Gold: Grading the 1st-year Pac-12 coaches after 2022
One thing is clear: Forget the transfer portal and high school recruiting and the NIL and anything on the field.
The biggest influx of talent to the Pac-12 this season was on the sidelines.
Between massive turnarounds and 10-win seasons, remarkable team offensive performances and some terrific individual defensive performances, the (almost) newest crop of Pac-12 coaches has plenty to celebrate.
Now the league has another three 1st-year head coaches in Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham, Colorado’s Deion Sanders and Stanford’s Troy Taylor. If they even come close to pulling off what the league’s latest batch accomplished, those three downtrodden schools may just erect statues.
But before we look to ahead to how the new three head coaches will do, lets take a look back at how the crop of 2022 newcomers fared.
Kalen DeBoer, Washington – A+
The term “sleeping giant” is tossed around often, but we’ve seen what Washington can do when it’s got the right guy in charge.
When legendary Husky coach Don James got the job in 1975, Washington hadn’t won 9 or more games since 1960. In Year 3, James led UDub to 8 wins, in Years 5 and 6, he took the Huskies to 9 wins, and in Years 7 and 8, 10 wins each. To years after that, in 1984, Washington went 11-1, won the Orange Bowl and finished ranked No. 2 nationally. In 1991, James topped himself, leading the Huskies to an undefeated season and a No. 1 ranking in the coach’s poll.
He’d leave the Huskies after the next season and the team would go on to just one 10-win season in the next 24 years, the Rick Neuheisel-led 11-1 campaign in 2000.
Washington broke the bank to bring in Chris Petersen in 2014, after three uninspiring tenures between Keith Gilbertson, Tyrone Willingham and Steve Sarkisian, and Petersen proved the potential in the Pacific Northwest by going 12-2 and advancing to the College Football Playoff in 2016, followed by 10-win seasons in 2017-18.
All that is to say: We know what a good Washington looks like.
In 2022, we saw a great Washington, but one that only scratches the surface of what DeBoer can bring to Seattle.
Between inspired coaching hires — including and especially innovative young offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb — and a focus on boosting the Huskies’ moribund passing game, Washington was lights out in 2022.
The Huskies went 11-2 with one of the best passing attacks in the country, giving DeBoer the most 1st-year wins by a Washington head coach. His hand-picked quarterback, Michael Penix. Jr., who thrived under his scheme at Indiana in 2019 before DeBoer became head coach at Fresno State for two seasons, transferred from the Hoosiers and set Seattle on fire, passing for the most yards per game in the country while maintaining a 31/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Perhaps most importantly, the Huskies finished the season ranked 8th nationally, finishing the season as the highest-ranked Pac-12 team.
If there’s an A+++ rating, DeBoer deserves it.
Dan Lanning, Oregon – A
It’s not as if Mario Cristobal left anywhere near an empty cupboard up in Eugene, but Oregon still needed a bit of a reset in 2022, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
But who among us could have imagined what Bo Nix would do in 2022?
The former beleaguered Auburn quarterback resurrected his career in the most resounding of ways, passing for a career-high 3,593 yards while completing 72 percent of his passes with 29 passing touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. His quarterback rating soared from a career-best 130.0 in his last year with Auburn to 165.7 in his first year with Oregon.
And that’s not even mentioning with Nix did with his legs, where he was arguably even more dangerous. He finished with 510 rushing yards and an absurd 14 rushing touchdowns, the most by a quarterback in FBS.
But it’s what Nix did not do down during the stretch — namely, playing at full strength — that limited Oregon in its final three regular season games, which included losses to Washington and Oregon State and a close win over Utah.
The only thing keeping Lanning from landing an A+ on this report card was that so-so final stretch, and probably that Week 1 loss to Georgia, although TCU took some sting out of the Ducks’ disappointment. But it’s fun to imagine what Oregon might have looked like had Nix been nimble and elusive down the stretch. Might wins over Washington and Oregon State primed Oregon for a Pac-12 title? Might they have met Georgia in a rematch for the title?
We can’t rewrite the past, though, so Lanning will simply have to settle for an A.
Lincoln Riley, USC – A-
If this feels harsh, well, harsh is collapsing in the Pac-12 title game and then doing the same in the Cotton Bowl versus Tulane. Harsh is ranking in the bottom third in the conference in both passing defense and rushing defense, despite a roster that had plenty of talent. Harsh is allowing 40.5 points per game to ranked teams.
Obviously, Riley wasn’t in charge of the USC defense per se — that dubious distinction went to Alex Grinch — but he is really in charge of the entire program, and something didn’t work. Grinch is reportedly sticking with Grinch for the 2023 season, but insists changes have to be made.
The biggest change? Convincing impressive players that they shouldn’t try to make too many big plays, that interceptions are not worth the yardage if the yardage leads to points. In short: Don’t play hero ball.
Leave the superhero stuff to Caleb Williams.
There’s a big reason there’s an A in front of that minus up there, and that A stands for awfense. Riley, the offensive mastermind, took a risk last year while at Oklahoma, turning to Williams instead of the Sooners’ other highly touted quarterback Spencer Rattler, who later transferred to South Carolina. Williams immediately became a smash hit in Norman, and he was even better in 2022, his first year with the Trojans. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than winning the Heisman Trophy.
That is a huge, huge plus for Riley. If he turns that defense around, it becomes an A+.
Jake Dickert, Washington State – B+
I’m including Dickert on this list because it is no small thing to have the interim tag removed. Dickert had the Cougars playing inspired football down the stretch in 2021, including a massive Apple Cup win over Washington, which went a long way toward locking up the head coaching gig.
But I wouldn’t exactly say the Cougars played inspired football over the course of 2022.
Washington State scored a big early win in Week 2, 17-14, at then-No. 19 Wisconsin, which clearly wasn’t the Wisconsin of old this year. But against Pac-12 ranked teams, the Cougars collapsed, going 0-4 against teams ranked at the time, while also losing to Oregon State, 24-10, in Corvallis.
That loss, and the team’s 29-6 L.A. Bowl loss to Fresno State, feel like pivot points in the season.
Had Washington State won just one more game, it would have been the 15th time in program history that it finished with 8 or more wins. That would have been a big achievement in a place that finally is starting to get some momentum in the football program, which was lifted to great heights under the estimable Mike Leach. Seven wins is nice — 8 would’ve been much nicer.
The Cougars need to get the running game better involved after averaging just 3.78 yards per rush, ranking 11th in the conference.