Letter grades for every first-year college football coach
The full evaluation of this season’s first-year coaching hires can’t be made for another few years, by which time a good chunk of the 29 newcomers will already be fired and replaced.
But you can begin to see which hires are going to work and which hires seem destined for failure after the end of the regular season.
It’s safe to say that Sonny Dykes is a good fit at No. 3 TCU after the Horned Frogs completed a 12-0 run into the Big 12 championship game. It’s also fair to call Lincoln Riley a smash hit after leading No. 4 Southern California to the Pac-12 title game and the doorstep of a College Football Playoff berth.
On the other hand, there’s nothing but concern at Miami (Fla.) after the Hurricanes won five games under Mario Cristobal and plenty of issues at Oklahoma following the Sooners’ 6-6 start under Brent Venables.
Weighing preseason expectations against in-season performance, here are grades for every first-year coach in 2022:
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Sonny Dykes, TCU (12-0):
Expected to hover around bowl eligibility and the middle of the Big 12, TCU is one of three unbeaten teams heading into conference championship weekend. Dykes should be the national coach of the year, though he may come in behind the other first-year coach with a team set to make the playoff.
Kalen DeBoer, Washington (10-2)
Washington beat Oregon, beat Washington State and should reach the Rose Bowl if Southern California beats Utah and makes the playoff. Not too bad, right? The only sour point was a bad loss in October to Arizona State, which in the end prevented the Huskies from reaching the Pac-12 championship game and competing for the playoff.
Mike Elko, Duke (8-4)
After tapping Elko as David Cutcliffe’s replacement, Duke was the only team in the Power Five to win eight or more games after winning fewer than four games in 2021. And that’s with three ACC losses by a combined eight points, including a heartbreaker against rival North Carolina that meant the difference in the Tar Heels winning the ACC Coastal.
Jerry Kill, New Mexico State (5-6)
The Aggies have won five of seven, with one loss coming to Missouri, and has secured a bowl bid heading into the hastily constructed season finale against Valparaiso. That all but one of these victories came against some of the worst teams college football has to offer — Hawaii, New Mexico, UMass and Lamar, along with a good one against Liberty — isn’t really that important: NMSU has won six or more games in a year five times since 1968 and has reached a bowl game only four times, with just one appearance since 1960.
Jim Mora, Connecticut (6-6)
UConn may have the most unexpected bowl bid in the FBS, with all due respect to Kansas. Winners of just 10 games across the previous five seasons, the Huskies started 1-4 but turned things around in October, taking five of the final seven to match the program’s highest win total since 2011.
Lincoln Riley, Southern California (11-1)
Riley could get a conference championship, reach the playoff and have his quarterback win the Heisman Trophy. What year is it, anyway? After completing that trifecta in his first year at Oklahoma in 2017, Riley has the Trojans on the verge of the playoff in 2022. The future is bright for the Trojans.
Jon Sumrall, Troy (10-2)
After three down years, Troy is back near the top of the Group of Five and the favorite for the Sun Belt crown heading into Saturday’s matchup against Coastal Carolina. The Trojans have won nine in a row since a heartbreaking loss to Appalachian State on Sept. 17, which Sumrall said was the turning point of the season.
Brian Kelly, LSU (9-3)
It was almost impossible to nitpick over Kelly’s debut — until LSU lost to Texas A&M, which was hard to overlook. Looking at the whole season, the Tigers beat Alabama and Florida, won the SEC West and was a very real playoff contender through Thanksgiving. If not perfect, this was a smashing start for Kelly in his first year in the SEC.
Joey McGuire, Texas Tech (7-5)
For the first time in program history, Texas Tech beat Texas and Oklahoma in the same season. The improbable win against the Sooners made the Red Raiders 5-4 in Big 12 play for another first: Tech hadn’t finished above .500 in league action since 2009, Mike Leach’s final season. With his success on the recruiting trail and the energy he’s brought the program, this has been a terrific first year for McGuire.
Clay Helton, Georgia Southern (6-6)
Fired at USC early in the 2021 season, Helton clearly benefited from getting his feet on the ground at Georgia Southern last November. That paid off in a year that included wins against Nebraska, James Madison and Appalachian State, sending the Eagles into the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
Jeff Tedford, Fresno State (8-4)
Tedford’s second tenure at Fresno State already looks very similar to his first, with the Bulldogs in the Mountain West championship game and on a seven-game winning streak. Close losses to Oregon State (35-32) and Connecticut (19-14) kept the Bulldogs out of the Top 25.
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame (8-4)
On the one hand, there are those losses to Marshall and Stanford. On the other, there’s a run of very strong play that left the Fighting Irish in range of a New Year’s Six bowl heading into the finale against USC. Beating Clemson and North Carolina are the highlights of a solid first year for Freeman that probably should’ve ended with nine or more wins.
Rhett Lashlee, SMU (7-5)
It says something about the state of the program that winning seven games isn’t automatically a home-run start for Lashlee, formerly SMU’s offensive coordinator. It didn’t help that his predecessor, Dykes, was putting together an all-time season at the Mustangs’ local rival. SMU ended up 2-5 against opponents that finished the regular season with a winning record.
