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College football's first-year head coaches with the most to prove in 2022

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The college football season is right around the corner, meaning we'll soon get our first glimpses at some prominent head coaches at new schools.

There are extremely high expectations for these coaches at some high-profile schools. Which of those coaches have the most to prove at their new jobs?

Let's dive in.

1. Brian Kelly - LSU

At a time when Notre Dame still had a chance to reach the College Football Playoff, Brian Kelly shockingly departed South Bend for the lure of the SEC at LSU. Kelly, a Massachusetts native who spent the majority of his coaching career in the Midwest, was a peculiar cultural fit in Baton Rouge, and it’s certainly been a process to assimilate into the LSU family.

Kelly won at least 10 games in six of his last seven seasons at Notre Dame and now inherits an LSU program on the heels of back-to-back disappointing seasons following the magical run to the national championship in 2019. Kelly came close but never won a national title at Notre Dame, and expectations are always high when it comes to a program like LSU.

There is pressure to win immediately. But if there are early growing pains for Kelly in Baton Rouge, will the LSU community be patient? Or will skepticism about Kelly’s fit in the SEC quickly creep in? Kelly faced tough schedules as an independent at Notre Dame, but the juggernaut of the SEC West is a different kind of beast.

2. Lincoln Riley - USC

Lincoln Riley’s move from Oklahoma to USC was by far the most-hyped of the coaching carousel. USC has been starving for national relevance and Riley is certainly a coach who can elevate the Trojans — especially with a move to the Big Ten on the horizon.

Riley had a 55-10 record and won four Big 12 titles during his time at Oklahoma and he brought his star quarterback, Caleb Williams, with him to Los Angeles. With Williams and an array of other transfers in the fold, a quick turnaround is widely expected for the Trojans.

With this level of hype, though, it’s easy to forget that USC went 4-8 last fall. The talent on offense also makes it easy to look past the holes on defense. The transition from mediocrity to national contender may not come as quickly as USC fans expect.

USC head football coach Lincoln Riley, left, and USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, right, during a press conference at the Coliseum on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
USC head football coach Lincoln Riley, left, and USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, right, during a press conference at the Coliseum on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

3. Marcus Freeman - Notre Dame

Notre Dame is one of the most-coveted jobs in college football, but the school decided to promote Marcus Freeman, a promising young assistant from Brian Kelly’s staff, rather than pursue an outside option. Freeman has worked his way up the coaching ranks and made a name for himself as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati before landing in South Bend. And now he’s got his first head-coaching job at the age of 36. Is he ready?

Freeman, one of the youngest head coaches in the sport, is leading one of the nation’s most historic programs. He’s got a heck of a foundation, but can he elevate the Irish? Kelly got Notre Dame to the precipice of a national title on multiple occasions but the Irish are still in pursuit of their first title since 1988.

The Irish open the 2022 season at Ohio State in a significant early test for the new Notre Dame regime under Freeman’s leadership.

4. Mario Cristobal - Miami

Miami won five of its last six games last season but still decided to fire Manny Diaz after just three seasons in order to bring Mario Cristobal home. Cristobal, a Miami alum, had a 35-13 record at Oregon. He’s long proven to be a relentless, high-level recruiter.

Cristobal brought plenty of talent to Eugene and he’s off to a strong start at Miami now that he’s back in his native South Florida. A hungry Miami fanbase views Cristobal as a savior and believes the Hurricanes are finally ready to make an ascent back into the national championship picture. It might be wise to pump the brakes on that.

The Hurricanes have talent, including promising quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, but Cristobal’s got work to do with this roster and the schedule is tough. Still, if this team isn’t in the hunt for an ACC Coastal title in Cristobal’s first year, it’ll be a disappointment.

Miami head coach Mario Cristobal speaks during a news conference on signing day for college football, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Coral Gables, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Miami head coach Mario Cristobal speaks during a news conference on signing day for college football, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Coral Gables, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

5. Billy Napier - Florida

Florida fell off a cliff in its final season under Dan Mullen. UF won 29 games in Mullen’s first three seasons, but put forth an embarrassing effort in 2021 while rival Georgia won a national championship.

