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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

Forde-Yard Dash: The First-Year Coaches Making an Instant Impact

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where we no longer have to believe the Heup about Tennessee:

First Quarter

Home Run Hires

This time a year ago, the earth was about to rumble in college athletics with some seismic coaching hires few people saw coming. USC was preparing to make a massive offer for Lincoln Riley to leave Oklahoma, and LSU was about to shockingly swipe Brian Kelly from Notre Dame.

Two big swings. Both connected. Both knocked it out of the park even more rapidly than expected. The Trojans and Tigers got their money’s worth, and then some.

But they weren’t the only great hires in the sport last winter. Rarely, if ever, have we seen this many instant-impact new coaches in one season.

There are six teams in the current AP Top 25—actually in the top 15—that are led by first-year coaches: No. 4 TCU with Sonny Dykes; No. 5 USC with Riley; No. 6 LSU with Kelly; No. 10 Oregon with Dan Lanning; No. 12 Washington with Kalen DeBoer; and No. 13 Notre Dame with Marcus Freeman. Half that group remains in the thick of the College Football Playoff race.

At season’s end in 2021 there was one first-year head coach in the Top 25: Blake Anderson and Utah State. There were none in 2020. Go back over the previous decade and the most you’ll find in any season was four in 2015. The average during that span is 2.2 per season.

So, what’s happened here? Let’s take a look at each big-splash hire and why’re they’re working.

Lincoln Riley (1) to USC. Record before him: 4-8. Record with him: 10-1.

The quarterback followed his former Oklahoma coach to USC, announcing his transfer in February of 2022.

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Riley’s offensive acumen and recruiting prowess got him the job, and his work in the transfer portal greatly accelerated the timetable for rebuilding the Trojans. Just a few of the impact newcomers: Oklahoma transfer quarterback Caleb Williams is a Heisman Trophy contender; Pittsburgh transfer receiver Jordan Addison came back from injury to grab 11 passes for 175 yards Saturday against UCLA; Stanford transfer running back Austin Jones stepped up with 120 rushing yards against the Bruins after the season-ending injury to Oregon transfer Travis Dye; Alabama transfer linebacker Shane Lee leads the team in tackles; Colorado transfer defensive back Mekhi Blackmon leads the team with 10 passes broken up and is fourth on the team in tackles.

But don’t overlook the radical improvement in the turnover department—some of which is probably good fortune, but more is due to coaching. USC leads the nation in fewest turnovers committed (four), most interceptions made (18) and turnover margin (plus-20).

Brian Kelly (2) to LSU. Record before him: 6-7. Record with him: 9-2.

There was no doubt that Kelly would immediately make LSU more organized after the helter-skelter end of the Ed Orgeron Era. The Tigers are simply much better this year on both sides of the ball, scoring about one touchdown more per game and giving up about a touchdown less. Like Riley, Kelly brought in some instant-impact players, starting with Arizona State transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels, who is leading the team in rushing (740 yards) and has thrown for nearly 2,400 yards. He also grabbed linebacker Harold Perkins after he de-committed from Texas A&M, and Perkins has become an immediate star. Kelly also kept freshman tight end Mason Taylor in the fold after the coaching change, and Taylor scored the winning points in the takedown of Alabama.

Even with diminished numbers for star receiver Kayshon Boutte this season, other holdover wideouts have stepped up, most notably Malik Nabers, Jaray Jenkins and Brian Thomas. And the defense has been a more buttoned-up unit under new coordinator Matt House.

Sonny Dykes (3) to TCU. Record before him: 5-7. Record with him: 11-0.

Dykes was not the ballyhooed coup that Riley and Kelly were, but right now he looks like the hire of the year. Parting ways with program patriarch Gary Patterson was awkward and a bit ugly, but the program had gotten stale and needed some new energy. Enter Dykes, who came from across the DFW Metroplex at SMU, and the fit has been perfect.

Unlike most of the rest of this list, Dykes didn’t need to import a quarterback—he and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley just made Max Duggan dramatically better. (Although, truth be told, he was not the game one starter. Duggan came in against Colorado after an injury to Chandler Morris and the rest is history.) Duggan should get Heisman consideration, especially after pulling the Baylor game out of the fire Saturday. Running back Kendre Miller has also become a force, and receiver Quentin Johnston could be a high NFL draft pick. The TCU defense is making strides, holding the last three opponents to an average of 20.7 points. There is some pixie dust sprinkled upon this run, with seven straight wins by 10 points or fewer—the first time that’s been done since Colgate in 1975.

Dan Lanning (4) to Oregon. Record before him: 10-4. Record with him: 9-2.

The Georgia defensive coordinator stepped into a healthy program but needed a quarterback, and that has worked out spectacularly with Auburn transfer Bo Nix. Reuniting him with offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who was at Auburn during Nix’s freshman year, has been a great match. Lanning also grabbed running back Bucky Irving from the portal via Minnesota, and he’s now the Ducks’ leading rusher and a capable receiver.

Nix has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season for the first time in his career, and is on track to double his career-high touchdowns in a season, with 25 so far.  

Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard/USA TODAY NETWORK

Lanning passed a big test Saturday night by beating Utah 20-17. The Utes punished the Ducks twice last year, pushing them around en route to the Pac-12 title, but the tables were turned this year in a showdown game with conference championship implications. It was the first time Oregon had won a game scoring fewer than 24 points since early in the 2019 season; winning a big game without having it turn into a back-and-forth shootout had to please Lanning’s defense-oriented soul.

