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

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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.

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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:
11-2
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.