Ranking how the first-year college football coaches will fare in 2019

Larry Coker won the national championship in his first season at Miami (Fla.), nearly won another a year later and was fired four years after that. Nick Saban lost six games in his first season at Alabama. (You know what happened next.)

Successful coaching tenures aren’t made or lost in year one, even if how a debut unfolds can often foreshadow what’s to come. Some coaches don’t have the luxury, particularly those inheriting a sad-sack, bottom-rung program in a Power Five conference.

Others have the good fortune to step right into a good situation. While all success is relative — eight wins might be a disaster for one program and cause for celebration at another — here are the Bowl Subdivision first-year head coaches set to have the most successful debuts in 2019:

Ryan Day won three games as interim coach of Ohio State last season. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports)

1. Eli Drinkwitz, Appalachian State

On paper, the Mountaineers will begin the season favored in every game but one, a road trip to South Carolina in November. In his first year, Drinkwitz should maintain the Mountaineers’ stretch as an undisputed Sun Belt power. The potential sticking point comes on defense, where changes in personnel and coaching could lead to the sort of decline that means the difference between a conference title and a disappointing finish in the East Division.

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2. Rod Carey, Temple

Carey’s preferred style of play fits into the Temple brand: physical, a little boring, definitely not flashy but eventually successful. He takes over a strong roster largely developed by new Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, though key pieces remain from the Matt Rhule era. The Owls will again be UCF’s biggest foil in the American.

3. Les Miles, Kansas

The bar isn’t high. Miles has to not go winless. Not do anything embarrassing. Draw attention to a rebuilding program. Maybe win a game or two in Big 12 play. Make some waves in recruiting. Doing that will make Miles’ start a successful one.

4. Ryan Day, Ohio State

Day will win the most games of any first-year head coach while being held to the likely unreachable standard set by his predecessor, Urban Meyer, let alone the expectations that annually surround Ohio State. The good news: Day’s going to win. The bad: Day needs to win a Big Ten title and perhaps even reach the College Football Playoff for his first season to be viewed as an undeniable success.

5. Mack Brown, North Carolina

Mack takes over a program that looked worse in the standings in both 2017 and 2018 than was the reality — UNC dealt with injuries and poor leadership as the Larry Fedora era limped to a close. It’s not unrealistic to project the Tar Heels to get back to six wins if Brown’s team can weather a tough start and develop momentum heading into an easier second half of the regular season.

6. Manny Diaz, Miami (Fla.)

This era of Clemson dominance has Miami firmly in the mix for second place in the ACC. That would mean a finish atop the Coastal Division, which seems doable in the generic sense — the division is short on national contenders, to be polite — but far from a given. Diaz needs to settle the Hurricanes’ quarterback situation before September to get his first team in line for nine or more wins.

Miami (Fla.) coach Manny Diaz walks on the field during warmups before the team’s spring game. (Photo: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports)

7. Chip Lindsay, Troy

The Trojans’ strength lies on defense, with a unit deep enough to be the best in the Sun Belt and one of the most consistent on the Group of Five level. There are unknowns at the skill positions on offense, Lindsay’s presumed area of expertise. The former Auburn offensive coordinator takes on a program set to contend for eight wins during the regular season unless something goes awry — such as a poor coaching hire, for example.

8. Dana Holgorsen, Houston

Holgorsen’s tenure will be nothing if not interesting, which isn’t a bad thing for a university and athletics department constantly in search of attention. Now, his first team will score points in bunches but give up yardage in chunks — which sounds familiar from a Holgorsen-coached team, honestly. Look for the Cougars to get to six wins but not top out beyond eight; a season short of bowl play would be less surprising than a conference title.

9. Hugh Freeze, Liberty

Freeze’s redemption tour begins with a Liberty team that won six games and suffered two single-possession losses in 2018, the program’s first as a member of the FBS. The schedule as an independent program has some difficult parts, including a stretch of four road games in a row across October and November, but the returning core and Freeze’s touch on offense should yield another season with bowl eligibility. 

10. Gary Andersen, Utah State

Andersen’s return comes at a nice time: Utah State brings back a very promising quarterback in Jordan Love and the bones of an elite defense. On the other hand, there’s little experience to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Add in a fairly tough schedule — Wake Forest, San Diego State, LSU, Boise State and more — to get a team that will reach a bowl but not match last year’s success under new Texas Tech coach Matt Wells.


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