College football coaching roundtable: Who has the most to prove in 2022?

Thirteen Power 5 schools hired new coaches during a tumultuous college football coaching carousel.

Remember when Lincoln Riley turned down speculation he would leave Oklahoma for LSU, only to accept the position at USC less than a day later?

What happened after that? Brian Kelly filled Ed Orgeron’s shoes at LSU, the Sooners hired Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Notre Dame promoted Marcus Freeman from within. Miami fired Manny Diaz and turned to Oregon‘s Mario Cristobal, and the Ducks turned to Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.

What can we expect from the new coaches in 2022? And who might be the biggest name in next year’s cycle? Our team of writers breaks down the movement in college football.

Which head coach has the most to prove next season?

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher gets fired up as he tees off on college football writers and other college coaches regarding criticism of the Aggies’ recruitment success.

Mark Schlabach: Jimbo Fisher is being paid $9 million per season and just signed the best recruiting class in program history. Given everything that Texas A&M has invested in its program, it has lost at least four games in three of his first four seasons.

There was much to be made about Georgia’s 41-year drought without a national championship, which ended this past season. Does anyone remember the last time the Aggies won it all? That would be 1939, which was 83 years ago! It’s time for Fisher to get over the hump at Texas A&M.

Chris Low: Chip Kelly had his first winning season a year ago at UCLA, as the Bruins won their last three games convincingly and finished 8-4. Entering the final year of his contract, Kelly was rewarded with a new four-year extension that will pay him an average of $5.75 million per year.

The question now: Can he take that next step in Year 5 and at least have the Bruins in contention for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game? The expectations will rise significantly in 2022 for Kelly, especially with the new contract and the fact that Kelly’s name came up in Oregon’s coach search.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns, and the nonconference schedule is as cushy as it gets with Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama all coming to the Rose Bowl. What’s more, UCLA plays nine teams that didn’t go to a bowl game a year ago. The schedule is set up for UCLA to have a breakthrough season. Can Kelly and the Bruins deliver?

David Hale: LSU went big in landing Brian Kelly, but the early returns have been … interesting. The public reaction to the hire has been tepid, with many critics wondering if Kelly is a cultural fit in the SEC (never mind the adopted Southern drawl). That might be a tad unfair, as Kelly has always been underrated as a coach, his successes far outpacing the credit he seems to get for them.

But if Kelly was underappreciated at Notre Dame, there’s no chance his work will fly under the radar now. The pressure to win immediately in the toughest division in college football, at a school that has fired its past two coaches, both of whom won national championships, will be immense.

That Kelly’s highest profile moments on the job essentially turned into internet memes is not a great start. There will be plenty of people looking for reasons to call this hire a failure, and while Kelly is certainly capable of fending off the onslaught, there won’t be much runway afforded him while he tries to build LSU back into a title contender. In the weeks before he jumped ship for the bayou, Kelly said he never pictured himself leaving Notre Dame. If 2022 doesn’t result in at least 10 wins, he might end up wishing he’d stuck with that plan.

Alex Scarborough: Steve Sarkisian’s first season at Texas did not exactly go according to plan. After starting 4-1, the Longhorns went into a nosedive, losing six straight games, including a home loss in overtime to perennial Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas. Beating Kansas State to end the regular season did little to clean up a disappointing 5-7 record. The offense was good at times but never great, and the defense was downright terrible, allowing 31.0 points per game.

While recruiting went relatively well, there are two ways of looking at that fifth-place finish: It was four spots below rival Texas A&M, and it heightened expectations for a roster that still might not be ready to compete for a conference title. Sarkisian, who enters the second year of a six-year, $34.2 million guaranteed contract, needs the addition of Ohio State transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers to pay off in a big way. Bringing in former TCU legend Gary Patterson as a special assistant spoke to Sarkisian’s confidence, but you have to wonder if things don’t improve how it will look to have a future Hall of Fame coach in the same building.

Bill Connelly: Ohio State just lost to Michigan for the first time in forever, and the Buckeyes’ run of dominance gave way to higher levels of vulnerability than we’ve seen in Columbus for a while.

Their defense was shaky enough for Ryan Day to make some pretty big coaching changes on that side of the ball. While new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles inherits loads of experience on the two-deep, he also needed some time to put all the right pieces in all the right places at both Duke and Oklahoma State. He inherits far more blue-chippers this time, obviously, and there is a good chance he hits the ground running and turns the defense around.

Combined with what should be an otherworldly offense, that would put Ohio State right back atop the Big Ten pile and make them major national title contenders. But what if the defense doesn’t immediately right the ship? What happens if they lose the season opener to Notre Dame? Day’s last defensive coordinator hire seemed to set the program back a hair; he now has something to prove in that regard.

Ryan McGee: As rough as Scott Frost’s tenure has been at his alma mater, at least he could point to fellow former 1990s powerhouses such as Michigan and Tennessee and say, “See? This is hard!” But now those other places seem to be getting their acts together and Nebraska still looks lost on the prairie.

