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Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2021

Shane Beamer, South Carolina Gamecocks Football

South Carolina exceeded preseason expectations in Shane Beamer's head-coaching debut

The 2021 college football season featured 18 new coaches at FBS programs, and with the year completed, it's time to grade and rank the hires. Utah State's Blake Anderson, South Carolina's Shane Beamer and Tennessee's Josh Heupel are just a couple of the coaches getting high marks from Athlon Sports for their coaching performance in '21.

Illinois' Bret Bielema, UCF's Gus Malzahn and Kansas' Lance Leipold 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 unusual circumstances from the last two years, along with the addition of the transfer portal and NIL (name, image and likeness) regulations. 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 2022.

With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 18 full-time coaching hires from the 2021 coaching carousel.

Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches for 2021

1. Blake Anderson, Utah State
Before:
1-5 (1-5 Mountain West); After: 11-3 (6-2 Mountain West)

Anderson engineered a remarkable turnaround in his first year in Logan. After the Aggies went 1-5 with all five defeats coming by 19 points or more in the abbreviated 2020 season, Anderson guided the team to an 11-3 finish with quality wins over Washington State, San Diego State, Air Force, and a bowl victory against Oregon State. Utah State also won its first outright Mountain West title, tied the school record for wins (11) and finished in the top 25 for just the fourth time in school history.
Final Grade: A+

2. Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Before:
2-8 (2-8 SEC); After: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)

South Carolina was arguably the program that exceeded preseason expectations the most under a first-year coach. The Gamecocks were outscored 360-235, went 2-8 in the season prior to Beamer’s arrival, and were projected by most to finish with a losing mark in ’21. Despite using three different quarterbacks – including a graduate assistant turned player – South Carolina fought its way to seven wins. Beamer’s team finished strong down the stretch by defeating Florida and Auburn in November and capped the season with a dominant 38-21 Duke's Mayo Bowl victory over North Carolina.
Final Grade: A

3. Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Before:
3-7 (3-7 SEC); After: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)

Heupel’s high-powered attack transformed Tennessee into one of the most-improved teams in college football, resulting in a four-game bump in victories to boost the program to just its second winning record since 2017. The Volunteers averaged 39.3 points a game in 2021 – an increase of nearly 18 a contest from the previous year – and recorded 38 plays of 30-plus yards after combining for 40 from 2019-20. Of the team's six losses, four were courtesy of the national champion (Georgia) and runner-up (Alabama), the ACC champion (Pitt), and another team in a New Year’s Six bowl (Ole Miss). Heupel immediately raised the floor and overall competitiveness of Tennessee within the SEC. Taking the next step requires reeling in more talent on the recruiting trail and improving a defense that allowed 33.6 points a game in conference matchups.
Final Grade: A

4. Bret Bielema, Illinois
Before:
2-6 (2-6 Big Ten); After: 5-7 (4-5 Big Ten)

Illinois fell just short of a bowl trip, but Bielema’s first season in Champaign was a major success. The Fighting Illini doubled their conference wins (four) from ’20 (two), pulled off upsets against Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota, and lost five games by 10 points or less. After giving up 34.9 points a game the previous year, Bielema and his staff helped the defense lower that total to 21.9 last season. The offense is still a work in progress, but continued improvement could lead to a winning mark for ’22.
Final Grade: B+

5. Gus Malzahn, UCF
Before:
6-4 (5-3 AAC); After: 9-4 (5-3 AAC)

Malzahn’s debut in Orlando was nearly derailed by a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel in a 42-35 loss to Louisville in Week 3. But the Knights rebounded from the loss of Gabriel and a 3-3 overall start to win six out of their next seven games. Included in that stretch were victories against Memphis, rival USF, and Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. UCF’s scoring average dropped from 42.2 to 31.9, but the defense held teams to 24.5 points a game (down from 33.2). Malzahn has work to do to close the gap to the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. After losing by three to Cincinnati in ’20, the Knights suffered a 56-21 defeat last year.
Final Grade: B+

