What can Auburn learn from TCU, LSU, USC and others ahead of its own Year 1?
The 2022 college football season saw plenty of first-year head coaches win big. How can the Tigers follow in their footsteps in 2023?
HC Hugh Freeze (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Last year’s coaching carousel was one of the biggest ones in college football history.
Two of the top six winningest FBS programs — Notre Dame and Oklahoma — had their coaches poached by other schools. One of the poachers was a top-10 winner (USC) and the other (LSU) was not far behind at No. 12. Seven of the top 20 FBS teams in all-time wins entered 2022 with new head coaches.
The change in the sport was seismic. A lot of the moves were instantly successful, and they weren’t all the ones done by the big-name programs.
Heading into bowl season, seven of the teams in the College Football Playoff committee Top 25 were led by first-year head coaches: TCU, USC, Washington, Oregon, LSU, Notre Dame and Troy.
That’s far from normal, as Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde explains: “At season’s end in 2021 there was one first-year head coach in the Top 25: Blake Anderson and Utah State. There were none in 2020. Go back over the previous decade and the most you’ll find in any season was four in 2015. The average during that span is 2.2 per season.”
During the 2022 season, five first-year head coaches won at least 10 games. Three more won nine, and LSU’s Brian Kelly can make it four with a Citrus Bowl win Monday. Four made it to their conference championship games, with Troy’s Jon Sumrall capturing the gold.
And, after a wild New Year’s Eve of action, Sonny Dykes and TCU are heading to the national championship game in a storybook season no one saw coming.
But not all of the 2022 hires were immediate successes. Three of the biggest programs who had new head coaches — Oklahoma, Florida and Miami — finished with losing records. Two other Power 5 programs also finished well below .500.
The most recent coaching carousel in college football doesn’t look like it will be nearly as seismic. Nebraska and Colorado will both be looking to recapture past glories with two totally different styles of head coach. Wisconsin, Louisville and Cincinnati have all tasted success in recent years and are looking to bounce back quickly.
Then there’s Auburn, which is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1998 and 1999. Like TCU, Auburn played for a national title under a first-year head coach less than a decade ago and nearly crashed the playoff five years ago. It’s the best job that has come available in this cycle, and Hugh Freeze is now tasked with moving the Tigers back into championship contention.
A 2022 season filled with so many first-year success stories — and a few cautionary tales — showed that a big bounce-back is just as attainable in this day and age of college football as the more methodical rebuild.
As Gus Malzahn would often say, every team is different. Different conferences and different schedules make the definitions of success different across the landscape of college football. There isn’t a magic bullet or a one-size-fits-all approach to a Year 1. For example, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart went a combined 15-11 in their first seasons at Auburn’s two biggest rivals, which have become the envy of the sport.
But with TCU heading to the title game and a couple of top first-year head coaches in high-profile bowl games Monday, it’s a good time to look at what made the 2022 newcomers so successful and what that might teach Auburn ahead of its 2023 with Freeze. And we’ll also take a look at a few of the rougher debuts, too, for an equally valuable lesson.
TCU: The right offensive coaches can change everything
TCU parted ways with program icon Gary Patterson during his 21st season as head coach in 2021 and finished with a losing record. The program had grown stagnant under Patterson, winning just 23 games in the last four seasons.
While other programs made big-name moves at head coach, TCU went with a less-heralded option in Sonny Dykes — a Texas native who didn’t click as a head coach at struggling Cal but made the most of his second chance with a ton of success across the Metroplex at SMU. As friend of the newsletter Alex Kirshner wrote in Slate on Sunday, the expectations for Dykes weren’t exactly through the roof this season:
“Dykes is a respected Texan coach and one of many successful branches of the Mike Leach air raid coaching tree, but nothing suggested he would do more than get TCU into a mid-tier bowl this year. His signing class of high school players ranked 45th in the country. His collection of transfers was significant, ranking 13th and including several players who would become big contributors. But TCU’s nucleus looked a lot like it did the year before. The concept of TCU competing in the Big 12 was far-fetched; that the Frogs would do so nationally was preposterous.”
TCU’s work in the transfer portal was mostly on the defensive side, picking up several key figures on that side of the ball. TCU was abysmal on defense in 2021 — No. 126 nationally in yards allowed per play and No. 118 in points per game — and the improvement just to get to middle of the pack in the FBS in 2022 is quite impressive.
But the collection of skill position talent on offense is mostly the same. Max Duggan was TCU’s primary quarterback in 2021 and 2022. Former 5-star running back Zach Evans left for Ole Miss, but No. 2 and No. 3 backs Kendre Miller and Emari Demarcado stepped up in his place. TCU’s top three receivers from 2021, including star Quentin Johnston, are its top three receivers in 2022, too.
With Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley — the younger brother of another head coach we’ll talk about shortly — TCU has gone from the nation’s No. 65 scoring offense in 2021 to No. 3 in 2022. TCU was strong in yards per play last season but couldn’t turn that offense into the points that matter, and it’s gone from No. 86 in red-zone touchdown percentage in 2021 to No. 30 in 2022.
The Horned Frogs’ magical season has been paved with a lot of big numbers on offense, with a 51-45 victory over previously undefeated Michigan in the CFP semifinal on Saturday serving as the ultimate example.
TCU is living proof that the path to contention in this current age of college football can be found on the offensive side of the ball. The other three playoff teams had top-15 scoring defenses. TCU did not, and yet it’s going to the title game to face Georgia, which needed to lean on its offense instead of its elite defense to beat Ohio State in its own thrilling semifinal.
The Horned Frogs didn’t completely overhaul their offensive roster from a season ago, but Dykes and Riley figured out the formula to get Duggan and Co. to become a fireworks factory of big plays. While it’s been with a different style, this season bears something of a resemblance to Auburn’s 2013 run to the national title game under Malzahn.