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8 college football coaches with new teams to keep an eye on going into 2022 season

The college football coaching carousel can be a fun disaster, joyous occasion or full-on implosion, depending on which team you root for, and so much has changed since the 2021 season when it went a little wild with some big-time surprise moves.

Of course, there are still a handful of coaches who are entering the 2022 season basically already in the hot seat, but we’re taking a look at those with fresh starts at new programs, including some first-time head coaches.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of all the coaching changes throughout the Power Five and Group of Five schools. But it is a breakdown of eight coaches college football fans everywhere will probably want to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Some are looking to rebuild programs back up, while others are hoping to improve on an already successful status quo.

So, whether you need a refresher on who’s where or perhaps a little more than that, here’s a glance at what to know about these coaches at the helm of new schools.

1
Brian Kelly, LSU

(Patrick Dennis-USA TODAY Sports)

After 12 seasons with the Fighting Irish, Brian Kelly ditched Notre Dame, where he went 113-40, in a hurry. Last year, as his now-former team was eyeing a shot at the national championship, Kelly not-so-quietly slipped away from the Fighting Irish to take over at LSU, notably adopting a quirky southern accent in the process.

Now with the Tigers, 60-year-old Kelly’s team enters the 2022 season ranked neither in the AP’s nor the Coaches Poll’s top-25 teams. And, although they just lost quarterback Myles Brennan to retirement, you shouldn’t sleep on them this season. LSU’s schedule doesn’t heat up until October, starting with Auburn before facing four currently ranked SEC teams, including No. 1 Alabama. In Kelly’s first season with Notre Dame, the team finished with an 8-5 record, and it seems reasonable that he could repeat his first-year success with LSU.

2
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame

(Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Kelly’s surprising departure from Notre Dame opened the door for Freeman, who was already part of the team, to take over the program. After Kelly’s exit, then-35-year-old Freeman was promoted from Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator to head coach, and he was unsurprisingly ecstatic about it (the players were too).

The Fighting Irish finished the 2022 season at 11-2, and on the defensive side of things under Freeman, they finished 15th overall in scoring defense (19.69 points per game), seventh in defensive touchdowns (four) and 13th in team sacks (41). With so much familiarity with the program, Freeman should have little trouble keeping Notre Dame on the winning path, especially with a fairly easy schedule. But he and the Fighting Irish will face an immediate challenge, opening the season against No. 2 Ohio State before eventually taking on No. 4 Clemson and No. 14 USC. Play their cards right, and the Fighting Irish could have their sixth straight double-digit-win season.

3
Lincoln Riley, USC

(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

USC finally got rid of Clay Helton — more on him to come — whose final Trojans team finished 2021 with a sad 4-8 record. This year, the team looks totally different with Riley at the helm, and he should have little trouble improving on previous recent seasons. And it certainly helps the team’s situation that when Riley left Oklahoma — where, as a head coach, he took the Sooners to three College Football Playoffs but finished with zero wins — he took star quarterback Caleb Williams with him.

While 38-year-old Riley finished with a 55-10 head coaching record with the Sooners over five seasons, along with two Heisman Trophy winners, Williams in his first college football season last year threw for 1,912 yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions with a 64.5 completion percentage. All those stats and accolades would have been unfathomable for recent USC teams. But going into 2022, the Trojans have a new look, an innovative coach and an early Heisman-candidate quarterback to take on a pretty easy Pac-12 schedule.

4
Brent Venables, Oklahoma

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

After Riley’s exit from Norman to Southern California, former Clemson defensive coordinator Venables was tapped to take over the Sooners, for whom he was an assistant coach from 1999 to 2011. And if there’s one thing he could actually get Oklahoma to do, it’s play some actual defense (in the Big 12, I know, I know). When Clemson’s offense struggled last year, its defense stood strong, finishing eighth nationally in total defense (305.5 yards per game), second in scoring defense (14.85 points per game) and second in red-zone defense (opponents scored 64.5 percent of the time). His Tigers defense finished no lower than second overall in four of the last five seasons.