6. Lance Leipold, Kansas
Before:
0-9 (0-8 Big 12); After: 2-10 (1-8 Big 12)

Challenging doesn’t even scratch the surface of describing how difficult Leipold’s first year was in Lawrence. After arriving in late April after Les Miles’ dismissal, Leipold and his staff didn’t get an opportunity to build a ’21 recruiting class or have a full offseason to implement schemes for a program that has won only 21 games since ’10. However, despite the obstacles, there was progress. The Jayhawks won its opener against FCS South Dakota, nearly defeated Oklahoma in late October, and closed the year with a shocking upset of Texas and two close losses to TCU and West Virginia. The Jayhawks also showed marked improvement on offense by averaging 5.2 yards per play (up from 3.7). Leipold and his staff have a long way to go, but there should be optimism for ’22 and beyond.
Final Grade: B

7. Charles Huff, Marshall
Before:
7-3 (4-2 C-USA); After: 7-6 (5-3 C-USA)

Marshall didn’t beat a team with a winning record in 2021, but Huff gets high marks for a solid overall debut in Huntington. Four of the Thundering Herd’s losses came by one score, and Huff’s team came within a win over WKU from repeating as Conference USA’s East Division champs. Marshall’s offense also showed improvement in Huff’s debut, improving its scoring average to 33.0 points a game from 28.5 in ’20.
Final Grade: B-

8. Kane Wommack, South Alabama
Before:
4-7 (3-5 Sun Belt); After: 5-7 (2-6 Sun Belt)

South Alabama increased its overall win total by one from the previous season, but Wommack and his staff guided the team to noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball. Also, bad luck in the form of an injury to quarterback Jake Bentley in November likely prevented the program from making its first bowl trip since 2016. The Jaguars lost four games by one score, including a two-point defeat to Sun Belt champion Louisiana and an overtime defeat to Coastal Carolina.
Final Grade: B-

9. Terry Bowden, ULM
Before:
0-10 (0-7 Sun Belt); After: 4-8 (2-6 Sun Belt)

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Bowden inherited one of the most difficult situations for any first-year coach in 2021. In ’20, ULM never led in a game, was outscored 420-163, and posted a winless record (0-10) for the first time since the program moved to the FBS level in 1994. Improvement was noticeable in ’21. The Warhawks posted four victories and almost qualified for a bowl with three defeats by one score. ULM is a tough job, but Bowden has things trending in the right direction.
Final Grade: B-

10. Andy Avalos, Boise State
Before:
5-2 (5-0 Mountain West); After: 7-5 (5-3 Mountain West)

With a new staff and a tough schedule, Boise State was slow to find its footing last season in a 3-3 start. However, the team improved in the second half of the year, picking up wins against Fresno State and Wyoming en route to a 7-5 finish. Seven wins marked the fewest by the Broncos since 1998 (six), but the five defeats all came by 11 points or less to teams with a combined record of 51-16. Avalos helped Boise State lead the Mountain West in scoring defense after finishing seventh the previous year. However, the offense averaged 5.3 yards per play – the program’s lowest mark over the last 13 seasons.
Final Grade: B-

11. Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Before:
6-5 (6-4 SEC); After: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)

Question marks about how well Harsin would fit into the SEC lifestyle decreased after Auburn beat LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss en route to a 6-2 start. However, an injury to quarterback Bo Nix hindered the offense in November, and the Tigers finished on a five-game losing streak with a 6-7 overall mark – just the program’s third losing season since 2000. All seven losses came to teams with a winning record, including a two-point defeat versus Alabama and a 28-20 road loss at Penn State in early September. Concerns about the finish and overall direction of the program grew over the offseason with Nix’s transfer to Oregon, along with significant turnover on the staff.
Final Grade: C

12. Will Hall, Southern Miss
Before:
3-7 (2-4 C-USA); After: 3-9 (2-6 C-USA)

Injuries wreaked havoc on the quarterback room at Southern Miss, and by the end of the season, Hall was forced to deploy running back Frank Gore Jr. under center to direct the offense. Considering four different players started at quarterback, it’s a minor miracle the Golden Eagles won their last two games just to match their win total from ’20 (three). Hall was regarded as one of the top hires at the Group of 5 level last year, and considering the roster obstacles in his debut, the ‘22 season will provide better insight into his tenure.
Final Grade: C

13. Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Before:
7-3 (5-3 Big 12); After: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)

A 4-1 record headlined a promising start for Sarkisian, but the Longhorns unraveled with a 1-6 mark over the final seven games, which included the program’s longest losing streak (six) since 1956. Deficiencies along the line of scrimmage played a role in the Longhorns struggling to close out games in the second half, while the defense (31.1 points a game allowed) ranked among the worst in school history. The ’21 season was a disappointment, but five of the team’s losses came by one score, and Sarkisian has addressed roster concerns at quarterback and along the line of scrimmage through recruiting and the portal.
Final Grade: C- 

14. Maurice Linguist, Buffalo
Before:
6-1 (5-0 MAC); After: 4-8 (2-6 MAC)

Linguist deserves to be graded on a curve after arriving in Buffalo in May to replace Lance Leipold when he departed to be the head coach at Kansas. However, despite some departures to the transfer portal, the cupboard wasn’t empty and a 4-8 mark was a disappointment. The four-win season marked the program’s first losing season since 2016. Also, two of the team’s four victories came by just one point, and there was significant statistical regression on both sides of the ball. The ’22 season should provide a better glimpse into Linguist’s tenure.
Final Grade: C-

15. Jedd Fisch, Arizona
Before:
0-5 (0-5 Pac-12); After: 1-11 (1-8 Pac-12)

Fisch inherited a program riding a 12-game losing streak and a roster with major question marks on both sides of the ball. In other words, this wasn’t an easy task for the first-time coach. Arizona eventually snapped its losing streak at 20 after beating a shorthanded California team in November for the team’s only win last year. The offense struggled to find its footing due to injuries and personnel deficiencies, but the defense held teams to 5.87 yards per play – a significant drop from the 6.74 allowed in ’20. Fisch has successfully used the transfer portal in each of the last two years to bolster the roster and has a standout recruiting class on the way for ’22.
Final Grade: C-

16. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Before:
0-9 (0-9 SEC); After: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)

Hiring Lea was all about a long-term development for the Commodores, as there were no quick fixes available for a team that has just one SEC win since 2019. The ’21 season started with a bad loss to FCS East Tennessee State in the opener, and Lea’s team had only one SEC matchup decided by one score. Wins over Colorado State and UConn – a combined 4-20 – came by three points or less. On the positive side, Vanderbilt is making a commitment to improved facilities, and Lea’s ’22 class is one of the program’s better hauls in recent years.
Final: Grade: C-

17. Tim Albin, Ohio
Before: 2-1 (2-1 MAC);
After: 3-9 (3-5 MAC)

Albin had one of the toughest assignments by a first-year coach after he was promoted in July following Frank Solich’s retirement. Although Albin was a first-time head coach, there was plenty of familiarity considering he has been a part of Solich's staff since 2005. Ohio’s 3-9 mark was the program’s worst since a 2-10 record in ’03, but there was some improvement down the stretch with two victories in November. The Bobcats struggled with turnovers, averaged only 22.6 points a game, and surrendered 30.3 points a contest – the highest mark in the last 13 years. A normal offseason should help Albin going into ’22.
Final Grade: C-

18. Butch Jones, Arkansas State
Before:
4-7 (2-6 Sun Belt); After: 2-10 (1-7 Sun Belt)

Jones didn’t inherit a massive rebuilding project at Arkansas State, so it was a surprise to see this program take a step back from 2020 and finish with the fewest Sun Belt victories in program history (one). Despite capable talent returning on offense, the Red Wolves averaged 25.9 points a game (down from 32.3). Defensively, Jones’ team ranked No. 128 nationally in yards per play allowed (7.23) and No. 124 in points allowed (38.6). Arkansas State did lose five games by one score, but the two victories came against an FCS opponent (Central Arkansas) and a 4-8 ULM team.
Final Grade: D

Podcast: Grading CFB's 2021 First-Year Head Coaches + Early Look at the '22 Hot Seat