On the afternoon of Sept. 13, 2021, USC fired head coach Clay Helton, concluding that just two games, one of them a loss, was enough to show the program needed a change at the top. Although Helton entered the season on the hottest of seats, USC's quick hook gave the coaching carousel an early spin in what would become a historically active cycle. But that's not all. The Helton decision, followed by coaching changes at LSU, Oklahoma, Miami and elsewhere, impacted high-profile coaches and many of the most recognizable quarterbacks in the sport.
Coaches and quarterbacks occupy college football's two highest pedestals, and they're inextricably linked, perhaps now more than ever through the carousel and the transfer portal. The wild winter of 2021-22 showed that most of the major moves by both groups are interconnected. Quarterbacks can now follow coaches, with the hope of playing immediately, as Caleb Williams did after coach Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC. The carousel and the portal allow for other types of moves, too, such as quarterbacks Dillon Gabriel and Bo Nix reuniting with coordinators Jeff Lebby and Kenny Dillingham at Oklahoma and Oregon, respectively.
Each major coaching change had corresponding quarterback moves that set off chain reactions, sending other notable quarterbacks to new destinations.
Beginning with the Helton firing, ESPN examined all the coach and quarterback shuffling around the sport, and how it impacts teams heading into the 2022 season. Although this past winter was distinct because of who moved and where, it also serves as a preview for what will become annual coach-quarterback hopscotching around the country.
Head-coaching changes at USC, Oregon and LSU were the cornerstones for three separate but related domino effects. Scroll to find out how they all connect.
A 42-28 USC loss to Stanford at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- the Trojans trailed 42-13 early in the fourth quarter -- provided the final evidence athletic director Mike Bohn needed to dump the embattled Clay Helton. USC got an early jump on a critical coaching search after several underwhelming (and unsuccessful) hires, and Bohn went big.
After Oklahoma lost its last regular-season game to Oklahoma State, Lincoln Riley emphatically dismissed any connection to the LSU coaching vacancy. But no one asked about USC, which made a through-the-night push to land Riley. By the end of the weekend, the 38-year-old with four Big 12 titles and three College Football Playoff appearances to his name had become the first Oklahoma coach since 1946 to leave for another college job.
Oklahoma responded by continuing its pattern of hiring prominent assistants. Brent Venables, the Clemson defensive coordinator, had deep Sooners roots, having served as an OU coordinator under Bob Stoops from 1999 to 2011. He had helped Clemson to two national titles and was the nation's highest-paid assistant, having turned down several head-coaching opportunities. But a chance to lead OU was too good to pass up.
Venables' immediate priorities were maintaining the offensive excellence that Riley started, and keeping Williams in town after his exceptional freshman season. He looked to Jeff Lebby, an Oklahoma alumnus who came up in the Baylor offense before thriving as a coordinator with UCF and then Ole Miss, where he twice was a semifinalist for the Broyles Award (nation's top assistant). Lebby had mentored productive quarterbacks such as Gabriel (UCF) and Matt Corral (Ole Miss), and was the ideal complement to Venables.
The day after USC introduced Riley as its head coach, Spencer Rattler, who began the 2021 season as Oklahoma's starting quarterback and the Heisman Trophy favorite, entered the transfer portal. The move was expected after Rattler, who thrived under Riley in 2020, lost the QB1 tag to Williams midway through the season. He would eventually land at South Carolina with coach Shane Beamer, a former Oklahoma assistant.
Williams initially didn't enter the portal, and Gabriel, who missed most of the 2021 season with a broken clavicle, needed a new landing spot after entering the portal on Nov. 27. He actually visited Ole Miss while Lebby was still there, but then committed to UCLA in mid-December. Then on Jan. 3, Williams entered the portal, and would soon head to USC. The same day, Gabriel announced his transfer to Oklahoma and reunited with Lebby. In 2019, Gabriel passed for 3,653 yards and 29 touchdowns under Lebby as a freshman at UCF.
“Obviously, me leaving, I think there are at least 15 top quarterbacks that entered the portal. A spot opened up and I ran with it. ... Got to talk to [Lebby] and just felt like it was a no-brainer.”
