The former Kentucky assistant learned about program building under Mark Stoops, who has turned the Wildcats into a perennial contender for the Top 25. But the Troy he takes over has slumped from the high point of the Neal Brown era and needs to be reimagined under a new identity. Sumrall will have to perform this rebuild amid the program's pretty lofty expectations: Troy believes it should be one of the best teams in the Sun Belt and even the entire Group of Five on a regular basis.
23. Rhett Lashlee, SMU
Dykes leaves a program in a solid condition for his former offensive coordinator, who spent the past two years in the same position at Miami. Lashlee has spent time under high-profile coaches at some of the biggest programs in the country but is still only 38 years old, so there will be a learning curve in this transition.
24. Ken Wilson, Nevada
The biggest asset in Wilson's favor are the 19 seasons he spent as a Nevada assistant before spending the past nine years in the Pac-12. He has recruiting connections in the state and may not view Nevada as a stepping-stone position for a better job in the Group of Five or Power Five. Wilson won't get to coach star quarterback Carson Strong, who is off to the NFL, and it's still unclear what direction he'd like to take the offense.
25. Mike MacIntyre, Florida International
MacIntyre has earned national coach of the year honors at San Jose State and Colorado, so don't question the overall body of work. His accomplishment at those schools will be good preparation for what he takes over at FIU, which is completely devoid of the talent needed to make a run at bowl play after an already thin roster saw more than a dozen players enter the transfer portal. There are also concerns about how the school will invest in the program.
26. Don Brown, Massachusetts
Brown is back for a second go with the Minutemen, but this time with a program that is easily in the bottom five in the FBS. His experience and focus on defense will help UMass button up some of the issues that defined the team's run under former coach Walt Bell, but this is a massive rebuild at a very difficult place to win.
27. Mike Elko, Duke
Elko has served as a top defensive assistant under Dave Clawson, Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher, and there are worse tutors to have heading into one of the most daunting positions in the Power Five. His background should help the Blue Devils' defense climb out of the bottom of the ACC. Could Duke have been better served hiring a coach with experience in this seat? It's hard to argue against the importance of running your own program before taking on this sort of challenge.
28. Jim Mora, Connecticut
Mora will bring decades of experience, including stints as a head coach in the NFL and at UCLA, into his first offseason with the Huskies. This is still one of the most surprising hires of this or any coaching cycle given how Mora was not on the radar for any major FBS job since his firing by the Bruins.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg