Who are the first-year college football coaches with the most to prove in 2023? Deion Sanders leads the way

With the college football season right around the corner, we'll soon get our first glimpses at some prominent head coaches at new schools.

Though there weren’t schools like LSU, USC, Notre Dame and Oklahoma making hires during this cycle, there was plenty of intriguing coaching movement across the sport.

And with that movement comes expectations. These are the coaches with the most to prove in Year 1 at their new jobs.

1. Deion Sanders - Colorado

Nobody can bring attention to a program like Deion Sanders.

With cameras constantly rolling in the Colorado facility, the hype has been steadily building for Coach Prime’s first season as an FBS head coach.

During his three seasons at Jackson State, Sanders recruited at a high level and won more than 80% of his games. He executed a major overhaul in Jackson, but the rebuild he’s taking on at Colorado is even greater.

Sanders and his staff have brought in somewhere in the range of 70 new players between the transfer portal and freshman recruits. It was a drastic and necessary reshaping of the Colorado roster with the team coming off a miserable 1-11 season that featured the worst scoring margin in the entire country. Colorado was outscored last season by an average of 29.1 points per game and has had a winning record just once in the last 17 years.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders in the first half of the team's spring practice NCAA college football game Saturday, April 22, 2023, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
What are reasonable expectations for Colorado in its first season under head coach Deion Sanders? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Anybody expecting the Buffs to all of a sudden compete for a Pac-12 title are fooling themselves. But what are reasonable expectations for Sanders and the Buffs in 2023?

On paper, Colorado’s roster is considerably more talented than it was at this time last year. The Buffs have a pretty nice collection of weapons on offense and two supreme talents in the secondary with Travis Hunter and Cormani McClain. But the offensive line will likely be relying on multiple FCS transfers and there’s a serious lack of depth at quarterback behind Shedeur Sanders.

Not to mention, a huge chunk of this roster is made up of players who were backups at other schools. And they’re all coming together over the course of a few months — including summer arrivals.

Bringing all of these new pieces together to try to mesh and compete right away against a difficult schedule is going to be an extremely tough task. But it’s what Sanders signed up for, and many are expecting immediate results.

The Buffs open on the road with TCU, the defending national runner-up, before hosting Nebraska — both in Fox’s national “Big Noon Saturday” window. There’s also an improved Colorado State coming to Folsom Field before the Pac-12 gauntlet begins with a trip to Oregon and a visit from USC. The Buffs avoid Washington, but there are also road games against UCLA and Utah on the back half of the schedule.

CU’s win total projection is only 3.5 for a reason. This is going to be a tremendous challenge, and a few early season blowouts have the potential to diminish much of the hype Sanders has created in Boulder.

But if Colorado can hang tough early in the year, avoid blowouts and gradually improve enough to pull off a few upsets in conference play, Sanders should be able to keep the momentum going into 2024.

2. Hugh Freeze - Auburn

Hugh Freeze is getting a second chance in the SEC, and it’s a pressure cooker of a job.

Freeze, who famously flamed out at Ole Miss amid a slew of controversies, is Auburn’s third head coach in a four-season span. Gus Malzahn coached the Tigers to eight consecutive winning seasons but he could never quite replicate the success he had in his first season — a magical run all the way to the national title game.

From there, the Bryan Harsin experiment came and went in just 21 games and now Freeze is inheriting a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons.

He’s done a nice job bolstering a seriously flawed roster via the transfer portal, but the Tigers aren’t expected to seriously compete for an SEC West title. There is a realistic path to a bowl game, however, especially if Freeze can bring some positive changes to the offense as anticipated.

Will that be enough to appease an extremely demanding fan base? And will Freeze be able to avoid the off-field controversies that have plagued him his entire career?

3. Matt Rhule - Nebraska

The Scott Frost era at Nebraska was a complete disaster as the Huskers could not even get to a bowl game during his time in Lincoln. Nebraska’s new coach, Matt Rhule, is coming off a disastrous coaching tenure of his own. Rhule had an 11-27 record before getting fired by the Carolina Panthers, and now he’s back in college football for another rebuilding job.

