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Grading college football’s 27 first-year head coaches after 2016

Now that we have some evidence in the books, let’s take another look at these new coaches.

Florida A&M v Miami Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Grading college football coaches right after they’re hired is a regular, annual thing. Here are ours for 2017’s new hires. But it’s much easier to see how things are stacking up after a coach’s first full season, which also includes a full signing class and part of another.

So after 2016, how do these 27 second-year FBS head coaches look going forward?

(I’m excluding 2016’s new-ish head coaches at Baylor and Minnesota, since Jim Grobe and Tracy Claeys are already gone.)


Mark Richt, Miami, 9-4: The season got off to a 4-0 start, but in October, the team lost four straight to Florida State, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame. Following this stretch, UM never lost again and finished with a 31-14 Russell Athletic Bowl win over WVU.

One of the biggest keys for Richt in the second year will be replacing quarterback Brad Kaaya, who led the Canes to a top-10 finish in Passing S&P+.

Richt put together the No. 13 recruiting class in the 247Sports Composite this year, an improvement from his No. 21 class in 2016, and is already off to a hot start in 2018.

Grade: Encouraging

Dino Babers, Syracuse, 4-8: There were some quality wins, including the upset over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech and Boston College.

Offensively, the Orange improved, but digressed drastically on defense, finishing 92nd, as opposed to 66th last season.

This is a culture change, both inside and out. The first step was more entertaining football, with an encouraging amount of players honored on the All-ACC team.

Grade: Wait and see

Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia, 2-10: That’s Virginia’s worst season since 2013. However, the expectations were low. Here’s Bill Connelly from before the season began:

At the very least, Mendenhall's record suggests he could get Virginia back to the point where fans are getting tired of seven-win seasons. Al Groh averaged seven wins per year from 2001-08, and that wasn't really getting the job done. Mike London only hit that mark once.

Mendenhall’s 2017 recruiting class finished 56th in the nation.

Grade: Wait and see

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech, 10-4: Fuente’s first season couldn’t have gone better. The Hokies were the ACC Coastal champs and capped it off with a Belk Bowl comeback over Arkansas.

Fuente lucked out keeping longtime Frank Beamer assistant Bud Foster. The defense finished 17th in the nation per S&P+.

Then, Fuente put together the nation’s 25th recruiting class, led by four-star safety Devon Hunter. Gobbler Country:

There have been some poachers in Virginia for some time now. Showing the rest of the ACC and the SEC that Virginia Tech still has big time pull is impressive. Keeping top tier talent in-state was a top priority for the Fuente regime, and boy did they deliver.

Filling the void of quarterback Jerod Evans will be key in 2017.

Grade: Super encouraging

Big 12

Matt Campbell, Iowa State, 3-9: The Cyclones held steady on paper, but improved a bit on offense and slumped a bit on defense, leading to an overall six-spot jump in S&P+, up to No. 64. Campbell replicated Paul Rhoades’ last season down to the near-wins against Oklahoma State and Kansas State.

One good sign: recruiting. ISU’s class ranked No. 53, the best in school history and up to No. 7 in the Big 12 despite being so far away from the conference’s talent hotbeds.

Grade: Encouraging

Big Ten

Lovie Smith, Illinois, 3-9: Smith, the former NFL head coach, did beat fellow 3-9 Big Ten team Michigan State. And Smith was able to bring in the nation’s 43rd recruiting class, which is the highest-ranked class for the Fighting Illini in five years.

But the defense, his specialty, fell from the top 20 to No. 59, per S&P+.

Grade: Wait and See

D.J. Durkin, Maryland, 6-7: Durkin’s first season was slightly encouraging in terms of on-field quality, but he had an impressive Signing Day. Durkin was able to bring in Maryland’s best-ever recruiting class, which finished 18th in the country and had eight four-stars.

His ability to successfully recruit the state of Maryland was another big positive.