To compare, Oklahoma finished last season ranked 76th in total defense (390.8 yards per game), 60th in scoring defense (25.77 points per game) and 80th in red-zone defense (85.1 percent). Now, this is not to say 51-year-old Venables will come in and immediately turn the Sooners’ defense around. But he’s more defensive-minded than his predecessor, and by the time Oklahoma’s schedule intensifies around late October/early November with games against Texas, Iowa State, No. 10 Baylor and No. 12 Oklahoma State, perhaps the Sooners won’t be giving up 400 yards a game.

5
Mario Cristobal, Miami

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Replacing Manny Diaz at Miami, Cristobal left Oregon, where he had a 35-13 record over four seasons, to return to the Hurricanes and his alma mater. And he’s already working some of his magic on the program. Since taking over at Miami in December, Cristobal, with a reputation as a master recruiter, picked up four four-star recruits and significantly improved the Hurricanes’ latest recruiting class from No. 78 to No. 15 in February, per 247Sports Team Rankings. (Their 2022 class is currently ranked No. 16 with 10 four-star recruits.)

Recruiting aside, 51-year-old Cristobal has made some other notable changes, including the superficial one of ditching the famous turnover chain this season in an effort to revamp the culture. His new team enters the 2022 season ranked No. 16 and No. 17 by the AP and Coaches Poll, respectively, but the Hurricanes have their work cut out for them. In addition to facing No. 6 Texas A&M almost immediately in September, they’ve got No. 4 Clemson and No. 16 Pitt closing out their regular-season schedule. Still, reaching last season’s 7-5 finish or better could be reasonable.

6
Dan Lanning, Oregon

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Out with Cristobal, in with Lanning for the Ducks. The first-year head coach should be able to keep Oregon among the Pac-12’s best teams this season and contend for a conference championship (and maybe a College Football Playoff spot). And after the Ducks’ long history of being led by offensive-minded coaches, scooping up Georgia’s former defensive coordinator could mean big strategy changes for how they attack their 2022 schedule.

Speaking of that schedule, 36-year-old Lanning and his new team open the season with a multi-faceted doozy against No. 3 Georgia. The No. 11 Ducks will hit the road in Week 1 and head down to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for a matchup against the defending national champs, who Lanning knows all too well. That could work in Oregon’s favor big time — especially as the Bulldogs adjust without him — but Georgia could also come out strong and thump the Ducks, who are in a greater adjustment period. Beyond the season opener, Oregon could cruise through the rest of its schedule, even with No. 7 Utah in November, and yet again contend for a Pac-12 championship.

7
Clay Helton, Georgia Southern

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Grateful USC fans are surely happy Helton is someone else’s problem now, especially now that the Trojans have Riley. So now, he’s Georgia Southern Eagle. Sure, now-50-year-old Helton led USC to a Rose Bowl victory at the end of the 2016-17 season and a 2017 Pac-12 title, and he left the Trojans with a 46-24 overall record there. But last season wasn’t great, and Helton’s team finished at 4-8, including ending on a four-game losing streak.

But so far at Georgia Southern, Helton has earned praise for the Eagles staff he’s built. Now in the Sun Belt Conference, he can take his experience of having a couple double-digit-win seasons and apply it to some different competition. A win over Nebraska in the Eagles’ second game of the year could go far, and Helton should be able to squeak out more than the three wins his new team put together last season.

8
Tony Elliott, Virginia

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Another first-year head coach, Elliott took over for Bronco Mendenhall, who resigned after six seasons with the Cavaliers, and, as Clemson’s former offensive coordinator, became the second coordinator to leave the Tigers, after Venables. With Clemson since 2011, first as a running backs coach before ultimately calling the plays, now-42-year-old Elliott helped the Tigers earn two College Football Playoff national championships (beating Alabama twice in the title game) and was named the nation’s top assistant coach in 2017. Now, he’ll face Clemson from the other ACC division.

While Clemson’s offense has been a powerhouse lately, it faltered last season and finished barely in the top-100 teams with 359.2 yards allowed per game, while Virginia’s 2021 offense was on fire, finishing third nationally with 515.8 yards per game. And the good news for the Hoos is their star quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, returns, and could be a perfect pairing with Elliott. Last season, Armstrong finished fourth in the nation with a whopping 4,449 passing yards and 12th with 31 passing touchdowns. If Elliott can get Virginia closer to it’s nine-win season in 2019 or eight wins in 2018, Clemson and co. could finally have some more competition from the Coastal side.

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