In the aftermath, the Gators brought in Billy Napier to get the program back into contention in the SEC East. Napier has coached at the Power Five level, but only as an assistant.

Can Napier’s success at Louisiana in the Sun Belt translate to the SEC? His teams in Lafayette were disciplined and tough. You won’t find anybody who used those words to describe the 2021 Gators. Still, this team has plenty of talent and experience. You’ve got to think they’re motivated after what transpired in 2021, right?

On top of that, Florida’s recruiting suffered under Mullen. Florida’s 2023 class is currently ranked No. 27 by Rivals. That won’t cut it for Napier.

6. Brent Venables - Oklahoma

The Oklahoma fanbase has seemed pretty occupied with its scorn toward Lincoln Riley rather then turning the page to the Brent Venables era in Norman. This is the first head-coaching job for Venables, the longtime defensive coordinator most known for winning two national titles at Clemson.

OU fans are hoping Venables quickly shows the college football world the Sooners will be just fine without Riley. That’s especially true on defense, which is Venables’ speciality and was a consistent weakness for the Sooners under Riley. Winning the Big 12 is the yearly expectation at OU, but Venables will be tasked with overseeing the program’s transition into the SEC. If Venables can’t coach the Sooners to the top of the Big 12, how will he fare in the SEC?

7. Dan Lanning - Oregon

After coaching one of the best defenses in college football history at Georgia, Dan Lanning now finds himself on the other side of the country coaching the Oregon Ducks. It’s the first head-coaching job for the 36-year-old Lanning, who was coaching defensive backs at Sam Houston State only eight years ago.

Lanning has inherited a Ducks roster that should be ready to compete for a Pac-12 championship, but the inexperience factor always looms. There’s also his decision to bring Bo Nix with him from the SEC to lead the Oregon offense under coordinator Kenny Dillingham. Oregon’s a program that has the resources and talent to win right away.

8. Sonny Dykes - TCU

In his 21 seasons, Gary Patterson helped guide TCU’s transition from Conference USA to the Mountain West and into the Big 12. Along the way, TCU won one C-USA title, four Mountain West titles, a share of the Big 12 title, made 17 bowl appearances, had six top-10 finishes and 11 seasons with double-digit victories.

That’s a tough act for Sonny Dykes to follow. The Texas native, most recently at SMU, had eyes on this job and TCU felt strong enough about hiring Dykes that it fired Patterson, whose statue stands outside the stadium.

Dykes can coach offense, but his SMU teams consistently faded down the stretch and his Cal teams were poor defensively. The fit for Dykes in Fort Worth makes sense on a lot of levels, but there’s no track record he can coach a top 15-level program.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes speaks to reporters at the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
TCU coach Sonny Dykes speaks to reporters at the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

9. Brent Pry - Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech is a proud program that has been plagued by mediocrity since the later years of the Frank Beamer era. Justin Fuente got to the ACC title game in his first season but had a combined 24-23 (17-15 ACC) record over his final four seasons in Blacksburg. Fuente’s recruiting was lackluster, leading to a decline in talent on the roster.

It’s Brent Pry’s task to get the Hokies back into ACC title contention. Pry, 52, had a strong run as the defensive coordinator at Penn State, but this is his first head-coaching job. Pry could really use a good first year to inspire confidence that he can get the Virginia Tech program trending back in the right direction.

10. Tony Elliott - Virginia

Bronco Mendenhall built Virginia into a consistently competitive program, but decided to step aside from coaching. That opened the door for Tony Elliott, who had his chances to leave his comfortable perch at Clemson for his first job as a head coach. He chose Virginia.

There were some questions about how Elliott ran the Clemson offense in 2021. At Virginia, he inherits one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Brennan Armstrong and plenty of returning production at receiver, but the offensive line is a major question mark. On top of that, the Cavs’ defense was downright bad in 2021.

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