Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2012

Ohio State's Urban Meyer ranks as the top new coach from 2012.

With college football’s 2012 season completed, it’s time to take a look back at the season that was and review the performance of all 124 teams before 2013 kicks off.

Twenty-eight coaches made their debut at a new program in 2012 and produced a mix bag of results.

Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien get a slight nod as the top three new coaches, but Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, UCLA’s Jim Mora, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and Memphis’ Justin Fuente also had a strong debut year.

While those coaches are at the top, it’s a different story for Southern Miss’ Ellis Johnson, Arkansas’ John L. Smith and Illinois’ Tim Beckman. Smith wasn’t retained, Johnson was fired, and Beckman is already making staff changes after a disappointing 2012 season.

Ranking the Performance of College Football's New Coaches from 2012

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
2012 Record: 12-0
Grade: A+

What Went Right: Despite NCAA sanctions and a postseason ban, motivation wasn’t an issue for the Buckeyes. Behind Meyer’s leadership and the play of quarterback Braxton Miller, Ohio State completed its first unbeaten season since 2002 and served notice to the rest of college football that the Buckeyes will be back and better than ever in 2013. Ohio State also claimed its eighth victory in nine games over rival Michigan.

What Went Wrong: It’s hard to find much that went wrong with Meyer’s first season. The Buckeyes struggled to find playmakers at receiver, and the defense had its share of struggles through the first part of the season. Obviously, both issues are just being nitpicky but will be worth watching in 2013.

2. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
2012 Record:
Grade: A+

What Went Right: New coach. New quarterback. New conference. Three factors that should have made 2012 a difficult year for Sumlin and Texas A&M. Instead, the Aggies finished as one of college football’s top 10 teams, and quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy after recording over 5,000 yards of total offense. Texas A&M knocked off No. 1 Alabama in mid-November and its only losses came by five points or less. Sumlin is on fire on the recruiting trail, and Texas A&M should be a national title contender in 2013.

What Went Wrong: Just as we mentioned with Urban Meyer, it’s hard to find many faults in Sumlin’s debut season. The Aggies lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and it’s imperative for Sumlin to pick the right replacement this offseason. Texas A&M’s only defeats came to Florida and LSU – a combined 21-5 – so there’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the loss column.

3. Bill O’Brien, Penn State
2012 Record: 8-4
Grade: A+

What Went Right: After starting 0-2, Penn State rallied to finish 8-4 and beat Big Ten champ Wisconsin 24-21 in Happy Valley. Considering the personnel losses and NCAA sanctions on the program, O’Brien did an outstanding job of keeping the team together, as well as rallying the team after a tough start. Under O’Brien’s direction, the offense showed significant improvement, averaging 417.5 yards and 29.1 points a game.

What Went Wrong: With the NCAA sanctions and scholarship limitations, it’s hard to criticize O’Brien for anything that happened in Happy Valley this year. He navigated the team through a difficult season, improved the offense and so far, hasn’t lost any key players to a transfer for 2013. O’Brien has a tough task ahead of him but appears to be the right person for the job.

4. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
2012 Record: 7-6
Grade: A-

What Went Right: After finishing 2-10 and 0-8 in SEC play in 2011, Ole Miss was one of college football’s most improved teams. The Rebels won seven contests, including the in-state rivalry against Mississippi State and the BBVA Compass Bowl over Pittsburgh. Ole Miss hung tough against Alabama and lost by only six points to LSU. The Rebels are recruiting well, so more help is on the way for a roster that showed marked improvement in 2012.

What Went Wrong: Nothing.

5. Jim Mora, UCLA
2012 Record: 9-5
Grade: A-

What Went Right: Mora wasn’t the first choice for UCLA, but his debut season was very successful. The Bruins improved their win total by three games, claimed another Pac-12 South crown and defeated rival USC 38-28. Overall, not a bad season. UCLA returns most of its core next season, and the Bruins should be the early favorite to win the Pac-12 South for the third consecutive year.

