Let's be honest: the 2020 season has been far from ideal for any head coach to come into a new program to put his stamp on things. There was limited to no practice time, COVID protocols, player availability up the in the air, and a fluid schedule that you couldn't count on actually happening. This has been a difficult season for coaches like Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney to navigate, so imagine how hard it had to have been for a new coach to come in and establish ... well ... anything.
So take these rankings with that context. These 24 coaches have inherited wildly different situations with all kinds of obstacles and unique schedule issues (one of these men didn't even get to coach a game this season). Imagine being one of the four new SEC coaches who had to play a conference-only schedule and get no cupcakes to ease into those games against Alabama, Georgia, or Florida.
With all that in mind, here is our attempt to rank how the new college football head coaches fared in 2020.
This may be the finest season in Texas-San Antonio's brief FBS history. The Roadrunners went 5-2 in Conference USA play and 7-4 overall to make their second bowl appearance in program history. They have a stud running back in Sincere McCormick (Taylor has been a running back coach at SMU and Arkansas) who anchors an offense that can put up some points. Jeff Traylor has been using his strong Texas high school ties to do well in recruiting and shows up on athletic directors' lists of possible head coaching candidates. Traylor has been a great success for UTSA.
Drinkwitz did a masterful job at Missouri in 2020. The Tigers finished third in the SEC East, despite picked to be one of the SEC's worst teams, in one of the feelgood stories in college football. The defense let the Tigers down, as they gave up 48, 49, and 51 points in their final three games. Drinkwitz is clearly building something at Mizzou and there is a buzz around the program that hasn't been felt since 2013-2014.
Rutgers played just nine games this season but still won as many games as they did over the last two seasons combined. The Scarlet Knights ended their 21-game Big Ten losing streak when they toppled Michigan State in the season opener. Their three conference wins are their most since 2017, which is the last time they won a conference game. Hey, they finished above Michigan and Michigan State in the standings. Gone are the days where Rutgers was routinely losing games by 50 points or more as Schiano has them back on the right track.
Dorrell did a fantastic job getting the Buffaloes back into contention in the Pac-12 South division. Colorado won its first four games before losing an ugly game against Utah in the finale, which cost the Buffs a shot at a division title. While that loss will sting a bit (fans were a bit upset), there is a sense this program is turning things around.
Give Silverfield some credit for keeping this Tigers program going strong despite a loss of talent from last year's team. Despite losing Antonio Gibson to the NFL and Kenneth Gainwell to opting out, Memphis has beaten Navy and UCF (two things former coach Mike Norvell failed to do) and delivered a 7-3 season. The only game the Tigers looked bad in was a 49-10 beatdown to Cincinnati, but Memphis still looks like one of the better programs in the AAC. Silverfield will lose quarterback Brady White after the season, so it will be interesting to see how this offense carries on in 2021 and beyond. Still, a successful season in Memphis.
What can you gather from a four-game season? That's all the Huskies played this season, but in typical 2020 fashion, they won the Pac 12 North division but had to back out of the conference championship game due to COVID issues. Lake's first season has to be considered a mild success since they went 3-1, and his recruiting class looks promising. The program seems to be on the same stable footing after Chris Petersen's retirement.
Clark happened to take over Appalachian State the same season that Louisiana and Coastal Carolina decided to be players on the national scene. The Mountaineers lost to both teams, as well as Marshall, to finish the regular season with three losses -- the program's most since 2017. It is also the first time since 2015 that App State didn't finish first in the Sun Belt. Still, the 'Neers looked like themselves against everyone else and should continue to be a power in the Group of 5.
The Bulldogs went 3-3 on the season -- a season that saw the Mountain West start late and coronavirus issues hitting his team. The year was a marked improvement from Jeff Tedford's bunch last season and they found their quarterback in Jake Haener. DeBoer could be a candidate for some head coach openings elsewhere.
In his first season, Hafley's Eagles won five conference games for the first time since 2009. They fought North Carolina down to the wire and were actually leading Clemson by 18 points before losing both games. Hafley, with the input of his players, passed on accepting a bowl bid due to his concern over the mental and physical toll the season took on his team. While the decision has been criticized by some, his players and the families of future recruits will look at this move as proof that he has their interests at heart. Overall, a successful debut for Hafley.
Lane Kiffin's return to the SEC was ... well ... kind of quiet. Mississippi's offense certainly took to Kiffin's style, as they averaged 48 points over the final four games of the season. The Rebels went 3-1 over that stretch, turning around the stink of a 1-4 start to the year. Even during that tough start, they did put 35 points on Florida and 48 on Alabama. Needless to say, the defense needs some improvement but that will come in time with some recruiting.
Aranda has certainly improved the Bears' defense this season. The former LSU defensive coordinator has the team buying into his style of defense and it has been paying off. Baylor stopped Oklahoma's streak of 60 games with at least 28 points and their fewest yards gained in five years earlier this season. That's the good news. The bad news is the offense just hasn't produced much this season, leading to their 2-7 record. They've suffered a lot of injury issues to key players, including a season-ending injury to running back Craig Williams. It is likely Aranda wanted to spend his first season fixing the defense, his specialty. Seeing how improved the defense got this year, it shouldn't be long until he gets the offense turned around.
