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College football review: Grading new coaches Lincoln Riley, Brent Venables and more

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables leads his team onto the field
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables leads his team onto the field to play TCU on Saturday. While his predecessor Lincoln Riley has thrived at USC, Venables is struggling leading the Sooners.
(Ron Jenkins / Associated Press)

Just how bad was the Oklahoma Sooners’ defense Saturday during their 55-24 humiliation at the hands of Texas Christian? The numbers spell it out clearly:

27 first quarter points.

668 total yards, including 361 on the ground.

8.8 yards per carry.

When I visited Norman, Okla., early last December after USC hired Lincoln Riley away from the Sooners to succeed Clay Helton, the state was downright aghast at the hot-shot coach’s treachery. Someone hung a sign that read “TRAITOR” on the university’s red brick gates. One of the only things that seemed to be soothing the faithful, as I listened to way too many hours of sports talk radio, was the idea of former defensive coordinator Brent Venables returning to Oklahoma from Clemson to restore the defensive standard he’d set in the early years of the Bob Stoops era.

‘The word ‘snake’ is being used a lot’: How new USC football coach Lincoln Riley may have replaced Kevin Durant as Oklahoma’s public enemy number one.

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OU fans, who had cheered Riley’s teams during three disappointing College Football Playoff semifinal appearances, were right to question the competency of his defenses. In 2018, Riley made one of the boldest moves of his young career when he fired Mike Stoops, Bob’s brother, who had been running the defense. Fans lamented his replacement, Alex Grinch, who is off to an encouraging start at USC, did not get the job done either.

Venables appealed to a vocal portion of the fan base that wished Stoops never decided to suddenly retire and hand over the keys to the kingdom to some 33-year-old offensive whiz.

Saturday’s defensive no-show in Fort Worth against a TCU offense that was still finding itself — until it found Oklahoma as an opponent — was embarrassing enough without this cruel twist of the knife:

The Horned Frogs’ offensive coordinator was none other than Garrett Riley, Lincoln Riley’s little brother, a 33-year-old offensive whiz.

After struggling against Oregon State, USC quarterback Caleb Williams put on a show in a win over Arizona State, but questions remain about the Trojans’ defense.

Garrett, coaching in his fourth game as a Power Five offensive coordinator, had his way up and down the field against Venables, a renowned defensive coordinator for more than 20 years.

Only the Rileys know how the Sooner vitriol has gone over within their family the past nine months, but one can reasonably assume it had not been forgotten leading into Saturday.

Five games into the Venables era, Oklahoma has a lot bigger issues to address than Lincoln’s little brother pouring salt in a wound that won’t heal anytime soon.

Now that we’re into October, it seems like a good time to assess the early return on investment for the 14 Power Five schools (plus Notre Dame) that are breaking in first-year head coaches:

Stock up

USC coach Lincoln Riley directs pre-game warmups before the Trojans face off against Fresno State
USC coach Lincoln Riley is off to a 5-0 start in his first season leading the Trojans.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Lincoln Riley, USC (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12): Riley was unquestionably the hire that garnered the loudest applause during the 2021 offseason, so you may be wondering how he could have improved his value so early into his first season leading the Trojans.

The answer goes far beyond the No. 6 next to USC’s name in the national polls. The turnaround from a 4-8 season to a 5-0 start is impressive, sure, but the changes he’s made to the culture within the McKay Center and outside of it among the Trojan legions have been remarkable during such a short time.

The reaction to his shocking hiring was so euphoric that it seemed to bring back the pride lost during the last decade immediately. Riley’s goal for the program is to routinely pack the Coliseum. With a team in the hunt for a Pac-12 championship and a potential playoff semifinal berth, it will be fascinating to see how close the Coliseum is to a sellout crowd when the Trojans welcome a solid 4-1 Washington State team for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.

Sonny Dykes, TCU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12): Dykes, who coached at California from 2013-16, simply moved across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex from Southern Methodist to step in for Gary Patterson, who brought the TCU program to national respectability. Even with the Horned Frogs’ recent descent to mediocrity, those were big shoes to fill, and Dykes appears up to the task so far after Saturday’s statement shellacking of No. 18 Oklahoma. Of course, the Riley family may deserve some credit for how well TCU is adapting to Dykes’ take on the Air Raid.

Jake Dickert, Washington State (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12): Dickert took over as interim head coach in the middle of 2021 after Washington State fired Nick Rolovich due to his refusal to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Dickert was a total unknown at the time, but after finishing 3-2 to get the Cougars to the Sun Bowl, he was kept on as permanent head coach. This year, Washington State upset Wisconsin 17-14 in Madison and had Oregon on the ropes before the Ducks stormed back with a miraculous comeback. So far, Dickert is one of the stars of this class.

Lawndale’s Jalon Daniels, who didn’t get offers from Power Five schools, was overshadowed by Bryce Young and others. Now he leads undefeated Kansas.

Kalen DeBoer, Washington (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12): Friday night’s defeat at UCLA was tough for DeBoer, but it doesn’t erase the obvious improvements the Huskies have made under his leadership. DeBoer’s successful short stint at Fresno State was enough to intrigue Washington, and the school’s belief in him as a Pac-12 coach is paying off. The Huskies beat Michigan State (a win that does not look nearly as impressive given the Spartans’ 2-3 record) on ABC’s Saturday Night primetime game. Most important, after falling into a rut offensively the past few years, the Huskies are playing an exciting brand of football that tests defenses downfield over and over.

Mike Elko, Duke (4-1, 1-0 ACC): You had to be a pretty diehard college football fan to know Elko’s name before he was hired at Duke. But the former defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M is showing he was ready for a head coaching opportunity at maybe the worst Power Five job. The Blue Devils are 4-1 after Saturday’s 38-17 win over Virginia with the only loss a competitive one at 5-0 Kansas.