About two weeks after USC hired Riley, Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis entered the transfer portal. Slovis set a Pac-12 single-season record for completion percentage as a freshman and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2020, but after some on-field regression and the coaching change, he looked elsewhere.
On Dec. 21, Slovis announced he would transfer to Pitt, where he could presumably throw to Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison in 2022. Then Addison transferred to USC.
Slovis wasn't the only USC quarterback looking to relocate. Jaxson Dart, who showed promise in relief of Slovis late last season, entered the portal Jan. 10, aware of Williams-to-USC transfer buzz that would build throughout the month. On Jan. 29, Dart announced he would join former USC head coach Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, where Corral had blossomed under Lebby. Three days later, Williams made it official, announcing he would be rejoining Riley in a USC uniform.
“When I got the call, I kind of realized everyone was staying except for [quarterback] Kenny [Pickett]. Looking at the opportunity, it was kind of a no-brainer, and [Pitt] jumped to the top of my list immediately.”
Rattler's transfer announcement put South Carolina's quarterback room on notice, and Jason Brown quickly responded. Two days later, the former FCS transfer, who started four games with South Carolina and led the Gamecocks to a win over Florida, again entered the transfer portal. On Jan. 6 -- the same day former Marshall QB Grant Wells announced he would be a Hokie -- Brown landed at Virginia Tech. On Aug. 17, new head coach Brent Pry named Wells the opening-day starter.
Gabriel's departure from UCF created an opportunity at quarterback. John Rhys Plumlee started eight games for Ole Miss at quarterback in 2019, setting a freshman rushing record (1,023 yards) before shifting to wide receiver under Kiffin. Mobile quarterbacks thrive under UCF coach Gus Malzahn, and Plumlee jumped at the chance to be in an offense more suited to his skills.
In an ironic twist of the coaching carousel, Helton was the first coach fired and the first coach hired, as Georgia Southern brought him aboard Nov. 2. The team had dumped Chad Lunsford four games into the 2021-22 season, and would finish 3-9. Helton needed a veteran quarterback to lead his offense and targeted Kyle Vantrease, who started 25 games for Buffalo and had 4,755 yards and 25 touchdowns. Vantrease entered the portal Dec. 30 and landed with Georgia Southern on Jan. 10.
Graham Harrell finished out the season as USC's offensive coordinator but, like most of Helton's assistants, would not return under Riley. On Jan. 10, West Virginia hired Harrell as OC to spark a unit that finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring. Harrell, a record-setting passer in the Big 12 at Texas Tech, was set to inherit a quarterback room lacking experience after two-year starter Jarret Doege entered the portal in December.
A year after leading Georgia to a strong finish, JT Daniels watched teammate Stetson Bennett quarterback the Bulldogs to the national title. Daniels, who dealt with injuries throughout his time at Georgia, entered the transfer portal Jan. 19, the same day Bennett announced his return. After a lengthy search, Daniels picked West Virginia. He reunited with Harrell, who was set to coach Daniels at USC in 2019 before Daniels tore his ACL in the opener.
rise in FPI
fall in FPI
USC finally regained its swagger with Riley, and one of the more anticipated Trojans seasons in recent years begins Sept. 3 against Rice. Although USC was picked third in the Pac-12 preseason poll, its Football Power Index ranking has risen 23 spots from 58 to 35 since the end of the 2021-22 season. The Trojans should have the league's most explosive offense, thanks to their transfer haul, headlined by Williams. Riley is the splashiest hire in team history, and expectations are as high as they have been since the Pete Carroll era. Anything less than a CFP appearance in the next few seasons would be considered a major disappointment.
Excitement is also building at Oklahoma, as Venables returns to begin his tenure with Gabriel at quarterback and Lebby calling the plays. Although its FPI ranking fell from 5 to 8 over the offseason, a return to the CFP is possible if OU can maintain its upward offensive trajectory and upgrade the defense under Venables.
Several other quarterbacks impacted by the USC dominoes soon will take the field with their new teams. The resumption of the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia will feature two former USC quarterbacks -- Slovis and Daniels, respectively -- opposing one another, while Harrell calls plays for the Mountaineers.
