Tuesdays with Gorney: Looking at the second-year coaches in the Power Five
There are many coaches heading into their second season – some with national championship potential, others still rebuilding moribund programs. Here’s a look at their statuses across Power Five especially in recruiting and Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney projects how their seasons could play out.
Mario Cristobal - Miami
When Cristobal was hired away from Oregon to come back and revitalize The U, there was this sense in South Florida that maybe it would happen immediately. But the roster really wasn’t that good and there were embarrassing losses to Middle Tennessee State, Duke, Clemson and Pitt.
Cristobal can recruit. He had Miami as the top-ranked ACC class in his first recruiting cycle. The 2024 cycle is strong as well with five-star Joshisa Trader recently committing. But this is a rebuild that will take time. In Year 2, Cristobal has two new coordinators as well.
There’s so much talent down there that competency alone should bring that program back to life and Cristobal certainly has that, but the Hurricanes have also only won double-digit games once in the last 19 seasons.
Kalen DeBoer - Washington
DeBoer did a really impressive thing last season: He let the players play, the coaches coach and managed the program incredibly well. That led to an 11-win season with only back-to-back, single-digit, away-game losses to UCLA and Arizona State, which were both very winnable.
Year 2 could be even brighter and while some say the schedule is much tougher, I don’t really buy that. Michigan State isn’t an easy place to play but I bet Washington smokes the Spartans. The Huskies have Oregon and Utah at home and go to USC (always tough) and Oregon State (always tricky). A run to the College Football Playoff is not out of the question here.
In his first full recruiting class in 2023, DeBoer brought in some elite four-star defensive backs including Caleb Presley (who was leaning at first toward leaving the state but decided to stay because of DeBoer’s recruiting ability) and some four-star receivers who fit the mold. This June was a huge month for the Huskies, who landed 11 of 12 commitments.
Jake Dickert - Washington State
This is technically Dickert’s third season in Pullman since he served as an interim coach following the Nick Rolovich dustup so he’s developing an even stronger grasp on the program. He’s led the Cougars to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and should have a similar year in 2023. Quarterback Cameron Ward is a strength but receiver could be a weakness. Washington State is great off the edge but weak on the interior and secondary. The schedule is tricky early going to Colorado State and playing Wisconsin and Oregon State by the end of September.
Recruiting is always going to be difficult in Pullman. In Dickert’s full recruiting class in 2023, the Cougars were second-to-last in the conference team rankings as they and Cal were the only teams without a four-star commitment. Eight of Washington State’s 12 commits are three-stars in the 2024 class but it’s still No. 10 in the Pac-12. Wazzu still always finds a way to win some games it shouldn’t.
Sonny Dykes - TCU
Dykes performed miracles last year to get TCU to the college football championship, beating Michigan in the semifinal, but there were also some harrowing wins like a double-overtime win against Oklahoma State and a last-second squeaker against Baylor where time management was a major issue and the TCU field goal team had to sprint on the field to kick the game winner. Still, Dykes deserves an A+ for what he did with the Horned Frogs last season.
A lot of top talent has departed including offensive coordinator Garrett Riley to Clemson so there will be some rebuilding. But a lot of talent is left in Fort Worth plus the schedule is favorable through mid-October and then gets markedly more difficult.
In his first full recruiting class, Dykes’ team finished third in the conference recruiting rankings led by four-star receiver Cordale Russell and a host of four-star defenders. The run to the College Football Playoff has not seen a boon in recruiting but TCU is slow and steady in 2024 with five of its 10 commits as four-stars including QB Hauss Hejny, who could be a Max Duggan clone.
Mike Elko - Duke
No one expected Duke to have the success it did last season – except maybe, maybe, the people in that locker room – as Elko led the Blue Devils to their first winning season since 2018 and their first nine-win season since 2014. All four of Duke’s losses were by single digits last season so things could have been monumentally better as well, if you can believe it. Recruiting to Duke will always be a challenge but Elko has it middle of the pack in the ACC led by four-star commit Chase Tyler and undoubtedly some high-level sleepers.
