This offseason saw one of the wildest college football coaching carousels in recent memory. On one hand, longtime head coaches at one program left to take over at another powerhouse program. On the other, first-time head coaches got their big break at long-successful programs.
While some head coaches have struggled in their first season, many have thrived. In fact, six teams in the most recent College Football Playoff top-25 have first-year head coaches. Many of those teams are still in playoff contention as well, a testament to these coaches’ work.
Without further ado, here are some of the best first-year head coaches in college football.
5. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
Marcus Freeman became the Notre Dame head coach with sky-high expectations, initially failing to meet them. He lost his first game in last season’s Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State, then lost this season’s opener to Ohio State. Then, embarrassing home losses to Marshall and Stanford left many wondering if Freeman was the right man for the job.
Since then, though, Freeman has been on a roll. The Fighting Irish have won five straight games, including a 35-14 beatdown of then-undefeated Clemson on November 5th. Notre Dame has climbed to 18th in the CFP rankings, and will likely rise again once the new rankings release on Tuesday.
Despite some early growing pains, Freeman has proven he can win in South Bend. If he can avoid the slow start next year, Notre Dame should be a major player in the CFP in 2023.
4. Dan Lanning, Oregon
Following Mario Cristobal leaving Oregon for Miami, the Ducks hired Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. Like Freeman, he got off to a shaky start by losing 49-3 to his former team in Week 1. However, he quickly turned the team around and got the Ducks rolling.
After the Georgia loss, Oregon won eight straight games, most of them in blowout fashion. The Ducks also won some huge games over that stretch, including knocking off then-undefeated UCLA on October 22nd. Even when Washington snapped that win streak on Novenmber 12th, Oregon responded by beating No. 10 Utah the very next week.
Though the Ducks lost their Playoff chances, Lanning has done a fantastic job in his first year. Oregon is one win away from a berth in the Pac-12 championship game, and still a big player for a New Year’s Six bowl. With Lanning at the helm, the Ducks should be a Playoff threat for years to come.
3. Brian Kelly, LSU
Of all the coaching hires this offseason, none drew more scrutiny than LSU’s hiring of Brian Kelly. The longtime Notre Dame head coach came under fire for a variety of reasons this offseason, and many wrote him off before Week 1. The fact he lost his first game in embarrassing fashion to Florida State, along with an even worse loss to Tennessee a few weeks later, only fueled his critics more.
Even with all his faults, Kelly has led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory. The Tigers have won five straight games since the Tennessee loss, including huge wins over Ole Miss and Alabama. LSU has climbed up to sixth in the CFP rankings and, against all odds, is back in the CFP picture.
The Tigers have already clinched the SEC West, and will face Georgia in the conference championship game. If the Tigers can somehow upset the defending champs, they will almost certainly be in the Playoff. No matter what happens, though, Kelly has proven he belongs in Baton Rouge.
2. Sonny Dykes, TCU
No one expected anything from TCU in Sonny Dykes’ first season, and to be fair, there wasn’t much reason to. Dykes had a poor 19-30 record in four seasons at California, his only prior Power Five experience. Even though he had a 30-18 record at SMU, most college football fans kept their expectations in check.
However, TCU has been arguably the biggest story in college football this season. The Horned Frogs are undefeated through 11 games and sit fourth in the CFP rankings. They’ve rarely made it easy on themselves, but the Frogs have found ways to win in every single game.
TCU has already locked up a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game, and is in great position to make the Playoff. As long as the Frogs win out, they’ll be in the College Football Playoff. Their emergence has captured the hearts of college football fans, and it’s largely thanks to Dykes’ coaching.
1. Lincoln Riley, USC
Unlike other hires on this list, USC’s hiring of Lincoln Riley looked like a home run from the get go. Riley led Oklahoma to four Big 12 titles and three playoff appearances in his five seasons in Norman, and looked like the perfect guy to get USC back on top. Even better, he brought star quarterback Caleb Williams with him and grabbed star wideout Jordan Addison from the transfer portal.
In his first season, Riley has lived up to the hype. The Trojans are 10-1 and the class of the Pac-12, already locking up a conference championship appearance. They also just earned their best win of the season, defeating cross-town rival UCLA in a 48-45 thriller on Saturday night.
USC is still well alive in the playoff picture, already ranking seventh and sure to rise after the UCLA win. If the Trojans can win their final two games, against Notre Dame and likely Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, it will be very difficult to leave them out. Considering where this program has been the last decade and change, Riley deserves a ton of credit for USC’s incredible turnaround.