Grading the coaching debuts, from Steve Sarkisian (A) to Clark Lea (F)



Eight Power Five coaches made their debuts during Week 1 and compiled a 6-3 record (Bret Bielema played twice!), giving hopeful fans their first look at the product of the new regime. Illinois was the only team to play a Power Five opponent, and the Illini beat Nebraska in Week 0 before following that up with a loss to UTSA in Week 1. Arizona played a soon-to-be P5 opponent in BYU and put up a respectable fight.

One coach got the Gatorade treatment (Shane Beamer) and another enjoyed a field-storming (Lance Leipold). Here are reviews of the new eras that kicked off in 2021.

Bryan Harsin, Auburn

RESULT: Defeated Akron, 60-10

OVERVIEW: Hard to quibble with a 53-0 lead after three quarters. Yes, the Tigers were 35-point favorites, but they covered that with ease. QB Bo Nix was 20-for-22, Auburn scored on its first eight possessions and kept the Zips at zip til the fourth quarter. The quality of opponent keeps this from an “A.”

GRADE: A-minus

RELATED: Bender’s Week 1 Takeaways and Extra Points

Jedd Fisch, Arizona

RESULT: Lost to BYU 24-16

OVERVIEW: The last time we saw Arizona, they lost 70-7 to Arizona State. So things are looking up, no? Arizona was competitive against a solid BYU squad as Gunner Cruz threw for 345 yards with one TD and one INT.


Bret Bielema, Illinois

RESULT: Defeated Nebraska 30-22 Week 0, lost to UTSA 37-30 in Week 1

OVERVIEW: Thumbs up in Week 0, as Illinois knocked off Nebraska with its backup QB. Disappointment arrived the following week, but UTSA is a legit Group of Five squad and Illinois was still running with its second-string QB in Art Sitkowski.

GRADE: B-minus

Lance Leipold, Kansas

RESULT: Defeated South Dakota 17-14

OVERVIEW: Not an inspiring start for the new regime. The Jayhawks needed to convert a fourth-and-10 on their game-winning drive, which ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 1:10 to play. Kansas was outgained by a Missouri Valley team that went 1-3 in its abbreviated spring season. Kansas will likely not be favored the rest of the season, but hey, their fans squeezed in a field-storm at least.

GRADE: C-minus

Shane Beamer, South Carolina

RESULT: Defeated Eastern Illinois 46-0

OVERVIEW: Pretty much everything went right in Columbia, with the Gamecocks blocking two punts, intercepting two passes and tossing a shutout on defense. Graduate assistant-turned-QB1 Zeb Nolan threw four touchdown passes in the first half. The only thing preventing this from an “A” is the quality of opponent.

GRADE: A-minus

Josh Heupel, Tennessee

RESULT: Defeated Bowling Green 38-6

OVERVIEW: Considering that Bowling Green did not win a game last season and did not place one player on Athlon Sports’ first-, second- or third-team preseason All-MAC teams, this wasn’t exactly a measuring stick game. Tennessee did what it had to do, was never really threatened, but led just 14-6 at halftime against a clearly overmatched team. Heupel’s high-tempo offense was on display, but new QB Joe Milton was shaky enough to give Vols fans some pause despite the 32-point win.

GRADE: B-minus

Steve Sarkisian, Texas

RESULT: Defeated Louisiana 38-18

OVERVIEW: Sark said he was going to give the ball to Bijan Robinson, and give it to Robinson he did. Robinson had 24 touches, 186 total yards and two TDs. He managed a two-QB situation to everyone’s satisfaction and Texas was never really threatened. He did this under the pressure of a no-win situation against Louisiana.


Clark Lea, Vanderbilt

RESULT: Lost to East Tennessee State 23-3

OVERVIEW: Derek Mason may not have left much SEC talent behind, but Lea didn’t need SEC talent to stay within 20 points at home against a team that finished third in the Southern Conference. In 2019, a 3-9 Vanderbilt team beat ETSU 38-0. That’s almost a 60-point swing. There were no building blocks in this game for Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator. Vanderbilt was outclassed and never threatened in the second half.



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