The college football Most Intriguing lists are back once again, either by popular demand or sheer force of habit. First off, the 25 Most Intriguing Coaches for the 2022 season (with the usual caveat that “most intriguing” and “best” are not the same thing).
1. Lincoln Riley, USC. Riley’s sudden and surprising move to Los Angeles set off an eruption of excitement among Trojans fans and a corresponding aftershock of anger in Norman, Okla., where they are not accustomed to being jilted. When he brought star quarterback Caleb Williams and others with him, the vitriol spiked. Now all the offensive savant has to do is return USC to prominence, shore up West Coast recruiting and navigate a two-year path into the Big Ten. Big bucks. Big brain. Big challenge.
2. Brent Venables, Oklahoma. Riley’s departure cleared the way for Venables’s arrival, setting the stage for what should be a stylistic reset of the Sooners. The 51-year-old former Bob Stoops assistant and longtime defensive coordinator at Clemson finally landed his first head-coaching gig and will be tasked with bringing a new/old mindset to a program that had tilted heavily toward offense under Riley. For years, Venables has been considered the best assistant coach in the sport; can he now make the transition to the big chair and lead an entire program?
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. For the first time in eight years, there are more questions than answers surrounding Swinney. Can his promote-from-within philosophy adequately fill major departures at both coordinator spots? Can he coax greatness out of inconsistent quarterback DJ Uiagalelei? Can Clemson still compete for national titles, or was last season a sign of slippage away from the elite level? And in the modern world of player compensation and rampant transfers, has the game passed Dabo by? This season could provide a telling look at whether Swinney has the staying power of, say, Nick Saban at the forefront of the sport.
4. Brian Kelly, LSU. The other blockbuster relocation of the offseason is Kelly to Baton Rouge. The longest-tenured and winningest coach in Notre Dame history shocked a lot of people by departing for LSU before the Fighting Irish were even out of playoff contention last year, signaling his belief that the path to a national title runs smoother through talent-rich Louisiana than the Golden Dome. Given the disarray that characterized the end of the Ed Orgeron era, Kelly has some runway to work on both his southern accent and his roster. But at LSU, the runway is never long before fans demand excellence.
5. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame. Much as Venables will be measured in comparison to Riley at Oklahoma, Freeman will be appraised on a Kelly yardstick in South Bend. As much as the offended fan base will want the successor to be better than the departed, there is a lot of proving to do here for a 36-year-old who has coached a single game (the come-from-ahead Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State). Freeman is slaying on the recruiting trail, but here and now he’s working under the expectation that he will extend Notre Dame’s five-year streak of double-digit victories. That quest begins with a daunting trip to Freeman’s alma mater, Ohio State.
6. Nick Saban, Alabama. The metronomic consistency of the greatest college football coach ever has been rocked in 2022. First, one of his understudies finally beat him—Kirby Smart and Georgia wrested the national championship away from the Crimson Tide. Then, another understudy went scorched earth on Saban amid a collective/NIL kerfuffle in May—Jimbo Fisher all but declared Saban a cheater and a bad human in a shocking rant. How does “God”—Fisher’s word—respond to these assaults on his primacy? He’s certainly starting from a position of strength, with the returning Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Bryce Young) and the best defensive player in the country (linebacker Will Anderson Jr.).
7. Ryan Day, Ohio State. He threw down the gauntlet to his own program at Big Ten media days, declaring, “Maybe at some places 11–2 with a Rose Bowl victory is a good year. It isn’t at Ohio State.” With a loaded offense, an older defense and a new defensive coordinator, this year the expectation is nothing less than a national championship. Day has been incredibly successful since being “born on third base” as the 39-year-old successor to Urban Meyer, but now he has to prove he can do what Meyer and Jim Tressel did—win it all.
8. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M. It’s been a four-year tease from Jimbo so far in College Station, cashing big checks but not quite delivering the goods. Yet. This year and next could provide the referendum on his tenure. The Aggies barely missed the College Football Playoff in 2020, then upset Alabama in ’21 while otherwise underperforming. This year the Aggies have assembled an impressive stockpile of talent, but most of it’s very young. In the process of landing a massive freshman class, Fisher has gone to war with Saban and others and turned SlicedBread into an Internet cult figure. Circle Oct. 8, A&M’s trip to Alabama.
