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Forde-Yard Dash: Which First-Year Coaches Made the Most of 2020?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where teal is the fashionable color of 2020:

MORE DASH: ACC, B1G Play Favorites | Carousel Update | The Unbeatens


Taking over a program in 2020 was a thankless task (other than pay day, of course). Spring practice blown up, summer in limbo, fall season a patchwork condensation of normal with many unprecedented complications. If your first-year coach is still in possession of his wits, congratulate him. If he’s not, help him locate them.

Some have come through this minefield better than others, of course. The Dash checks in on the dozen first-year head coaches at Power 5 programs to see how their 2020 has gone:

Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz

Conference Coach of the Year Material

Eliah Drinkwitz (21), Missouri. In what might have been an SEC Coach of the Year elimination match, Drinkwitz’s Tigers staged two furious fourth-quarter rallies to beat Sam Pittman and Arkansas, 50–48, in the best game of the season in the league. Mizzou scored 24 points in 10 minutes to take a 47–40 lead, then lost it on an Arkansas touchdown and fluketastic deflected two-point conversion in the final minute, then won it on the final play with the fifth field goal of the game by freshman Harrison Mevis. That elevated the Tigers to 5–3, with games remaining against Georgia and Mississippi State. The SEC COY award may yet go to Jimbo Fisher or Dan Mullen, but Drinkwitz is in the discussion after an 0–2 start.

Karl Dorrell (22), Colorado. A tepidly received hire who didn’t get the job until late February, Dorrell has the Buffaloes 4–0 in a season when some picked them last in the Pac-12 South. That includes a 3–0 record in the Pac-12, at a school that has only won three or more in that conference twice in nine seasons. Dorrell has a rising star in sophomore running back Jarek Broussard, who is second nationally in rushing at 183.3 yards per game. It’s a shame Dorrell had to wait 13 years for a second chance after being fired at UCLA, but he’s making the most of it.

Immediate Upgrade

Sam Pittman (23), Arkansas. As noted in the Dash Second Quarter, Pittman has done great work putting out the smoldering ashes of the Chad Morris Era and establishing a much-improved attitude within the program. The Razorbacks are tough, competitive and bear little resemblance to the patsies who were plowed over the previous two seasons. For the first time since 2014, Arkansas is on pace to allow fewer than six yards per play (5.6 at the moment, but Alabama looms). Like Drinkwitz at Missouri, neither were the schools’ first choices, but they have worked out quite well thus far.

Greg Schiano (24), Rutgers. Rarely, if ever, has a two-win team one year looked so much better than a two-win team the previous year. Winning a pair of Big Ten games is big at a school that won a total of three within the league in the previous four seasons combined. The Knights’ margin of defeat is 6.5 points. The previous four seasons it was 23.4, 17.9, 10.3 and 19.8. Schiano has breathed life back into a football corpse.

Lane Kiffin (25), Mississippi. Kiffin has done exactly what he was hired to do—moderately improve the product while dramatically improving interest in the program. Ole Miss is 4–4 in the SEC, after going 8–24 in the league the previous four seasons. That includes a win in the Egg Bowl, which always matters in the Magnolia State. The Rebels are actually producing more yards per game than powerhouse Alabama, 563–548, with quarterback Matt Corral and receiver Elijah Moore both having standout seasons. The job for 2021 will be improving the defense.


Jeff Hafley (26), Boston College. The Eagles have landed at 6–5, 5–5 in the ACC, their fourth straight .500 season in league play. Still, this feels different than the last few years under Steve Addazio. Case in point: Boston College threatened to pull a shocking upset of Clemson, leading by 18 before falling 34–28; the Tigers had beaten the Eagles by an average of 33 points over the previous five years. Optimism is abundant in Chestnut Hill.

Jimmy Lake (27), Washington. The Huskies are an erratic 3–1—some games starting fast, some games starting slow, three of the four winding up decided by a single score. That pretty well flows off an 8–5 goodbye season under Chris Petersen. They have a chance to win the Pac-12 North Saturday against reigning champion Oregon, which would be big. Regardless, Lake has a promising redshirt freshman quarterback in Dylan Morris leading a young team into 2021.

Not Great, Bob

Mike Leach (28), Mississippi State. The false hope engendered by strafing LSU’s inept defense in the season opener has given way to the cold reality of a complete system overhaul with a coach who is willing to let something burn to the ground before rebuilding. The Bulldogs are 2–6, staggering toward their lowest winning percentage in at least 14 seasons. Most surprisingly, given Leach’s offensive acumen and the arrival of Stanford grad transfer quarterback K.J. Costello, State is averaging its fewest points per game (18.2) since 2008. And the rushing? At 23.8 yards per game, State is obviously last in the nation and appears headed for a new season low even for the run-phobic Leach.

Mel Tucker (29), Michigan State. The Spartans have at least given their fans two great reasons to cheer: they beat rival Michigan, and they knocked Northwestern out of College Football Playoff contention. Other than that: yuck. Michigan State’s four losses have come by an average of 29 points, and they’ve been a minus-12 turnover margin in those games. Mark Dantonio left Tucker a program in decline, and it’s going to take a while to reverse that.

Dave Aranda (30), Baylor. Thank goodness for the state of Kansas, or else Aranda would be winless. He’s 2–6 thanks to the Jayhawks and Wildcats, in what everyone knew would be a rebuilding year after the overachieving 2019 season. Baylor is not far off, with three losses by one score and all of them by 13 points or fewer, but a pedestrian offense under coordinator Larry Fedora will have to improve next season.

Nick Rolovich (31), Washington State. There isn’t much to go on since the Cougars have only played three games, but they’re 1–2 and coming off a serious beatdown at USC Sunday night. The Cougars’ pass defense has been lit up the last two games by Oregon and the Trojans and is the weakest in the Pac-12. The offense hasn’t yet been up to the standard set by Leach, either.

Tire Fire

Mike Norvell (32), Florida State. Norvell is his own category, wallowing in the despair of a broken program that he’s somehow made worse. The Seminoles are 2–6, with a mystifying upset of North Carolina as the sole bright spot. They have dumped multiple games due to COVID-19 issues, had significant player unrest and upheaval, and generally looked nothing like the place that won 29 straight games from 2012–14. If anyone needs a COVID mulligan, it’s Norvell. And the school cannot afford to rinse another coach in two seasons, so he should (and will) get the opportunity to fix this longer term. But wow, what a putrid beginning.

MORE DASH: ACC, B1G Play Favorites | Carousel Update | The Unbeatens