Kalen DeBoer (5) to Washington. Record before him: 4-8. Record with him: 9-2.

Arriving from Fresno State, DeBoer took over a program that had underachieved in 2021 under Jimmy Lake—but there was talent on the roster when he walked in. Add in transfer quarterback Michael Penix, reconnect him with the DeBoer passing schemes the two worked on at Indiana in 2019, and magic has ensued. Penix leads the nation in passing yards per game (351.7), the Huskies lead the nation in third-down conversion percentage (54.7) and their points per game has nearly doubled from last year (21.5 to 39.8). If it weren’t for a perplexing flop at Arizona State in mid-October, Washington would be in the playoff race.

DeBoer’s full body of work as a head coach is pretty amazing: he was 67-3 at Sioux Falls (his alma mater), winning three NAIA championships; then went 12-6 at Fresno, including a 9-3 mark last year; and now he’s 9-2 at Washington. An 88-11 career record isn’t bad.

Marcus Freeman (6) promoted at Notre Dame. Record before him: 11-1. Record with him: 8-4.

The Freeman Era began with a stagger, losing his first three games. Being beaten by Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl and at Ohio State were not bad losses. But following that with a home loss to Marshall and then throwing in an October home clunker against Stanford were quite bad. In the end, though, the season has come together fairly well: playing a backup quarterback most of the season, the Fighting Irish are 8-3 with a beatdown of Clemson and have a chance to continue their Agent of Playoff Chaos role Saturday at USC.

Since the Stanford loss, Notre Dame has averaged 39.8 points per game, finding one way or another to score or create field position. The Irish have blocked five kicks and the defense has 11 takeaways in this current five-game winning streak—including three interceptions by freshman Benjamin Morrison Saturday against Boston College. A power running game has been located. Given the way the season has improved and Freeman’s recruiting successes for 2023 and beyond, there is optimism that life after Brian Kelly will be fine.

Four for the Playoff

Now that Tennessee has been brusquely dismissed from playoff contention after a defensive collapse at South Carolina, there are seven remaining contenders. Before we get to the bracket as it stands today, let’s look at their paths to the playoff:

Tennessee fell to South Carolina, 63-38, Saturday in a loss that likely crushed its playoff hopes.

Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports

Georgia is almost assuredly in with a win over Georgia Tech Saturday. The Bulldogs could likely still make the field with a loss in the SEC championship game to LSU, but they will probably be the No. 1 seed if they win out.

The Ohio State/Michigan winner Saturday may well lock up a bid, although what would be a stunning upset loss to an inferior opponent (Iowa or Purdue) in the Big Ten title game could change the equation.

TCU is in with two wins: Iowa State at home Saturday and then the Big 12 championship game, which at the moment looks like a rematch with Kansas State. If it loses one of the two, the Horned Frogs go into the one-loss scrum that is at least now less crowded without the Volunteers.

Speaking of which: USC could well move to the head of the one-loss class by beating Notre Dame Saturday and winning the Pac-12 championship game (Oregon would be the opponent if the Ducks beat Oregon State). Lose either game and the Trojans are out.

The Ohio State-Michigan loser will be 11-1, and if that’s a close game would certainly be in contention for a spot. Lacking the proverbial “13th data point” could be an issue. The Buckeyes would have the better case for inclusion with a loss, given the non-conference win over Notre Dame that has taken on more quality in recent weeks. The Wolverines still are saddled with a bad non-conference strength of schedule that is entirely of their own making.

Clemson is still loitering around at 10-1, with games remaining against South Carolina and North Carolina. The Tigers’ best path would include losses for USC and TCU.

With two losses, LSU must win out: beat miserable Texas A&M Saturday and then slay the Georgia dragon in the SEC title game. They’d almost assuredly be the CFP’s first two-loss team, thanks to an SEC championship and a win over the Bulldogs. They have no shot with a third loss.

How The Dash sees the bracket at this moment:

Peach Bowl: Top seed Georgia (7) vs. fourth seed TCU (8).

The Bulldogs (11-0) got through a grinder at Kentucky, producing season lows in points (16) and yards (363). They couldn’t finish drives in the first half, settling for three field goals. And even still, this was never a game that felt like it was out of Georgia’s control. With a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 20 points since Oct. 1, the ‘Dogs remain the team to beat.

The Horned Frogs (11-0) had their most dramatic escape yet, getting a fire-drill field goal at the end to beat Baylor, 29-28. Clutch plays and clean living keeps their playoff hopes alive as they head into a home game with Big 12 cellar dweller Iowa State.

Fiesta Bowl: second seed Ohio State (9) vs. third seed Michigan (10). (They’ll settle this on the field head-to-head Saturday, of course.)

The Buckeyes (11-0) had some anxiety in College Park, struggling all day to put away Maryland. They have injury issues at running back and some lingering defensive concerns, but they also have a dazzlingly efficient passing attack and all the requisite talent.

The Wolverines (11-0) had their own issues with the prelude to The Game, wheezing past Illinois in arctic conditions. And they have their own injury issues at running back, but they’ve made it to the showdown game with a clean record and a chance.

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