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Rookie College Football Coaches: Who Will Sink and Who Will Swim?

Alex Kilpatrick

by Alex Kilpatrick in College Football

Updated Jan 17, 2018 · 9:38 AM PST

Taggart with the Ducks
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The 2017 college football season sees a whole crop of head coaches in their first year at the helm of major programs. While switching bench bosses is always a gamble, it’s perhaps the only way to really change the situation of your team. Ed Orgeron (LSU) and Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma) are both replacing guys who brought national titles to their teams, so the expectations there couldn’t be higher, except maybe those of Tim Lester, who’s replacing Western Michigan’s messiah.

Let’s poke into the situation these coaches find themselves in and set some odds.

Ed Orgeron, LSU

It’s Ed Orgeron’s first year as head coach at LSU, but not really. After a disappointing loss to Wisconsin and a weird defeat to Auburn, LSU administrators stepped in and fired Les Miles as quickly as they could, lest he mount another comeback and secure his place for another season. Ed Orgeron, the Power 5’s official Interim Coach On Call, was tapped with what he called the best seven-game tryout in sports. After winning five of those games, and only recording losses to Alabama (forgivable) and Florida (huh?), Orgeron was offered the head coaching position full-time.

Since then, they’ve recruited well, locking in the #7 class in the country in 2017 and currently sitting at #3 for 2018, and made important hires. LSU managed to retain defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, no small feat in itself, and bring in Matt Canada from Pitt, where he made run-pass-options and a modern offense work well enough to go 8-5 and beat Clemson. Things are looking up for the Tigers, who after years of stout defense and listless offense, are getting some much-needed help with the latter and retaining their most important pieces for the former.

  • Wins O/U: 8.5
  • Odds to make the Playoff in 2017: 10/1

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

If anyone can take over for Bob Stoops, it’s Lincoln Riley, who may now be the best situated coach in college football. After two years as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Riley attracted a lot of attention for some of the jobs that opened up last year but was convinced to stay on with the Sooners, a decision that has now paid off in spades. Known for being an energetic recruiter, a leading offensive mind, and for bleeding crimson and cream,  Riley could help keep OU in the top-tier of college football with some consistency. If anything, Stoops’ snap retirement is a measure of his confidence in Riley: he wanted to leave at the right time for the program and by handing the keys for an 11-win team to his most promising assistant ensured it wouldn’t cost the Sooners in recruiting.

There are not a lot changes with Riley’s appointment, though it will be interesting to see who he hires as his offensive coordinator. Saying that, the whole point of Stoops retiring when he did was to keep Oklahoma on an even and steady keel.

  • Wins O/U: 9.5
  • Odds to make the Playoff in 2017: 8/1
  • O/U length of tenure at Oklahoma: 9.5 years

Matt Rhule, Baylor

Matt Rhule left Temple after a really good run of ten-win seasons to take over the Baylor job that was vacated by the bone-deep unpleasantness of the Art Briles administration. Rhule’s looking to get Baylor back to its old ways on the field and as far as possible from its old ways off the field. Success for Rhule isn’t going to be measured purely on the field though, so look for this program to prioritize recruiting and cultural renovation over wins and losses.

Rhule’s done a really good job putting a recruiting class together despite the circumstance. He brought in a huge crop of three stars that will fill the depth chart until he figures out a way to attract elite talent again. That will hopefully bring this team back into Big 12 and Playoff contention.

  • Wins O/U: 6.5
  • Odds to make people totally comfortable rooting for Baylor in 2017: 1000/1

PJ Fleck, Minnesota

PJ Fleck became a media darling with his infectious enthusiasm, occasional dancing, and by leading Western Michigan to the gosh darn Cotton Bowl. That performance was enough to land him the head coaching job at Minnesota, a team that went 9-4 last year and performed decently in the Big Ten West. Coaching positions usually only open up after disastrous seasons, and the only ways to inherit a nine-win team involves someone dying, retiring early, or getting on the wrong side of a sexual assault scandal. This situation is one of the latter, unfortunately.

The upsides: Fleck takes control of a good team, with the talent to win four conference games in a row for the first time in what feels like centuries. The downsides: there’s obviously some controversy with the coaching change, and the culture of the Minnesota locker room leaves something to be desired. If anyone has the charisma to square these circles, it’s Fleck.

With a schedule that’s conducive to winning a lot of games and not a lot of bogeymen (except for an away game at Michigan, but it feels like everyone gets one of those), Fleck looks to be in a position to start things off right at Minnesota. Once his recruiting skills start to pay dividends for the Golden Gophers, Minnesota will be able to really take advantage of a schedule like this.