Grade: Super encouraging

Chris Ash, Rutgers, 2-10: Rutgers lost to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State by a combined 220-0. When you include Rutgers’ losses to Indiana and Maryland, the Scarlet Knights lost to the Big Ten East by a combined 284-40.

On The Banks:

Ash needs time and one thing to be encouraged by is his evaluation and decision making. That’s what is important to focus on with a new head coach, who obviously doesn't have his players in place yet. Adding those skills along with an upswing in recruiting, equals a winning formula in place for Rutgers football in the long term.

Ash’s 2017 recruiting finished 42nd in the nation, Rutgers’ best class since 2012. Rutgers hired former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill as its new offensive coordinator in December.

Grade: Wait and see

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images


Clay Helton, USC, 10-3: After taking over for Steve Sarkisian in the middle of 2015, Helton finished 2016 with a thrilling win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans did all this after going 1-3 the first four weeks.

The Trojans finished with the 12th-ranked offense in the country, per S&P+, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who had 3,096 yards and 31 touchdowns on the season.

Helton was also able to haul in the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class, featuring 14 blue-chip signees.

Grade: Super encouraging


Kirby Smart, Georgia, 8-5: UGA’s record included losses to Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Georgia Tech, but the Dawgs beat TCU in the Liberty Bowl.

True freshman quarterback Jacob Eason finished with 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Georgia still finished 91st in Passing S&P+. The defense ranked 35th in the country, a slip from the year prior.

Smart proved his worth as a recruiter on Signing Day, putting together the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, meaning he out-recruited the SEC East by a mile.

Grade: Encouraging

Barry Odom, Missouri, 4-8: The Tigers had quality wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas. It’s impossible to know what to make of Mizzou, which had both the country’s biggest rise on offense and biggest fall on defense.

Grade: Wait and see

Will Muschamp, South Carolina, 6-7: The Gamecocks took USF to overtime in the Birmingham Bowl, and the quality wins came over Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Missouri. But there were also two-score losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, and Florida, and a blowout loss to Clemson.

South Carolina improved on defense, and another positive was quarterback Jake Bentley, who had three impressive wins over UMass, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Muschamp’s 2017 class finished a promising 21st in the country, and featured four defensive four-stars. He was successful recruiting in-state, too.

Of 247’s top eight players in South Carolina, the Gamecocks nabbed six of them including the top three. OrTre Smith, Shi Smith and Brad Johnson all became Gamecocks Wednesday, with Will Register, Summie Carlay and Davonne Bowen falling in behind.

Grade: Encouraging

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Memphis
Memphis’ Mike Norvell
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports


Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina, 3-9: Montgomery took over for Ruffin McNeil, who was surprisingly fired after a mostly successful six years. The Pirates finished 2016 with four straight losses.

ECU’s passing offense ranked 69th in the country, but the Pirates secondary ranked 111th defending the pass.

Montgomery’s 2017 recruiting class finished 78th.

Grade: Wait and see

Mike Norvell, Memphis, 8-5: As the youngest head coach in FBS, Norvell’s eight wins were the highest for a first-year coach in Memphis history, and featured a 48-44 victory over No. 20 Houston, Memphis’ first win over a ranked opponent by a first-year head coach since 1975.

Memphis’ offense was able to finish 15th per S&P+ Points Per Game, about where it ranked the year prior despite changing coaches and QBs.

Norvell was able to bring in the No. 59 class, second among all non-powers and the highest-ranked class in school history.

Grade: Super encouraging

WIllie Fritz, Tulane, 4-8: Tulane hired Fritz after he led Georgia Southern to back-to-back nine-win seasons. So Tulane’s record might sound discouraging, but consider the Green Wave’s past. Tulane went 3-9 in 2014 and 2015 and had only had one winning season since 2002.

Tulane’s 104th recruiting class marks its lowest finish in nine seasons.

Grade: Wait and see

Scott Frost, UCF, 6-7: UCF returned to bowl season after going 0-12 in 2015. That alone means a passing grade.

