The Biggest Offseason Priority for Every New Power 5 CFB Coach
Even in the middle of a pandemic, several Power Five college football programs ponied up millions of dollars to start over with a new head coach in 2021.
What should those new coaches focus on to turn things around?
Before we dive in, let's note that fans should try to have realistic expectations.
Among the 65 Power Five programs, 103 full-time coaching changes occurred from the end of the 2010 season to the beginning of the 2019 campaign. And in the first season under those new head coaches, those teams averaged 6.1 wins. (We're not including new head coaches in 2020 in that data, since the number of games played by team was all over the map.)
Even that modest number is inflated, though, by situations like Ryan Day taking over for Urban Meyer and immediately going 13-1 with the silver platter he was handed; Lincoln Riley thriving after Bob Stoops retired; and David Shaw and Mark Helfrich inheriting great situations in the Pac-12 when Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly left for the NFL.
Take out those anomalies and focus on coaches replacing guys who were fired for underperforming—which is what happened with all seven Power Five coaching changes (thus far) this year—and just getting to a bowl game in year No. 1 is better than average.
The seven programs we'll look at (Arizona, Auburn, Illinois, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vanderbilt) were already responsible for 13 of those previous 103 coaching changes. Only three of those new coaches (23 percent of them) went .500 or better in their first season, and the only particularly successful one was Auburn's Gus Malzahn, who darn near won the national championship right away.
So, the overnight transformation can happen, but don't expect it.
Arizona Wildcats: Jedd Fisch
Top Priority: Become competent on defense
As far as Sports Reference's simple rating system is concerned, Arizona was the worst Power Five team in the country in 2020. Yes, worse than 1-10 Syracuse, 0-9 Vanderbilt and 0-9 Kansas. That'll happen when you get outscored by 22.4 points per game.
In fairness, that's primarily the result of getting waxed 70-7 by Arizona State to end the season. The Wildcats went 0-5, but they almost beat USC and put up a solid fight against Colorado.
Even in the close calls, though, their defense was terrible, especially in defending the run. Colorado rushed for 407 yards. USC—which had pathetic averages of 2.7 yards per carry, 82.2 yards and 1.0 touchdowns in its other five games—went for 5.4, 173.0 and 3.0, respectively, against Arizona.
This is nothing new. It was much more pronounced in the abridged 2020 season, but the Wildcats have had one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 for a while. The last time they held the opposition below 430 total yards per game was in 2013. And 430 isn't asking much; that mark would usually be good for 80th-95th "best" defense in the country.
Jedd Fisch has spent the majority of his career as an offensive coach, bouncing between college and the NFL as an offensive coordinator or assistant since 2004. But he hired former Wildcats Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley to coach the defensive backs and defensive line, respectively. Fisch also signed Don Brown (most recently with Michigan) as his defensive coordinator, and he will bring several decades' worth of DC experience to Tucson.
It's clear Fisch realizes they have a lot of work to do just to get this defense up to an "average for the Pac-12" level. But if they can pull that off while he works his magic with the offense, it shouldn't take more than a year or two for Arizona to at least get back to a bowl game after its three-year drought under Kevin Sumlin.
Auburn Tigers: Bryan Harsin
Top Priority: Figure out if Bo Nix is the answer at QB
Bryan Harsin knows a thing or two about quarterbacks.
He was one for Boise State from 1995 to 1999. Then he was the Broncos' offensive coordinator/QB coach from 2006 to 2010. And after replacing Chris Petersen as Boise's head coach in 2014, he consistently had the Broncos passing their way to a lot of points. Harsin was also Mack Brown's QB coach for two years at Texas (2011-12), during which time the Longhorns' passing game improved drastically.
So you would think Harsin is plenty qualified to swoop into Auburn and either put Bo Nix on the right track or quickly determine that the Tigers need to explore other options.
Through two seasons, Nix has a career completion percentage of 58.7 and a passer efficiency rating of 124.5. Five years ago in the SEC, when most teams had game managers to supplement their ground-and-pound offenses and hard-nosed defenses, numbers like those would have been fine. These days, though, numbers like those will hold a team back. (See: Stetson Bennett's 2020 season at Georgia.)