9. Deion Sanders, Jackson State. Since his arrival in 2020, no coaching newcomer has jarred the status quo quite like Sanders. Coach Prime went 11–2 last season on the FCS level, then really got the sport buzzing by landing the nation’s No. 1 recruit, defensive back and potential two-way threat Travis Hunter. He might not be the last thing Sanders takes away from Florida State coach Mike Norvell; if the Seminoles don’t show marked improvement this season, there will be a groundswell of support for the all-time FSU great to come home to save the program.
10. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. It took seven years, but Captain Comeback validated his tenure last season by checking two long-vacant boxes: beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten. Throw in a verbal dart aimed at Day after thumping the Buckeyes, and the Michigan ecstasy was nearly complete. Then the Wolverines were destroyed in the Playoff, and Harbaugh nearly left for the NFL (and probably would have if an offer had been forthcoming). What now? The Wolverines should be nationally competitive again, and Harbaugh should be unpredictably interesting again.
11. Mario Cristobal, Miami. No program is trying harder to dial back to a specific point in time than The U, which hired the former Hurricanes offensive lineman to rekindle the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s. Armed with a startlingly aggressive collective to help recruiting efforts, Cristobal is applying his fiery intensity to the job of toughening a program gone soft. Cristobal went 35–13 at Oregon, including a Rose Bowl victory and an upset at Ohio State, but left just enough on the table to wonder whether he can coach as well as he recruits. There is ample room for a resurgent power in the Atlantic Coast Conference; can Cristobal get Miami to finally deliver?
12. Scott Frost, Nebraska. This is the last stand for the favored son, who still has his job despite going 15–29 in four seasons at his alma mater. (It’s come to this for the once-powerful Cornhuskers: close losses count. That’s how a 3–9 record in 2021 was survivable.) Frost overhauled his staff and hit the transfer portal hard in hopes of salvaging his job. The referendum could be in on Frost as early as Sept. 17. Nebraska will be four games into the season by then—Northwestern in Ireland, and home games against North Dakota, Georgia Southern and Oklahoma—and if the Huskers are worse than 3–1, it will be uncomfortable.
13. Kyle Whittingham, Utah. After 17 seasons of consistent and under-appreciated winning, can a coach rip the ceiling off his career at age 62? We might be about to find out. The Utes may be the last great Playoff hope of the Pac-12, at least as both currently are configured—the CFP with four teams, and the conference with 12. After going to its first Rose Bowl in school history, Utah returns most of its key offensive pieces and Whittingham can always be counted on to build a defense. The schedule offers a Playoff-enhancing opportunity in Week 1 at Florida. Stay tuned.
14. Billy Napier, Florida. He’s the next man up as the Gators continue their efforts to rekindle the Spurrier-Meyer glory days. There is a lot to like: Napier won at a phenomenal clip at Louisiana (34–5 the last three seasons) and comes with a Saban coaching pedigree. But some patience will be required, with Napier inheriting a less-than-flush roster and a few early recruiting setbacks eliciting some panic from the fans. That Utah-Florida opener isn’t just big for Whittingham; it’s a fascinating first-impression game for Napier, too. Last Florida coach to lose his debut game at the school: Charley Pell, in 1979. No pressure, Billy.
15. Kirby Smart, Georgia. The man who ended a four-decade title drought is now the richest coach in the game after agreeing to a 10-year, $112.5 million contract through 2031. Given his recruiting and Georgia’s inherent advantages, it’s Smart, not Swinney, who now appears best positioned to be Saban's heir apparent as the king of college football. But to truly rival Saban, the Bulldogs will have to back up their title season with another serious run. This encore year will hinge on sustained offensive productivity while reloading a historically great defense.
16. Mel Tucker, Michigan State. Who primed the pump for the explosion in coaching salaries last winter? Tucker, who parlayed an 11–2 breakout season into a 10-year, $95 million contract. But he’s not here to count his paper and revel in past glory. “We did some good things, but nobody cares what you did last year,” he said at Big Ten media days. “We certainly don’t. We are extremely hungry, and we do have a chip on our shoulder.” The king of the portal made some more key additions via that route for ’22—at running back in particular, again—and is counting on an improved pass defense to remain in contention in the Big Ten East.
17. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest. One of the great offensive minds in the game, Clawson capitalized on Clemson’s stumble to win the ACC Atlantic last year. The Demon Deacons tied the school record with 11 victories and returned star power at quarterback and receiver, giving them a shot at their first-ever consecutive seasons of double-digits wins. Now in his ninth season in Winston-Salem, the cerebral Clawson is a good fit on a small campus with a low-key football following. He is, in many ways, the anti-Dabo at the anti-Clemson, but the two could be competing with each other (and North Carolina State) to win the league title this season.
