Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2017

Which first-year coaches did the best job in 2017?

The 2017 college football season featured 23 new coaches at FBS programs. The 23 coaching changes were down slightly from the 2016 season, as 28 different programs had a change in the full-time role. It’s no secret coaching changes can have an instant impact on a problem, but some hires need a couple of years to rebuild a mess inherited from the previous staff. Winning right away as a new coach doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success, but it’s easy to get a read on the outlook for any coach after one season. Fresno State's Jeff Tedford, FAU's Lane Kiffin, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Purdue's Jeff Brohm take home high marks from the 2017 season, as all four first-year coaches earned an A+. But there were plenty of other standout performances from coaches at new jobs, including FIU's Butch Davis, Georgia State's Shawn Elliott and Temple's Geoff Collins.


With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 23 full-time coaching hires from the 2017 coaching carousel. 


Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2017

1. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State (10-4)

Tedford engineered one of college football’s biggest turnarounds in FBS history last fall. Fresno State went 1-11 in 2016 but finished 10-4 in Tedford’s debut. The 10-win mark wasn’t the only highlight of the year. The Bulldogs won the Mountain West’s West Division title, beat Boise State in the regular season, defeated San Diego State 27-3 and knocked off Houston in the Hawaii Bowl to earn the program’s first postseason victory since 2007. Both sides of the ball showed marked improvement in Tedford’s first season. The offense increased its yards per play average from 4.7 to 5.8, and under the watchful eye of rising star coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, the defense allowed 17.9 points a game – down from 30.9 in 2016.

Final Grade: A+


2. Lane Kiffin, FAU (11-3)

FAU was one of the hottest teams at the FBS level at the end of the 2017 season. After a 1-3 start, the Owls reeled off 10 consecutive victories, including a 50-3 win over Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl, a 41-17 victory against North Texas in the Conference USA Championship Game and a 52-24 win over rival FIU. With Kiffin at the helm, FAU was one of college football’s most intriguing teams on a weekly basis. The Owls averaged 45.4 points in conference-only matchups, and the defense was light years better under coordinator Chris Kiffin than it was in 2016. FAU finished Lane Kiffin’s first year at No. 11 in Football Outsiders’ S&P rankings – up from No. 115 the previous season.

Final Grade: A+


3. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma (12-2)

Oklahoma had quite the 2017 season on the gridiron. The Sooners won 12 games, claimed their third consecutive Big 12 title, earned a trip to the CFB Playoff and had the nation’s highest-scoring offense in the Power 5 ranks (45.1 ppg). And not to mention, quarterback Baker Mayfield took home the Heisman Trophy. Riley pushed all the right buttons in his first year on the job after taking over for Bob Stoops.

Final Grade: A+


Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2018


4. Jeff Brohm, Purdue (7-6)

Brohm was regarded as one of the top hires in last year’s coaching carousel and certainly didn’t disappoint in his debut. After winning 30 games and two C-USA titles in three seasons with WKU, Brohm guided Purdue to a 7-6 mark and the program’s first bowl trip since 2012. Just how significant was the seven-win season? Consider this: In the three years prior to Brohm’s arrival, Purdue won just eight games overall. Brohm’s impact on the offense was noticeable. The Boilermakers averaged only 4.7 yards a play in 2016 but improved to 5.4 last year. Additionally, the defense took a big step forward. Purdue gave up 38.3 points a game in 2016 but cut that total to 20.5 last fall. In Football Outsiders’ S&P rankings, the Boilermakers climbed to No. 41 nationally – up from No. 105 in 2016.

Final Grade: A+


5. Butch Davis, FIU (8-5)

After a six-year hiatus, Davis was back on the sidelines at a collegiate program last season. Davis was also in familiar territory in South Florida, as FIU is less than 15 miles from his former job at Miami. The Panthers improved their win total by four games in Davis’ first season and earned a trip to a bowl game for just the third time in school history. FIU’s eight-win mark was the highest total for the program since 2011. The Panthers also improved by 30 spots in Football Outsiders’ S&P ratings to No. 90 nationally in 2017.

Final Grade: B+


6. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State (7-5)

After an 0-2 start last year, Georgia State quietly reeled off six wins over its next seven contests to reach a bowl game for the second time in program history. Additionally, Elliott’s debut resulted in the first bowl victory (Cure versus WKU) and winning record (7-6) in Georgia State’s short time at the FBS level. Statistically, Georgia State was similar to the 2016 team but found a way to win close games (four by eight points or less).

Final Grade: B+


7. Willie Taggart, Oregon (7-5*)

Taggart left at the end of the 2017 regular season to be the head coach at Florida State. But his one year at Oregon provided a rebound for a team that went 4-8 in 2016. The Ducks dropped 77 points on Southern Utah in the opener and was 4-1 headed into October. However, a collarbone injury to starting quarterback Justin Herbert was a significant setback. Oregon lost four out of its five games with Herbert out but rallied to win the last two regular season matchups. Taggart’s fingerprints are all over the 2018 signing class, and it’s up to former assistant Mario Cristobal to build off this foundation next fall.

