Monday, August 15, 2022

College football coaches entering Year 2 who are facing defining campaigns in the 2022 season

The second year of a head coach’s stint can be one of the most interesting points in a program’s trajectory. Every offseason we take stock of coaches in this position because, historically, it has proven to be a pivot point. 

Some coaches, like Urban Meyer at Florida or Nick Saban at both LSU and Alabama, were already in championship contention by Year 2. That’s not the expectation for all coaches, but it speaks to how quickly things can move in a positive direction for a new hire. The same can be said for the opposite, though, as just recently in 2019 we saw multiple Power Five coaches fired before the conclusion of their second season. 

Patience is shorter than ever in college football when it comes to coaching success, so while fans and administrators will often allow for a rocky start in Year 1 — or a “Year Zero” situation —  there is an understanding that the second season positions the program for meeting or exceeding the big-picture expectations. 

The 2020-21 hiring cycle had some big-time programs making changes, but the total number of jobs changing hands was far less than the coaching carousel of this past offseason. And of those first-year coaches in 2021, there are several that won’t be facing heightened pressure for a specific set of results in Year 2. The challenges facing Bret Bielema at Illinois, Clark Lea at Vanderbilt and Lance Leipold at Kansas are ones that will certainly require more than two seasons to fully address, though it would certainly be important to make sure their teams do not take major steps backward in 2022. 

Other situations, like Utah State with Blake Anderson, have done enough in Year 1 to inspire confidence that the right man has been hired for the job; even some adversity this fall would be forgiven thanks to the success of last season. 

So with that in mind we’ve identified six coaches who, based on the results of 2021 and the expectations for 2022 and beyond, are facing a pivotal Year 2 this coming season. 

Complete Power Five coach rankings: 1-25 | 26-65

Steve Sarkisian, Texas 

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: 39 (+7) 

Texas went 5-7 in Sarkisian’s Year 1 and lost six of the last seven games, including letting Kansas walk it off with a game-winning two-point try in overtime in Austin. It wasn’t an issue of competitiveness, as we saw the Longhorns suffer one-score losses to the three best teams in the conference (Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma), but there’s also the built-in frustration of not being able to convert any of those opportunities into quality wins — particularly when flipping any one of the five one-score losses would have made Texas bowl eligible instead of missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2016. 

So what are the expectations for Texas going into 2022? A moderate increase in wins as Sark builds up the program? Absolutely not. 

By bringing in Quinn Ewers, one of the highest-rated quarterback prospects in the history of Texas high school football, as well as a handful of other instant-impact transfers, the expectation is that the Longhorns will be one of the best teams in the conference. The win total says that not just a couple, but nearly all of those one-score losses will flip the other way and the Longhorns will contend for the Big 12 title. In fact, Caesars Sportsbook currently has Texas as the favorite to win the Big 12, narrowly ahead of Oklahoma. Other coaches have pivotal seasons ahead, but none listed here have expectations as high as Sarkisian. 

Bryan Harsin, Auburn 

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: 48 (-21) 

Rarely has a Year 1 ended in a bowl appearance and still included as much turmoil as Bryan Harsin faced in the months following the season. Auburn was ranked No. 13 in the country heading into November but finished the season with five straight losses, including a 17-13 defeat to Houston in the bowl game. Then came a staff shakeup, a notable exodus of transfers and a recruiting cycle that did not deliver the kind of results that inspired confidence among the Auburn faithful. Suddenly, Harsin was defending himself against rumors that his job was on the line, the university was launching an investigation into allegations from former players and the college football media spent about a week on “Bryan Harsin watch” in February in the event there was going to be a job change.  

Harsin rode out that storm, but another subpar showing, either on the field and/or on the recruiting trail, is going to bring those same hot seat conversations right back into the forefront. Auburn needs more than six wins in 2022 to be able to quiet the noise, and against a schedule that includes Penn State, Georgia and the entirety of the ultra-competitive SEC West, that will be a challenge for the Tigers. 

