During the lead up to the season, you’ve probably read two dozen stories ranking the Pac-12 coaches in terms of talent. But is it really fair to say Lincoln Riley is a better coach than David Shaw yet? How do we know if things will click with the Trojans? How do we know Stanford won’t return to the dominant days of old?

No, a more important ranking is this: Which coaches will make the biggest impact on their respective squads this year? Here are the top 6, and, no, we aren’t going to limit this to head coaches.

Lincoln Riley, USC head coach

OK, so you really thought we’d start with anyone else?

How can Riley not be the loftiest leader on this list? Just judging by the hype around his hire among the college football community, players included, it’s clear that USC has hired its highest-regarded head man in more than three decades. Lest we forget: Pete Carroll was the Trojans’ last option when he was hired, and his successors – Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton – weren’t exactly swatting away suitors when USC came calling.

Just given his ability to reel in players like Caleb Williams, Mario Williams, Jordan Addison, Shane Lee and more, Riley deserves a place on this list. But don’t ignore two important things: First of all, the former Oklahoma head coach is a brilliant offensive mind. The Sooners finished 3rd, 1st, 6th, 6th and 13th nationally in scoring in his 5 seasons.

But even Riley’s offensive acumen does not place him atop this list. His energy, his passion and his ability to communicate with his players will make the biggest impact of all on USC. The Trojans were listless under Helton, playing well below their talent level. If Riley can get the kind of buy-in that many people are projecting this year, USC’s 4-8 record in 2021 will feel like a blip.

Terry Heffernan, Stanford offensive line coach

Between 2006 and 2011 the Stanford Cardinal had no offensive linemen selected in the NFL Draft. Then from 2012 -2016, the Cardinal had 7. Since then? Two. Stanford’s draft dearth coincides with a recession in the running game that is downright stunning.

The Cardinal rushing yards stats from 2016 to 2021 as follows:

  • 2016: 208.9 ypg, 4th in the Pac-12
  • 2017: 202.6, 3rd
  • 2018: 107.9, 11th
  • 2019: 105.7, 11th
  • 2020: 133.2, 9th
  • 2021: 87.3, 12th, 126th nationally

Second-year offensive line coach Terry Heffernan is charged with returning the attitude up front for the Cardinal. He joined the program after spending two seasons as the Buffalo Bills’ assistant offensive line coach.

He’ll have to resuscitate a moribund rushing attack that seemed to regain its footing in 2020, only to regress in 2021. The Cardinal scored 15 rushing touchdowns in just 6 games during the 2020 campaign versus just 8 touchdowns in 12 games during 2019. Stanford was the league’s worst rushing team in 2021, hitting a new level of ineptitude.

Heffernan righting the ship up front will change the dynamic for the rest of the team.

Ryan Grubb, Washington offensive coordinator

To hear the Huskies gush about their new offensive coordinator, you’d think he won multiple national titles. Alas, Grubb has never even coached for a Power 5 program in his nearly two decades of college coaching. But he’s off to one heck of a start with Washington. Offensive lineman Jackson Kirkland says that Grubb has simply brought a different dimension of speed to a Husky offense that sorely needs an injection of innovation.

Washington has a passing game in a state of flux and a pair of good-but-not-elite receivers who landed Athlon Sports all-conference preseason honors (Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze). Grubb may not have the toys to do what he wants to do now. But when he does, uh oh.

Brian Norwood, UCLA assistant head coach/passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach

Talk about pick your poison.

In 2017, Jim Mora’s last season as UCLA coach, the Bruins allowed just 196.3 passing yards per game, a respectable mark that ranked 31st in the country.

Unfortunately, the Bruins had the nation’s worst run defense, surrendering an astounding 287.4 yards per game.

Chip Kelly took over the head coaching duties and vowed to turn that around.

Lo and behold, UCLA allowed just 127.9 rushing yards per game last year, 26th in the country. Marked improvement.

Only … the Bruins allowed 260.3 passing yards a year ago, 108th in the country. It was their 3rd straight season allowing 260 or more passing yards on average, including 2019, when UCLA allowed a whopping 310.8 yards through the air, 129th out of 130 FBS teams. Not good.

Second-year defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Brian Norwood will need to make the most of an experienced defensive backfield to get the Bruins ahead of last year’s 8 wins.

And down the stretch, they looked good, holding three of their final opponents to under 200 passing yards. For the season, some of the other pass defense stats were not quite as stark: The Bruins finished 6th in pass defense efficiency and 6th in total defense. If those numbers creep into the top 3, Kelly’s got some real momentum going.

Jimmie Dougherty, Arizona quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator

With a son named Maverick, Arizona quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty certainly knows about aerial attacks.

And now he’s got a fighter jet that ranks among the best young quarterbacks in college football.

After a brutal season with quarterback injuries in 2021 — the Wildcats lost Jordan McCloud and Gunner Cruz in back-to-back weeks — Arizona added the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in former Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura.

De Laura knows how to air it out — he played in a Wazzu offense after all – but now he’s got some better targets with UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing and star freshman Tetairoa McMillan, Arizona’s first 5-star recruit in program history.

What can Dougherty do with this passing offense now? That’s the big question for the Wildcats, who are looking to shed the weight of 1 win. UCLA’s former passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, Dougherty helped the Bruins’ offense lead the Pac-12 in total offense in 2020 and rank 2nd in scoring. He’s had some good tutors – Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly among them – and now it’s time to put that to work.

Lewis Powell, Utah defensive ends coach

The Utes lose a massive contributor in Mike Tafua, who provided not only a steady presence but incredible production for the Utes in his tenure, picking up three All-Pac-12 honors, including a first-team selection in 2021. Tafua led the conference with 9.5 sacks last year, en route to becoming a finalist for Polynesian College Football Player of the Year honors.

Now Powell has another young stud to pour into. Sophomore Van Fillinger returns after leading all conference freshmen with 5.5 sacks, the next in a lengthy lineage of stud Ute defensive linemen.

And he was one himself, winning 2003 Liberty Bowl Defensive MVP honors.

Utah may have the most consistent defensive line over the last decade in the Pac-12.

Honorable Mention: Dan Lanning, Oregon head coach

Lanning was one of the game’s hottest assistant coaches after helping lead the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship last season. Snagging him to replace Mario Cristobal was a power move, as Lanning is a 2-time finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. The Bulldogs’ former defensive coordinator led a unit that led the country in defensive scoring at just 10.2 points per game. Georgia had 3 shutouts last year and 5 other games allowing 1 or fewer touchdowns a game.

Can Lanning take Oregon to another level defensively? The Ducks ranked 75th nationally in scoring defense last year, 59th in 2020 and 9th in 2019. That defense featured 6 future NFL Draft picks (so far), including 2022 first-round defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and 2021 second-round pick Jevon Holland.

Oregon doesn’t have quite the top-end defensive talent as it has in previous years, but Lanning has already started recruiting well. If he turns the Duck D around this year, players are going to – wait for it – flock to him.