As we bid farewell to the 2023 college football regular season, it’s time to evaluate the job done by head coaches in their first season coaching at the FBS level. Our first-year college football head coach rankings separate the good from great and the not-so-great, ranking the 15 team leaders from worst to first.
First-Year College Football Head Coach Rankings
To qualify for the first-year college football head coach rankings, the 2023 college football season must have been the first time serving as a head coach for a full FBS season.
Coaches are judged on overall record, conference record, offensive rank and efficiency, defensive rank and efficiency, recruiting, and the situation they inherited, which is also taken into consideration.
15) Zach Arnett, Mississippi State
The only first-year head coach not to last the year, Zach Arnett props up our head coach rankings. Not many people would have wanted to follow in Mike Leach’s shoes, and Arnett has to be given credit for being a stabilizing force for the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the immediate aftermath of the legendary coaches’ untimely passing in December of last year.
However, Arnett took a 9-4 team from 2022 and went just 5-6 before being given his marching orders. Furthermore, the Bulldogs won just one game in the SEC, while ranking in the bottom 50 for both offensive and defensive scoring. There are reports that Arnett had become unpopular within the program for his approach while trying to enforce his identity on the team.
14) Kenni Burns, Kent State
To Kenni Burns’ credit, he arguably inherited the worst situation of anyone in the college football first-year head coach rankings. When Sean Lewis bolted for Boulder, many of their best players followed him out the door, leaving the wreckage of a team that had gone 5-7 in the 2022 season. As a result, there was a low bar of expectation for this year.
Somehow, they managed to limbo under that bar in 2023. Kent State is 1-10 heading into Week 13 and is still searching for their first MAC win when they face Northern Illinois to end the year. The Golden Flashes have the worst scoring offense in the nation, and the only game where they haven’t been blown out this season is the loss to Akron, their first to the Zips since 2018.
13) Troy Taylor, Stanford
After years of stagnation under their former head coach, the Stanford Cardinal turned to former Sacramento State leader Troy Taylor to revitalize and revolutionize the program. While we’ll get to the on-field performance this season, credit must be given for Taylor’s recruiting influence, with the team currently having the 27th overall ranked class in the 2024 cycle, as per 247 Sports.
Taylor’s low positioning in our first-year head coach rankings comes from disappointing on-field performance this year. Unless they beat Notre Dame to close out the season, the Cardinal will match their 2022 record under David Shaw. The team ranks in the bottom 30 for both offensive and defensive scoring, with a loss to his former team impacting Taylor here.
12) Lance Taylor, Western Michigan
With three Power Five programs and defending MAC champions Toledo on their schedule to open the season, Lance Taylor received a baptism of fire early in his tenure as the coach at Western Michigan. He helped the Broncos overcome that early inconvenience, lifting the Michigan MAC Trophy for the first time since 2020 after winning over Eastern and Central Michigan.
Taylor receives consideration for the job done despite losing some key players to the transfer portal, plus is on pace to put together a better recruiting class than the previous cycle. However, a worse record than a year ago – overall and in the MAC – impacts his place in our first-year head coach rankings. The defense has been one of the worst in the nation.
11) Trent Dilfer, UAB
One of the eye-opening appointments ahead of the 2023 college football season, Trent Dilfer has had a rollercoaster of a first season with the UAB Blazers. Credit is due to him for helping guide the program from CUSA to the AAC with respectability and for extracting the very best from Jacob Zeno as the spearhead for an offense that ranks in the top half of all college football teams.
The Blazers have faced a gauntlet of an AAC schedule, with defeats to Tulane, UTSA, and Memphis — not to mention an out-of-conference clash with Georgia. That weights the 4-7 record a little more favorably. However, Dilfer’s 2024 recruiting class currently ranks lower than last year’s, while his ugly sideline rant at his assistant coaches against Tulane is considered here.
10) K.C. Keeler, Sam Houston
A highly successful FCS coach with two national championships at two different non-FBS programs, K.C. Keeler took his Sam Houston Bearkats into the FBS level this season and faced a tough examination early on. Scoring just 10 points in three games to start the season and not securing a win until November drew a lot of negative attention in his direction.
A 2-9 overall record and just one CUSA win doesn’t scream success and certainly is below expectation. However, five of their defeats have been by one score or less. While their offense has been plagued by injury and ranks amongst the worst in the nation, they’ve been much better defensively, and the Keeler’s defense ranks fourth for efficiency amongst first-year coaches.
9) Biff Poggi, Charlotte
A highly-respected coach often credited as the mastermind behind the resurgence of the Michigan football program — not for stealing signs, we hasten to add — Biff Poggi was a significant capture for the Charlotte 49ers football program when taking over from Will Healy. There’s been good and bad, impacting his standing in our head coach rankings.
Starting with the good, Poggi has impacted the program both in the transfer portal and recruiting. That success has been pivotal for a vastly improved defense, allowing 12.6 points per game less compared to last year. However, the offense has seen a downturn this season, and unless they beat USF to end the season, there’ll be no improvement in the record.