Rhule took a moribund Temple program and quickly built it into a conference champion. He did the same at Baylor, inheriting the wreckage left behind by Art Briles and turning the Bears into Big 12 champions by Year 3.

Ascending to the top of the Big Ten — especially with divisions going away — is going to be an even bigger challenge, especially in a new era of college football. Thus far, Rhule seems to have embraced the new realities of the transfer portal and NIL and he’s got the faithful in Lincoln feeling optimistic about what’s to come.

But debut seasons have not gone well for Rhule at any of his stops. At Temple, he went 2-10 in 2013. At Baylor, he went 1-11 in 2017. And with the Panthers, he went 5-11 in 2020. What will it be at Nebraska?

There are a lot of holes on this roster, but Rhule needs to bring a base level of competence and competitiveness in Year 1. A bowl game would be a significant building block for the program.

New Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule has his work cut out to rebuild a struggling program in Lincoln. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)
New Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule has his work cut out to rebuild a struggling program in Lincoln. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

4. Scott Satterfield - Cincinnati

Rather than continuing to stand on shaky ground at Louisville, Scott Satterfield opted for a fresh start at Cincinnati. Satterfield had a good run at Appalachian State, but went just 25-24 in four seasons at Louisville. He took over the Cardinals following the disastrous end of Bobby Petrino’s second tenure at UL and miraculously guided the Cards to eight wins in his first year.

In the three years that followed, Louisville went 4-7, 6-7 and 7-5, and Satterfield alienated some important people at UL along the way (his flirtation with South Carolina did not go over well). Now Satterfield is tasked with guiding Cincinnati’s transition into the Big 12.

The conference transition comes at a tough time. The Bearcats went a combined 53-10 over Luke Fickell’s final five seasons in charge — a run that included three AAC titles and a trip to the College Football Playoff.

Now the roster is turning over with a new coach as the Bearcats are taking a big step up in competition. The offense especially projects as a unit that could undergo some serious growing pains.

Cincinnati fans and administration that have grown accustomed to winning at a high level. If the Bearcats don’t even make it to a bowl game, will doubt about the Satterfield hire quickly creep in?

5. Luke Fickell - Wisconsin

Luke Fickell finally made the jump to a Power Five program, landing at Wisconsin following a fantastic six-year run at Cincinnati. Ironically, Fickell jumped ship just before the Bearcats were set to transition to the Big 12. But he decided he’d rather take the reins in Madison after the Badgers program had stagnated under Paul Chryst.

He’s already made some significant changes. Wisconsin has long been known for a physical, run-heavy offense. That’s why Fickell’s decision to hire Phil Longo as his offensive coordinator made waves in the college football community.

Longo comes from the Air Raid tree, meaning an extreme philosophical makeover is coming to the Wisconsin offense. So long to fullbacks and three tight end sets, here comes shotgun. Lots and lots of shotgun.

How will that offense fare in the Big Ten West? In the long run, the answer is probably “fine.” But there’s a lot of buzz about how quickly Fickell can get things going in Madison, so much so that Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten West at several sportsbooks.

If the new offense struggles early on, will doubt start to creep in? This is such a staggering change of identity that it’s fair to wonder how Wisconsin fans will react if the new-look Badgers experience some growing pains.

Luke Fickell is overhauling the Wisconsin offense in his first year with the team following a highly successful run coaching Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Luke Fickell is overhauling the Wisconsin offense in his first year with the team following a highly successful run coaching Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

6. Trent Dilfer - UAB

UAB was a consistent winner under head coach Bill Clark, but Clark stepped away before the 2022 season due to lingering back problems. Rather than keep Clark’s staff together after a 7-6 season under interim coach Bryant Vincent (Clark’s offensive coordinator), the UAB administration made a rather curious hire.

That hire was Trent Dilfer, the longtime NFL quarterback who mainly worked as a television analyst before becoming a high school head coach in Tennessee. Dilfer has also been affiliated with the Elite 11 quarterback camp, but he has no experience coaching at the college level.

