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Tuesdays with Gorney: Ranking the first-year coaches so far

Billy Napier and Anthony Richardson
Billy Napier and Anthony Richardson (USA Today Sports Images)

First-year coaches are always in focus so in this week’s Tuesdays with Gorney, Rivals national recruiting director Adam Gorney offers his thoughts on them as the college football season begins.

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1. Billy Napier, Florida

It was almost a dream-come-true start for Napier and the Gators, who hung on to beat Utah in The Swamp on Saturday night and iced the win with an interception in the end zone as the Utes were driving. Florida looked capable again even if Napier said the film was “sloppy”, the environment was phenomenal and recruits - including five-star CB Cormani McClain - raved about the night.

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2. Mario Cristobal, Miami

Cristobal has brought energy and excitement back to Miami as the recruiting tent for the home opener was a big success and lots of local talent showed up. That’s a major first step as the Hurricanes were expected to throttle Bethune-Cookman and did, 70-13. Things are definitely headed in the right direction fast but talk to me again in a couple weeks after the Hurricanes visit Texas A&M. That will be a much better gauge of where things stand right now.

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3.  Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame

The Irish lost their season opener for the first time since 2016 but going to Ohio State to start off the year is a nearly impossible ask. Notre Dame played tough and physical, flew to the ball and really exemplified what Freeman is looking for out of his team on both sides of the ball. After looking a little lost in the bowl game loss to Oklahoma State, this group is focused and ready. The Irish have a chance to go undefeated from here heading into an Oct. 5 showdown with Clemson.

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4.  Sonny Dykes, TCU

An opening game at Colorado could be tricky with elevation and a traditionally tough place to play but TCU didn’t fall into that trap and really turned it up in the second half. That was a hugely positive first step for Dykes, who seemed to rely on the run game in this matchup but we all know he likes to throw the ball as well. The schedule gets much tougher in a few weeks with SMU and Oklahoma but this was a good opening victory.

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5.  Lincoln Riley, USC

There were some defensive scores sprinkled in as well but the scoring bursts USC had against Rice could be something that’s more expected under Lincoln Riley especially with a revamped offense filled with elite playmakers. Stanford is always a tricky game for the Trojans but a really big statement could be made this weekend. Dare I say USC looks like a real Pac-12 contender or is it too early still?

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6.  Brent Venables, Oklahoma

Venables’ energy and enthusiasm is authentic and infectious and that was obvious in the season opener as Oklahoma jumped out to an early lead and stunned UTEP into defeat. It was 21-0 basically midway through the first quarter and then cruise control from there to win. The Sooners will get tested later in September and then the Big 12 schedule will provide its challenges but it looks like Venables has these guys ready to go.

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7.  Kalen DeBoer, Washington

The jury is still out a little bit because Kent State is not exactly a major threat and neither will be Portland State this week so let’s revisit this after the Huskies face Michigan State the following game. Things looked up, though, for Washington as quarterback Michael Penix was sharp and the game was never really in doubt. Let’s see a real opponent, though, first.

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8.  Mike Elko, Duke

Duke gave up only 179 passing yards in a complete whipping of Temple in a game that was supposed to be interesting but the Blue Devils pulled away early and never looked back. Credit Elko for getting his team ready to play in all three phases but Temple also looked completely out of sorts for long stretches. It was an impressive start but let’s see how Duke does at Northwestern this weekend before we get too excited.


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9.  Tony Elliott, Virginia

An in-state game like this could always get tricky especially with Richmond scoring first but Virginia started to pull away after that and never looked back. Elliott having quarterback Brennan Armstrong back - with both his running and throwing ability - is going to keep the Cavaliers in games. A tough, willing-to-battle Illinois team awaits and then an Old Dominion squad that beat Virginia Tech is next but Virginia has some talent.


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10.  Texas Tech, Joey McGuire

McGuire could easily be higher on this list but come on, Murray State? They would have had a better shot if Ja Morant came back and switched sports against the Red Raiders. It will be interesting to see how the QB situation is handled with Tyler Shough sidelined especially because the schedule gets much tougher now. A win over Houston would be huge.

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11.  Jake Dickert, Washington State

Idaho led 10-0, it was tied at half and then Washington State didn’t exactly pull away in the fourth quarter. That’s not a phenomenal start for the Cougars although QB Cameron Ward is really good. Washington State has to travel to Wisconsin this week, then faces Colorado State and Oregon before the end of September. Is a 2-2 start inevitable?

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12.  Dan Lanning, Oregon

OK, Oregon losing to Georgia was not a surprise. But 49-3? Giving up 439 passing yards? Anyone who watched that game saw that the Ducks were wildly outmatched in speed all over the field, intensity, I don’t know, it just looked ugly all over the place.

And Oregon QB Bo Nix cannot throw bad interceptions or another solution must be found. The Ducks moved the ball early and have talent and should be fine but the chasm between an elite team like Georgia and a very good team like Oregon was on full display in this one.

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13.  Brent Pry, Virginia Tech

A season opener cannot be a trap game so that is no excuse for Virginia Tech, which was on everyone’s radar as a potential upset candidate at Old Dominion and lo and behold it happened. Quarterback Grant Wells threw four interceptions. The Hokies gave up 10 points in the fourth quarter to lose.

More than anything, this might be an indication of just how little high-level talent was left for Pry when he got to Blacksburg. It won’t get easier against a mad Boston College team that sort of blew it against Rutgers in the opener, too.

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14.  Brian Kelly, LSU

I don’t know what I watched from Kelly and LSU on Sunday night. The first-year coach seemed stoic on the sidelines, not really his usual self during his Notre Dame days, and the offensive play-calling left a lot to be desired. LSU has weapons but they’re no good if they’re not used and I get that Kayshon Boutte dropped a few passes but to not feed one of the best receivers in college football seems asinine.

Kelly has been a head coach for 362 games but at times his team looked completely lost and out of sorts against Florida State. Even still, the Tigers were a blocked extra point from forcing overtime so there is talent there, no doubt.

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