Final Grade: B+


* Taggart left Oregon for Florida State prior to the bowl game, missing the Ducks' loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.


8. Geoff Collins, Temple (7-6)

After the best two-year stretch in program history, Temple was due to take a step back in 2017. After all, the Owls lost several key players on both sides of the ball and had to break in a new coaching staff. Despite a transition to a new staff and a slow start, Collins delivered a solid debut in Philadelphia. After a 3-5 start, Temple rallied to win four out of its last five games. The Owls also had three losses by seven points or less, including a three-point defeat to Army. Despite the significant personnel losses, Temple still finished fourth in the AAC in scoring defense and led the conference with 39 sacks generated.

Final Grade: B


Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2018


9. Charlie Strong, USF (10-2)

USF fell short of preseason expectations to win the AAC and play in a New Year’s Six bowl, but this program still finished with double-digit victories for only the second time in school history. As expected with quarterback Quinton Flowers at the controls, the Bulls were near the top of the AAC in offense. Strong’s biggest impact was on a defense that gave up 31.6 points a game in 2016. This unit allowed just 23.5 points per contest in 2017, which ranked first in the AAC. Overall, Strong had a solid debut at USF. However, this team was also not as dominant as most expected given the returning personnel.

Final Grade: B-


10. Tom Herman, Texas (7-6)

Expectations in Austin are higher than a seven-win season, but Herman’s debut provided a foundation for 2018 and beyond. Texas snapped a string of three consecutive losing seasons and are poised to ink a top-10 recruiting class for the first time since 2012. The Longhorns needed a win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl to secure a winning record, but this team lost four games by five points or less, including a 29-24 matchup to Oklahoma. Herman’s top priority going into 2018 remains on offense after this unit averaged 25.4 points in Big 12 games. The defense has key pieces to replace, but coordinator Todd Orlando should keep this group near the top of the Big 12.

Final Grade: B-


11. Matt Luke, Ole Miss (6-6)

Following Hugh Freeze’s resignation in late July, Luke was promoted to head coach after spending the past five seasons as the Rebels' co-offensive coordinator. The Mississippi native provided a steady hand amidst the uncertainty surrounding the program and delivered a 6-6 record. The Rebels helped Luke’s case to earn the full-time job by winning three out of their last four games, including the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. Ole Miss was ineligible for postseason play in 2017 and had to overcome the loss of quarterback Shea Patterson to a knee injury. Both factors add to just how impressive Luke was as a first-time head coach last year.

Final Grade: B-


Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2018


12. Ed Orgeron, LSU (9-4)

Orgeron’s second chance to lead a SEC program got off to a rough start in his first full year in Baton Rouge. LSU started 2-0 but lost 37-7 to Mississippi State and fell 24-21 to Troy to close out September. But the Tigers rallied to finish 6-1 over their final regular season games, before a 21-17 loss to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl. Orgeron’s debut was also marred by questions about the offense. Matt Canada was brought in to overhaul this group but parted ways with the program following the bowl. Steve Ensminger called the plays for Orgeron during his interim season (2016) and is slated to take over the full-time role in 2018. Fixing this side of the ball is crucial to Orgeron’s long-term outlook in Baton Rouge.

Final Grade: B-


13. Justin Wilcox, California (5-7)

The expectations were relatively low for Wilcox and his staff in 2017. California went 5-7 in coach Sonny Dykes’ final year in Berkeley, quarterback Davis Webb expired his eligibility, and both sides of the ball were undergoing an overhaul in scheme. Despite all of those obstacles, California nearly reached a bowl game. The Golden Bears started 3-0 with non-conference victories over Ole Miss and North Carolina. However, this team was hit by a few key injuries and stumbled in close games (three losses by three points or less). California also dominated Washington State 37-3 and lost by 10 to Pac-12 champ USC. The win total doesn’t it show it, but this team was better in Wilcox’s first season than it was in 2016.

Final Grade: B-


Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2018


14. Major Applewhite, Houston (7-5)

Houston chose continuity when it picked Applewhite as the program’s replacement for Tom Herman. After two years as the team’s play-caller, Applewhite provided a seamless transition for 2017. The Cougars started the season by beating Arizona and nearly knocked off Texas Tech (27-24) two weeks later. Applewhite’s team defeated USF (28-24) but fell in close games against Memphis, Fresno State and Tulane. The defense ranked near the top of the AAC, but the offense’s scoring average dropped by a touchdown per game.

Final Grade: C+


15. Tom Allen, Indiana (5-7)

Indiana is a tough job and doesn’t have much margin for error in the brutal Big Ten East Division, but Allen nearly guided the program to another bowl trip in his debut. The Hoosiers lost four games by eight points or less and finished by winning two out of their last three contests. Allen was promoted to head coach from defensive coordinator after the program dismissed Kevin Wilson following the 2017 season. That move didn’t stop the progress Indiana has made on defense under Allen’s watch. The Hoosiers limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play and held offenses to 25.3 points a game.

