The 2022 SEC coaching carousel didn’t spin as fast as previous years, but two Clydesdales have entered the league. Brian Kelly moved south to join the LSU family after a successful 12-year stint at Notre Dame. Florida chose to go the younger route with Billy Napier, who has long been considered one of the top young coaches in the country after bringing Louisiana back to being recognized as one of the top programs at the Group of Five level.
Both newbies are charged with bringing their respective schools back to national prominence, and in the long term, both should be fine.
Kelly’s track record of success at Notre Dame, which included two College Football Playoff appearances and a berth in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, is impossible to ignore. His 92-39 record at one of the most prestigious and pressure-packed programs in the country has firmly entrenched Kelly as one of the top coaches in the nation.
Napier, meanwhile, led the Ragin’ Cajuns to three straight double-digit win seasons and back-to-back outright/shared Sun Belt championships. His pedigree under Alabama coach Nick Saban has only added to his rise into the top of the coaching ranks.
So yes, both will likely be fine in the long term, but today we’re here to decide which first-year SEC coach has the best shot at instant success. So let’s examine the situations for each to help us decide.
Billy Napier, Florida
Napier landed in one of the most desirable spots in the country — certainly from an offensive perspective. Multidimensional quarterback Anthony Richardson showed flashes of brilliance last season under former coach Dan Mullen. The redshirt sophomore threw for 474 yards, rushed for 374 yards and eight touchdowns in six games as Emory Jones‘ backup. Despite his relative inexperience, the Gainesville native has landed in the first round of many 2023 NFL mock drafts, including CBS Sports draft analyst Chris Trapasso’s most recent edition.
The running back room runs four-deep with Nay’Quan Wright likely leading the way at the start of fall camp. Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman are highly regarded within the system and got plenty of reps in Wright’s absence this spring, and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson is well-versed on what Napier demands from his running backs after rushing for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Ragin’ Cajuns last year. All four excel in a variety of different areas, which should allow Napier to get ultra-creative with how he gets them involved in the game plan each week.
Defensive lineman Tyreak Sapp looked like a potential star in the spring game, Ventrell Miller is back to lead a linebacking corps that is ultra-versatile and, perhaps most importantly, ex-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is no longer with the program.
The division in which Napier will coach also plays a big factor in this discussion. It’s pretty much “Georgia and everybody else” in the SEC East. Granted, Tennessee’s offense is on the rise and Kentucky is always a tough out, but it’s not like the second tier of the East is anywhere close to that of the West. Kelly will have to deal with what will be a top-10 Texas A&M squad, Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offensive juggernaut and a likely preseason top-20 team in Arkansas as part of the toughest grind in the nation.
Brian Kelly, LSU
The good news for Kelly is that he has a very healthy quarterback battle going on in Baton Rouge. Three-year Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels moved to the bayou this offseason, former starter Myles Brennan reemerged from the transfer portal to compete for his former job and Garrett Nussmeier might have the most upside of the trio.
The running game is solid with John Emery Jr. back after a year off and Noah Cain coming in from Penn State. But the offensive line is replacing four starters and finished next-to-last in the SEC in sacks allowed per game last year with 2.92. Bottom line: it’s going to be difficult to put together sustained drives unless the new faces up front come together in a hurry.
The defensive front should be the strength of the 2022 Tigers, but the secondary has gone through a massive overhaul since the end of last season. That’s not a great sign in an SEC West that has become pass-happy at the top.
Kelly mentioned on the Texas Bowl broadcast that LSU’s roster needs to be beefed up from a quantity perspective. Graduation and attrition have taken a toll on the roster, and even though the transfer portal has made it easier to re-stock, it’s almost impossible to expect the massive influx of fresh faces to suddenly complete in the West.
Now, the good news for LSU. Kelly will win a national title at some point with the Tigers. I repeat, Kelly will hoist the CFP trophy in the purple in gold — just as his three predecessors have. He had double-digit win seasons in six of his last seven seasons in South Bend despite recruiting challenges that don’t exist at nearly every other school in the country. He’ll likely still be there once Saban retires. Plus, as the flagship program in a talent-rich state, all he has to do is open the door to the complex and five-star players should walk right in.
Why Napier has the edge
While Kelly is more likely to have long-term success, Napier is better-positioned to see immediate success this season. He has a more stable foundation and an easier path to at least get the Gators back to relevance in the SEC.
If Richardson does emerge as a bonafide superstar as the offseason momentum indicates, he should be the catalyst for Florida to dictate the style and tempo of most games. Napier was ultra-successful with mobile quarterbacks at Louisiana, including last season with Johnson and dual-threat weapon Levi Lewis. Plus, the schedule sets up relatively well. Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri — which constitute the beefy middle of the East — will all travel to The Swamp. LSU, on the other hand, has to go to Arkansas, Auburn and Texas A&M.
Luckily, there will be a head-to-head contest and some transitive property opportunities to compare the two. Kelly will square off with Napier in The Swamp, and both the Tigers and the Gators will battle with Florida State and Tennessee in 2022. Both also travel to Texas A&M. But the SEC West is stacked, which will make it challenging for the Tigers to make a decent bowl game this year.