The 2021 college football season will feature 17 new head coaches at schools, eight of whom will be taking the lead role for the first time. Coaching changes are typically very impactful on teams’ prospects for a season, particularly early on.
I recently put together a piece detailing the performance trends of rookie head coaches in the NFL. I found that 26 of the last 41 rookie coaches improved their teams’ win-loss records in their first season. The success rate at the college level is nowhere near as high. There are a few reasons for this, with instability being No. 1. A head coach leaving in college football typically means new coordinators and new systems on both sides of the ball. This is a lot for players to overcome in a short time.
Here’s a look at three of the higher-profile coaching changes across the nation.
Texas (Steve Sarkisian replaces Tom Herman)
After four seasons and a ho-hum 32-18 record under Herman, the Longhorns start anew again under Sarkisian, who brings a wealth of coaching experience, most recently as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. He brings on a new staff and will also be starting over at quarterback, with four-year starter Sam Ehlinger having moved on to the NFL.
There are capable replacements with Casey Thompson and Hudson Card battling for the top spot, but Texas isn’t getting the recruits that Alabama is, so it could take time for Sarkisian to see significant progress. The DraftKings season win prop is set at 8 and this feels like a max eight-win team so I would lean Under.
Auburn (Bryan Harsin replaces Gus Malzahn)
Most of Malzahn’s eight seasons were good, as he brought the Tigers to within a minute of a national title in his first year. The final season, with a 6-5 record, and his eventual firing were unceremonious. But Malzahn, now at Central Florida, certainly didn’t leave the cupboard bare for Bryan Harsin, who comes to Auburn after a great run at Boise State in which his teams went 69-19.
One of Harsin’s biggest decisions will come early in deciding between returning QB starter Bo Nix and LSU transfer T.J. Finley. With a win prop set at 7, I see five likely wins, three maybes and four probable losses. I’ll settle on a 6-6 season for Auburn in 2021.
Tennessee (Josh Heupel replaces Jeremy Pruitt)
Heupel took over a UCF program that was rolling (28-8) and kept it rolling, at least until last season when it leveled off to a 6-4 finish. Even still, that team averaged 42.2 ppg, its fourth straight season of 40-plus.
Tennessee is hoping to capture a little of that offensive magic, as the Vols have scored about half of that total in the same span, including 21.5 per game a year ago in going 3-7. That just doesn’t cut it in the SEC. Keeping up with the likes of Florida and Georgia is the only way to compete for division titles.
Heupel has some intriguing options at QB, including end-of-2020 starter Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker. The win total is set at 6, and like most new coaching situations, the instability comes early. There is a key game in Week 2 with UT hosting Pitt. A win there and this team will be 3-0 heading to Florida for Game 4 and at least a push on the 6. A loss to Pitt and I think the 2021 season will be forgettable.