Final Grade: C+


16. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota (5-7)

Similar to his stint at Western Michigan, Fleck’s debut at Minnesota is off to a slow start. The Golden Gophers finished 5-7 and only won two Big Ten games. However, Fleck’s team wasn’t far from making a bowl appearance. Minnesota lost three games by seven points or less, including a 30-27 defeat to Michigan State in mid-October. In order for the Golden Gophers to have a winning mark in 2018, the offense needs to improve. Minnesota was shut out in each of its last two games and averaged 18.4 points in Big Ten contests last year. However, help is on the way. Fleck is regarded as an outstanding recruiter and is poised to ink a standout class.

Final Grade: C


Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2018


17. Tim Lester, Western Michigan (6-6)

Replicating Western Michigan’s run to the Cotton Bowl and 13-1 record wasn’t a realistic goal for Lester in his first season at his alma mater. In addition to a handful of key personnel departures, starting quarterback Jon Wassink’s collarbone injury in late October was a significant setback to the offense. Western Michigan lost three out of its last four games to slip to 6-6 and miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2013.

Final Grade: C


18. Randy Edsall, UConn (3-9)

Edsall’s second tour of duty at UConn was expected to feature plenty of growing pains. The Huskies certainly lived up to that preseason prediction after a close call against FCS opponent Holy Cross in the opener, with the other two wins coming by six points or less. On the bright side, Edsall’s offense improved its scoring average from 14.8 to 23.6. Edsall went to bowl games in five out of his last seven seasons at UConn during his first stint with the program. His previous success at this program should give the Huskies plenty of confidence that UConn is in good hands for 2018 and beyond.

Final Grade: C


19. Mike Sanford, WKU (6-7)

Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm. Considering those names were the three coaches that came before Sanford at WKU, the expectation level was high in year one for the former Notre Dame assistant. However, Sanford faced his share of personnel issues in 2017, which started up front on a line that struggled to replace standout left tackle Forrest Lamp. WKU averaged only 60.9 rushing yards a game and surrendered 48 sacks in Sanford’s first year. As a result of the struggles up front, the Hilltoppers slipped from one of the nation’s most explosive offenses to a unit that averaged only 25.5 points a game last year. After winning the Conference USA title in back-to-back years, the regression to 6-7 was quite a drop for this program.

Final Grade: C-


20. Matt Rhule, Baylor (1-11)

The final record for Rhule in his first year was a disappointing 1-11. However, look beyond the final ledger. The former Temple coach had to rebuild depth on both sides of the ball due to personnel losses in the previous recruiting class and reset the overall culture of the program. The first season was all about building a foundation and acquiring talent via the recruiting ranks. Baylor could ink a top-25 class this year, and the addition of a couple of transfers provides immediate help for 2018. The Bears’ only victory in 2017 came against Kansas but they lost by 10 points or less to Oklahoma, Iowa State and West Virginia. This team should show marked improvement next year.

First-Year Grade: C-


Related: College Football's Teams on the Rise for 2018


21. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati (4-8)

After the 4-8 record in Fickell’s debut, Cincinnati missed out on a bowl appearance in back-to-back years for the first time since 1998-99. The Bearcats managed to win two out of their last four games in 2017 but three of their four victories came by four points or less. Additionally, just one of the eight losses came by less than 10 points. Fickell didn’t inherit a roster made for success last season, but this staff still has a lot to prove entering 2018.

Final Grade: C-


22. Jay Norvell, Nevada (3-9)

Nevada got off to an 0-5 start in Norvell’s first year but played better over the second half of the season. The Wolf Pack won three out of their final seven games, including the finale against rival UNLV. Norvell’s squad also had three losses by three points or less and played tough on the road at Northwestern in the season opener. The offense was a bright spot in 2017, averaging 32.4 points in Mountain West-only matchups. Norvell’s team was a couple of plays away from a better showing, and there’s enough returning talent to expect this program to take a step forward in 2018.

First-Year Grade: D


23. Brent Brennan, San Jose State (2-11)

After inheriting a team that went 4-8 in 2016 and featured major question marks on both sides of the ball, Brennan’s first year was expected to be a struggle. And that’s exactly what played out in San Jose. The Spartans were 2-11, finished No. 129 nationally in Football Outsiders S&P team rankings and lost nine of those games by 20 points or more. Additionally, the only win in Mountain West play – Wyoming – came with quarterback Josh Allen out due to injury. Linebacker Frank Ginda was one of the Mountain West’s top defenders in 2017, but he decided to declare early for the NFL draft. Brennan has a significant rebuilding project on his hands

First-Year Grade: D-

Event Date: 
Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 18:02

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