What Went Wrong: The Bruins closed with three consecutive losses, including a disappointing 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. Mora’s strong suit is defense, but UCLA finished eighth in the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense. The Bruins are on the right track, but Mora and his staff still have plenty of work to do.

6. Justin Fuente, Memphis
2012 Record: 4-8
Grade: A-

What Went Right: While it may seem strange to have a coach with a losing record ranked inside of the top 10, Memphis was one of college football’s worst teams in the previous two years. Fuente guided the Tigers to a three-game winning streak to close out the season and nearly defeated Arkansas State (Sun Belt champion).

What Went Wrong: Although Fuente got Memphis on track late in the year, the Tigers lost to FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin in the season opener. Statistically, this team still has a long ways to go to be competitive in the Big East. Memphis averaged only 318.3 yards per game and struggled to find a passing attack. Fuente wasn’t handed much to work with, so it’s no surprise there will be growing pains in 2013 and beyond.

7. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
2012 Record: 8-4
Grade: B+

What Went Right: Similar to Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Fedora deserves credit for keeping North Carolina motivated with nothing to play for. The Tar Heels were banned from postseason play but tied for first place in the Coastal Division and snapped a five-game losing streak to rival NC State.

What Went Wrong: Finishing 8-4 in a year with no postseason possibility doesn’t leave much room for criticism. However, North Carolina lost three games by four points or less, so there’s some room to improve in close contests. Obviously, that’s being very nitpicky for a team that could win the Coastal Division in 2013. However, the division will be a tight race next year, so there’s little margin for error.

8. Todd Graham, Arizona State
2012 Record: 8-5
Grade: B+

What Went Right: The Sun Devils were on the doorstep of playing for the Pac-12 Championship. A 45-43 loss to UCLA in late October was the tiebreaker for the South Division title, but Arizona State still finished with eight wins and a huge victory over rival Arizona. The Sun Devils also crushed Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. One of Graham’s biggest accomplishments was bringing discipline to the roster, as Arizona State finished 10th nationally in fewest penalties per game – a big improvement after ranking last in college football in 2011.

What Went Wrong: Just like many of the coaches in the top 10 of this ranking, it’s hard to criticize Graham for anything at Arizona State in 2012. Statistically, the Sun Devils have room to improve against the run and need to cut down on the sacks allowed next year. Barring any unexpected injuries, Graham has Arizona State positioned to start in the top 25 next season.  

9. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
2012 Record:
Grade: B+

What Went Right: Rodriguez was one of the best hires of last offseason and didn’t disappoint in his first year in Tucson. After winning four games in 2011, the Wildcats rebounded to post eight victories, including a New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada. Arizona nearly knocked off Stanford, defeated USC and beat Oklahoma State for a solid non-conference win in Week 2.

What Went Wrong: With the Wildcats having to adjust to Rodriguez’s scheme on offense and the personnel issues on defense, an 8-5 record was Arizona’s best-case scenario. Failing to score in a loss to Oregon was a disappointment, but the only real negative mark this year was a defeat to rival Arizona State.

10. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
2012 Record: 9-4
Grade: B+

What Went Right: DeRuyter’s first season was a success. The Bulldogs claimed a share of the Mountain West title, averaged 477.5 yards per game on offense and ranked 22nd nationally in total defense. Although Fresno State lost four games, there’s no shame in losing to Tulsa, Oregon and Boise State.

What Went Wrong: While the Bulldogs were one of the Mountain West’s best teams during the regular season, the bowl loss to SMU was one of the postseason’s biggest surprises. Fresno State was thoroughly dominated in the Hawaii Bowl, which prevented the program from having its first double-digit win season since 2001.

11. Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State
2012 Record: 10-3
Grade: B

What Went Right: The Red Wolves needed a few games to adapt to Malzahn, but once this team got acclimated to their new coach, they emerged as the top team in the Sun Belt. Arkansas State finished 7-1 in conference play and reeled off eight consecutive victories to finish the year.