In four seasons he is 15-29 and has never come close to finishing above .500, let alone make a bowl game. He just took a million dollar pay cut and fired most of his offensive staff. There’s only one cut left to make if he can’t turn it around this year.

Adam Rittenberg: Uh, hello, Bryan Harsin? I can’t believe I’m the first to select the embattled Auburn coach, who survived a weeklong university (read: booster-led) inquiry into his program. Harsin must feel emboldened to still have his job, but he absolutely must deliver in a big way to keep the gig for 2023 and beyond.

There are some concerns on the roster, but Harsin probably has the coordinator tandem — Jeff Schmedding (defense) and Eric Kiesau (offense) — that he should have selected from the start. Both coordinators worked with Harsin at Boise State and know what he wants schematically.

Maybe Harsin will never be “SEC enough” to win at Auburn, but he gets another chance to win with a structure that generated success at Boise State. I’m fascinated to see how players respond to him, and whether Auburn overcomes a tough schedule to surprise people in the SEC, or regresses and leads the school to make an easy (albeit expensive) coaching change.

What new coach will have the biggest impact in 2022?

New Southern California coach Lincoln Riley discusses the transfer portal and how it has changed college football.

Schlabach: The sport needs the Pac-12 to become more competitive and relevant in the College Football Playoff, and USC’s hiring of former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley will pay immediate dividends. Bringing former Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams to L.A. is going to give the Trojans a chance to compete for a Pac-12 title in Riley’s first season.

After a 4-8 campaign in 2021, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Trojans in the top 10 next season. Riley and his staff are going to do a much better job of recruiting players in California. I’d be stunned if he doesn’t turn USC into a national championship contender soon.

Hale: It would be hard to pick anyone other than Riley here. For one, there’s so much room for improvement at USC, which is coming off a woeful 4-8 season. Even if Riley isn’t the savior Trojans fans hope, it’s hard to envision him failing to double that win total in 2022. But there will be plenty of ink spilled on Riley this year, so let’s go off the board a bit and point to Jay Norvell at Colorado State.

The Rams went to five straight bowl games from 2013 to ’17, then fell off a cliff, first under Mike Bobo and then as an absolute train wreck with Steve Addazio at the helm. Colorado State once had high aspirations, appearing in the AP Top 25 every year from 1997 through 2003, but the program is in dire need of a serious reboot. It’s not all too dissimilar to the situation Nevada found itself in when Norvell took over there in 2017, and he did well in creating a new foundation.

There’s a high ceiling for Colorado State with the right people in charge, and while there are certainly no guarantees here, Norvell’s hiring was one that largely flew beneath the radar during such a chaotic 2021 cycle, but the long-term dividends could be high.

Miami alum Michael Irvin expresses his happiness with the school’s decision to hire Mario Cristobal as its next football coach.

Scarborough: I’ll be honest: I have no idea if Miami will improve on its 7-5 record from last season. That trip to Texas A&M in Week 3 is daunting, and I expect Clemson to bounce back and dominate the ACC again this year.

That said, I expect Mario Cristobal to get The U pointed in the right direction again this year. He knows what he’s doing after going 35-12 in four seasons as Oregon’s head coach. And no one knows Miami and that recruiting area of South Florida better than him. If he could convince top prospects to go all the way to Eugene, Oregon, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he can find a way to keep them home. By rallying support for the program — and the NIL money that comes along with that — I expect Cristobal to get Miami back on solid footing in a hurry.

Connelly: I’m very excited to see what Joey McGuire is capable of at Texas Tech. We know about his potential as a recruiter, and we know about all the connections he has in the Texas high school football universe, but he made an incredibly astute offensive coordinator hire in bringing Zach Kittley — he of the absurdly prolific recent Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky offenses — back to Lubbock. (Kittley inherits quarterback Donovan Smith, too, which could be an outstanding pairing.)

We’ll see if new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter still has his fastball, but hiring both DeRuyter and veteran secondary coach Marcel Yates suggests McGuire wants his defense blitz-happy and aggressive. In the best-case scenario, a prolific Tech offense forces opponents into track meets, the aggressive defense forces tons of mistakes and turnovers and a bunch of Big 12 toss-ups go their way. But even if Tech ends up hovering around .500 again, we should be incredibly entertained by the track meets all the same.

McGee: I was in Central Florida for nearly a week to cover the Daytona 500 and the buzz around Billy Napier’s arrival in Gainesville is everywhere. That’s because Napier himself also is everywhere. Like, every sports talk station and every TV newscast I turned to had him as the guest.

The Gators have plenty of talent and the returners from last year’s team are mad, embarrassed and anxious to prove they can get back to being the guys who nearly won the SEC championship in 2020 and who pushed Bama to the brink in Week 3, before their long, slow psychological 2021 trainwreck started.