But was Nix the problem, or was it the offense Auburn ran under Malzahn?
Considering even former top-40 overall recruit and eventual fourth-round draft pick Jarrett Stidham never really thrived at Auburn, I'm inclined to believe the Tigers' run-first, not-that-innovative offensive approach is at least partially to blame for Nix's mediocre production.
Even if Nix improves under Harsin, the receiving corps is a big question mark. With Anthony Schwartz, Seth Williams and Eli Stove all headed to the NFL, the Tigers don't have a single returning player who had at least 100 receiving yards in 2020. They do have a bunch of 4-star wideouts from the 2020 recruiting class, but that's just unproven potential.
If Harsin gets that passing game into a respectable place, though, Auburn could bounce back in a big way from its disappointing 6-5 record in 2020. The Tigers still have Tank Bigsby to lead the way at running back, and the defense should be solid with Zakoby McClain, Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday all coming back for one more ride.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Bret Bielema
Top Priority: Continue to build through the transfer portal
Recruiting has seemingly always been an issue for the Illinois Fighting Illini. They haven't signed a 5-star recruit since getting both Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson in 2007. And the only top-100 recruit they've landed in the past decade was Marquez Beason—the No. 99 recruit in 2019 who missed his entire first season with a knee injury.
Recognizing that it's a major challenge to lure highly touted high school players, Lovie Smith shifted his focus to the transfer portal.
The biggest reason Illinois won six games in 2019 after four consecutive bowl-less seasons was the addition of quarterback Brandon Peters (Michigan), wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC) and edge-rusher Oluwole Betiku Jr. (USC) during the 2019 offseason.
It didn't work out so well in 2020, but the Illini added six Power Five transfers last offseason.
It's their best avenue to talent, and with so many players looking for a new home because of the combination of incoming freshmen and seniors opting to use their free year of eligibility, this might be the best year to try to build a roster through the transfer portal.
Thus far, Bret Bielema has added running back Chase Hayden and linebacker Calvin Hart Jr., but there is plenty more talent to chase and plenty of areas where Illinois needs to improve. In particular, I would assume that Hart won't be the only linebacker Bielema signs from the portal. Illinois needs a serious influx of talent at that position.
South Carolina Gamecocks: Shane Beamer
Top Priority: Establish the run on offense; stuff the run on defense
While college football has become a glorified passing contest in most corners of the country, South Carolina's best hope for turning things around in a hurry is to dominate the running game.
Gamecocks running back Kevin Harris was a breakout star in 2020, rushing for more yards (1,138) and more touchdowns (15) than all other SEC running backs not named Najee Harris. And up until late August, we weren't even expecting Harris to be the starter. That's when highly touted freshman MarShawn Lloyd suffered a torn ACL in practice.
Assuming Lloyd is healthy in 2021, he and Harris could form one heck of a backfield tandem. It might be a bit overzealous to suggest they'll be the second coming of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, but they could breathe life into what has been a rather moribund offense for the past two years.
The bigger focus for head coach Shane Beamer needs to be on improving the run defense.
South Carolina signed the No. 8 overall recruit in the 2019 class, defensive tackle Zacch Pickens. And then the Gamecocks doubled down by again signing the No. 8 overall recruit in the 2020 class, defensive tackle Jordan Burch. With those two stars in the middle of the defensive line, South Carolina should have one of the best front sevens in the country.
That most certainly was not the case in 2020, though, as the Gamecocks allowed at least 195 rushing yards in six of their final seven games, as well as at least 41 points in five of their last six contests.
New defensive coordinator Clayton White has a lot of work to do, particularly with top linebacker Ernest Jones and top defensive back Jaycee Horn headed to the NFL draft. But with those two defensive tackles and edge-rusher Kingsley Enagbare still on the roster, South Carolina should at least have a solid first line of defense in 2021.
In 2020, the Gamecocks allowed nearly 30 more rushing yards per game than they gained. Flipping that margin into a 50-plus-yard advantage on the ground is the first big step toward a return to relevance and perhaps challenging Clemson every now and again.