What Went Wrong: As expected, the Red Wolves took their lumps early on, losing 57-34 at Oregon and 42-13 at Nebraska. Arkansas State’s offense wasn’t as prolific as most expected but still averaged 34.9 points a game.

12. Matt Campbell, Toledo
2012 Record: 9-4
Grade: B-

What Went Right: Campbell was college football’s youngest head coach in 2012 but nearly guided Toledo to the MAC West title. The Rockets lost two conference games by a touchdown, dropped the season opener to Arizona in overtime, beat Cincinnati in mid-October and fell to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Despite a few key injuries late in the year, Campbell kept Toledo on track and has the Rockets poised to push for the conference crown once again in 2013.

What Went Wrong: The Rockets were just a couple of plays away from finishing with an unbeaten regular season record, so Campbell doesn’t deserve much criticism. One area Campbell and his staff will look to improve in the offseason is the defense, which allowed 473.2 yards per game in 2012.

13. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
2012 Record: 9-4
Grade: C

What Went Right: After Greg Schiano bolted just before Signing Day to the NFL, hiring Flood was all about continuity. So far, so good. Rutgers just missed out on winning the Big East title but finished with nine victories and scored a road win over Arkansas in late September. The defense allowed just 14.2 points a game and ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed.

What Went Wrong: Although Rutgers won nine games, there’s a sense of disappointment. The Scarlet Knights had an excellent opportunity to win the Big East crown and fell just short. After starting 7-0, Rutgers finished 2-4 and lost its final three games. Flood has to rebuild the defense next season, as well as get quarterback Gary Nova back on track after a rough finish to 2012.

14. Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh
2012 Record: 6-7
Grade: C

What Went Right: After starting 0-2, most thought the Panthers would have trouble getting bowl eligible. However, Pittsburgh rallied to get to six victories, which included an upset over Rutgers and a 35-17 blowout victory over Virginia Tech. The Panthers also held their own against Notre Dame, losing 29-26 in three overtimes. Also, under Chryst’s direction, quarterback Tino Sunseri showed marked improvement. Considering the coaching turmoil that has surrounded Pittsburgh over the last few years, Chryst’s decision to not pursue the Wisconsin opening brought some much-needed stability to the program.  

What Went Wrong: The season opener. The Chryst era at Pittsburgh got off to an awful start with a 31-17 loss to FCS opponent Youngstown State. And the season didn’t get much better in Week 2, as the Panthers lost 34-10 at Cincinnati.

15. Bob Davie, New Mexico
2012 Record: 4-9
Grade: C

What Went Right: After winning just three games in the three previous seasons, the Lobos recorded four victories in 2012. Considering Davie was in the television booth and away from the sidelines since 2001, New Mexico’s quick improvement was a surprise. Davie’s decision to switch to an option offense paid dividends, as the Lobos ranked near the top of the nation in time of possession and averaged 301.3 rushing yards per game. Although New Mexico finished with nine losses, five of the defeats came by a touchdown or less.

What Went Wrong: Although the Lobos were more competitive in Davie’s first season, they finished with a six-game losing streak and was throttled 35-7 by a bad UNLV team.

16. Jim McElwain, Colorado State
2012 Record:
Grade: C-

What Went Right: New Mexico, UNLV and Hawaii isn’t exactly the toughest gauntlet of late-season scheduling but credit the Rams for finishing with three wins over their final five games. Colorado State also knocked off rival Colorado in the season opener. McElwain may have found a potential breakout player at running back, as Donnell Alexander rushed for at least 100 yards in three out of his final four games.

What Went Wrong: Outside of the victories, Colorado State struggled to be competitive in Mountain West games. The Rams lost by over 20 points to Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State and Boise State. McElwain had bad luck with injuries at quarterback, but Colorado State’s passing game needs to get better in 2013.

