Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2020

Examining which first-year coaches did the best job in 2020

The 2020 college football season featured 24 new coaches at FBS programs, and with the year completed, it's time to grade and rank the hires. UTSA's Jeff Traylor, Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz and Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin are just a couple of the coaches getting high marks from Athlon Sports for their coaching performance in 2020. Appalachian State's Shawn Clark, Memphis' Ryan Silverfield, New Mexico's Danny Gonzales and Fresno State's Kalen DeBoer headline the next tier of first-year performances. Judging any coach on just one season is tough and that task was made even more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the week-to-week roster uncertainty, along with the limited sample size, the college football world should have a better gauge of where these coaches stack up after a complete season in 2021. 

 

With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 24 full-time coaching hires from the 2020 coaching carousel. 

 

Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches for 2020

1. Jeff Traylor, UTSA

Before: 4-8 (3-5); After: 7-5 (5-2)

 

UTSA is a program with a ton of potential, and the future looks promising with Traylor at the helm. The Roadrunners won seven games in 2020 after winning just seven in the previous two years. Of UTSA’s five losses, only one came by more than 12 points. Improvement on both sides of the ball was instrumental to the turnaround. The offense averaged 28.3 points a game – the highest mark since 2016 – and the defense limited teams to 25.7 points a contest after allowing 33.9 in ’19. With the bulk of the roster coming back in 2021, Traylor’s team should earn back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history and will be among the favorites to win Conference USA.

Final Grade: A

 

2. Greg Schiano, Rutgers

Before: 2-10 (0-9); After: 3-6 (3-6)

 

Schiano’s return to Rutgers brought instant credibility and improvement to the program. After winning just three Big Ten games from 2016-19, the Scarlet Knights won three conference contests in ’20. Additionally, losses to Illinois, Michigan and Nebraska all came by seven points or less. Rutgers also doubled its scoring average (13.3 to 26.7) and took a step forward on defense by holding teams to 32.1 points a game after giving up 36.7 in 2019.

Final Grade: A

 

3. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss

Before: 4-8 (2-6); After: 5-5 (4-5)

 

Ole Miss didn’t lack for intrigue behind a high-powered offense in Kiffin’s return to the SEC. The Rebels jumped from ninth in the SEC in scoring to third in 2020, recording at least 31 points in seven of the team’s nine games. Three of the team’s five losses came by 12 or fewer points, and the other two defeats came at the hands of the top two teams in the SEC. If Kiffin can find the right answers for a defense that allowed 38.3 points a game in 2020, Ole Miss can be a top-25 team in ’21.

Final Grade: A

 

Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2021

 

4. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri

Before: 6-6 (3-5); After: 5-5 (5-5)

 

Despite inheriting an offense filled with concerns at key spots, a limited offseason and a 10-game SEC slate, it’s fair to say Drinkwitz exceeded expectations in 2020. Missouri suffered three losses to teams ranked in the top 10 from the CFB Playoff committee’s top 25 and rebounded from an 0-2 start to win four out of its next five games. Drinkwitz’s background on offense helped the Tigers jump from 12th in scoring in SEC-only games in 2019 to seventh in ’20.

Final Grade: A

 

5. Karl Dorrell, Colorado

Before: 5-7 (3-6); After: 4-2 (3-1)

 

The Buffaloes were the Pac-12’s biggest surprise in 2020. Dorrell’s hire wasn’t greeted with much fanfare, but Colorado finished second in the Pac-12 South and nearly made the conference title game. Dorrell’s steady leadership and experience was crucial to navigate a season filled with week-to-week uncertainty. The Buffaloes need to be more dynamic on offense (ninth in Pac-12 in scoring) and better on defense (31.7 points a game allowed) to contend for the South Division crown in 2021.

Final Grade: A

 

6. Jeff Hafley, Boston College

Before: 6-7 (4-4); After: 6-5 (5-5)

 

The win total (six) was the same as it was in 2019, but Boston College was an improved team in Hafley’s first year. The Eagles won more than four ACC games for the first time since 2009 and gave North Carolina, Notre Dame and Clemson all it could handle in losses. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec became just the third Boston College quarterback since 2005 to eclipse 2,500 passing yards, helping lead an offense that ranked near the top of the ACC in big plays after finishing near the bottom of the conference in that category in 2019.

Final Grade: A

 

Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2021

 

7. Sam Pittman, Arkansas

Before: 2-10 (0-8); After: 3-7 (3-7)

 

Don’t let the one-game improvement in the win column deceive you. Arkansas was significantly better in 2020 than it was the previous year. The Razorbacks won three SEC games after recording only four conference victories from 2016-19. Also, three of the team’s defeats came by three points or less. The defense limited teams to 5.7 yards per play after giving up 6.5 the previous year. Also, Arkansas jumped to eighth in the SEC in scoring offense after finishing 13th the previous season. Advanced analytics also show the improvement in Fayetteville. After finishing No. 108 in ESPN’s SP+ ratings, Pittman guided the Razorbacks to a No. 57 finish in 2020.

