Making lists is great for off-season discussion, but they can be thrown in the garbage the second the season begins in September. Last time we discussed the top half of the coaches in the Pac-12 and now transition to this week where the bottom half of the list is revealed in regards to the coaches with the greatest opportunity for improvement, especially at the bottom fourth of the list that holds the three new hires of Colorado, California, and Oregon.
7.Kyle Whittingham (5-7 in 2012, 71-32 at Utah)
As recently as 2010, Whittingham was one of the most successful coaches running a program not in a BCS conference (along with TCU’s Gary Patterson and Boise State’s Chris Petersen). His 2008 undefeated season, culminating in the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, set the bar for Cinderella stories in the current era of college football. But Whittingham’s run of success dating back to his first season as Utes head coach in 2004 came to an end when Utah became part of the newly minted Pac-12 in 2011. The squad that had won 48 conference games from ’03-’10 has only managed seven in two years with the big boys.
Whittingham’s teams in the conference have underwhelmed so far due to inconsistency on offense and overall lack of depth on the roster. They have failed to yield a standout quarterback with both an aging offensive guru in Norm Chow in 2011, and a young, upstart first-year coordinator in Brian Johnson who was forced to go with three different starting quarterbacks throughout the 2012 season. Enter Dennis Erickson in 2013, hired to hold the hand of Johnson and afford his vast knowledge of running an offense in the college game.
Erickson will have quarterback Travis Wilson, who was thrown into the fire in 2012 with the injury to starter Jordan Wynn and the ineffectiveness of backup John Hayes. He’ll have nowhere to go but up as the Utes offense ranked just above lowly Colorado in total offense in his first year.
8.Lane Kiffin (7-6 in 2012, 25-13 at Southern Cal)
Kiffin became the first coach in nearly 50 years to take the pre-season #1 ranked team and transform it into a member of the unranked by the end of the season. As a result, he took to the chopping block this off-season in Game of Thrones fashion, replacing both coordinator positions. But you can’t question the fact that even though Kiffin had some defections in February, his class of 13 players were all 4-star caliber or above.
Having taken care of the staff decisions, he now needs to find the next great quarterback at USC among a talented group of youngsters that includes Max Wittek, Cody Kessler, and Max Browne, who have the pleasure of throwing to the best wide receiver in the amateur ranks in Marquise Lee, not to mention Nelson Agholor, who was one of the better number three receivers in the country last year.
But USC needs to establish what its identity is as a team, because talent isn’t the problem. Kiffin is now 37 and no longer the wonder child he was when he took over the Oakland Raiders. He has already opened two of the envelopes as my esteemed colleague Don Hansen likes to point out; at this point, Kiffin has no one to blame but himself now that USC is free and clear of NCAA restrictions handed down after the Pete Carroll reign. That third envelope is staring him in the face. UCLA has emerged as a threat to win the conference under Jim Mora Jr. So it’s time for results or for Kiffin to seek new employment.
9.Mike Leach (3-9 in 2012, 3-9 at Washington State)
The Pirate is a lightning rod for controversy, and as surprised as many pundits were about the University of Arizona success story last year, one could be equally as surprised with three wins accumulated in Leach’s first year in Pullman. He inherited a program that had been pulled out of the ashes by his predecessor, Paul Wulff, but was still in need of a full-scale rebuild across the board.
Leach installed his Air Raid offense, 3-4 defense, and a completely different coaching style than those who walked before him and things just didn’t seem to gel at all during his first 12 months on the job. With the dismissal of Jon Embree, Leach enters 2012 with the lowest winning percentage of any returning coach in the conference.
Leach’s offensive system breads on getting the ball out quickly and asking its receivers to read their route options on the fly. But either due to poor coaching, lack of skill among the players, or a combination of the two, the offense was schizophrenic as quarterbacks shuffled in and out due either to injury or inconsistency. The offensive line was a porous unit and the running game was non-existent, turning nearly every drive into a “how far can you fling it” approach on third down situations — and that just isn’t going to win in this conference.
