There's always an understandable fascination with first-year head coaches. We love nothing more than the new and unknown, and all the possibilities that they bring.
The Big Ten had three schools make head coaching changes, and it so happens that all three came at high-profile programs: Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. So it's no surprise that in about every radio interview I've done this offseason, one question invariably pops up: which of the three new coaches will have the most success in Year 1?
And I always give the same answer: Wisconsin's Paul Chryst.
That's not to suggest that Chryst is necessarily a better coach than Michigan's Jim Harbaugh or Nebraska's Mike Riley. In fact, he's got a whole lot more to prove as a program leader than the other two, who have much more extensive track records. But this is about which coach has the best turn-key opportunity, and that's why Chryst gets the nod.
Many new head coaches get their jobs because of some failure or turmoil from the previous regime. The Badgers are the odd example of a program that has undergone two straight coaching changes that seemingly came from out of nowhere, while the team was on a good run. Wisconsin is 60-21 since 2009, with four double-digit win seasons in that span. That includes last year's 11-3 campaign that saw the team capture the Big Ten West Division and beat Auburn in the Capital One Bowl.
Even with the loss of superstar running back Melvin Gordon, Chryst inherits a wildly favorable and successful situation. Moreover, as a former Badgers player and assistant coach, he is intimately familiar with the culture of the program and what makes it work. There isn't much need for a drastic overhaul on the offensive side of the ball -- Chryst's speciality -- and he doesn't need to be reminded that the team's bread is buttered through the power-run game. Corey Clement is ready to break out as the team's next star back, and even with some depth issues, the offensive line is going to be good. Wisconsin doesn't have to change anything on defense with the return of coordinator Dave Aranda, whose decision to stay in Madison instead of following Gary Andersen to Oregon State was one of Chryst's first key victories.
Though opening against Alabama is a tough welcome-to-the-show moment, the rest of Wisconsin's schedule sets up well. This should be your West Division favorite, and there's no reason why Chryst shouldn't rival the first-year success of predecessors Bret Bielema -- who won 12 games in his head coaching debut -- and Andersen -- who went 9-4 in 2013.
Chryst and Riley will likely always be compared to each other, since they are taking over West Division teams with similar profiles at the same time and both are down-home, non-flashy types. Riley takes over a program that won nine games (and lost four) like clockwork every year under Bo Pelini, so anything less than that will seem like a disappointment in Year 1. Nebraska can certainly get there, and even going 9-4 without all the drama and ups and downs of the Pelini era could be considered progress.
Still, the Huskers have a couple of tests in the nonconference schedule with BYU and on the road against Miami, plus a crossover challenge against Michigan State. They lost major wattage when stars Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory went to the NFL. And this is a complete regime change, with a focus on a more pro-style offense and very little holdover to the previous way of doing things. Growing pains should be expected.
Harbaugh has the toughest obstacle in rebuilding a team that went 5-7 last year with as many public embarrassments as it has on-field achievements. You can almost guarantee, at least, that he will instill a toughness that has been lacking, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Harbaugh is a proven turnaround artist, and it wouldn't shock me to see Michigan pull off eight or nine wins this season, especially if it can navigate through a potentially tricky out-of-league slate that has a trip to Utah and home dates with BYU and Oregon State.
There's little doubt that Harbaugh will eventually have the Wolverines molded into a Big Ten contender, perhaps as soon as next year. But like Riley, whose enthusiasm and recruiting vigor are promising signs at Nebraska, the best days are likely ahead. Ironically, Chryst is the one who will need to prove he can sustain winning at a high level in future years after a so-so three years as the head coach at Pitt.
For this year only, however, I say Chryst enjoys the best honeymoon season of the league's three new (and fascinating) head coaches.