Gold: Ranking every Pac-12 head coach after the 2022 regular season
There has not been an influx of coaching talent like this into the Pac-12 in years, if ever.
Lincoln Riley, Kalen DeBoer, Dan Lanning and Jake Dickert combined to go 37-9 in their first seasons at the helm. Adding them to a list of coaches that includes Kyle Whittingham, Chip Kelly and Jonathan Smith means the league has some of the best leaders in the game.
But only one stands at the top of the list.
On to my rankings of the Pac-12 head coaches in 2022.
12. Karl Dorrell/Mike Sanford, Colorado
There’s not much to be said here. Just an all-around horrendous job in every facet of the game. Offense, defense, special teams, recruiting, game-management, preparation, everything. There’s a reason the Buffaloes needed a complete teardown, and I’m not all that offended by new head coach Deion Sanders basically telling the current Colorado players that they better be all-in or they should look to the transfer portal, because he’s not messing around.
I’m not unfeeling, it’s not that I lack empathy — I understand that Dorrell didn’t have the resources to compete with a USC or an Oregon. But the Buffaloes just ponied up nearly $6 million per year for Coach Prime. That’s real money. The excuses are over now.
11. Herm Edwards/Shaun Aguano, Arizona State
Like Dorrell, Edwards was a victim of circumstance, but unlike Dorrell, Edwards was also the cause of those circumstances.
Arizona State never had a shot this season after a mass exodus of players followed essentially half the staff being shown the door because of myriad recruiting violation allegations. The Sun Devils added some nice pieces in the transfer portal to make up for the defections, but depth took a major hit, and for every Xazavian Valladay there was an Emory Jones.
The Sun Devils scored a huge upset win over Washington in a game that meant a ton to Shaun Aguano, but they were never able to recapture that magic and won just 1 subsequent game — against lowly Colorado — the rest of the way, finishing with just 3 wins.
10. David Shaw, Stanford
It’s a real shame that the Cardinal could not find a way to keep up with the times, because the Pac-12 deserves coaches like David Shaw. He did things the right way, but the program has been on a steady decline for a half-decade that has rendered it incapable of competing with Pac-12 contenders.
Many thought Tanner McKee would take a big step forward this season, Shaw included, but he did not and Stanford finished 11th or worst in the Pac-12 in most offensive categories. It’s clear a complete offensive overhaul is needed, scheme included. The Cardinal just aren’t recruiting the kind of 4- and 5-star lineman like they used to.
9. Justin Wilcox, Cal
Cal’s department-wide struggles seem to have had a hamstringing effect on the football program, which fell to 4-8 this season after being on the ascent before COVID-19. The Bears went 1-3 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign then went 5-7 last year. It’s clear something is ailing Justin Wilcox, and the casualties came on the offensive side this year, when Wilcox let go of coordinator Bill Musgrave and offensive line coach Angus McClure late in the season. Cal’s offense was indeed the problem: The Bears scored just under 20 points per game in their losses.
The Bears had something going earlier in the year by feeding Jaydn Ott, but the freshman running back could not sustain his early momentum. Unfortunately, quarterback Jack Plummer and the passing game couldn’t pick up the slack. Cal showed some moxie in late season 1-score losses to UCLA and USC, but not enough during the rest of the season.
8. Jake Dickert, Washington State
In his first full-time season at the helm, Dickert led the Cougars to a respectable 7-5 record, albeit 4-5 in conference play. One thing stands out, though.
Wins: Cal, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State. Combined record: 11-37.
Losses: Oregon, USC, Oregon State, Utah, Washington. Combined record: 49-13.
I think it’s fair to say Dickert isn’t satisfied crushing the bad teams and getting mauled by the good ones. The Cougars did score an impressive nonconference win at Wisconsin, but they were unable to build upon a 3-0 start. A retooled passing game that traded Jayden de Laura for Cameron Ward never really took flight. Ward wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t able to capture the magic he had at Incarnate Word.
Defensively, Washington State showed improvement and better discipline. Overall, I like what Dickert is doing up in the Palouse. I can see him having Jonathan Smith-like impact on the Cougars.
7. Chip Kelly, UCLA
Given their returning offensive talent, their impressive defensive additions and a general sense of maturity in Kelly’s 5th year with the program, expectations were huge for the Bruins this year. And going 9-3 after finishing 8-4 last year isn’t exactly a let down. But UCLA fans aren’t exactly doing backflips, are they?