Leach has identified the offensive line as an area he wanted to improve immediately through his ’12 and ’13 recruiting classes, so depth should improve there. But if his quarterback-friendly system doesn’t start to improve in success this season and the defense doesn’t take baby steps in its second year, fans might groan, but there still is job security here. While Pac-12 revenue has increased and Wazzou is improving its facilities, this is a program that hasn’t produced a winning season since 2003. That means Leach won’t be suffering the fate of Wulff any time soon — barring another player incident.
The bottom three coaches listed below are ranked as such because, as Whittingham showed, while you can be considered a fantastic coach in a lower division of college football it’s a whole different animal to succeed right off the bat in the bigger conferences. All three of these coaches will be a head coach for the first time in a BCS conference this fall.
10.Mike MacIntyre (1st year with Colorado, 16-21 in three years at San Jose State)
After hiring an assistant from the NFL with ties to the program as a former player, the Buffs went outside the family in signing MacIntyre. The move is similar to what Michigan did in hiring Brady Hoke a few years back. Search for big name coaches and when they don’t seem to fit, go after a program builder successful at schools with lesser prestige.
MacIntyre was one of the hotter names on the West Coast thanks to his San Jose State team running the table in the second half of their schedule to finish the year, culminating in a Top 25 appearance in the BCS rankings. As a result, he was given a raise of nearly $1.5 million to replace Jon Embree and call Boulder his new home — a risky call for a head coach with only one winning season on his resume?
McIntyre’s offense will dictate the success of a team in dire need of a talent influx and a sense of direction. He has his work cut out for him and a five win season by his second year might be considered a moral victory. But he comes to town hanging his hat on a very efficient offensive scheme and has a few playmakers to work with at running back and wide receiver. If only he can find a quarterback to distribute the ball.
11.Sonny Dykes (1st year with Cal, 22-15 in three years at Louisiana State)
Much like Helfrich, Dykes’ hire was due in part to his familiarity with opponents in this conference. He arrives in Berkeley with an interesting QB decision, as his team spread the reps around during their Spring Game.
Cal hired Dykes mainly because his offensive system has always produced eye-popping numbers, especially at the quarterback position. Ted Tedford’s offense, formerly known as quarterback-friendly, was seventh in the conference in yards-per-play and eighth in yards per pass attempt. That won’t happen in 2013. Cal has always had good athletes at the position but consistency in results had become an issue. Look for Dykes to correct that problem by the end of the year with whomever he selects to start at the most important position on offense.
The biggest concern is that Dykes’ team at Louisiana State last year finished first in total offense and last in total defense. He brought with him the majority of his offense staff, but hired a new defensive coordinator in Andy Buh and let him staff it. You could either make a connection towards Leach’s 2012 as a prediction here, or see that he corrected an error in judgment and allowed his new assistant coach to hire his own coaches and build a more improved system.
12.Mark Helfrich (1st year as head coach, no head coaching experience)
Oregon likes to hire offensive-minded coaches and Helfrich doesn’t break that trend. Offensive coordinator during the Chip Kelly era of dominance in the conference, he organized game plans but did not call the plays, something to keep in mind going into 2013. ASU fans will remember him as an offensive assistant during the Dirk Koetter years in Tempe and had history played differently, the offensive coordinator that was almost hired by former Ducks head coach Mike Belotti instead of Chip Kelly. Helfrich has a stable of talent at running back, a standout young quarterback, and one of the best assistants in the league in Nick Aliotti.
Helfrich helped build this offensive juggernaut with Kelly having been with the program since 2009 and will rely on Aliotti’s experience to get him through any early season jitters. He finds himself at this position on the list not due to his shortcomings, but due to the fact he has never been a head coach in college football. He has the greatest chance of any of his six peers on this list to jump to the top half of the rankings due to all the positives that surround him in Eugene.