Ranking the 2022 Pac-12 coaches: Where do Lincoln Riley, Dan Lanning fit in?
As we enter into the 2022 season, the Pac-12 coaching fraternity will feature six coaches entering no later than Year 3 at their current school. That includes three first-year coaches in Lincoln Riley (USC), Dan Lanning (Oregon), and Kalen DeBoer (Washington), and a fourth in Washington State’s Jake Dickert who coached only six games for the Cougars in 2021.
It’s a changing of the guard, so to speak. The conference’s top two teams in terms of visibility have first-year coaches. And even for the coaches who have been at their spot for awhile, there are some change agents at play as well.
So let’s power rank the league coaches heading into the spring portion of the calendar.
No. 12: Jedd Fisch, Arizona
Fisch arrived at Arizona as one of the more well-traveled coaches in the business. Still, he’s young by coaching standards and inherited a deep, deep rebuild project from former UA coach Kevin Sumlin.
A 1-11 record in his first season as a head coach was tough, but Arizona at least showed signs of life throughout. The Wildcats now have quite a bit of momentum after signing a top-25 class during the 2022 cycle that ranked second in the Pac-12. Arizona needed to address an offense that struggled to put points on the board in 2021, and it promptly added playmakers all over the field during the most recent cycle, both by way of instant-impact transfers like quarterback Jayden de Laura and wideout Jacob Cowing as well as high-ceiling freshmen like Tetairoa McMillan and Rayshon Luke.
Fisch and Arizona both feel like buy-low commodities that could rise quickly.
No. 11: Jake Dickert, Washington State
If you want to call 2021 Dickert’s debut campaign, it was a promising one. If you’re in wait-and-see mode for his first full year at the helm, that’s OK as well. Dickert is young and energetic, and the job he pulled off with last season’s Cougar squad was an impressive one.
That was a mess of a situation he inherited from former coach Nick Rolovich. The assistant staff was in flux. Uncertainty around the program had nothing to do with football. Dickert rallied the troops and got his guys to play hard for him.
Throw out the bowl game; given the context, it doesn’t seem to be a game we can draw much from. Beating Washington 40-13 to claim the Apple Cup was a big deal regardless of how bad the Husky season was. Getting the offensive dynamo duo of Eric Morris and Cameron Ward from Incarnate Word to come run the show in Pullman was also a big deal. The Cougars have some retooling to do around the rest of the operation, so we’ll get a pretty good look at Dickert’s ability right away.
No. 10: Karl Dorrell, Colorado
Dorrell is a good coach, a deserving Pac-12 Coach of the Year winner in 2020. In a lot of ways, Colorado is spending this offseason paying off the Mel Tucker tenure. So much of the attrition can probably be attributed to all the coaching turnover of the last few seasons. Throughout, though, Dorrell and his coaching staff have expressed a kind of steely calm demeanor that should serve the program well.
The 2021 season was a grind, and Colorado fielded one of the more cumbersome passing attacks in the country. That hurt everything and played a huge role in the 4-8 record. Colorado ended the 2021 season ranked 120th in offensive SP+. Losing wideout Brenden Rice to USC and running back Jarek Broussard to Michigan State makes fixing that issue a bit tougher.
But Dorrell and Co. might have found some diamonds in the rough of the transfer portal to replace those two. Ramon Jefferson (Sam Houston State) and RJ Sneed (Baylor) could be sneaky good pick-ups. The quarterback competition during spring ball and fall camp needs to be a good one.
No. 9: Herm Edwards, Arizona State
There’s an argument to be made the Edwards era at Arizona State has set the program back, even despite a 25-18 record in his first four seasons.
With an upgraded roster in 2021, Arizona State was expected to contend for the Pac-12 South and experience a kind of breakthrough the folks in Tempe had been dreaming of when they implemented the “pro model.” Instead, ASU went 6-3 in conference play and lost the kinds of games to Washington State and Oregon State that division-contending teams can’t lose. ASU has since seen transfer departures from key pieces, including quarterback Jayden Daniels. The 2022 class of high school prospects the Sun Devils signed was the lowest-rated class in the Pac-12 and in the 100s nationally, severely impacted by an NCAA investigation into the program for alleged recruiting violations.
And that’s the big thing. That NCAA investigation has seen either directly or indirectly the departures of five assistants on Edwards’ staff. It has thrown Edwards’ job security into question and public scrutiny. It has made ASU a target of quite a bit of negative attention. And it could lead to Level I violations handed down by the NCAA later this year. Whether he was privy to the alleged violations or not—ASU seems to think he wasn’t—Edwards’ program is in disarray and that falls at the feet of the head coach. Things are snowballing.
No. 8: Justin Wilcox, California
Cal is 6-10 in the last two seasons. The Golden Bears are 4-8 against ranked opponents during Wilcox’s tenure, 1-4 against Oregon, 1-4 against UCLA, and 2-2 against USC. They’ve finished better than fourth in the Pac-12 North only once since Wilcox took over in 2017.
In January, he signed a contract extension that’ll keep him with the UC Berkeley football program through the 2027 season, securing the kind of long-term commitment every coach is after. “I am confident our fans and alumni share my enthusiasm for the direction of our program, and the level of success we have seen to date has set a foundation for sustained excellence in the future,” Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton said in a statement at the time of the announcement. Wilcox flirted with the Oregon job last December before reportedly turning away due to differences over recruiting philosophies, so expect there to be a microscope over the 2022 campaign for Cal.