Holding strong

LSU coach Brian Kelly directs players before they face New Mexico
LSU coach Brian Kelly rebounded from an early season loss to Florida State.
(Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

Brian Kelly, Louisiana State (4-1, 2-0 SEC): If not for a missed extra point that would have tied the game with no time remaining in the season opener against Florida State, LSU could be 5-0. Sure, Kelly couldn’t go out there and kick the ball, but the Tigers were extremely sloppy against the Seminoles. During the past month, he’s proved what we already knew after his time at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame: Brian Kelly can coach. LSU has wins over Mississippi State (which is about to be ranked) and at Auburn on Saturday. The Tigers are still very much a work in progress, though, and will have their hands full next week against No. 8 Tennessee in Death Valley.

Dan Lanning, Oregon (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12): I strongly considered moving Lanning’s stock up after the moxie the Ducks have shown in recovering from their 49-3 annihilation at the hands of No. 1 Georgia (which now looks even more unthinkable after the Bulldogs barely won at Missouri 26-22 on Saturday). Lanning is only 36 and is figuring out how to be a head coach on the fly, so he deserves some grace, especially after beating a ranked Brigham Young team 41-20 and guiding the Ducks to that thrilling 44-41 comeback win at Washington State on Sept. 24. Lanning definitely has Oregon’s players believing.

UCLA makes the big plays in a defeat of the Huskies to improve the Bruins’ record to 5-0. Here’s how they pulled off the upset.

Joey McGuire, Texas Tech (3-2, 1-1 Big 12): As of 2016, McGuire was coaching at Cedar Hill High outside of Dallas. On Sept. 24, as the head coach of the Red Raiders, he beat the Texas Longhorns. Texas Tech lost at N.C. State and at Kansas State, two forgivable results — especially because his team won the game that matters most on the schedule.

Stock down

Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry shouts after West Virginia scores a touchdown
Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry reacts after a West Virginia touchdown as Chamarri Conner (25) returns to the sideline on Sept. 22 in Blacksburg, Va. West Virginia won 33-10.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Brent Pry, Virginia Tech (2-3, 1-1 ACC): It seemed to me that the cupboard was going to be bare for Pry at Virginia Tech, and that has proved to be the case. Still, Pry, the former Penn State defensive coordinator, was an underwhelming hire to begin with for a program that desperately needed a jolt, and losing to Old Dominion in the opener was the worst possible start. The Hokies have scored 10 points during back-to-back blowout losses to West Virginia and North Carolina, teams which are not very good. Fry is facing one of the toughest rebuilds in college football.

Tony Elliott, Virginia (2-3, 0-2 ACC): A few years ago when Clemson was clicking with Trevor Lawrence, Elliott, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, became one of the hottest names in coaching. Last year, as the Tigers struggled, some of the shine came off, but that didn’t stop Virginia from hiring him to replace the retiring Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers have majorly regressed this season offensively, which doesn’t reflect well on Elliott, since he runs that side of the ball. They’ve lost to Illinois, Syracuse and Duke, but hey, at least they beat Old Dominion unlike their instate rival.

Billy Napier, Florida (2-2, 0-2 SEC): During the last few years, Napier was rumored to be in the mix for Power Five jobs as he took Louisiana to new heights in the Sun Belt. Florida seemed like an odd fit and so far it has been. Napier spent the offseason on a hiring frenzy, building a support staff of 50 people. The Gators pulled out a close win over then-No. 7 Utah in the Swamp in the opener but have fallen hard since then, losing to East Division foe Kentucky in Gainesville and to bitter rival Tennessee in Knoxville. In between those two defeats was a narrow escape against a South Florida team that just plain stinks. I’ll be surprised if Napier can get Florida back to the SEC championship game.

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman points to some players after the Irish scored
Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman has struggled to meet high preseason expectations.
(Chris Seward / Associated Press)

Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame (2-2): The Fighting Irish were off Saturday and probably needed the break. Notre Dame competed well with Ohio State in its opener but followed that up with a stunning loss to Marshall in South Bend on Sept. 10. Looking back, the No. 5 preseason ranking put unreasonable expectations on Freeman in his first year as a head coach breaking in a new quarterback in Tyler Buchner. Then factor in the Irish losing Buchner for the year to a shoulder injury and expectations have taken a nosedive. So far, that reduced pressure has helped Freeman, as Notre Dame has rallied to win its last two over Cal and North Carolina. All is not lost in 2022 and certainly not in the future given Freeman’s allure on the recruiting trail thus far.

Brent Venables, Oklahoma (3-2, 0-2 Big 12): In a blowout win at Nebraska in week three, the Sooners looked like they could contend for the playoff semifinals. After back-to-back losses to Kansas State and TCU, they’re going to be seeing purple in their nightmares. Venables failed miserably to get his team ready to play after a humbling home defeat to the Wildcats. Not the best sign. The Sooners can change the entire mood of the program with a win next weekend against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, but Venables will have to do a much better job of preparing the Sooners this week. Because the Longhorns will be out for blood.

Mario Cristobal, Miami (2-2): No coaching move came with more romance attached to it than Cristobal leaving Oregon and returning home to Miami. Cristobal will undoubtedly pour everything he’s got into bringing the Hurricanes’ swagger back in the coming years, but it’s going to take a while. That’s obvious now after Middle Tennessee State went into Miami on Sept. 24 and sped right past the plodding Hurricanes 45-31. Cristobal only knows one way to build a program, and that’s through grunt work in the trenches. But he is going to need to address Miami’s lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball to compete for championships.


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