Jake Dickert, Washington State (7-5)
Losing the Apple Cup takes some wind out of what was a fairly successful debut for Dickert as the program’s full-time coach. The Cougars’ five losses came against opponents currently ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll: Oregon, USC, Oregon State, Utah and the Huskies.
Dan Lanning, Oregon (9-3)
An injury to quarterback Bo Nix hurt Oregon’s chances in losses to Washington and Oregon State that eliminated the Ducks from playoff contention. But those costly setbacks included multiple failed fourth-down tries inside Oregon territory, including one that played a huge role in the Beavers overcoming a 17-point deficit in the Civil War. Lanning did a good job bringing Oregon back from the 46-point blowout against Georgia but also bears the responsibility for two crippling losses that cost the Ducks dearly.
Mike MacIntyre, Florida International (4-8)
There was a point in October when a bowl bid seemed in reach. While FIU lost four in a row to end the year and lost seven games by at least 20 points, this comes after the program went a combined 1-16 during former coach Butch Davis’ last two seasons.
Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6)
The Ragin’ Cajuns were due to take a step back after a memorable run under former coach Billy Napier. But six wins seems like an underachievement for a group that beat three pretty good bowl teams, including eight-win Eastern Michigan, and dropped winnable games against Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Troy.
Stan Drayton, Temple (3-9)
Temple matched the three-win total of 2021 in Drayton’s first year but came very close to adding several wins in the second half, with narrow losses to Navy, Houston and East Carolina down the stretch. Drayton also seems to have found a quarterback in freshman E.J. Warner, so the Owls could take a step forward in 2023.
Tony Elliott, Virginia (3-7)
Elliott’s first year was cut short after November’s on-campus shooting that killed three members of the program. Before cancelling the final two games, Virginia struggled through a season defined by anemic offensive production; after ranking 21st nationally in scoring in 2021, the Cavaliers scored more than 20 points just once in nine games against FBS competition.
Jay Norvell, Colorado State (3-9)
The Rams were better as the year wore on, going from the low of a blowout loss to Sacramento State in September to three wins in Mountain West play and competitive performances against some of the best in the conference, Boise State notwithstanding.
Don Brown, Massachusetts (1-11)
The Minutemen were expected to be the worst team in the FBS and delivered. Should Brown really shoulder the blame? He took over the worst situation in the country and managed just one win, against Stony Brook, but the Minutemen did play better in the second half of the season.
Timmy Chang, Hawaii (3-10)
Awful early but better late, competitive play against the rest of the Mountain West helped Hawaii offset a miserable non-conference performance. But the Warriors were putrid all year long on offense, ranking 109th nationally in yards per play and 115th in scoring, and scored just two FBS wins.
Joe Moorhead, Akron (2-9)
Beating Buffalo in Saturday’s rescheduled season finale would give Akron three wins for the first time since 2018 and match the program’s three-year win total under former coach Tom Arth. The offense has also improved over the course of Moorhead’s debut; the Zips have gained at least 5.4 yards per play in six of the past seven games. It’s been another tough year but still an improvement over recent history.
Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech (3-9)
Louisiana Tech would beat two pretty solid Conference USA opponents in UTEP and Middle Tennessee State. Overall, though, the offense would disappear for weeks on end while the defense sat near the bottom of the FBS throughout, combining to send the Bulldogs to the bottom of the conference standings.
Billy Napier, Florida (6-6)
Napier’s first team got to bowl play with six wins but lost every game that mattered, including rivalry matchups to Tennessee, LSU and Florida State. The Gators also managed to lose to Vanderbilt, which would be enough alone to drop Napier a full letter grade.
Brent Pry, Virginia Tech (3-8)
One thing was pretty clear not long into Pry’s debut: Virginia Tech did not have the talent needed to win games in the ACC. It’ll take him some time to get this roster back into shape, if that happens at all. Even still, the Hokies’ putrid play doesn’t reflect very well on the new staff.
Brent Venables, Oklahoma (6-6)
The first six-loss finish since 1998. Losses to TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. That loss to West Virginia. The Sooners’ wins came against opponents with a combined regular-season record of 31-41, with just two against bowl teams. This was a disaster of a debut for Venables.
Ken Wilson, Nevada (2-10)
The Wolf Pack hadn’t lost 10 games in a year since 2000 and had posted a winning record and earned a bowl bid in each of the previous four years. What went wrong? There was roster attrition along with changes in schemes, but there was no real indication in the preseason that Nevada would be one of the worst teams in the FBS.
Mario Cristobal, Miami (Fla.) (5-7)
One blowout loss gave way to another, another to another and so on down the line until Cristobal’s debut was defined almost entirely by a series of high-profile flops. The Hurricanes went 1-6 against bowl-eligible competition, giving up at least 40 points in losses to Middle Tennessee State, Duke, Florida State, Clemson and Pittsburgh.