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2024 Pressure Check Rankings: Why Ryan Day tops the Big Ten head coaches under the most pressure this fall

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton07/02/24


The calendar just flipped to July, which means the college football season is that much closer and the heat on teams and coaches is about to get cranked up. 

Last year, I released my pressure ratings for every coach in the Power 5, and we’re running back the series this summer. 

One of the most popular slogans among football coaches is “pressure is a privilege,” and while all these guys are paid handsomely, they all face varying degrees of demand depending on their lot in the sport. 

Some coaches, like Kirby Smart, Steve Sarkisian and Ryan Day, are under pressure to win championships, while others, like Billy Napier or Dave Aranda, are under pressure to simply show program improvement or else risk being fired come season’s end. 

Notably, this is not a hot seat list. It’s a pressure gauge — Low, Medium, High and Extreme. 

The series opened with a look at the 16 coaches from the SEC. Today, I take a swing at the Big Ten coaches. 

Here’s a 2024 Pressure Check Rating for Big Ten coaches:

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Bret Bielema, Illinois — Medium

A year after contending for the Big Ten West crown, Illinois took a step back in 2023, going 5-7 and missing a bowl game. Bielema has stabilized the Fighting Illini’s program (producing NFL Draft picks and hiring quality assistants), but he hasn’t done a great job on the recruiting trail (zero Top 50 classes) and a hard job is about to become even more difficult with the dissolution of divisions within the conference. 

Bielema is under some pressure to get the team back to the postseason, and a good start would be avoiding so many frustrating one-score losses (11 in three seasons at Illinois). 

Curt Cignetti, Indiana — Low

In short order, the former James Madison head coach has reinvigorated a woebegone program — bringing juice and bodies to Hoosiers’ team. He’s overhauled the roster with an underrated transfer portal haul that incudes Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke, JMU wideout wideout Elijah Sarratt and Kent State tackle CJ West.

Cignetti built JMU into a FCS bully that was able to make an immediate jump into the FBS, and while the move to the Big Ten is an even bigger leap, he’ll be given ample time to turn the program in a consistent bowl team — something that actually might be more possible now that the Hoosiers no longer live exclusively in the Big Ten East. 

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa — Medium

Kirk Ferentz was finally forced to move on from his son Brian Ferentz, and if Tim Lester can take a historically awful unit into one that’s simply bad, then Iowa could absolutely contend for a spot in the Big Ten title game in 2024. 

If Ferentz weren’t consistently winning at least nine games (four of the last five full seasons), then he’d be under much more pressure with the team’s offensive ineptitude, the issues with nepotism and other problems within the program (lawsuits, firing his S&C coordinator in recent years, etc.). While he lost a public battle with the school’s new AD over his son’s employment, his job remains fairly secure until he decides he wants to hang it up.  

Mike Locksley, Maryland — Medium

The Terps are coming off their best season since 2010, and they’ve won a bowl game in three straight years. With Taulia Tagovailoa out of eligibility, it probably won’t get any better than that, so Locksley is mainly tasked with making sure the team doesn’t slip too far down the Big Ten standings in its transition to the MJ Morris era. 

Considering the schedule (vs. USC, road games at Oregon and Penn State), a third-straight 8-win season would be a boon for the program.

Sherrone Moore, Michigan – Medium 

Moore is among the trickier head coaches to handicap for this exercise. On the one hand, he’s playing with a bit of house money after taking over a national title team that lost so much production to the NFL. 

On the flip side, there’s immense pressure he doesn’t screw up what Jim Harbaugh built in Ann Arbor, and that his on-the-job training (wins over Penn State, Ohio State) was actually a true sign of his potential as a first-time head coach. The Wolverines are a fringe playoff team, so a 9-3 season would be perfectly understandable, but if Michigan loses 4-5 games, then Moore will enter Year 2 a lot like Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman. 

Jonathan Smith, Michigan State — Low

The ex-Oregon State head coach has experience of turning a fledging program into a competent Top 25 team, and he’ll have many more resources at his disposal at Michigan State. He inherits a mess from Mel Tucker, and even with the Spartans’ in-state rival coming off a national title, there’s little expectation for MSU to make much noise in 2024. 

If Smith can take a program that’s clearly in transition right now to a bowl game in Year 1 that would be considered a real success story this fall.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota — High

After rowing the boat to consecutive 9-4 seasons, the Gophers backslid to 6-7 in 2023 — their first losing campaign under Fleck. The road is only going to get more difficult moving forward for Fleck, as Minnesota won’t get to feast on bad Big Ten West teams anymore. 