17. Garrick McGee, UAB
2012 Record:
Grade: C-

What Went Right: It’s hard to find a lot of good news in a 3-9 season, but the Blazers won two out of their last four games. UAB also lost to Ohio State by only 12 points and was defeated by Conference USA champion Tulsa by just a touchdown. Even though UAB didn’t make significant gains in the win column, this team was competitive and found a quarterback (Austin Brown) and running back (Darrin Reaves) to build on in 2013.

What Went Wrong: While UAB showed promise on offense, the defense needs a lot of work. The Blazers allowed 37.5 points a game and registered only 1.7 sacks a game. If UAB can improve on defense and cut down on the turnovers, the Blazers could surprise in Conference USA next year.

18. Mike Leach, Washington State
2012 Record: 3-9
Grade: D

What Went Right: The season got off to a rough start for Washington State, but it rebounded to win its next two games to start 2-1 before Pac-12 play. The Cougars recorded only one victory within the conference, defeating rival Washington 31-28 in overtime.

What Went Wrong: There’s no doubt Leach was the biggest disappointment of college football’s new coaches for 2012. Washington State was predicted by some to reach a bowl game, and Leach’s high-powered offense never really got on track. The Cougars also had a horrible loss to Colorado and suffered blowout defeats to Arizona State, Utah, Oregon and BYU.

19. Curtis Johnson, Tulane
2012 Record: 2-10
Grade: D

What Went Right: Johnson didn’t have much to work with in 2012, so finishing with a 2-10 mark wasn’t much of a surprise. Despite winning only two games, Tulane showed some signs of progress. The Green Wave knocked off SMU and UAB, lost three conference games by five points or less and held their own against Rutgers in the season opener.

What Went Wrong: Tulane ranked 109th nationally in total offense and was largely hindered by injuries to starting quarterback Ryan Griffin and running back Orleans Darkwa. The defense was one of the worst in the nation, and the Green Wave ranked 101st in turnover margin. Both sides of the ball need a lot of work before next season, so there’s plenty for Johnson and his staff to work on during spring practice.

20. Charlie Weis, Kansas
2012 Record: 1-11
Grade: D

What Went Right: Weis was able to upgrade Kansas’ talent by adding a few transfers, but the new personnel didn’t change the success on the gridiron. The Jayhawks had only one win in 2012 but was more competitive in Big 12 play than they were in 2011.

What Went Wrong: Expectations were low for Kansas in 2012, so finishing with a 1-11 mark wasn’t a surprise. The biggest shock of the season was the lack of improvement from the passing attack, especially since Weis pulled in Dayne Crist from Notre Dame to start at quarterback.

21. Carl Pelini, FAU
2012 Record: 3-9
Grade: D

What Went Right: Pelini’s tenure at FAU got off to a rough start, as the Owls barely beat FCS opponent Wagner in the season opener and was 1-6 before a win over Troy. FAU showed some improvement over the second half of the year, picking up a win over Western Kentucky and losing its last three games by 10 points or less.

What Went Wrong: Pelini didn’t inherit a full cupboard, so there’s no doubt 2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Also contributing to the early struggles was a difficult schedule, which featured games against Georgia and Alabama. FAU simply doesn’t have the talent right now to push for a winning record, but the Owls will soon step into a tougher conference. Pelini needs to get both sides of the ball playing better, while finding a way to quickly close the gap in talent.

22. Tony Levine, Houston
2012 Record:
Grade: D

What Went Right: After starting his career with a bowl win over Penn State, Levine’s first full season as Houston’s head coach was a disappointment. There weren’t many positives, but the Cougars defeated Rice 35-14 to keep the Bayou Bucket. Levine’s team lost by only a touchdown against Louisiana Tech and finished the season on a high note by beating Tulane 40-17.