To call this an unorthodox hire would be an understatement, especially with UAB moving from Conference USA up to the AAC. This could backfire spectacularly, especially when you consider the turnover on the Blazers’ roster. The team’s top quarterback, running back, defensive back and entire starting offensive line from last year have departed.

The Blazers could struggle to get to a bowl game in 2023. A season like that won't quiet any of Dilfer's doubters.

7. Zach Arnett - Mississippi State

This is a tough spot for new Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett, who is taking the reins in Starkville following the death of the legendary Mike Leach.

Arnett is only 36 years old and is a first-time head coach. A decade ago, he was a graduate assistant at San Diego State. Now he’s an SEC head coach. It’s been a speedy climb for Arnett, who spent the last three seasons as Leach’s defensive coordinator at MSU.

Arnett can really call a defense, but is he ready to run his own program? Or has he been thrust into a role he wasn’t quite ready for during an extremely trying time for the MSU program?

To this point, he hasn’t been shy about putting his own stamp on the program. Instead of continuing on with a Leach-style Air Raid offense, Arnett hired Kevin Barbay from Appalachian State to be his offensive coordinator. Barbay leans pretty heavily on the run and operates more of a pro-style scheme, a stark contrast from Leach’s pass-happy preferences. There will even be tight ends, a position group Leach rarely, if ever, employed through the years.

Leach’s offense brought some singularity to Mississippi State, a program that has had trouble sustaining success in the rugged SEC West. The offense Barbay had success with at Appalachian State in the Sun Belt may not exactly translate over to MSU and the SEC.

8. Tom Herman - Florida Atlantic

Tom Herman went 32-18 in four seasons at Texas from 2017 to 2020, but was still fired by the ever-demanding Longhorns' brass. Since then, Herman worked a year in the NFL and even tried his hand at television before landing at Florida Atlantic.

Herman looks and sounds reinvigorated and was able to find a nice landing spot in the Boca Raton sunshine. Will he be able to learn from some of his missteps in Austin and win right away at FAU? The Owls are moving from C-USA to the AAC but have a pretty solid roster, including well-traveled quarterback Casey Thompson. Herman recruited Thompson to Texas and the two are now set to reunite after Thompson spent a year at Nebraska.

Lane Kiffin was able to win quickly at FAU and move up the ladder to Ole Miss. Perhaps Herman can follow a similar path back to a bigger job.

9. Kenny Dillingham - Arizona State

At 33 years old, Kenny Dillingham is the youngest head coach at the FBS level. Dillingham is no stranger to being the young guy in the staff room as he’s already been the offensive coordinator at four schools. He parlayed his lone season as the OC at Oregon into the Arizona State job.

Dillingham is an ASU graduate who takes over a program that turned into an absolute mess under Herm Edwards, who was 68 when ASU fired him three games into his fifth season with the Sun Devils.

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson — who is somehow still employed after the Edwards debacle — went in the complete opposite direction age-wise with the Dillingham hire. Dillingham is certainly respected in football circles, but there could be some growing pains during his first season running his own program. That’s especially true when you consider the roster rebuild.

Dillingham raided the transfer portal but could be in for a tough Year 1 with questions lingering at quarterback, offensive line and pretty much every level of the defense.

10. Jeff Brohm - Louisville

Jeff Brohm did a wonderful job at Purdue, but there’s a different kind of pressure that comes with coaching your alma mater — especially when you’re the hometown hero.

Brohm’s father played quarterback at Louisville. His two brothers played at Louisville. Brohm himself was a star quarterback for the Cardinals. Now he’s the head coach.

Louisville is providing Brohm with plenty of resources and the school’s powerbrokers expect to win. Like many other first-year coaches, Brohm took a huge class of transfers with the hopes of winning right away. The Cardinals may not contend with the top teams in the ACC, but they have the path to a winning season — especially from a scheduling perspective.

Louisville has only three true road games and avoids Clemson and Florida State in ACC play. Brohm really should get off to a fast start, though that brings the danger of some false expectations going into 2024 (a season with road trips to Notre Dame, Clemson and Kentucky).