Tennessee Volunteers: To Be Determined
Top Priority: Actually make the defensive improvements that were supposed to happen under Jeremy Pruitt
Before arriving at Tennessee in 2018, Pruitt had spent five years as the defensive coordinator for Florida State (2013), Georgia (2014-15) and Alabama (2016-17). And those teams were awesome on defense. The Seminoles had the No. 1-ranked scoring defense en route to the national championship. Georgia immediately went from a subpar defense to a stingy one. And Alabama ranked No. 1 in scoring defense in both of its years under Pruitt.
The hope was that he could do the same in Knoxville.
In 2017, Tennessee allowed 412.9 total yards and 29.1 points per game.
In year No. 3 under Pruitt, those numbers were 407.4 and 30.1, respectively.
Granted, the 2017 figures include four games against nonconference opponents, which this year's Volunteers didn't get to face. If we focus solely on the SEC games in 2017, it was 440.6 yards and 34.8 points. So they did improve a little from "rather bad" to "not that terrible."
The Vols offered no resistance to the good teams, though. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M each scored more than 30 points and gained more than 430 yards against Tennessee, as Pruitt and Co. lost each of those games by double digits.
Given what Pruitt accomplished in his previous stops, that's a huge letdown.
The Vols have finished below .500 in eight of their last 13 seasons, and it feels like that mediocrity will continue until they right the ship on defense.
Texas Longhorns: Steve Sarkisian
Top Priority: Recruit, Recruit, Recruit
Perhaps the biggest reason Texas pilfered Steve Sarkisian from Alabama was to get the Longhorns to stop losing coveted local recruits to the Crimson Tide.
Fifteen Texas high schoolers rank among the top 100 of the 2021 class. Four of those guys (all offensive players) committed to Alabama, while Texas only got one. That one (Ja'Tavion Sanders) is an exciting, 5-star talent who could immediately become Texas' top pass-rushing threat in 2021, but the Longhorns should be able to do better than that.
As of Tuesday, Texas had the 17th-ranked 2021 class and the 16th-ranked 2022 class. That's unacceptable for a program that assembled five top-five classes from 2010 to 2019. With so much local talent, Texas ought to sleepwalk into a top-10 class every year.
Reestablishing that pipeline to top talent needs to be the primary goal of Sarkisian's first 100 days in office, if you will.
And it shouldn't be difficult given his track record.
Heading into what was previously his final season as a head coach, Sarkisian put together the second-best recruiting class in the nation for USC in 2015. Given the play-calling and the offense he helped assemble at Alabama over the past two seasons, he should be able to sell top recruits on his ability to turn them into stars.
Once that's taken care of, Sarkisian can focus on turning Casey Thompson, Bijan Robinson and Joshua Moore into his new Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith.
Vanderbilt Commodores: Clark Lea
Top Priority: Address the atrocious secondary
When James Franklin led Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2012 and 2013, passing defense was the biggest catalyst for that success.
In 26 games during those two seasons, the Commodores allowed just 25 passing touchdowns while picking off 29 passes.
In 21 games over the last two seasons, the Commodores allowed 47 passing touchdowns while picking off just eight passes.
That's, uh, quite the difference.
Look, Vanderbilt isn't going to recruit its way to SEC dominance. In 247Sports history, which dates back to 2000, the Commodores have never signed anything close to a 5-star recruit, and they have only inked 20 4-star recruits. Meanwhile, Alabama has 22 4-star or 5-star recruits just in its 2021 class.
But Vanderbilt could scheme its way to relevance by not getting steamrolled by every opponent capable of passing the ball.
Because recruiting isn't everything. It helps, of course. But just look at Indiana. The Hoosiers have never produced a top-35 recruiting class and have never signed a 5-star recruit, and yet they just went 6-1 during the regular season and darn near won at Ohio State by making turnover-forcing defense a repeatable skill.
There's no reason Vanderbilt couldn't do the same if Clark Lea—the defensive coordinator for a Notre Dame team that went 33-5 with great defense over the past three seasons—goes all-in on revamping this secondary.
Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.