A year ago, 31 different FBS teams watched a first-year head coach take the podium for their Signing Day press conference, almost exactly a quarter of the entire division. Things were much more settled this offseason -- only 19 jobs changed hands, and only seven at the major conference level (compared to 13 in 2013).
All of which made recruiting even harder for the coaching class of 2014, since there were fewer fellow programs in flux to recruit against. But some of those first-year coaches succeeded all the same ... and some did not. Here are three first-year coaches who exceeded expectations, two who did enough for some optimism going forward and two who struggled, with all team rankings based on the final 247Sports Composite Team Rankings:
Steve Sarkisian, USC , No. 11: Entering Signing Day, the Trojans unthinkably ranked outside the nation's top 25 classes. But finishing with a pair of five-stars in Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith and another top-50 overall player in Damien Mama changed that right quick. And in the end, Sarkisian's first class didn't look substantially different from Lane Kiffin's final few classes from the Trojans' scholarship-restriction era; light on numbers, but heavy on NFL-grade talent. Give Sarkisian a full year to operate, and the Trojans should be securely back in the top 10 come Signing Day 2015.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt , No. 46: No, Mason didn't sign the class James Franklin would have. But we'll let Commodore rising junior defensive end Caleb Azubike explain why Mason still deserves his spot here:
Think with me for a sec. On Friday we(Vandy) had 9 people coming. 9!!! and Now 5 days later we have 22 Signees! 22!! Coach Mason you a Dawg!— Caleb Azubike (@VandyKid_55) February 5, 2014
One of those late additions was Nifae Lealao, no less than the highest-ranked recruit in Vandy history (or at least, in the history of recruiting rankings). In the end, despite an overwhelming wave of decommitments, Mason needed only a month to sign a class ranked exactly one spot higher than Franklin's first full class in 2012. Some of that credit (ironically) has to go to Franklin for making Vandy a viable football destination for recruits -- but much more goes to Mason for making one of the biggest late pushes in the country.
Chris Petersen, Washington , No. 37: Petersen didn't arrive in Seattle with a reputation as a recruiting force, and the No. 37 ranking -- a bit low by Washington's usual standards -- likely won't change that. But in a similar vein to Mason's challenges at Vandy, it's worth remembering that at one stage in December, the Huskies had just five committed recruits. They finished with 24, including top-60 overall athlete Budda Baker, the top recruit in the state -- and jumped a whopping 19 spots in the rankings' Signing Day calculations.
THUMBS POISED SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE
James Franklin, Penn State , No. 24: Franklin could very easily have slotted into the "thumbs-up" category, adding a flurry of late commitments (several of them controversially poached from Vanderbilt) to keep the Nittany Lions inside in the top 25. But that ranking is a product of numbers as much as top-end talent -- only 5 of Penn State's 25 signees were composite four-stars -- and despite being a Pennsylvania native, Franklin's late blitz still couldn't net the Nittany Lions any more than one of the state's top 13 prospects. That should change dramatically come 2015, but for now, Franklin's first effort was more solid than spectacular.
Charlie Strong, Texas , No. 17: Strong, on the other hand, could very easily have slotted into the "thumbs-down" category; the Longhorns suffered a rash of late decommitments and mind-bogglingly signed none of the Lone Star State's top 8 recruits, inking just 2 of the top 15. But Strong also landed a pair of critical defensive tackles on Signing Day, including four-star Poona Ford, and safely kept must-sign commitments like quarterback Jerrod Heard and safety John Bonney in the fold. Finishing outside the top 15 and watching Texas A&M assert itself as the current recruiting power in the state isn't what any Longhorn fan would describe as a success, but between Mack Brown's middling start to the cycle and Strong's initial struggles, things could have been worse.
Bobby Petrino, Louisville , No. 47: The Cards actually got some good news on Signing Day, pulling in linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed, tackle Lukayus McNeil, and athlete Cornelius Sturghill ... but did that outweigh the bad news of losing linebacker Isaiah Riddle to Kansas State (without him even visiting Manhattan), Quincy McKinney to East Carolina, or longtime Card commit Desean Blair to Missouri? Of the 20 recruits signed by the Cards, none was a composite four-star. Petrino's accomplished plenty with classes like these (and worse) before, but pulling in at least one high-profile recruit would have done a lot to silence the talk that Petrino's past will badly hamstring his efforts on the trail -- and it didn't happen.
Bob Diaco, Connecticut , No. 108: In fairness to Diaco, it's worth bearing in mind that recruiting rankings get less and less accurate the more under-the-radar a school's commitments are, and that recruits from UConn's recruiting base in the Northeast are even more under the radar than most. That said, only six of the Huskies' 17 signees were even composite three-stars, leaving UConn ranked dead last in the American. There's not really any difference between the Huskies' class and, say, Memphis's or Tulane's ... but at a program that had gone to four straight bowl games entering the 2011 season, "not really any difference between the Huskies' class and, say, Memphis's or Tulane's" is a major part of the problem.
HOW THE REST FARED: ACC: Dave Clawson, Wake Forest, No. 62; Group of Five: UAB, Bill Clark, No. 109; Arkansas State, Blake Anderson, No. 95; Boise State, Bryan Harsin, No. 68; Bowling Green, Dino Babers, No. 103; Eastern Michigan, Chris Creighton, No. 126; FAU, Charlie Partridge, No. 94; Massachusetts, Mark Whipple, No. 115; Miami (Ohio), Chuck Martin, No. 122; Western Kentucky, Jeff Brohm, No. 86; Wyoming, Craig Bohl, No. 121. (Also worth noting: FBS transitional program Georgia Southern finished No. 89 under new coach Willie Fritz, the highest ranking for any current or future Sun Belt team.)