What Went Wrong: There were already plenty of doubts about Levine due to his lack of head coaching experience and so far, he’s done nothing to suggest he’s the long-term answer for Houston. The Cougars lost some key personnel, so it was inevitable this team would take a step back in the win column. However, 2012 was a weak year for Conference USA, and Houston had enough talent to get to a bowl game. With a move to a tougher conference next season, Levine will be under pressure to show this program is headed back in the right direction.

23. Norm Chow, Hawaii
2012 Record: 3-9
Grade: D

What Went Right: The Warriors finished 2012 with some momentum, winning their last two games against UNLV and South Alabama. First-year coach Norm Chow struggled to find the right pieces on offense, but the defense ranked 41st nationally in yards allowed and generated 2.3 sacks a game.

What Went Wrong: Chow came home to Honolulu to lead the Warriors to championships. But it’s clear Hawaii is far from contending for a Mountain West title. Chow’s specialty is on offense, so it was surprising to see Hawaii finish with just 297.4 yards per game in 2012. The Warriors were largely uncompetitive throughout Mountain West play and their only victories came against two FBS teams with a combined four wins and a FCS squad with a losing record.

24. Charley Molnar, UMass
2012 Record: 1-11
Grade: D

What Went Right: Considering UMass was in its first season of FBS play, the expectations were low for 2012. The Minutemen were more competitive late in the season, beating Akron 22-14 and losing to Buffalo by 10 points.

What Went Wrong: As expected, UMass struggled to be competitive and was blown out in a handful of games. The offense managed only three first downs in a loss to Connecticut and scored less than 10 points five times. Molnar seems to be a good fit at UMass, but he will need at least three seasons to get the program competitive within the MAC.

25. Terry Bowden, Akron
2012 Record: 1-11
Grade: D

What Went Right: Bowden inherited a disaster, so this ranking is really more reflective of the state of the program, rather than his coaching job this year. The Zips’ only victory came against FCS opponent Morgan State 66-6, but they lost four games by 10 points or less. Akron showed marked improvement on offense, averaging 427.2 yards per game in 2012.

What Went Wrong: Bowden was a good hire at Akron, but it’s clear he needs more time to get the program competitive within the conference. The Zips didn’t record a win in MAC play and gave up at least 30 points in five out of the last six games.

26. Tim Beckman, Illinois
2012 Record:
Grade: F

What Went Right: The only piece of good news for Illinois is that year one of the Beckman era could have been worse. The Fighting Illini earned two victories but failed to win a game in conference play. The lackluster season is resulting in staff changes, as co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty was fired, and his replacement is expected to be former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit.

What Went Wrong: Before Illinois played a game this year, Beckman earned plenty of bad publicity by trying to attract transfers from Penn State. Whether or not all of the reports were true about sending the staff to Happy Valley to recruit, it was a bad moment for Beckman. Illinois also had to report Beckman for a NCAA secondary violation after he chewed tobacco during the 35-7 loss to Wisconsin. Overall, it was a horrible beginning for Beckman in Champaign, but he will at least get 2013 to show the program is making some progress in the right direction.

27. John L. Smith, Arkansas
2012 Record:
Grade: F

What Went Right: For a team that began the year in most preseason top 25 polls and ended with a 4-8 record, it’s hard to find much that went right. Arkansas did win two SEC games, nearly knocked off LSU and defeated a good Tulsa team 19-15 in early November.

What Went Wrong: Considering the timing of the coaching change, it’s hard to blame everything on Smith. The Razorbacks never seemed to recover from losing head coach Bobby Petrino, especially on offense where they averaged just 23.5 points a game. Although it’s unfair to blame Smith for all of Arkansas’ woes, the Razorbacks only won two games in SEC play and struggled to be competitive against the bowl teams in the conference.

28. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss
2012 Record: 0-12
Grade: F

What Went Right: Nothing.

What Went Wrong: Everything. Johnson is a good defensive coordinator but is obviously not head coaching material. Southern Miss had some key personnel losses and a tough schedule, but the Golden Eagles should not have finished 0-12. Johnson was fired after the regular season finale against Memphis.

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