• A coach's third season is often his last shot to show he can produce the results expected of him when he got hired. That means the pressure's on for coaches like Nebraska's Mike Riley.
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
February 28, 2017

Year three is supposed to be the growth year for college coaches. While year four is often the final decision on whether that coach will be a long-term option (see Mike MacIntyre’s season at Colorado), year three can be the one that forces teams to cut bait to assure their program can win soon (see Charlie Strong at Texas).

Let’s take a look at year three coaches with either plenty on the line or a lot to prove.

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Nebraska remains one of the most confounding jobs in 21st century college football, and Riley may (again) not be the coach the fans want. After struggling to a historically unlucky 6–7 season in his opening year, Riley led the Cornhuskers to seven consecutive wins to start the 2016 season to, briefly, assuage a nervous and delusional fan base. Nebraska’s fans expect to contend for national titles because of their historical dominance in the Tom Osborne era, but recruits and all of the current players weren’t cognitively developed to remember when Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch led the last great Nebraska team—which was routed by Miami in the 2001 Rose Bowl. Add in the fact that the Big Ten has two perennial powerhouses (Ohio State and Michigan), one usually in the hunt for a conference title (Wisconsin) and a re-emerging threat (Penn State), and there’s no clear path for Nebraska to return to any kind of glory.

Riley may have an ace in the hole, however, and his name is Tanner Lee. The quarterback transfer from Tulane immediately received pro buzz when he arrived in New Orleans, and the opportunity to work under one of the most experienced pro-style minds should aid his development. Riley’s work with Tommy Armstrong—turning a turnover-prone dual-threat into one of the nation’s most efficient QBs in the first half of the season—proves he can still maximize players’ abilities about as well as any coach in the nation.

The problem is that Riley may, in some sense, love coaching a little too much. He’s accustomed to finding the under-recognized players and turning them into the best they can be. The question is whether he’ll recruit to a level that a forever demanding fan base wants. The truth is Riley is a great fit at Nebraska, given its modern constraints, but fans may think otherwise. If he logs another five-win season at any point, he’ll be run out of town even if he is the nicest guy in college football.

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He has 19 wins and two SEC East titles in his first two years as Florida’s head coach, but Jim McElwain’s future in Gainesville remains nebulous. How is it possible to be viewed skeptically with those credentials? McElwain is supposed to be an offensive guru and in his first two seasons, Florida has finished no higher than 112th in total offense.

McElwain cycled through mediocre transfers at starting quarterback—Luke Del Rio showed flashes of competence but was limited; Austin Appleby struggled after taking over for an injured Del Rio—and couldn’t get the ball to star receiver Antonio Callaway with any consistency. The rushing offense, which finished 113th for a second consecutive season, didn’t score a touchdown after the Gators’ Oct. 29 game against Georgia.

While Florida’s offense has been atrocious by every conceivable standard, its ability to recruit and develop top defensive talent (most of this should be attributed to former coach Will Muschamp, who recruited the majority of the veteran and outgoing players), has allowed it to remain atop a weak SEC East. But with execrable quarterback and running back play during McElwain’s two years, it’s hard to laud him too much for the Gators’ relative success.

Next year will bring a new starting quarterback—either highly regarded 2016 recruit Feleipe Franks or lesser regarded 2016 recruit Kyle Trask—which likely means growing pains, but also a better indicator of how McElwain can develop a quarterback. In the third-year coach’s defense, his options thus far have been two transfers (Del Rio, Appleby) and a quarterback who probably shouldn’t have been recruited to the SEC (Treon Harris). If Franks or Trask can kickstart the lifeless offense, then McElwain will coach in Gainesville for the foreseeable future. If not, then the Gators, especially with new athletic director Scott Stricklin arriving on campus, may have justification to pull the trigger.

College Football
2 seasons, 2 SEC East titles, 1 critical decision: Jim McElwain seeks QB to fix Florida offense
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Andersen willingly left one of the Big Ten’s most desirable jobs (Wisconsin) to go coach at Oregon State, a job that Mike Riley mastered in his decade-plus in Corvallis, but one that remains among the nation’s most difficult. Riley perfected the ability to mine local junior colleges for under-noticed talent and find the type of two-star talents who would develop into contributors and occasionally stars.

Andersen is now building the program his way, and he achieved the momentum win he needed for recruiting and to build excitement for next season when the Beavers stunned Oregon 34–24 in the Civil War for the first time since 2007. Now, Andersen needs to determine how he’s going to keep up in the Pac-12 North, a division with two of the nation’s best coaches (Washington’s Chris Petersen, Stanford’s David Shaw), two promising first-year guys (Oregon’s Willie Taggart and Cal’s Justin Wilcox) and s wily veteran (Mike Leach).

The good sign? The Beavers have likable options at starting quarterback and running back. The best player on the offense is running back Ryan Nall, who finished 2016 with 951 yards, 13 touchdowns and 6.5 yards per carry despite missing two games to injury and playing most of the season hobbled by a foot injury. His 221-yard, three-touchdown performance against Cal and 155-yard, four-touchdown performance against Oregon were probably the two best individual games of any Oregon State player last season, and he’ll enter 2017 as the focal point for the offense. At quarterback, Andersen has three desirable options in Marcus McMaryion, Darrell Garrettson—both of them saw game action in 2016—and Jake Luton.

The Beavers will need to improve a porous run defense, which finished 102nd in the nation in 2016, to make the jump from 4–8 to bowl eligibility. But the biggest inhibitor probably will be the schedule, which features non-conference tilts against Minnesota and Colorado State.

While a new athletic director is often bad news for a sitting head coach, Andersen’s stock probably improved with the hiring of Scott Barnes, who worked with Andersen at Utah State. Andersen’s crusty and intense demeanor is a notable change from the gentler and more positive attitude of Riley, but the Beavers look like a team headed in the right direction.  

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Narduzzi is probably in the best position of any coach on this list. Pitt has logged back-to-back eight-win seasons since he took over for Paul Chryst, and the Panthers have played an exciting football both years. Narduzzi is a defensive-oriented coach, but Pitt averaged over 40 points per game in 2016, good for 10th in the nation.

The problem is offensive coordinator Matt Canada left to be the offensive coordinator at LSU, just one year after Jim Chaney left to take the offensive coordinator job at Georgia. Pitt has long felt like nothing but a layover for collegiate coaches, but Narduzzi has established the trappings of a sturdy college program even if his coaching turnover is higher than he’d like it to be.

On top of Canada’s departure, the Panthers’ offensive production is going to decrease this fall with the departure of starting quarterback Nathan Peterman and all-time leading school rusher James Conner. But perhaps this will be the time for Narduzzi to build the Pitt defense in the mold of the ferocious units he coached as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator. Pitt finished with the 100th total defense last year (part of that was due to the speed and productivity of its offense) and will need to improve to avoid an overall regression in Narduzzi’s third year. There’s little indication what new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will bring, but it seems unlikely that the Panthers will go quite as fast as last season.

Narduzzi has delivered energy to a program that needed a jolt after seemingly endless coaching turnover (remember when Todd Graham left the program after one year?), so he’s as safe a candidate as there is on this list. What he needs to avoid is a major step back after a strong first two seasons.

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For Morris, the explanation is short. He signed a huge contract extension last year after flirting with taking the Baylor job, so he’ll almost certainly have the option to remain in Dallas for more seasons. The question is, if a significant Big 12 or ACC job opens after this season, will he jump to try his hand as a Power 5 head coach?

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