Rittenberg: Riley would be my pick, too, but in the interest of variety, I’m going with the man who replaces him at Oklahoma. Brent Venables generated a lot of immediate goodwill because he sees Oklahoma as a destination job, and because he’s not Riley, the scourge of humanity in the Sooner State. But Venables must show he’s not like Riley, at least when it comes to developing a championship-caliber defense. The Big 12 is changing to feature a more complementary, physical style of play, and the timing for Venables’ arrival couldn’t be much better.

OU’s ability to win this new version of the Big 12 comes down to improving talent and execution on defense, which is a reasonable Year 1 goal for Venables. The offense should still be dangerous with Lebby and Gabriel, but a drop-off is likely, which puts even more pressure on Venables’ defense to pick up the slack.

Which assistant coach/coordinator will be the most sought after for the next coaching carousel?

Schlabach: Many of the top coordinators in college football landed head-coaching gigs in the last cycle. Clemson lost both of its top assistants with Virginia hiring offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Oklahoma landing defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning went to Oregon, Notre Dame elevated defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach and Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko ended up at Duke.

How about Baylor‘s Jeff Grimes? He has helped Dave Aranda do incredible work in two seasons. Before that, he was one of the top offensive playcallers in the FBS at BYU. Grimes might have landed the Auburn job had the Tigers parted ways with Bryan Harsin.

Low: Baseball fans love the long ball, and football fans love offenses that are entertaining and can light up scoreboards. Jeff Lebby, who will be in his first season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, has shown at both Ole Miss and UCF that his offenses can be balanced, creative and innovative. And with the game being as quarterback-centric as it’s ever been, Lebby’s ability to develop quarterbacks will also make him a hot commodity.

Matt Corral blossomed last season at Ole Miss under Lebby and Lane Kiffin, and while it was Kiffin’s offense, Lebby is the one who actually called the plays during the games and has a knack for calling plays at lightning speed based on formations. If UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel comes in and keeps OU’s offense rolling, Lebby will find his way on several coaching short lists following the 2022 season.

Hale: The 2021 hiring cycle was all about defense, with several top coordinators landing big jobs, from Marcus Freeman to Mike Elko, Brent Venables to Dan Lanning. But the run on top defensive coordinators somehow passed over Wisconsin‘s Jim Leonhard, which seems curious for a guy who checks so many of the boxes teams are looking for.

Leonhard was a three-time All-American, spent a decade in the NFL, is still just 39 and has already turned in four seasons leading a unit that finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense. If the Badgers’ defense dominates again in 2022, it’ll be hard for schools to ignore Leonhard yet again.

Scarborough: Bill O’Brien isn’t going to be an offensive coordinator at Alabama for long. Heck, it’s mildly surprising he’s still in Tuscaloosa today given some of the jobs that came open in both college and the NFL during this past cycle. We know he got an interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and if Jim Harbaugh had left Michigan, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he got a look there as well. It’s only a matter of time before he’s a head coach again.

Say what you want about his abilities as an NFL general manager, his résumé as a coach speaks for itself. Remember, he went 15-9 in a very difficult situation at Penn State. By this time next year, O’Brien will have spent a combined seven seasons as an assistant for Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, and he’ll have coached at least one Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young.

Connelly: On defense, I second Jim Leonhard. If a lack of overall coaching experience was an issue when he first began fielding awesome defenses at Wisconsin, it will cease to be a problem for too much longer — this will be his sixth year as the Badgers’ coordinator and seventh on the staff. He’s ready.

On offense, though, I have to ask: How much longer until someone gives Warren Ruggiero a look? The Wake Forest offensive coordinator has been Dave Clawson’s right-hand man since 2009 at Bowling Green, and despite losing Kenneth Walker III to Michigan State before the season, the 2021 Demon Deacon offense was as prolific as it was creative. That whole “hold the mesh point on RPOs for about 15 seconds” thing the Deacs do is very stressful to watch, but it’s also ridiculously effective. And after another year of Sam Hartman putting up big numbers in his system this fall, the 55-year old Ruggiero’s stock will probably never be higher.

McGee: If history has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to look at the Alabama coaching staff and say, “the answer to this question is one if not all of these dudes.”

Rittenberg: The only tangible fallout at Michigan after Jim Harbaugh’s NFL flirtation was offensive coordinator Josh Gattis leaving for the same role at Miami. Gattis, the 2021 Broyles Award winner, ultimately didn’t feel appreciated enough by Michigan’s administration after a championship season. He generated interest for Power 5 jobs in December and should be high on the radar for vacancies in the next cycle. Gattis should have even more autonomy at Miami than Michigan, and he inherits a talented quarterback in Tyler Van Dyke, who had nearly 3,000 pass yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions last fall, despite not opening the season as the starter.

If Gattis delivers in coach Mario Cristobal’s debut, he should have the chance to lead his own program in 2023. The lack of coaching diversity is a very real problem in the sport, and now that Tony Elliott finally took a job and Marcus Freeman landed the Notre Dame gig, Gattis is the nation’s highest-profile Black coordinator.