Early outlook on new coaches, plus five guys on the hot seat
Coaching changes often make for awkward first seasons. For one thing, there's a pretty good chance the new man was hired to turn around a fallen program. And even if he wasn't, there are still some inherent challenges that come with installing a new system and enticing a group of players to embrace an often entirely new staff by whom they weren't themselves recruited.
Below, I take a look at the 2008 prospects for 18 schools that underwent coaching changes last offseason, with special emphasis on such high-profile hires as Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. Some walk into situations ripe for ready-made winners. Others are in for a rough transition year.
2007 record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten).
New coach: Rich Rodriguez, formerly West Virginia's head coach.
What he inherits: Rodriguez faces the dual challenge of installing his spread offense (the spread option) with a unit decimated by graduation (QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, T Jake Long), NFL defections (WRs Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington) and attrition (QB Ryan Mallet, four projected starting linemen). Fortunately, the defense is stacked with veterans up front (most notably DT Terrance Taylor and DE Tim Jamison) and in the secondary (CBs Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren).
2008 prospects: Rodriguez himself has hinted frequently it could be an ugly first year for Michigan's new offense. The starting QB could be a former walk-on (Nick Sheridan), and the O-line is paper thin. The Wolverines will depend heavily on their defense and a stable of speedy running backs (Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and incoming freshmen Michael Shaw and Sam McGuffie) to avoid plummeting to a .500-type season.
'07 record: 5-7 (2-6 Big 12).
New coach: Bo Pelini, formerly LSU's defensive coordinator.
What he inherits: Predecessor Bill Callahan recruited well enough during his four years in Lincoln, and there's more talent on hand than last year's disastrous campaign -- in which the Huskers' defense completely imploded -- might indicate. QB Joe Ganz performed extremely well upon taking over the starting job in the final three games, and RB Marlon Lucky is an all-conference talent. The defense is led by a veteran front four but is littered with questions in the back seven.
'08 prospects: The defensive-minded Pelini will leave Nebraska's ninth-rated offense from last season largely untouched while focusing on resuscitating the fallen Blackshirts. If Ganz picks up where he left off at the end of '07, and if Pelini can bring some cohesion to the other side of the ball, it's not unrealistic to expect an immediate improvement of several wins. The Big 12 North may be too tough, however, to contend for the division title.
'07 record: 11-2 (5-2 Big East).
New coach: Bill Stewart, formerly West Virginia's associate head coach/tight ends coach.
What he inherits: Dynamic QB Pat White, who's spearheaded one of the nation's most explosive offenses the past three years, returns for his final go-around. He's joined by electrifying sophomore slotback Noel Devine and all five offensive line starters, but he'll miss RB Steve Slaton, FB Owen Schmitt and top WR Darius Reynaud. The defense must replace seven starters, but holdover coordinator Jeff Casteel has a long history of successfully plugging new pieces into his 3-3-5 scheme.
'08 prospects: There's considerable intrigue surrounding Stewart, the largely unknown former assistant who served as interim coach in the Mountaineers' Fiesta Bowl rout of Oklahoma. New offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, formerly of Wake Forest, plans to add more balance to WVU's previously run-heavy attack, but the loss of Slaton/Schmitt/Reynaud and a lack of depth at running back and receiver may cause the Mountaineers to slip just a tad.
'07 record: 6-7 (5-4 Pac-10).
New coach: Rick Neuheisel, formerly Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator.
What he inherits: Predecessor Karl Dorrell did not leave Neuheisel with an abundance of talent or depth on offense. Making matters worse, projected starting QB Patrick Cowan tore his ACL in the spring and was lost for the season, and his replacement, veteran Ben Olson broke his foot last week. Juco transfer Kevin Craft is next in line, but he'll be playing behind a shoddy offensive line. RB Kahlil Bell, TE Logan Paulsen and DT Brian Price are the potential standouts.
'08 prospects: Upon returning to his alma mater, Neuheisel retained respected defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker and lured long-renowned offensive coordinator Norm Chow, mentor to three Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Even that dream-team trio, however, may not be able to salvage much with this rebuilding squad, which could easily lose all three of its nonconference games against Tennessee, BYU and Fresno State.
'07 record: 8-5, (4-4 SEC).
New coach: Bobby Petrino, formerly Atlanta Falcons head coach.
What he inherits: The offensive-minded Petrino came a year too late to enjoy the luxury of first-round NFL tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, but junior Michael Smith follows much the same mold. Four-year QB Casey Dick returns as well -- though he loses top receiver Marcus Monk -- and All-America center Jonathan Luigs anchors the line. Seven starters return on defense, but the secondary must be rebuilt.
'08 prospects: The Razorbacks could be one of the nation's bigger mysteries. Arkansas' offense has put up huge numbers in its scrimmages dating back to the spring -- including oft-criticized QB Dick -- but is that a testament to Petrino's influence or a sign of trouble for the defense? The educated guess is that Arkansas will struggle in the highly competitive SEC West this season, but watch out next year when touted Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett takes over at quarterback.