Offensively, the Knights didn’t make too many strides from George O’Leary’s final season. However, on the defensive side, the Knights had the country’s biggest positive turnaround.

Frost’s first true recruiting class finished 54th, both the highest among non-powers and the highest in school history.

Grade: Super encouraging

Conference USA

Seth Littrell, North Texas, 5-8: Despite only having five wins, the team earned a bowl bid due to its APR score. The Mean Green lost to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, a team they’d beaten earlier in the season.

The Mean Green’s 2017 class ranked 117th. In the past, that’s about where it’s finished.

Grade: Wait and see

Jay Hopson, Southern Miss, 7-6: The bowl win tied Hopson for the third-most wins for a first-year head coach at Southern Miss.

Grade: Encouraging

Frank Wilson, UTSA, 6-7: Wilson already had a reputation as a quality recruiter. In 2017, he brought in UTSA's first-ever top-100 class.

The Roadrunners earned their first-ever bowl bid to the New Mexico Bowl last season, but lost to New Mexico.

Grade: Super encouraging


Mike Neu, Ball State, 4-8: The Cardinals went 1-7 in MAC play, but the overall record was a one-game improvement from last year.

The Cardinals offense went from No. 103 to No. 65 in S&P+.

Neu was able to sign the 84th class in the country, Ball State’s best class this decade.

Grade: Encouraging

Mike Jinks, Bowling Green, 4-8: Jinks broke BGSU’s trend of four straight winning seasons. The Falcons also had the country’s biggest fall-off on offense amid major transitions.

An 86th recruiting class is the best for the Falcons since 2013.

Grade: Wait and see

Jason Candle, Toledo, 9-4: Toledo hired from within with Candle, who was on the Rockets’ offensive staff from 2009-2015. In his first year, he led Toledo to a second-place finish in the MAC West behind Western Michigan.

Toledo got much better on offense, finishing 16th per S&P+. The Rockets were No. 8 in finishing drives, too.

Candle led Toledo to its third-straight nine-win season, the best three-year stretch the program has seen since the program’s undefeated seasons in 1969-71.

Toledo’s No. 75 class was an improvement from the last three years.

Grade: Encouraging

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Hawaii at Middle Tennessee
Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich
Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Mountain West

Nick Rolovich, Hawaii, 7-7: The season was capped off with a Hawaii Bowl win over Middle Tennessee, the first bowl victory for the program in a decade. This marked the best season for the Rainbow Warriors since 2010.

Offensively, Hawaii saw a big improvement, going from the second-to-last, per S&P+, to 74th.

Rolovich’s first recruiting class finished ranked 98th, the highest finish for the Rainbow Warriors since 2013.

Grade: Super encouraging

Sun Belt

Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern, 5-7: After coming off of back-to-back nine-win seasons, the Eagles fell off. One of the biggest drop-offs was on offense. After a Top-40 finish per S&P+ in 2015, the unit finished 101st.

Summers’ first recruiting class came in ranked 97th, lower than Southern’s previous three classes.

Grade: Wait and see

Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe, 4-8:

The Warhawks finished 126th overall per S&P+, but Viator was able to put together the 96th-ranked recruiting class, the school’s highest-rated class since 2010.

Grade: Wait and see

Everett Withers, Texas State, 2-10: The Bobcats had their worst-ever season, with the lone two wins over Incarnate Word and Ohio.

Withers was hired from James Madison after a 19-7 record over two seasons, including an FCS Playoff berth. That team he helped put together just won the FCS title.

Wither’s first true class finished 85th, and it was the Sun Belt’s highest-ranked class.

Grade: Wait and see


Kalani Sitake, BYU, 9-4: BYU’s nine-win season marked the second straight for the program. And the four losses were razor-thin, by no more than three points each.

Defensively, the Cougars finished 29th per S&P+, but the other side of the ball regressed from 48th to 64th.

Sitake put together the nation’s No. 67 recruiting class, BYU’s lowest since 2012.

Grade: Encouraging