A 45-30 loss at Autzen Stadium in Week 8 snapped a 6-game winning streak for UCLA, just when the Bruins snuck into the top 10. That’s forgivable, though: Winning at Autzen is rare.
But a Week 10 home loss to Arizona is inexplicable, and a 3-point loss at the Rose Bowl a week later to USC was the low point of the season.
On the whole, an offense that boasted stars in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet mostly lived up to billing. That defense, though. Woof. It still hasn’t gotten better after years. Kelly has got to figure something out on that side of the ball.
6. Jedd Fisch, Arizona
Given the disparity in resources and the overwhelming talent gap between Arizona and any of the above schools, the fact that Arizona was able to win 3 games, much less 5 and the Territorial Cup, is a massive achievement for Fisch and the ‘Cats. Beating UCLA at the Rose Bowl was maybe the conference upset of the year.
There may not have been a more impactful intraconference transfer than quarterback Jayden de Laura, who left Washington State for Tucson and injected life into the Wildcats’ passing game. Adding top transfer Jacob Cowing and freshman stud Tetairoa McMillan to Dorian Singer led to one of the top receiving trios in the league, and the running game was vastly improved at the season’s end with Michael Wiley’s ascension.
Now about that defense …
Arizona has some solid individual talent but needs to take a new look at scheme and definitely needs to add to the two-deep in the transfer portal and in high school recruiting.
5. Dan Lanning, Oregon
Lanning lands at No. 5 on the list almost solely because of in-game decision making down the stretch.
Bo Nix, love him. Bucky Irving, love him. Offensive line, love each and every one of them. Christian Gonzalez, Noah Sewell, Brandon Dorlus — all good. But ultimately, some of those 4th-down calls against Washington and Oregon State were cringeworthy, almost feeling like Lanning was trying to prove something to the world.
Depending on the Ducks’ quarterback situation in 2023, their fortunes will be determined in the coming weeks and months.
4. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
I kind of want to put Smith higher on the list, because I absolutely love the trajectory he’s got his alma mater on. There’s just a toughness in the Beavers that we haven’t seen in a while. Losing to USC and Utah in back-to-back weeks is acceptable, as is a loss to Washington. Those are 3 good teams, and the Trojans and Huskies each won by just a field goal.
If the Beavers can add some dynamic pieces to the passing game they’re going to win 8 or 9 games against next year.
And with resources and interest growing, the Beavers can get some momentum going again.
3. Lincoln Riley, USC
The Trojans had one of the best turnarounds in all of college football, and if not for those pesky Utes, they’d be in the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history. It’s almost hard to imagine this team went 4-8 last year, given the terrific 2022 play from some of USC’s returning players — Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon, Calen Bullock and Tahj Washington.
But it’s clear that the transfer portal turned things around for USC, and it’s exciting to imagine what Year 2 will bring for Riley and the Trojans.
One other thing is clear: USC needs to add some major defensive depth and the Trojans need to practice tackling in a new and innovative way.
2. Kalen DeBoer, Washington
DeBoer was maybe the best hire in all of college football, and the Huskies’ improvement from 4-8 to 10-2 was a massive undertaking. Washington started 4-0 and finished 6-0, sandwiching back-to-back losses to UCLA and Arizona State. Michael Penix Jr. was an absolute force and he has already announced his intentions to return in 2023.
The Huskies should be a preseason Top-25 team and a top-3 pick in the Pac-12, but some offensive line help and secondary improvements are in order. I’m not counting DeBoer out, though. Not after this season.
1. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
The clock that keeps on ticking, Utah has made a statement with its second straight Pac-12 title. As Whittingham said: It’s one thing to win one championship, it’s another to back it up.
The Utes survived big season-ending losses, in-season bumps and bruises and spontaneous regressions that threatened to derail the train. They lost a season-opener at Florida and bounced back in a big way. They could’ve folded after losing to UCLA in the middle of the year. A late-season 3-point loss at Oregon could’ve knock them off track.
In the end, the Utes shocked many by laying it on USC in the Pac-12 title game, but no one should’ve been that surprised.
Whittingham has been at the top of the game for years.