18. Steve Sarkisian, Texas. Sark’s 5–7 first season was worse than anything Tom Herman did in four years, which raises the stakes for Year 2. Optimism is stubbornly high—nobody wins the offseason like Texas—thanks to the arrival of Ohio State transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers and the retention of most major contributors from last year. Regardless of what happens this season, Sark’s recruiting (hello, Arch Manning) should guarantee him a third season in 2023. But he needs to start building some momentum toward Texas’s future in the SEC, or someone else will be in charge by then.
19. Bryan Harsin, Auburn. Frost might be sitting on the hottest seat in college football, but Harsin probably isn’t far behind. Auburn being Auburn, he had to survive a February booster coup sparked by a 6–7 debut season, some staff turnover and recruiting losses. “There was an inquiry,” Harsin said at SEC media days. “It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded. It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family and also our program. And it didn’t work.” It might work this season if there is not marked improvement. Opening with five straight home games provides an opportunity.
20. Dana Holgorsen, Houston. Holgo’s second-act downshift from West Virginia and the Big 12 to Houston and the American Athletic Conference is becoming a spectacular success. In his third season on the job, the Cougars broke through with a 12–2 record that included a berth in the AAC title game and a bowl victory over Auburn. Now Houston is favored (narrowly) over kingpin Cincinnati to win the league—and the winner of the AAC often earns a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Then comes next year, when Houston takes Holgorsen back into the Big 12. His blonde mullet may be thinning dramatically on top, but the offensive mind inside is as fertile as ever.
21. Dan Lanning, Oregon. He’s the latest fast riser from the coordinator ranks, getting this job at age 35 after orchestrating Georgia’s historically great defense. Lanning comes with billing as a complete package: a recruiting force who also can scheme and motivate. The Ducks have played in three straight Pac-12 title games, and Cristobal left a good amount of talent in the program for Lanning to work with. Much of his first-season success will hinge on another newcomer from the SEC, Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix.
22. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati. Bearcats fans should wake up every day tickled that Fickell is still their coach, now heading into his sixth season after going 48–15 the previous five. Last year seemed like a prime time to jump after losing a massive senior class and nine NFL draft picks, but Fickell is back with a team that has several strengths but needs some answers at quarterback, running back and defensive back. Moving to the Big 12 might be one more reason Fickell is the Cincy coach in 2023—but rest assured, he will be in demand on the carousel again this season.
23. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh. Going 11–3 and winning the ACC in 2021 did a couple of things for Narduzzi: It validated him as a high-level winner; and it gave him even more latitude to run his mouth. He ripped former offensive coordinator Mark Whipple (“Our old offensive coordinator had no desire to run the ball. Everybody knew it. He was stubborn.”). And he took a shot at the Big Ten and the school where he used to work as defensive coordinator, Michigan State, after losing to the Spartans without star quarterback Kenny Pickett in the Peach Bowl. (“If that’s one of the best teams in the Big Ten, let’s go to the Big Ten and win it every year.”) Here’s hoping Pitt keeps winning and Narduzzi keeps yapping.
24. Dave Aranda, Baylor. Not your stereotypical college coach. Aranda is thoughtful, intellectual, understated and at times seemingly devoid of emotion. But he can connect with players and he can scheme, as shown by the Bears’ improbable rise from 2–7 in his 2020 debut season to 12–2 and Big 12 champions in ’21. Now Baylor is favored to win the Big 12 for the first time ever, despite some significant personnel losses. If Aranda can repeat with this group, he might be a coaching superstar blossoming in front of us.
25. Herm Edwards, Arizona State. The out-of-the-box hire in 2018 might be running out of real estate now. The former NFL coach and ESPN analyst hasn’t had a losing season (he’s 25–18) but the weight of a major NCAA investigation has the program close to buckling. Staff turnover, voluminous transfers and a paltry incoming recruiting class (just 13 signees and a No. 95 national ranking, per Rivals) point toward a grim autumn for Herm. In an era of in-season firings, keep an eye on Tempe.
Just missed the list: Brady Hoke, San Diego State; Mike Norvell, Florida State; Josh Heupel, Tennessee; Mark Stoops, Kentucky; Dave Doeren, North Carolina State; Tony Elliott, Virginia; Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina; Shane Beamer, South Carolina; Kalani Sitake, BYU; Scott Satterfield, Louisville; Jeff Brohm, Purdue; Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State; Chip Kelly, UCLA; Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois; Timmy Chang, Hawaii.
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