Final Grade: A

 

8. Jimmy Lake, Washington

Before: 8-5 (4-5); After: 3-1 (3-1)

 

Lake was regarded as one of the top hires for 2020 and didn’t disappoint in his debut. Washington won the Pac-12 North at 3-1 but was unable to play in the conference title game due to COVID-19. The Huskies were once again one of the best in the conference on defense and held teams to just 5.4 yards per play. Improving the offense was a priority coming into 2020, and while the numbers were a little better than the previous year, question marks on this side of the ball remain and will loom large in the race to win the Pac-12 North in ’21.

Final Grade: A-

 

Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2021

 

9. Shawn Clark, Appalachian State

Before: 13-1 (7-1); After: 9-3 (6-2)

 

Clark – a former Appalachian State offensive lineman – inherited a team coming off back-to-back Sun Belt championships and maintained that high level of success. The Mountaineers lost three games by 11 or fewer points, including a 34-23 defeat to Coastal Carolina that prevented another division title. However, only two of the team’s nine wins came by one score, and Appalachian State crushed North Texas 56-28 for the program’s sixth consecutive bowl victory.

Final Grade: B+

 

10. Ryan Silverfield, Memphis

Before: 12-2 (7-1); After: 8-3 (5-3)

 

Memphis fell short of making the AAC title game for the fourth consecutive year, but Silverfield had a solid debut. After beating Arkansas State in the opener, the Tigers went nearly a month without a game due to COVID-19. But Silverfield’s team later knocked off UCF and finished the season by winning five out of the final six games. Silverfield’s promotion ensured continuity in 2020, but there’s work to do in ’21 with quarterback Brady White and a handful of key players leaving the program.

Final Grade: B

 

11. Willie Taggart, FAU

Before: 11-3 (7-1); After: 5-4 (4-2)

 

With less than 10 returning starters back from a team that went 11-3 and won the C-USA title, it was no surprise Taggart’s debut was a transition season. The Owls started 2020 by winning four of their first five but finished with three consecutive losses. FAU ranked last in the conference in scoring (18.9 a game) and scored 25 or fewer points in seven of the team’s nine games.

Final Grade: B

 

12. Todd Graham, Hawaii

Before: 10-5 (5-3); After: 5-4 (4-4)

 

Despite a coaching turnover and tweaks to both sides of the ball, the Rainbow Warriors nearly matched their Mountain West record (4-4) from the team that won the 2019 West Division title (5-3). Hawaii’s offense averaged only 5.4 yards per play (down from 6.7), but Graham helped the defense improve, and the team led the Mountain West with 17 forced takeaways. The Rainbow Warriors finished the abbreviated season on a high note by winning three out of their final four, including the New Mexico Bowl against Houston.

Final Grade: B

 

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2021

 

13. Danny Gonzales, New Mexico

Before: 2-10 (0-8); After: 2-5 (2-5)

 

As a former player and assistant, Gonzales was the perfect choice last offseason for New Mexico. But the Rocky Long protégé inherited a team on a nine-game losing streak and one that ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West in scoring offense and defense. As expected, Gonzales’ team started slow but finished with back-to-back wins over Wyoming and Fresno State. The sample size was small. However, New Mexico is in better shape entering Gonzales’ second year than it was in 2020.

Final Grade: B-

 

14. Kalen DeBoer, Fresno State

Before: 4-8 (2-6); After: 3-3 (3-3)

 

Fresno State was limited to six games due to COVID-19, but DeBoer’s tenure is off to a promising start. The Bulldogs lost the opener against Hawaii before proceeding to win three in a row and ended with back-to-back losses to Nevada and New Mexico to close out 2020. DeBoer’s background on offense was noticeable, as Fresno State finished second in the Mountain West in scoring (32.8) and produced 2,138 passing yards after totaling 2,721 in 12 games in 2019.

Final Grade: B-

 

15. Mike Leach, Mississippi State

Before: 6-7 (3-5); After: 4-7 (3-7)

 

The shift to the Air Raid offense is a significant change, so it’s no surprise Mississippi State needs time to find its footing under Leach. The Bulldogs started 2020 on a high note by beating LSU in Baton Rouge but four consecutive losses put a damper on the early momentum. Leach’s high-powered passing game never found its rhythm, as the offense finished 2020 by averaging only 21.4 points a game. However, the defense was quietly one of the best in the SEC and held teams to 5.5 yards a play.

