July 15, 2024

College football coaches entering Year 2 who are facing defining campaigns in 2024 season

College football seems to be getting less patient every year, and what used to be a long runway for coaches at the top programs in the country has been shortened to a launch pad. If you don’t have the program meeting expectations within a couple of years, the pressure will mount quickly. 

Consider that the CBS Sports Hot Seat Rankings released earlier this week includes Florida’s Billy Napier with a second-highest rating possible (4 out of 5) as he prepares for just his third year at the helm in Gainesville. Napier was included in this exercise last year as we spotlighted some Year 2 coaches facing pivotal campaigns under the category of “Needs to Show Improvement” following a 6-7 debut season in 2022. The Gators did not show improvement, falling back to 5-7 in 2023 and missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2017. 

But there is also the potential for Year 2 to be the season in which a coach finally puts it all together to make a big leap. Urban Meyer did this in his second year at Florida, and Nick Saban did so as well during Year 2 at both LSU and Alabama. Dan Lanning had a stellar Year 2 at Oregon last season, with the Ducks knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff right up until the final moments of the Pac-12 title game, and Kalen DeBoer had such a successful Year 2 at Washington he got hired by Alabama after guiding the Huskies to a national runner-up finish. 

With the transfer portal and NIL forever changing the timetable fans have for expectations of success, Year 2 has never been more important. The honeymoon is over, and no matter what happened in Year 1, there is an expectation for a step forward. Below we have sorted some notable situations into three categories considering both the stakes of the job and urgency for results, setting the table for the job pressure conversations throughout the 2024 season. 

Chances to build on Year 1 success 

Jeff Brohm, Louisville: The return of Louisville’s native son went about as good as anyone could have expected. Brohm guided the Cardinals to their first-ever ACC Championship Game appearance and first 10-win season in a decade. Brohm used a heavy influx of transfers to flip the roster for instant results, and now he’s entering Year 2 with another portal-heavy roster. The schedule is more difficult than it was a year ago, so matching the win total might not be the specific expectation, but maintaining a spot in the top tier of the ACC is a reasonable standard for Brohm’s program. 

Jamey Chadwell, Liberty: No first-year coach won more games than Chadwell in 2023. While it seems improbable to turn in another 13-1 season, the combination of coaching and competition make it possible we see another dozen wins for the Flames in 2024. Liberty was able to retain its star quarterback Kaidon Salter after a brief flirtation with the transfer portal, and the roster as a whole rates significantly better than most teams on its schedule. That strength of schedule rating, which checks in somewhere between No. 129 and No. 134 nationally depending on your rating, leaves a slim margin for error when it comes to making the expanded College Football Playoff. But if Liberty can run the table in the regular season again, it’ll be the first Cinderella candidate of the 12-team playoff era.   

David Braun led Northwestern to a bowl game in Year 1, can he do it again in Year 2?
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David Braun, Northwestern: We certainly need to apply some context when declaring Northwestern’s 8-5 showing in 2023 a roaring success. There’s the fact that Pat Fitzgerald was fired on July 10, 2023, shortly before media days and preseason camp, and Braun was tasked with leading the team despite being with the program for barely six months. But it’s the way the season finished that really stands out, with five wins in the Wildcats’ final six games in a stretch that included snapping a 14-game road losing streak and beating Utah in the program’s first bowl appearance since 2020. Braun’s challenge is now to make sure they can build on last year and prove it wasn’t just an adrenaline rush in the wake of sudden change that sparked short-term success.   

Looking to make the jump

Matt Rhule, Nebraska: Offseason wins, like retaining defensive coordinator Tony White and signing promising five-star quarterback Dylan Raiola, have put a shinier spin on the state of Nebraska football coming out of a 5-7 campaign in Year 1. Let’s consider this a hybrid of the next two categories; the Cornhuskers know they are set up to make a jump — and probably need to make it — to keep things going in the right direction. The make-up of last season’s results also point to being on the cusp of a breakthrough, with four three-point losses in games which 21 points would have been enough to win. Even a small step forward offensively should spark a jump up in results for Nebraska. 

Hugh Freeze, Auburn: The return of Freeze to the SEC brought the same kind of competitiveness against the best teams that we remember from his time at Ole Miss. Auburn was within seven points of Georgia, seven points of Ole Miss and three points of Alabama in 2023, and in all of those games (which were all at home) fans could see that it shouldn’t take long to flip those close defeats into victories. Unfortunately, Auburn also lost to New Mexico State at home and registered just one win against a bowl team on the season. There is no panic about the future, but certainly some urgency to see if the Tigers can make a jump in 2024.   

Luke Fickell, Wisconsin: When Wisconsin hired Fickell at the end of the 2022 season, he had just racked up 53 wins across five seasons with two conference titles and a historic College Football Playoff appearance at Cincinnati. Was there an adjustment expected as he worked to install a new regime in Madison? Absolutely. But the 7-6 campaign last season was a bit jarring considering the level of success we had become accustomed to seeing, not just from Fickell but also from a Wisconsin program that had won more than seven games in each season that did not involve a pandemic or coaching change dating back to 2009.

Brent Key, Georgia Tech: While Key certainly had a head start on his “Year 1” thanks to an eight-game run as the interim coach in 2022, we’re counting last year’s season as his debut. It was a season with mixed results, highlighted by two wins against ranked teams but also including a home loss to Bowling Green and a season-long set of defensive shortcomings that left the Yellow Jackets last in the ACC in total defense. More consistency throughout the season, and even within games, is the next step to making a jump, and it’s what Key is hoping to lead in 2024.

Needs to show improvement

Deion Sanders, Colorado: There is a read of Sanders’ debut that suggests last year’s team was much better than their 4-8 record. The Buffs had five one-score losses, so it’s fair to say a few different bounces or breaks could have had the Buffs bowling in Year 1. But the fact that four of those five one-score losses came during a six-game losing streak to close the year points to where Colorado needs to improve in Year 2. This is a team that needs to finish stronger, and if the offseason roster building and player development (which includes building up the depth on both lines of scrimmage) pays off, we should see better late-season results.   

Kenny Dillingham will navigate a new conference in Year 2 with the Sun Devils.
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Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State: Improvement might come in smaller steps for Dillingham as he continues to guide Arizona State through the wake of an NCAA scandal and conference transition. Oddsmakers have the Sun Devils’ win total at 4.5 for 2024 and the Big 12 media slotted them last in the preseason poll, but Dillingham seems energized for Year 2 after learning plenty of lessons in his first season as a coach. He has a new offensive coordinator and turned over the quarterback room hoping that in Arizona State’s Big 12 debut, the Sun Devils can catch some of their new conference foes off-guard with a challenging home environment in Tempe. 

Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati: The Bearcats faced a tougher schedule in the Big 12 than the typical slate in the American Athletic Conference, but the change in status from “annual conference title contender” to 3-9 was more of an adjustment than many expected. Satterfield himself is not used to those kind of results, either, as a coach with a .581 career winning percentage and no seasons with fewer than four wins prior to last year. The plan this offseason was to hit the reset button after a failed launch in Year 1, but only time will tell if the results will be different.  

Ryan Walters, Purdue: When Brohm left Purdue to take the Louisville job, he did so having strung together a two-season run of 17 combined wins — a feat that hadn’t been seen since the Joe Tiller days. Maintaining that success was always going to be a challenge, especially with significant roster turnover, but now Walters has had a full year to recruit, work the portal and develop with hopes of taking a step forward in Year 2. Two of Purdue’s four wins were against bowl teams in 2023 (Virginia Tech, Minnesota), so it’s not unrealistic to set an expectation for the Boilermakers to back in the postseason soon.