  • Wins O/U: 8.5

Willie Taggart, Oregon

Willie Taggart is one of those coaches that likes to strip everything down to the studs before he starts building. Fleck is too, really, but Fleck is inheriting a 9-win team and Taggart is very much not. Taking over for Skip Holtz after a 3-9 season, Taggart led USF to a 2-10 record, then a 4-8 season, then progressed more quickly to the best record in school history: an 11-2 season. Oregon’s coming off a 4-8 season, pretty dire for a team that played in a national championship game just two years prior. Look for the Ducks to have another tough season, and then start making progress in 2018 and 2019.

Taggart is unfortunate that in his first year in the PAC-12, the conference is looking to be the most competitive it has been in years. Washington is coming off a Playoff bid in the north and USC looking awfully good in the south. Playing on the road against Washington, Stanford and UCLA really eats into your chances of putting a winning season together.

  • Wins O/U: 5.5
  • Odds to win the PAC-12: 8/1

Geoff Collins, Temple

Temple has survived in the AAC by making a series of really good hires. Rhule did an incredible job, turning a 4-7 team into a 10-4 AAC champ in just four years. Steve Addazio put together a well-timed 9-4 season that helped Temple find it’s way back into the Big East, and Al Golden built the program in his garage from sheet metal and Gatorade mix. The success of his predecessors means that Geoff Collins is stepping into a position that brings with it an entirely new set of expectations: he’s not taking over the Temple Owls as they existed in 2013. This is a team that’s projected to win 7 or 8 games against decent opponents and that might still disappoint the Temple faithful. Fortunately, Collins has strong defensive acumen and a hard-working mindset that will do him a lot of favors in Philadelphia.

Collins was an aggressive defensive coordinator at Florida, putting together one of the best scoring defenses in the country on a team that, hey, look: they won the SEC East. Good for them. On the other side of the ball, where Temple has always struggled, Collins hired Dave Patenaude, who ran an increasingly pass-happy offense at Coastal Carolina that maintained an efficient rushing attack. So hopefully the Owls can turn some of their big plays from last year into a more complete offense.

  • Wins O/U: 7.5
  • Odds to play in the 2017 AAC title game: 3/2

Tom Herman, Texas

Tom Herman may be the biggest hire of the year. After engineering an offense that took a third-string quarterback to a national title at Ohio State, Herman spent the last two years as the head coach at Houston, putting in great seasons in the AAC and breathing down Charlie Strong’s neck at Texas. After Strong’s 5-7 season, Texas decided to cut him loose and give the reigns to the promising and decidedly more Texas Herman. Herman built an honest-to-God spectacular defense at Houston, one that was scary against the run and even scarier rushing the passer, and he did it with the recruits available to a Texas G5 team in Houston. With what Herman can attract with the Longhorn’s brand, it’ll be a Herculean task trying to score against Texas in a few years.

There’s not a lot to say about Herman that hasn’t already been shouted by Texas fans with glee, but don’t forget how high the fan base’s expectations are, and how fast they soured on Strong’s competent-but-not-inspiring performance.

  • Wins O/U: 7.5
  • Odds to beat Oklahoma in 2017: 2/1
  • O/U length of tenure at Texas: 5.5 years

Tim Lester, Western Michigan

Tim Lester has the unenviable task of trying to fill Fleck’s shoes at Western Michigan. Fleck did everything a Bronco’s coach could want to: he went undefeated in the regular season, brought the team to the Cotton Bowl and a #15 national ranking, and established WMU as a relevant brand nationwide. Lester’s probably not going to be able to do that.

Lester’s been everything before: He was a Division III defensive coordinator, a Division I offensive coordinator, an arena league quarterback, an XFL starter, a Toledo-area pet detective, and a Syracuse quarterbacks coach. And I’m only making one of those up! WMU’s trying to hire a replacement for perhaps the most unique coach in college football, and they’ve gone about it by hiring the guy with the most unique resume. It makes sense intuitively, at least.

I don’t know what WMU is going to do this year, but I’m pretty confident they won’t be undefeated again. You can probably chalk their week one and two matchups against US-goddamn-C and Michigan State up as losses, and while they’re the favorite in almost all of their other games, it’s not by a huge margin.

  • O/U Wins: 7.5
  • Odds to ingrain nautical-themed catchphrase in the national football consciousness: 20/1
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