Can Elko continue the magic from Year 1 and keep top kids in North Carolina interested in the Blue Devils? Opening against Clemson is not ideal and the schedule is much tougher but Duke does return a ton of veteran leadership.
Tony Elliott - Virginia
Elliott is a very capable coach – look at what he did at Clemson – but now it’s his time to really get this program going and it’s just not there yet. The Cavaliers went 3-7 last year, won just one conference game, only kicked a field goal in a 21-point loss at Illinois and barely squeaked by Old Dominion. What might be worse is that there seems to be a complete revamp going on this season especially on offense, as the team isn’t exactly loaded with returning stars.
Elliott’s first full recruiting class in 2023 was toward the bottom of the ACC with no four-star commitments. The Cavaliers are currently last in the conference team rankings with just 11 commitments although high three-star defensive end Chase Morrison is a talented player.
The whole program needs a jumpstart, something to spark it after tragedy off the field struck the program and on-field performances weren’t great. Oh, and Virginia starts the season against Tennessee.
Marcus Freeman - Notre Dame
The Freeman Era started with a loss at Ohio State (OK, understandable) and then an embarrassing home loss to Marshall. The Irish then didn’t look great the following week against Cal and then beat North Carolina and BYU before losing to a bad Stanford team. It was a 9-4 season but a very choppy one at times for Notre Dame, which could see more success this season.
The offense should have more firepower and excitement but the defensive front is a question and that could pose some challenges unless players step up. Ohio State, USC, Clemson and some dangerous away games could be problematic but the Irish also have the talent to be a potential sleeper playoff pick.
Recruiting has gone well under the likable and young Freeman, who delivered the No. 11 recruiting class in 2023 led by Midwest four-star defenders Brenan Vernon and Drayk Bowen along with a host of other four-star prospects. In 2024, Notre Dame has a top-five class nationally with high four-star quarterback CJ Carr and a bunch of four-star receivers and playmakers already on board.
Brian Kelly - LSU
When Kelly took the job in Baton Rouge, there were some “culture fit” questions that seemed reasonable but from every recruit we’ve talked to the message has been clear: Kelly is going to be his genuine self and players respond to that. They also respond to winning, development and - let’s say - a more professional approach to what’s going on there.
What strikes me most about last season is not that Kelly won 10 games (the man has more wins that Knute Rockne at Notre Dame) it’s that his first campaign could’ve been so much better. A tight loss to Florida State, a bungled showing against Tennessee, a real dud at Texas A&M and then the 20-point loss to Georgia in the SEC title game is understandable because Georgia blew out almost everybody.
Along the way, Kelly beat Alabama in a thriller and finished by clubbing poor Purdue to build momentum. Recruiting has been phenomenal as Kelly had a top-five class in 2023 led by five-star offensive lineman Zalance Heard and 2024 is going well with in-state star Trey’Dez Green and many other four-stars committed. It’s not out of the question for LSU to make a run at the natty this season.
Dan Lanning - Oregon
Oregon opened Lanning’s head coaching career by getting walloped by Georgia 49-3 but after that the Ducks rebounded and finished 10-3. No one could argue there were some questionable situational calls in the losses to Washington and Oregon State - both single-digit losses - or Oregon could have had an even better season. In his first full recruiting class, the Ducks had the second-best Pac-12 class finishing really strong in December and February and now Oregon sits with the No. 6 overall class in 2024. Lanning is only 37 years old and is already a star in this business. It’s now Oregon’s job to keep him there and not have him bolt for greener SEC pastures if the right job opens.
Even with a new offensive coordinator (after Kenny Dillingham left for the head job at Arizona State), the offense should be loaded. The defense talks about culture in Year 2 but they should be talking about portal, too, because they went there for Jordan Burch from South Carolina, Khyree Jackson from Alabama and many others. The Ducks should be undefeated heading to Washington on Oct. 14. After that it could get a little more choppy.