8) Eric Morris, North Texas
Like Dilfer below him in our first-year head coach rankings, Eric Morris has been tasked with overseeing a conference transition as the CUSA runners-up headed to the AAC for the 2023 season. That move makes a direct record comparison difficult, verging on pointless, but the North Texas Mean Green will finish with a worse overall record this year than they did in the 2022 season.
Head coaches live and die by the supporting staff, and Morris will need to get more from defensive coordinator Matt Caponi next year. That said, as a former offensive coordinator, Morris’ fingerprints are all over a North Texas offense that has impressed. They rank 25th in the nation for points scored while ranking third for offensive efficiency amongst first-year coaches.
7) Ryan Walters, Purdue
Taking over from long-term Purdue Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm, Ryan Walters has faced a rough ride in his first season in West Lafayette. The former Illinois defensive coordinator has overseen the biggest negative swing in year-to-year record, with the team’s three wins this season coming five under their 2022 total.
Unless they win in Week 13, it’ll be the worst Big Ten record since 2016 — incidentally, the last time they weren’t coached by Brohm. Their offensive and defensive efficiency under Walters is far better than their scoring ranking suggests. Meanwhile, his impact on the 2024 recruiting class is significant, ranking 28th overall right now. 2024 could see a bounce back.
6) Deion Sanders, Colorado
From Louis Vuitton bags to hiring Warren Sapp, it’s been a breathtaking and absorbing first year for Deion Sanders as the head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. The national spotlight has shone brightly and consistently on the university since Coach Prime arrived, and transforming a 1-11 team in 2022 into a 4-7 program ahead of Week 13 is deserving of significant praise.
Sanders’ ability to mine the transfer portal has been second to not many, and behind Shedeur Sanders, they’ve been one of the most exciting offenses to watch. However, Sanders has failed to build in the trenches, the team has fallen apart in Pac-12 play, and their defense has allowed more points than all but five programs. It’s been a good start, but there’s been better jobs done in 2023.
5) Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State
Perhaps one of the more underrated first seasons in college football, Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Kenny Dillingham makes the top five of our first-year head coach rankings. Coming into the program as recruiting violations gutted the playing staff, Dillingham has had to be a stabilizing force for the program while trying to establish his own offensive identity on the field.
Injuries and inexperience at key positions has also hamstrung Dillingham in his first season, resulting in a team that will end with the same record as a year ago while ranking near the bottom of all college football teams for points scored and allowed. They played fourth-ranked Washington close as one of three one-score losses. Next season promises to be much better.
4) Tim Beck, Coastal Carolina
As former head coach Jamey Chadwell leads the Liberty Flames into the College Football Playoff rankings as an undefeated team ahead of Week 13, it’s easy to overlook the job that Tim Beck has done in his first season with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. After a rocky start to the year, the Chants face a win and, in the scenario, play in the Sun Belt Championship Game.
Beck is one of just two coaches in these first-year head coach rankings who has led his team to a winning conference record in 2023. He’s overseen an increase in the team’s offensive output, while the Chanticleers have been night and day better as a defensive unit, allowing 10 points per game less than a year ago. Winning games without Grayson McCall is a major achievement.
3) Brian Newberry, Navy
It’s not easy to transform a program like the Navy Midshipmen, where recruiting and the transfer portal aren’t real tools at your disposal. Despite this, Brian Newberry has established himself as one of the top first-year head coaches ahead of two final games that could return Navy to bowl eligibility. He’s already achieved more wins in 2023 than in 2022.
Newberry is the only coach besides Coastal’s Beck to have a winning conference record entering Week 13. The former Midshipmen defensive coordinator has remodeled the team in his image, resulting in the program ranking 24th nationally for scoring defense. No first-year head coach has led a more efficient defense, and Navy leads the country with three shutouts in 2023.
2) Alex Golesh, USF
Colorado’s Sanders isn’t the only head coach to transform a one-win team from 2022 into something far more successful in 2023. Former Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh might not have received the same level of national attention, but the job that he’s done with the USF Bulls is worthy of a place right near the top of our first-year head coach rankings for this season.
After going 1-11 last season without a win in the AAC, the Bulls are 5-6 heading into Week 13 with a shot at bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018. Golesh has overseen an increase in offensive output a reduction in points allowed, and currently has the program just outside the top 50 in the 2024 recruiting class rankings. It’s an outstanding job deserving of more recognition.
1) G.J. Kinne, Texas State
Under G.J. Kinne’s leadership, the Bobcats have the 22nd-ranked scoring offense in the nation and are the most efficient unit under any first-year head coach. Kinne’s mastery of the transfer portal has fuelled that offensive success, weaponizing FCS converts Joey Hobert and Ismail Mahdi while extracting the best out of former Auburn QB TJ Finley.
Three of their five losses this year have been by just one score.
These are the most total wins for the Texas State Bobcats since 2014. The most conference wins since 2014. They are eligible to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2014 when they didn’t actually play in the postseason.
The list of accomplishments for first-year coach Kinne is long, and now he can add the best FBS newcomer to the list as the best coach in our first-year head coach rankings.