Carrying a 26-28 record into Year 6, Wilcox could be in an interesting spot. A third straight losing season might test some internal fortitude within the athletic department.
No. 7: Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
Last season marked the first time since 2012 the Beavers have had a winning record in conference play and the first time since 2013 they’ve had a winning record overall.
This was a doormat of a program Smith inherited in 2018. He has built it back to respectability in just a few years’ time. Eight of the last 11 losses at Oregon State have come by 10 points or less, which would point to a program that should be ready to turn those close losses into close wins. Oregon State got good quarterback play from Chance Nolan and Smith built a fantastic offensive line a season ago.
If they take that next step to turn those close losses into a few more wins, Smith should start to get more recognition around the country.
No. 6: Dan Lanning, Oregon
This is going to ruffle feathers in Eugene, Lanning sitting a spot below Washington’s head coach. Fast forward 12 months from now and Lanning could be viewed as a top-four coach in the Pac-12. He’s the kind of high-energy, recruiting-obsessed guy that succeeds in today’s game.
But he’s still a first-time head coach, and that carries with it questions that must be answered. It’s hard to put Lanning ahead of a guy like Kalen DeBoer right now considering DeBoer has already proven something as a head coach.
And yet, Lanning has hit on nearly every move he’s made since taking over the Oregon job. He has two strong coordinators. He has has built a staff he can trust to grow the team while he oversees the entire operation. He also built a remarkably strong 2022 class in an abbreviated window, a sign of what’s to come on the trail. Lanning will rise. He’s just in the middle until the games begin.
No. 5: Kalen DeBoer, Washington
Everywhere DeBoer has been, he has managed successful offenses. As the head coach at Sioux Falls, DeBoer went 67–3 and won three NAIA national championships in 2006, 2008, and 2009. As the offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan in the mid-2010s, DeBoer took a 14-points-per-game offense and doubled the output in two years time. As the OC at Fresno State in 2017 and 2018, he improved the offense by a touchdown a game from Year 1 to Year 2. He took over an Indiana offense in 2019 that had averaged 30 points a game once in the previous five seasons and bumped up the scoring average by five a game, to just a shade under 32. The head coach at Fresno the last two seasons, the Bulldogs’ scoring improved each year under DeBoer.
If there’s a guy who knows how to coach up offensive football, is DeBoer. He has a long, long history of offensive innovation and has seen his stuff work at every level he’s been at.
No. 4: Chip Kelly, UCLA
The results to this point have been disappointing at UCLA, but Kelly remains one of the best and brightest offensive minds in football. UCLA won eight games in 2021 on the strength of its offensive attack alone. With an average to above-average defense, UCLA might have won 10. Looking at Bill Connelly’s SP+, UCLA had the 12th-best offense in football and the 76th defense.
While that does ultimately fall on Kelly’s shoulders as the head coach, he gets points for completely remaking the defensive staff this offseason—a new defensive coordinator is on board, as are three new defensive assistants.
No. 3: David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw enters Year 12 with an icy seat to steer the program from, but the last two full seasons for the Cardinal have featured 4-8 and 3-9 campaigns. Stanford has looked very un-Stanford, failing to live up to a standard that Shaw helped set in place. But he still has 93 wins in 11 seasons as the Stanford head coach. A few years ago he was in the conversation for best coach in the league. A guy doesn’t just “lose it” that abruptly and that drastically.
Recent changes around college football hurt a program like Stanford’s. It simply can’t use the transfer portal the way others can and have. The Cardinal played one of the tougher schedules in the Pac-12 last season and had one of the lowest returning production scores in the country heading into the year. You could see a struggle coming. This season, Stanford returns more than just about anyone in the country and just signed the best class of high school prospects in the Pac-12. Shaw is still one of the league’s best.
No. 2: Kyle Whittingham, Utah
You know those graphics you see floating around social media with two bars, one stretching to the tippy-top of the chart and the other barely poking above the x-axis? There’s usually something like “ability” under the full bar and “recognition” under the empty one.
That’s Whittingham. Though the underdog card might be officially off the table in 2022 for Utah. To be fair, Whittingham is one of the most respected coaches in the profession by his peers, but the Utes have just one AP top-15 finish in the last decade despite reaching nine wins six times in the last eight seasons.
This is a coaching staff that builds teams and develops unheralded high school prospects into all-conference level Power 5 starters better than perhaps any other staff in the country. The Utes won their first Pac-12 title last season and nearly won a Rose Bowl. If the new guy in Hollywood hadn’t shown up, Whittingham would be No. 1. He’s a defensible No. 1 even with USC’s new coach.
No. 1: Lincoln Riley, USC
In five years as a head coach, Lincoln Riley’s resume includes the following: a 55-10 record with no more than two losses in any season, a 16-6 record against ranked opponents, five first-round NFL Draft picks, four conference championships, four top-10 recruiting classes (via the 247 Composite), three College Football Playoff appearances, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, and two No. 1 overall NFL Draft selections.
There has been something of a targeted effort to discredit or tarnish what Riley did as the head coach at Oklahoma, which has been strange to watch. In Riley’s five seasons, the Sooners finished first, first, third, third, and third in offensive SP+. To do that while going from back-to-back Heisman quarterbacks to a transfer quarterback with a markedly different skillset to a freshman quarterback to another freshman quarterback is remarkable. Riley is a consensus top-10 coach in college football for good reason, and USC will likely have a re-energized Riley looking to silence his critics in Los Angeles.