There are a lot of high-profile, big-name coaches in new jobs this fall. Here’s a look at 11 of them and what we can reasonably expect from them in their first season with their new squad. Knowing how a rookie coach will perform is crucial to successful college football handicapping.
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
As a die-hard Michigan fan I obviously have mixed feelings about Rodriguez. I like and mostly respect the guy, but I’m quite glad he’s not with my Wolverines anymore. On the other hand, I’m glad he’s a long way away from Ann Arbor in the Pac-12, because if he gets things going his way he’s going to be dangerous — especially now that he again has a competent defensive coordinator. Early indications are that the team has bought into what he is selling. That’s not going to be enough, though. He is making a very dramatic change in system on both sides of the ball, and it will take a while for him to get the personnel he needs around him. His first season in Ann Arbor was ugly. His first season in Tucson will be even uglier.
Todd Graham, Arizona State
Graham is as slimy as any coach in sports. He’s also facing an uphill battle here. He has only nine returning starters, and he has major questions at quarterback. Their nonconference schedule is tough, and their linebacking corps is going to be terrorized by opposing defenses. This team is going to lose at least seven teams — and that’s being generous.
John L. Smith, Arkansas
Smith is a lousy coach in a lousy situation. He’s only here for a year barring a miracle and everyone around the team knows it. The difference is that Smith takes over a team that is very competitive — a Top-10 preseason squad. Smith won’t get as much out of this team as Petrino would have, but he should win more games than any other coach on this list.
Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State
Arkansas State is obviously not a major program. Malzahn is a guy to watch, though, because he could have had much bigger jobs than this one. He flirted with several programs, but he seemed content to stay out of the spotlight and stay in Arkansas where he is comfortable. He also faced some minor scandals with his wife in the hiring process that didn’t help. If the offensive genius can lead a quick turnaround with this program then he should be able to write his ticket at any bigger program. If he struggles, though, then his market value will drop substantially.
Norm Chow, Hawaii
Speaking of offensive geniuses who saw their market value drop hard. It took Chow this long to finally get a head coaching opportunity, and he’s not nearly as highly-regarded as he was in his glory years at USC. I’m happy for Chow, but this year is going to be brutal for him. The team has moved from the WAC to the much tougher Mountain West. They play impossible nonconference games against USC and BYU. Just not going to go well.
Charlie Weis, Kansas
Kansas is not a good team. Weis is a terrible coach and a truly awful hire here. Dayne Crist is an overrated quarterback who was a major disappointment on a much more talented team. Depth is a major issue, the Big 12 is going to be brutally tough, and things could get really ugly. Their two opening games — South Dakota State and Rice — are very winnable. I don’t see more than a win or two the rest of the way, though. A couple years of Weis will make Kansas fans long for Turner Gill.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina
This is an impossibly thankless job. Davis had not done a great job of building a team in recent times. Much of the progress he did make was dismantled through scandal and early departures. There is much more to come on the scandal front as these academic issues fully come to light. Fedora faces a massive task in overhauling a clearly broken culture here. In the best possible scenario this team could have a winning season — or at least a .500 one. I expect this season to fall far short of the best-case scenario, though.
Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer has hit the ground running and obviously has a lot of excitement surrounding him in Columbus. The fact is, though, that Jim Tressel hadn’t recruited as well late in in his tenure as he did early, and last year was a disaster under Luke Fickell. As a result there isn’t a whole lot of depth in key positions. Quarterback Braxton Miller has a good chance to be special, and he’ll love playing under Meyer. However, it’s going to be a sometimes painful transition to a radically different system under Meyer. Double-digit wins are possible, but nine seems like a more likely total. It took Meyer a year to really make his mark in Florida, and it should be no different here.
Bill O’Brien, Penn State
By early October O’Brien will almost certainly wish he had never left New England. He’s probably already there. It will be a nightmare of a season after a nightmare of a summer.
Jim Mora, UCLA
This is a bad hire. Mora has never coached in college football before, he was not a great NFL coach, and he is at a massive disadvantage in L.A. as the poor cousin of the Trojans. There is a decent defense and a promising QB in Brett Hundley. They face a challenging change in offensive scheme, though, and there are key holes that will make it tough. If you have any faith in Mora then you could make an argument that this team is on the rise. More than six wins this year, though, would be a major accomplishment.
Mike Leach, Washington State
Leach is a wild man, and he’s incredibly fun to watch. He is starting with almost nothing, though. There is little talent on this team, and there hasn’t been much since Ryan Leaf was under center. It’s a tough place to recruit to, and very few players that are in town are ready to deal with what Leach will throw at them. In four years Leach could make things interesting, but right now they are going to be ugly. He’s going to be helped out by a relatively easy schedule — nonconference games against Eastern Washington and UNLV are highly winnable even for a team with as many issues as this. Still, four or more wins would make it very clear that all the teams that passed on Leach made a huge mistake — which we already know to be true.