The one-two punch of losing to rival Florida State on Nov. 13 and losing athletic director Blake James three days later signaled the end for Manny Diaz at Miami. But the end didn't come quickly. Diaz was left dangling for weeks -- coaching the Canes to wins over Virginia Tech and Duke and then hitting the road recruiting -- all while Miami circled Oregon's Mario Cristobal. Diaz was fired the morning of Dec. 6, and Cristobal was hired within hours.
Oregon moved on quickly once Cristobal didn't bite on a contract extension and left for Miami. After Cal's Justin Wilcox rebuffed the Ducks' interest, athletic director Rob Mullens zeroed in on a surprising candidate: Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. Not only was Lanning's defensive background a change for the offensive-minded Ducks, he was young (35) and had never been a head coach before. What's more, he was in the midst of a national championship run that would keep him with the Bulldogs for another month.
Lanning didn't stray from his roots when he targeted Florida State's Kenny Dillingham as his offensive coordinator. The two were assistants together on Mike Norvell's staff at Memphis in 2016 and 2017. Under Lanning, Dillingham gets full playcalling autonomy for the first time after working for offensive-minded head coaches Norvell and Malzahn.
Dillingham didn't arrive in Oregon empty-handed. Only two days after he was hired, we learned his likely starting quarterback, Bo Nix, a starter at Auburn for the past three seasons, was heading to Eugene as well, reuniting with the offensive coordinator/QB coach who helped him become SEC Freshman of the Year in 2019.
Auburn had an answer within arm's reach -- two, in fact. With former LSU QB Max Johnson having transferred to Texas A&M, Auburn went out and signed the Aggies' starter from last season, Zach Calzada. Then it added to the open competition at the position by getting none other than Oregon backup Robby Ashford, who went to high school in-state at Hoover (Alabama). With former LSU transfer T.J. Finley back for a second year in the program, new Auburn offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau has a wealth of options to choose from.
“When Coach Dillingham got the job, we already had that connection. ... That had a lot to do with it. But it was just, why not Oregon?”
rise in FPI
rise in FPI
Getting the coach and the quarterback are in some ways the most straightforward steps in rebuilding a program. But what about the rest of the roster? That's an entirely different story.
More than a dozen players have transferred out of Miami since November. The same can be said of Oregon. Both teams were aggressive in backfilling through the portal, though. Offensive linemen Logan Sagapolu and Jonathan Denis followed Cristobal from Oregon to Miami, which now sits at No. 9 in the FPI rankings.
All that turnover leads us to the question of whether they're ready to compete now. Oregon's FPI rank has edged up seven spots to No. 23 since January, but it slipped from No. 12 to No. 16 in ESPN's post-spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. The Ducks' best hope of making a run at the Pac-12 title is if Nix beats out redshirt freshmen Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield for the starting job and rediscovers the promise of his freshman season at Auburn, during which he threw 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Fun fact: Nix's first win was against Oregon. But his past two years have been a roller coaster with too many highs and lows as a passer and a combined 13 picks. We'll get a good feel for his development and where things stand for Oregon right away, as the Ducks play Lanning's old team, Georgia, to start the season.
It took 17 games for the shine to come off Ed Orgeron's national championship run. With no Joe Burrow waiting in the wings at quarterback, no Joe Brady to plug in as offensive coordinator and no Dave Aranda ready to step in at defensive coordinator, it all fell apart. The offense regressed, and Bo Pelini as DC turned out to be a massive mistake. Plagued by losses on the field and missteps off it, Ed Orgeron and LSU agreed in October to part ways at the end of the season.
Dan Mullen might have Orgeron beat in the "How did it unravel so quickly?" department. Fresh off an SEC championship appearance, Mullen received a three-year contract extension in June 2021. But a lack of recruiting victories and wins over Top 25 teams caught up with Mullen. After losing in overtime at Missouri, UF athletic director Scott Stricklin was ready to eat a $12 million buyout to move on. Less than 36 hours later, Stricklin was sitting in the living room of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who had won 40 games in four seasons. By the time he left, Stricklin said to expect an offer soon, which Napier accepted.