Final Grade: C

 

16. Mike Norvell, Florida State

Before: 6-7 (4-4); After: 3-6 (2-6)

 

Even though Florida State had a winning record in 2019, Norvell inherited a rebuilding project and a roster with major question marks. The Seminoles ranked near the bottom of the ACC on the stat sheet on both sides of the ball and lost five of their six games in 2020 by 16 or more points. Norvell tapped into the transfer portal for help in 2021 and a full offseason to work in spring practice should help establish the culture and implementation of schemes on both sides of the ball. Patience will be required in Tallahassee. 

Final Grade: C

 

17. Brady Hoke, San Diego State

Before: 10-3 (5-3); After: 4-4 (4-2)

 

Hoke’s second act in San Diego started with a 2-0 mark, but the Aztecs lost four of their final six games to finish 4-4. All four defeats came against teams that finished with a winning record and were by 14 points or less. The defense continued to be a strength by holding opponents to 17.8 points a contest. However, Hoke needs to get more out of the offense (5.1 yards per play) to keep pace in the improving Mountain West’s West Division.

Final Grade: C

 

18. Mel Tucker, Michigan State

Before: 7-6 (4-5); After: 2-5 (2-5)

 

Tucker should be graded on a curve for his debut. Not only was he a late hire (mid-February), the former Colorado head coach didn’t get a complete spring or fall practice session due to COVID-19. Michigan State managed only two victories in 2020, but the wins came against rival Michigan and Big Ten West Division champ Northwestern. The Spartans did not score more than 29 points in a game this year and ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (18.0).

Final Grade: C-

 

19. Dave Aranda, Baylor

Before: 11-3 (8-1); After: 2-7 (2-7)

 

With a new staff and a significant amount of roster turnover from last year’s 11-3 record, it was no surprise 2020 season was a transition year for Baylor. Aranda will get a better chance to show where this program is in ’21, especially with a full offseason to rebuild an offense that averaged only 23.3 points a game and continue developing a defense that allowed only two teams to score more than 35 points. The Bears won just two games – Kansas and Kansas State – but five of the seven losses came by 11 points or less.

Final Grade: D

 

Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2021

 

20. Nick Rolovich, Washington State

Before: 6-7 (3-6); After: 1-3 (1-3)

 

Washington State tied for the fewest amount of games played by a Power 5 team in 2020. The Cougars opened with a 38-28 win over Oregon State but finished the year with three straight losses by 14 or more points. Considering the circumstances surrounding the 2020 season and the limited sample size, Washington State’s 2020 schedule was essentially a preseason slate for ’21. Both sides of the ball need attention this spring, but Rolovich’s track record at Hawaii should give this program plenty of confidence things will improve in the fall.

Final Grade: D

 

21. Jeff Scott, USF

Before: 4-8 (2-6); After: 1-8 (0-7)

 

Scott was a good hire for USF, but it’s going to take time to rebuild in Tampa. After beating FCS member The Citadel in their 2020 season opener, the Bulls failed to win another game the rest of the way. Of the eight losses, only two came by single digits. Fixing the offense (23.1 points a game in 2020) and addressing a defense that allowed the most points in the AAC is a must in order to escape the conference cellar in ’21. 987kdjkf

Final Grade: D

 

22. Steve Addazio, Colorado State

Before: 4-8 (3-5); After: 1-3 (1-3)

 

It’s tough to evaluate coaches after just four games at a new stop. However, Addazio was a curious hire to begin with, and his debut in Fort Collins got off to a rocky start with off-field controversy. The on-field product had its share of struggles too. The Rams beat Wyoming but lost three games by 12 points or more. The offense never had more than 372 yards in a game, and the defense ranked 11th in the Mountain West by giving up 35.8 points a contest. A full offseason and 2021 season will provide better insight into Addazio’s outlook. 

Final Grade: D

 

23. Marcus Arroyo, UNLV

Before: 4-8 (2-6); After: 0-6 (0-6)

 

Arroyo wasn’t brought in to engineer a one-year fix, and it’s clear the former Oregon offensive coordinator has a great deal of work ahead in 2021. UNLV struggled to generate explosive plays, couldn’t find any consistency at quarterback and averaged just 17.3 points a game. The defense – a long-running issue for the program – allowed 7.2 yards per play and 38 points a game. All six of the losses came by 13 or more points, with the program outscored 228-104 in the abbreviated 2020 season. UNLV has recruited well under Arroyo but it will take time for this staff to turn things around.

Final Grade: D

 

Ricky Rahne, Old Dominion

Before: 1-11 (0-8); After: 0-0 (0-0)

 

The Monarchs did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. Rahne and his staff used the fall to practice and prepare for ’21, so an incomplete grade is needed here. Rahne’s decision to add a handful of transfers should help Old Dominion improve off its 1-11 record in ’19.  

Final Grade: Incomplete

 

Photo credit of Lane Kiffin: Ole Miss Athletics 

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