National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with the 3-Point Stance, breaking down head coaching rankings in the ACC (ND included), the running back tiers in the PAC-12, and five true freshmen defensive linemen to watch.
— Let’s continue the roll through coaching rankings, this time with ACC & Notre Dame.
1. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
He’s the greatest coach in Clemson history, and it’s not particularly close. He’s got two national titles and has turned a program that was a punchline into a perennial top-5 team. This one isn’t particularly close.
2. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
There isn’t a coach in the country who does as much with as little year in and year out as Dave Clawson. 2021 was the culmination of eight years of building up a program that had waned in the last few years of the Jim Grobe era. Clawson has led the Deacs to six consecutive bowl games and routinely has an electric offense despite being the smallest school in the Power 5.
3. Mack Brown, North Carolina
Mack Brown has forgotten more about football than 99.9% of us will ever know. The former national championship winner at Texas has had ups and downs in his return to North Carolina, and this season will have the biggest test of his return to coaching in trying to replace three-year starter Sam Howell behind center.
4. Mario Cristobal, Miami
The prodigal son returns to Coral Gables after going 35-13 in five years at Oregon where he showed that he can win at a high level. Expectations are through the roof, and he’s already off to a great start on the recruiting trail.
5. Dave Doeren, NC State
Doeren has had some rough patches while at NC State, but he’s managed to have a winning record in seven of the past eight seasons. The Wolfpack made it over the hump last year and had one of their most successful seasons, finishing 9-3, pushing Doeren’s career record at NC State to 64-49.
6. Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame
Typically, I’m pretty reticent to rank any first-time head coach this high. Yes, I know he was technically the coach for their bowl game this year – a loss in the Fiesta Bowl – but he’s a first-time head coach for all intents and purposes. Nonetheless, his defensive acumen is clearly evident, and he’s been a machine on the recruiting trail.
7. Jeff Hafley, Boston College
Hafley has been dealt a couple of tough hands in his two seasons, including a very untimely injury to quarterback Phil Jurkovec in the middle of last season. Nonetheless, Hafley has done a great job getting the Eagles back to being competitive week in and week out. With a big year, he may get the eye of some NFL teams,
8. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
There have been some disappointments in the Narduzzi era at Pitt for the former Michigan State defensive coordinator. But on the whole, he’s proven to be an above-average head coach that consistently has the Panthers in the top half of the division. He’s 53-37 in seven seasons, and has finished at or above .500 in every year but one.
9. Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
A former assistant under Frank Beamer, Pry returns to Virginia Tech hoping to return the Hokies to glory. He’s got a lot going for him as a recruiter and tough-nosed coach, and he’s tasked with picking up the pieces after the disappointing Justin Fuente era.
10. Scott Satterfield, Louisville
It’s a make-or-break year for the former Appalachian State head coach who has not yet shown that he can win at the Power 5 level. He’s got a super talented quarterback in Malik Cunningham but not a ton of talent around him for 2022, so it’s going to be an open question as to whether he sticks around for the arrival of five-star Rueben Owens.
11. Tony Elliott, Virginia
Elliott is in his first year as a head coach after a decade on the Clemson staff. He was the offensive coordinator for two national title winners, and he inherits one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Brennan Armstrong. But questions will remain about how effective he can be outside of Clemson’s culture until he proves it on the field.
12. Mike Elko, Duke
Another first-year head coach, Elko brings a ton of credibility on the defensive side of the ball. However, Duke is as tough a place to win as any in the Power 5, and he’s got his work cut out for him.
13. Mike Norvell, Florida State
The Norvell era has been as much of a disappointment as the Willie Taggert era in Tallahassee, and things aren’t looking much better for 2022. The culture in that program has regressed a ton, and they’re simply not the team they once were. Norvell has not proven that he’s going to be able to re-establish the program on the same level as Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Bowden. It will take a small miracle for him to last the season.
14. Dino Babers, Syracuse
In one of the biggest surprises of the offseason, the Orange retained Dino Babers as their head coach despite a 29-43 career record at the school in six seasons with only one winning season and bowl appearance. Like Norvell, he will need unprecedented success in order to keep his job, and that’s not particularly likely.
15. Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech
It’s never easy to completely overhaul a team, especially when trying to transition out of the triple option to a more modern offense. But Collins has been trying to do that over the past three seasons at Georgia Tech to no avail. They’ve won three games in each season, and have lost some of their best players – including team MVP from 2021 Jahmyr Gibbs – to the transfer portal. It’s going to be another long season in Atlanta.
