Alex Hickey: 2022 Saturday Tradition Big Ten football head coach rankings
2022 was the most eventful year in recent memory for Big Ten football coaches.
It began as the third straight season in which every team was led by the same head coach — a level of stability conference commissioner Kevin Warren touted at Big Ten media days.
Before October ended, Scott Frost and Paul Chryst were no longer with us. They’ve since been joined by Jeff Brohm, who left his job for more positive reasons.
Some coaches overachieved this season, while far more fell short of expectations. This is how all 16 coaches who put on headsets measured up this season.
These rankings apply solely to 2022 performance. Call it the “we had to grade Pat Fitzgerald while ignoring the majority of his career” rule.
1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
No. 1 with a bullet.
The NFL ravaged Michigan’s defense, both through the draft and hiring coordinator Mike Macdonald. Yet somehow the Wolverines are even better than they were before, allowing 13.4 points per game compared to last year’s 17.4 ppg.
There isn’t a player with Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojabo-sized talent in this lineup, but Harbaugh’s developed a rock-solid championship contender from top to bottom.
Michigan was rarely tested this season, but Harbaugh thoroughly out-coached Ryan Day in The Game that mattered most.
2. Bret Bielema, Illinois
Bielema certainly did the most with the fewest tools.
With an offense that more or less consisted of running back Chase Brown doing everything, the Illini were a game away from playing in the Big Ten championship game. Not bad for the program’s first winning season since 2011.
The margin was narrow, too. Questionable calls against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan all potentially swung games against the Illini.
Illinois fans have reason to be optimistic about the next phase of a rebuild that’s well ahead of schedule.
3. Ryan Day, Ohio State
You know we’re grading on a curve when a guy can go 11-1, reach the College Football Playoff, and still be ranked 3rd in his own conference. But Day was so strategically owned by Harbaugh in that lone defeat that it comes with harsh consequences.
If the Buckeyes rebound to win the national championship, we’ll look pretty silly putting Day here. But based on the regular-season body of work, it’s a fair placement.
4. James Franklin, Penn State
The harsh grading curve strikes again in what was a really impressive bounce-back season for the Nittany Lions after going 11-11 the past 2 seasons. Franklin reestablished Penn State as the Big Ten’s clear No. 3 program after a couple years of doubt creeping in.
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But Penn State’s most impressive win came at Purdue in the season opener. After losing to Michigan and Ohio State again, Franklin is now 2-15 overall against top-10 opponents. That has to improve if the Nittany Lions are to take the next step.
5. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Just when the Boilermakers looked dead in the water, Purdue upset Illinois and finished with a 3-game winning streak to reach the Big Ten championship game for the first time in program history.
The discovery and development of walk-on freshman running back Devin Mockobee was a key to Purdue’s breakthrough. The Boilers were last in the country with 2.7 yards per carry last season but moved up to 97th with 3.7 yards per carry this year.
Whoever replaces Brohm after his return to Louisville has big shoes to fill.
6. PJ Fleck, Minnesota
The Big Ten West title remains elusive for Fleck, as does a win against Iowa. But he does keep beating Wisconsin and bringing the Gophers to decent bowl games, so he earned yet another contract extension.
Fleck did a good job making sure the boat didn’t tip over when untested redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis took over for injured starting quarterback Tanner Morgan late in the season.
7. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
When you have a brilliant defense but waste it on your son’s offense, you end up somewhere in the middle. Iowa was 6th in the country in scoring defense but 123rd in scoring offense.
Despite the struggles scoring, the Hawkeyes simply needed a win over Nebraska in the season finale to clinch the West — but couldn’t get it done.
8. Mike Locksley, Maryland
A nice season, but the Terrapins had enough talent for it to be something more than that.
Maryland was the only team to test both Michigan and Ohio State this year, but couldn’t get over the hump. There was a narrow home loss to Purdue. And then an absolute no-show of a performance in a 30-0 loss at Penn State that determined third place in the East.
If this season becomes a building block to something more, it won’t feel so bad. But if it turns out to be Locksley’s most talented team, it’ll sting.
9. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin
Leonhard took over for Paul Chryst after 5 games and kept Wisconsin’s bowl streak alive at 21 seasons and counting. The end of the Minnesota game was a bit of a cluster that closed his tenure on a sour note.
Still, most were expecting Leonhard to get the position on a full-time basis before the Badgers surprisingly hired Luke Fickell. Leonhard figures to get another head coaching shot somewhere else.
10. Tom Allen, Indiana
It wasn’t great. But wins over Illinois and Michigan State were a step forward from last season’s 2-10 debacle.
One strike against Allen is that he didn’t turn to quarterback Dexter Williams earlier in the season, but he’s not the first Power 5 coach hoodwinked into thinking Connor Bazelak is good.
Folks are getting impatient in Bloomington, so the Hoosiers need to make a bowl run next season.
11. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
Last year, Tuck was comin’. This year, Tuck was fallin’.
Michigan State was bedeviled by defensive injuries from the outset of the season, which meant last year’s 11-win showing would be impossible to replicate. But the inability to get any production from the running game after losing Kenneth Walker III to the draft was the fatal blow for the Spartans.
Blowing a 17-point third-quarter lead to Indiana in which the Hoosiers completed just 2 passes was an egregious example of a poorly coached season.
12. Mickey Joseph, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers were a better team with Joseph on the sidelines, though still not a good team. Snapping a 6-game losing streak to Iowa was his signature achievement.
13. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s second straight 2-3 start, capped off by the most lopsided home loss to Illinois since 1988, spelled the end for Chryst’s 8-year tenure.
14. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
As a rule, you never want to be ranked beneath a guy who got fired midseason. And his replacement who also wasn’t retained. Or another interim coach who also wasn’t retained.
But that’s how bad this year was for Schiano after a promising 3-0 start.
Rutgers was utterly unwatchable on offense, finishing 123rd nationally in scoring offense and 127th in total offense.
Few teams nationally ended the season with a bigger thud. The Scarlet Knights closed out with a 55-10 loss to Penn State and a 37-0 loss to Maryland.
15. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
The Wildcats haven’t won a game on American soil since Oct. 16, 2021. And it was against Rutgers, so there’s some question as to whether that should even count.
Fitzgerald is the most accomplished coach in Northwestern history. But his tenure is beginning to go the way of David Shaw at Stanford and Ken Niumatalolo at Navy. Both of those longtime coaches are out after this season, and Fitz may be another bad year away from joining them.
16. Scott Frost, Nebraska
“I’m hoping the Big Ten has to modify their system to us.” — Scott Frost at his introductory press conference in 2017.
How’d that go?