If the past year or so has reinforced anything about the college football landscape, it’s the reality of simmering instability. Some of the sport’s most storied programs — Oklahoma and Southern California, among them — have played a part in change coming at a rapid rate.
Instead, this is something more mundane, a convergence of a run-of-the-mill happening piled up at a rapid rate. College football had atypical head coaching turnover at its biggest brands, even by the sport’s impatient standards.
Going back to the start of the Bowl Championship Series era in 1998 and continuing through the eight seasons of the four-team playoff era, 21 programs have either played in a BCS title game or a playoff semifinal. Nine of them have new coaches this season.
Since 1998, those schools had never combined for more than five coaching changes in a year.
There are three sets of connected changes. Southern Cal lured Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, which hired Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. LSU landed Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly — while his old team still had semi-plausible playoff hopes last year — and the Irish promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
Then there was Miami’s latest attempt at restoring a long-since toppled college football dynasty. The Hurricanes brought Oregon’s Mario Cristobal — a former star player in Coral Gables — back to Southern Florida, and the Ducks responded by giving Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning his first head coaching gig.
Elsewhere, Florida replaced Dan Mullen with Louisiana coach Billy Napier, Virginia Tech tasked Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry to reinvigorate a program that had become lifeless under Justin Fuente, and Washington called on Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer to take over for the fired Jimmy Lake.
Phew. That’s a lot of movement.
There are some caveats to this. Four of the changes came at schools without a playoff berth — Florida, Miami, Southern California and Virginia Tech — so it’s reasonable to quibble over whether they truly represent the sport’s elite. Still, USC finished in the top 10 nationally as recently as 2016 and Florida did in 2019, so those two have enjoyed some relevance of late.
This formulation also excludes programs such as Baylor, Penn State, Stanford, Texas A&M, TCU and Wisconsin with multiple top-10 finishes in the past decade but no playoff berths to show for it.
And, of course, Nick Saban remains at Alabama (with a new $93.6 million extension, no less), Dabo Swinney is still coining Dabo-isms at Clemson and Kirby Smart is presiding over the defending national champion at Georgia. The world hasn’t turned completely upside down.
Yet this feels like an inflection point for several programs. Southern California, fresh off a 4-8 season, wants to win yesterday. Riley, a 38-year-old quarterback whisperer with a 55-10 career record and experience working with incoming Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams, offers the promise of not having to wait long before winning conference titles again.
There was myopic chatter in 2019 about LSU fielding the most dominant team in college football history (1944-45 Army and 1956 Oklahoma, as well as a few recent entrants, might like to have a word). Two mediocre seasons later, Kelly gets to follow up five consecutive 10-win seasons in South Bend by trying to become the fourth coach this century to win a national title in Baton Rouge.
Then there’s Miami, now on its seventh full-time coach since 2000 and chasing its past glory for nearly as long. Forget winning a national title for the first time since 2001. Cristobal’s first task is winning the program’s first ACC title; the Hurricanes are 0 for 18 on that front.
Other programs face equally pointed questions. Florida averaged eight victories over the past decade, which was enough to oust the past three coaches. Virginia Tech posted three losing records in the past four years. Washington seems far more than two seasons removed from the end of Chris Petersen’s 55-26 run that included a playoff berth in 2016.
And don’t look past the number of longtime assistant coaches who are getting their first shot at the big chair at a high-profile program. The 36-year-old Freeman gets all the scrutiny associated with Notre Dame, while Venables takes over at Oklahoma after having enjoyed considerable control of Clemson’s defense over the past decade. Lanning and Pry are also first-time head coaches.
How might it play out? The wide range of possibilities are illustrated by two examples in which five schools that made a BCS final or a playoff semifinal hired new coaches.
The class of 2001 included three eventual national champions in Miami’s Larry Coker, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel and Southern Cal’s Pete Carroll, and it also marked the start of Mark Richt’s 15-year run at Georgia. Even Dennis Franchione went 17-8 at Alabama before bolting for Texas A&M.
Things didn’t go quite so well with the big-brand hires of 2018. Florida State’s Willie Taggart and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt didn’t even make it to a fourth season. Mullen was nudged aside at Florida in November. Cristobal won a pair of Pac-12 titles at Oregon before departing. Only the embattled Scott Frost at Nebraska remains on the job.
Chances are, this year’s set of hires will have mixed results — leading some to memorable moments and others to another round of flux in a sport in which uncertainty is increasingly endemic.