Joey McGuire - Texas Tech
Year 1 was phenomenal for McGuire and the entire Texas Tech program. Eight wins were the most since Kliff Kingsbury’s first season in 2013. The Red Raiders beat Houston, beat Texas, beat Oklahoma and blew out Ole Miss in the bowl game. There is a good chance Texas Tech could be even more improved this season and finish well inside the top 25 with so many returning players and good additions.
McGuire - and his entire staff and operation - are phenomenal recruiters and make kids believe in the program. There will always be location challenges but Texas Tech finished fourth in the conference team rankings in 2023 with four four-stars led by defensive end Isaiah Crawford.
In-state recruiting is going to be huge for McGuire, since he has so many connections in the state from being a long-time high school coach. Twenty-one of the program's 25 signees in 2023 were from Texas and all of Texas Tech’s commits in 2024 are in-state prospects.
Billy Napier - Florida
Napier is a smart guy. He’s organized, tactical and cares about recruiting. He just might not have the horses to compete in an improving SEC East or in a conference that is complete murderer’s row every week. Top that off with a season-opening game at Utah, which sort of blew it in the final seconds in The Swamp last season and it’s shaping up to be a long season.
Napier needs time and the people of Gainesville don’t usually give their football coaches much of it. But the roster talent is just not there - yet. The Gators had a top-13 class in 2023 with 18 of 21 commits as four-stars. Florida has the third-best recruiting class in 2024 led by five-star linebacker legacy Myles Graham, high four-star quarterback DJ Lagway and many others.
Better days are ahead for this program if Napier is given time. After a 7-7 first season at Louisiana, Napier went 33-5 over the next three. But Florida is coming off back-to-back losing campaigns for the first time since 1978-79. The Gators haven't had three-straight losing seasons since the 1940s. If Florida can’t hang with the SEC elites this year, that could happen - and it would shorten Napier’s leash in some minds.
Lincoln Riley - USC
Riley has won double-digit games in every full season he’s ever coached and we won 11 at USC last season but lost twice to Utah and then had an inexcusable one-point loss to Tulane in the bowl game. But the future is bright at USC, the Trojans have the best QB in college football back, the offense should score at will and - maybe - the defense will be improved this season. It was pretty awful last season and garnered calls for Riley to replace defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, which he didn’t do.
A look at the schedule and one question arises: Who has the firepower to beat them? Probably nobody (plus Utah and Washington come to Los Angeles this season) but at Notre Dame and at Oregon could go sideways. Still, this looks like a well-oiled machine unlike what it was under the previous regime.
USC had the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 in Riley’s first full year led by quarterback Malachi Nelson, receivers Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon and tight end Duce Robinson, a late add. The 2024 group isn’t as prolific - yet - but four-star receiver Xavier Jordan catches everything and defensive back is a focus. If USC doesn’t get to the playoff this season, it could be considered a disappointment.
Brent Venables - Oklahoma
Oklahoma fans are used to 10-, 11- and 12-win seasons in Norman regularly - not what they got in the first season under Venables, who isn’t exactly on the hottest seat yet but another season like that and they’ll run him out of there on a rail. Losing a few games in a coaching transition is understandable but giving up 41 to Kansas State isn’t, losing by 31 to TCU isn’t, losing 49-0 to Texas certainly isn’t, losing at West Virginia and Texas Tech, come on.
Venables is likable and he’s very motivating - but Oklahoma fans want wins and championships. The schedule is much more favorable and the Sooners should be undefeated heading into the Texas showdown in early October.
Recruiting has also been phenomenal as Venables landing three five-stars in his first full recruiting class in Jackson Arnold, Adepoju Adebawore and Peyton Bowen and now in 2024 Oklahoma is off to a good start with more than half its class rated as four-stars. But Venables has to win now as Oklahoma goes to the SEC after this season.