Josh Heupel, Tennessee 

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: 33 (+19)

These next two coaches profiled delivered positive results in 2021, and now the pivot point is whether they can build on that success. Heupel was the first Tennessee coach to record a winning record in his first season in Knoxville since Lane Kiffin as he delivered on the promise of a prolific offense that provided fireworks throughout the Vols’ 7-5 regular-season campaign. Tennessee was held under 24 points just twice, and one of those two games was a defeat against the historically great defense of the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs. 

With Hendon Hooker back at quarterback and Cedric Tillman looking like one of the top wide receivers in the SEC, Tennessee once again will be expected to field one of the more explosive offensive units in the conference. The challenge is to maintain that advantage on the opposition in Year 2. Opposing defensive coordinators now have a full year of tape to try and develop answers to what Heupel wants to do offensively, so how will Tennessee take it to the next level? Given the make-up of the roster, it looks like the offense will need to be as productive in order to match last season’s win total. Scoring less is not an option.  

Shane Beamer, South Carolina 

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: 41 (+24)

South Carolina was expected to win three or four games but ended up going 7-6 with a win over North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Now Beamer has added former five-star quarterback Spencer Rattler and made some noise on the recruiting trail to generate real buzz among the fanbase. You could argue that Beamer has somewhat of a long leash in Year 2 thanks to that early success, but the competitive nature of the SEC makes any steps backward feel devastating. 

With fans expecting the trajectory to be headed in the right direction, the pressure is on for Beamer to get South Carolina back to a bowl game in 2022. Realistically, that will involve three or four SEC wins, which might be challenging as the Gamecocks trade out a home game against Auburn with a road trip to Arkansas as the rotating SEC West opponent. Failure to make a bowl game will not doom Beamer’s tenure thanks to the success of Year 1, but keeping the buzz going likely requires another appearance in the postseason. 

Gus Malzahn, UCF 

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: 2 in AAC (+1) 

Given the success that UCF has experienced in recent years in the AAC, last year’s 8-4 showing in the regular season actually came with a sense of disappointment. But the context of close losses, bad injury luck and a strong finish to the year has kept UCF fans from doubting Malzahn’s ability to lead the Knights back to conference title contention. Starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel went down with a season-ending injury earlier and the campaign included the loss of handfuls of other key contributors, yet the Bounce House landlords bounced back to win six of their final seven games, including the program’s first-ever win against in-state foe Florida in the bowl game. 

Being successful in Year 2 is a two-fold challenge for Malzahn in his tenure as UCF’s head coach, because there’s both an eye on how the Knights stack up against the AAC but, more specifically, the other teams that are joining them in the eventual move to the Big 12. There is a lot of excitement about that move into the Power Five and Malzahn’s own experience suggests he could be the right coach to lead that charge. But if Year 2 sees UCF again fall behind Cincinnati and Houston, it could really ratchet up the pressure for him to deliver on the field as the school prepares to enter into the Big 12 era in 2023. 

Charles Huff, Marshall

2022 CBS Sports Coach Ranking: N/A 

There are two reasons to highlight Marshall’s second-year coach here, the first being a strong debut for the former Alabama assistant in 2021. The Thundering Herd finished tied for second in the Conference USA East division with a 5-3 record in league play and a 7-6 record overall, and until the regular-season finale against high-flying Western Kentucky, there wasn’t a matchup all season where Marshall didn’t have a chance to win late in the game. The margins in losses to ECU (42-38), Appalachian State (31-30), Middle Tennessee (34-28) and UAB (21-14) all showed a level of competitiveness that should inspire confidence among the fanbase of this proud program. 

But just as Huff has quickly addressed his ability to lead Marshall to bowl games and conference title contention, the school has made a conference jump into the Sun Belt. The Thundering Herd have landed in a loaded Sun Belt East Division that includes Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State while drawing reigning conference champion Louisiana from the West Division in their first year as a conference member. Huff needed a strong Year 1 to turn the page from Doc Holliday’s decade-long tenure to the new era, and now he’s got another Year 1 of sorts as a Sun Belt rookie. 

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