— The running back tiers in the Pac-12 are intriguing to me. It’s not as pass happy a conference as many think.
1. Elite: USC, UCLA, Utah
Even though Caleb Williams got all the headlines as the biggest transfer coming in to USC, the pair of Travis Dye and Austin Jones should not go unnoticed. Dye was excellent at Oregon in 2021, leading the conference in total yards. Jones will serve as his primary backup and is no slouch himself, with nearly 1,700 career yards.
The Bruins have the most arguably the most singularly talented back in the Pac-12 in Zach Charbonnet, and he proved that in 2021 with over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns while splitting time with Brittain Brown. Redshirt freshman Deshun Murrell should be an effective backup, but true freshman Tomarion Harden from nearby Inglewood could see some action as well.
Along with Dye and Charbonnet, Tavion Thomas completes the triumvirate of elite backs in the conference. The Utes endured tragedy at that position after 2020 freshman of the year Ty Jordan was tragically killed in the offseason. Thomas led the Pac-12 with 21 touchdowns in 2021, while he and backup Micah Bernard combined for 1,900 yards last year.
2. Good but not Great: Oregon, Oregon State
The Ducks have seemingly always had running back talent on their roster for 20+ years now. So despite losing Dye and CJ Verdell, there’s still a lot to like in Eugene, especially with Byron Cardwell set to take over the reins as the number one back. He averaged nearly 7 yards per carry in 2021. Western Kentucky transfer Noah Whittington and former Minnesota starter Mar’Keise Irving will be in the mix as well.
Oregon State’s Deshaun Fenwick saw some success after transferring from South Carolina before the 2021 season, and looks to step up even more in 2022. But the guy to watch out for here is true freshman Damien Martinez, who looks like he may already have locked down the starting job.
3. That’ll Do: Washington, Arizona State, Cal
The Huskies needed a complete rebuild in their running back room, and that’s just what they’ve done, bringing in Aaron Dumas (New Mexico), Wayne Taulapapa (Virginia), and Will Nixon (Nebraska) from the transfer portal. Taulapapa brings the most versatility, but all three guys should get plenty of touches, at least early on in the season.
Despite losing their top two backs from last season, Arizona State has done a good job of reloading by bringing in Wyoming’s Xazavian Valladay, who ran for nearly 3,900 yards during his time with the Cowboys. He’s a proven back and will provide stability while they bring along Daniyel Ngata and Tevin White behind him.
Cal’s Damien Moore returns as one of the better backs in the conference outside of the Big 3 and has shown versatility through his career so far. Behind him four-star true freshman Jaydn Ott had a ton of offers and is an intriguing player to watch. However, they’re still a little thin at the position.
4. Cross Your Fingers and Pray: Washington State, Arizona, Colorado, Stanford
After losing one of the best all-purpose backs in the country in Max Borghi to the draft as well as his primary backup Deon McIntosh, the Cougars are in a tough spot at the running back position. Former Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson looks to get the first crack at the starting job, but there is about as open a competition as you’re going to find on the Palouse.
Arizona’s Michael Wiley has been a nice presence during his career in Tucson, but he’s not a game-breaker by any means. There’s almost no depth behind him, as the only other backs on the roster are true freshmen.
Alex Fontenot at Colorado has been okay during his career, but he’s never had much of a line in front of him to really help him out in any way. The depth behind Fontenot is meager as well, as Deion Smith is the only other player on the roster who has any carries in a college game.
The Cardinal lost their top two backs from last season – the aforementioned Jones who is now at USC, as well as leading rusher Nathaniel Peat, who is now at Missouri. EJ Smith and Casey Filkins are the top two on the depth chart right now, but neither has proven really anything yet in their career.
— And finally here are five true freshman defensive linemen who could have a big impact next season.
DT Walter Nolen, Texas A&M
I think Nolen is the most talented player overall with the highest ceiling in the 2022 class. He can be special.
DE Mykel Williams, Georgia
Georgia needs to revamp somewhat on the defensive line and Williams has the size and talent to play very early.
DE Dani Dennis-Sutton, Penn State
He’s just too big a recruit and too good to sit. He will see a ton of time.
DT Mason Graham, Michigan
His play in the spring has me thinking he’s going to be a big part of this defense.
DT Travis Shaw, North Carolina
The depth on the defensive line is improving and he’s too active and agile to not see a lot of playing time.