FAU got off to a fine start, winning five of their first six games, before putting up clunkers at Georgia Southern and Southern Miss. The Owls ranked in the top five in defense during the season and ... aside from the finale against Southern Miss ... held each of their opponents to 20 or fewer points. A 5-3 season isn't too shabby, but Taggart needs to figure out his quarterback situation going into 2021. Stability hasn't been a word that has been used to describe Taggart's coaching career.
San Diego had a strong season, where they were back to the program staple of running the ball. The Aztecs finished 4-4 but held their own in losses to BYU, Colorado, and Nevada. Still, that is a bit of a downward trend after the wildly successful Rocky Long era. Brady Hoke says he is in it for the long haul in San Diego so he should hopefully be able to put the Aztecs back as contenders in the Mountain West. Year One was ... good.
Graham brought a bit of a culture change to the islands with a defensive background at a high-octane offensive school. Hawaii had a bad habit of getting off to slow starts this season and having to play from behind. Still, the Rainbows will be playing in another bowl game and just their third on the mainland. Graham is also doing a nice job recruiting in Texas and convincing them to take their talents to Hawaii. It remains to be seen if Graham will quickly get them out of mediocrity, which is what cost him at Arizona State.
Gonzales' Lobos got off to a bad start to the season ... losing their first five games ... but found a way to put together two wins to close the season. That progress is a major step for a program that lost 22 of their last 24 Mountain West Conference games. Gonzales inherited a mess at New Mexico (they ended the season with a fifth-string quarterback starting) so it will take time for him to turn it all around. But if what he did during the season is any indication, he's up for the task.
Arkansas was already a tough job to turn around before the pandemic but became a brutal job once the 2020 season started. The Hogs had to play Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Auburn -- games they lost. Thankfully for the Razorbacks, LSU and Tennessee were extremely disappointing this season, or else their schedule may have been the most ridiculous slate of games we have ever seen. Pittman led the team to a 3-7 record but did beat fellow first-year coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach at Mississippi and Mississippi State, respectively. They also played Auburn, Missouri, and LSU close before losing so Arkansas looked a lot more lively this season than they have in quite some time.
It was a frustrating season for Addazio and the Rams, who only got four games in after dealing with four cancellations for a variety of reasons (their final game was canceled due to a Utah State player boycott). In the four games they did play, the Rams won just once and were pounded in their three road games. If there was any new coach that had a rough go of trying to gain traction, it was Addazio.
This looked like this was going to work. In the first game of the season, Mike Leach's offense went into # 6 LSU and rolled the defending champs, 44-34. The high-octane offense was going to work in the SEC and the rest of the league better look out. Of course, LSU turned out to not be what we thought they'd be and Mississippi State's offense took a nosedive. The Bulldogs would lose their next four games and scored a total of 30 points in that span. Mississippi State would lose 7 of 8 games, with the only win over a miserable Vanderbilt team (and that was a 24-17 win). Somehow, Leach's bunch won their finale, 51-32, over an improved Missouri, but the promise of the opener was crushed as the season went along. Will Leach's style work in the SEC? It didn't in 2020.
Rolovich got off to a rocky start when receiver Kassidy Woods alleged the coach was out to get him due to his participation in the student-athletes' "WeAreUnited" group that wanted fair treatment for players who wanted to opt-out from the season. Once on the field, the Cougars played just four games this season -- games against Stanford and Apple Cup rival Washington were canceled -- and lost to the two ranked foes they faced. Losing to Oregon, USC, and Utah isn't some indictment of a season where you only play four games but there's a lot of work to be done on and off the field in Pullman.
This was a bad season for the Bulls, as the team lost its final eight games of the season after beating The Citadel in its opener. The defense was terrible, allowing at least 39 points on six occasions this season (including 56 and 58 points in their final two games of the year). Scott's team was hit hard by the virus, which led to little practice time and the questionable availability of players. They also failed to develop anyone at quarterback and their lines on both sides of the ball were getting pushed around. There is a lot of work to do in South Florida.
It was a bummer of a season for the Spartans, but they did beat rival Michigan and topple Northwestern for their only two wins on the season. Their five losses were ugly, however, including a home loss to Rutgers ... who hadn't won a Big Ten game in two years. This season was a bust, to say the least, and Tucker has promised to overhaul the roster (and he's seeing players transfer already) so the heat is on his recruiting skills.
There was a lot of hope at Florida State with Mike Norvell's attacking offense coming to a program that had been stagnant for far too long. There were few positive moments during the season, like the stunning win over North Carolina and the beatdown of Duke, but there were far more head-scratchers and a weird run-up that canceled the game with Clemson. Going 3-6 at Florida State is an extremely disappointing season, but Norvell believes he has his quarterback in Jordan Travis and the Seminoles have a very capable running game. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement.
This was a disastrous season for the Rebels, though they do play in a nice new stadium. Not only did UNLV go 0-6, but they really weren't close to winning any game. This isn't all on Arroyo as it is tough to take over a struggling program and get hardly any practice time to implement your system. COVID-19 hit the team hard as well, canceling two games and leaving them short-handed in others. You can see promising signs as the culture is better and recruiting has been taking off. Still, a winless season is unacceptable.
Nothing against Rahne, but the Old Dominion program opted out of playing football in 2020 so he gets an incomplete for this season. While Rahne doesn't get to hit the ground running, he did get a chance to settle into his job and the university with this season off. He's spent the time evaluating his players and the program as a whole, though not playing is sure to hit recruiting. It will be an interesting case study to see how the Monarchs used this time when they hit the field in 2021.