The expectation all along was that LSU athletic director Scott Woodward would go big in search of Orgeron's replacement. First, the buzz centered on Michigan State's Mel Tucker, who wound up with a 10-year, $95 million contract to stay put. Then the focus turned to another likely candidate, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who told reporters he wasn't interested. Then came the sleeper: Brian Kelly. Despite having spent 12 seasons at Notre Dame and not indicating publicly that he was ready to leave, Kelly jumped at the challenge of going to the SEC and LSU.
No quarterback room expected as many twists and turns as the one in Baton Rouge. After coach Ed Orgeron was fired in October, LSU's starters for each of the past two seasons, Max Johnson and Myles Brennan, both entered the portal. Johnson ultimately went to Texas A&M, but Brennan, after a call from new coach Brian Kelly, decided to return, setting up a three-person competition with sophomore Garrett Nussmeier and four-star freshman Walker Howard.
Then the spring arrived, and Arizona State dual-threat Jayden Daniels hit the portal unexpectedly. Kelly was hesitant at first to pursue Daniels but couldn't pass up signing someone with three years of starting experience and 45 career touchdowns (32 passing, 13 rushing). "It was about competition," Kelly said.
Daniels, Brennan and Nussmeier split reps during the spring game, with each QB throwing a touchdown pass, but after less than two weeks of preseason camp, Brennan, a sixth-year senior, announced that he was stepping away from football.
“No matter where you go, you bet on yourself. I know what I present. It doesn’t matter who they start. It’s a great quarterback room. It’s one of the top quarterback rooms in the country.”
Maybe it was the addition of Jack Miller III from Ohio State in December. Or maybe it was the emergence of Anthony Richardson. Whatever sparked Emory Jones to leave after one day of spring practice, it caused Florida's situation at quarterback to change dramatically.
A veteran and the starter for most of last season, Jones had been the safe option for Napier and the new staff. Instead, Richardson became the presumptive starter. A big quarterback with a strong arm and quick feet, Richardson might be thin on experience, but he's high on potential. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. projects him as a possible first-round pick. Napier acknowledged at SEC media days that Richardson is the first-team QB but added that he likes Miller's ability to move the football, saying there's "really no limits to what he can do."
“[Richardson] is working hard to develop, improve as a person, as a leader. He’s working hard to increase his football IQ. His skill is developing. I think he’s primed to have a phenomenal year.”
rise in FPI
rise in FPI
There was a time when Napier seemed like the most logical successor to Orgeron at LSU. Lafayette is only an hour's drive from Baton Rouge, and Napier had shown he could forge connections and recruit Louisiana. But as Woodward methodically worked his way through more high-profile candidates, Stricklin moved quickly to secure Napier and bring him to Florida. While both schools got the coaches they wanted, FPI says Florida's offseason moves bumped it up from only 34 to 29, while LSU moved up from 42 all the way to 10. The comparisons between Napier and Kelly will be inevitable as they go head-to-head in the cross-divisional rivalry game each season. On Oct. 15, the Tigers go to Gainesville.
Who LSU's starting quarterback will be is up for debate, however. The spring game offered no clues, as Brennan (no longer with the team), Daniels and Nussmeier took equal reps and threw one touchdown pass apiece. Kelly also offered no hints at a front-runner at SEC media days in July, saying it will come down to who takes care of the football, gets the ball to playmakers and makes plays. "The ultimate decision-making on who that quarterback is, he'll have to hit those three notes," Kelly said. "I think all of these guys can do that."
Don't think of the chain of events outlined here as final. In the era of the never-ending coaching carousel and the wide-open transfer portal, the only thing certain is uncertainty. Just last month, the NCAA Division I Council recommended eliminating the restriction against players transferring multiple times in their careers. So get ready for even more action, and don't be surprised if you see some of the same names on the move again next offseason.
Auburn, in particular, is worth watching after it launched an inquiry into coach Bryan Harsin's handling of the program in February. The investigation ultimately cleared Harsin, but the heat is still on after a 6-7 debut season and a preseason media poll that projects a last-place finish in the SEC West this year. Should the Tigers move on from Harsin, there's no telling the dominoes that will come tumbling after.