Fleck is 4-0 in bowl games at Minnesota, but the Gophers have a preseason win-total of just 5.5 — a season removed from winning just five regular-season games. If they fail to make the postseason for the first time since 2020, then Fleck will enter 2025 on a shortlist of hot seat candidates.

Matt Rhule, Nebraska — Medium

Will Year 2 Rhule produce its usual surge up the conference standings? The Cornhuskers are primed to “make a big jump” in 2024, as Rhule is looking to end the program’s seven-year draught of missing the postseason. He inked 5-star quarterback Dylan Raiola and a Top 25 recruiting class and made a few staff changes that should produce better results offensively. 

Rhule did lose AD Trev Alberts, the guy most responsible for luring the head coach to Lincoln, but Rhule actually filled that power vacuum when Alberts bolted for Texas A&M. Given the program’s roster and 2024 schedule, Rhule needs that “big jump” prediction to come to fruition.

David Braun, Northwestern — Low

The former North Dakota State defensive coordinator took over a 1-11 team ensconced in scandal and won eight games as the team’s interim head coach — earning several coach of the year honors after delivering such a surprising season. It’s going to be a major challenge getting the Wildcats to a bowl game on an annual basis, but Braun proved he can win close games with veteran talent. 

Due to construction at Ryan Field, the Wildcats will host their home games at their fancy practice facility — losing whatever small home field advantage they had. They also lost starting quarterback Brendan Sullivan in a transfer to Iowa, so if Braun manages to exceed expectations again this fall he’ll look like a brilliant long-term replacement for Pat Fitzgerald.  

Ryan Day, Ohio State — Extreme

Extreme? For a coach who’s 56-8? Yup. That’s the unique pressure cooker Day faces after losing to Michigan three times in a row and seeing their rival Team Up North win the championship in 2023. 

Ohio State has pushed its chips all-in on this season, loading up on some of the top transfers in the portal and bringing back close to a dozen starters with NFL futures. If Day, who is stepping away from play-calling duties and is taking a more CEO approach to his role as head coach, can’t deliver a Big Ten title — and more — with this roster then he’ll face a fever-pitch of criticism and heat. 

Lose to Michigan again and it could cost him his job — something that might seem impossible for a head coach with fewer than double-digit career defeats. 

Dan Lanning, Oregon — Medium

Like his former boss Kirby Smart at Georgia, Lanning might have the greatest job security of any Big Ten head coach, but Oregon’s third-year man is under some pressure to take the Ducks’ program from really good to great in 2024. 

Lanning is recruiting like a madman and is 22-5 as a head coach. He needs to end his three-game losing streak to Washington, but otherwise, there are very few concerns or questions about his ceiling as a top-flight head coach. 

James Franklin, Penn State — High

The 12-team College Football Playoff expanded precisely for a program like Penn State — so what happens if James Franklin fails to get the Nittany Lions into the field this fall? Penn State has struggled to break through as a true championship contender, but it returns a loaded defense and an offense with third-year quarterback Drew Allar

In one of the strongest hires of the offseason, Franklin brought in Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to fix a broken passing game. For most programs, another 10-win season (which would be three-straight for PSU), would be seen as a success, but Franklin is under pressure to prove Penn State is more than just a little brother in the Big Ten.  

Ryan Walters, Purdue — Medium

The Boilermakers went just 4-8 in Walters’ first season, but while the on-field results inspired little confidence, the former Illinois defensive coordinator has shown early signs of a strong recruiter capable of upgrade the talent floor of Purdue’s roster. 

The Boilermakers lost key pieces (Nic Scourton, Deion Burks) to the transfer portal, but Walters was able to plug some holes with players from Georgia, Indiana and Notre Dame. He also landed a Top 30 recruiting class — besting the likes of Michigan State, Maryland, Washington, UCLA and others. Purdue is one of the hardest jobs in the country, so avoiding the basement of the Big Ten in 2024 is the goal for Walters in Year 2. 

Greg Schiano, Rutgers — Medium

Schiano took the Scarlet Knights bowling in 2023, going 7-6 with an upset over Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl. The program is trending in a more positive direction, and while Schiano signed a contract extension this spring, there’s pressure for him to take advantage of a veteran roster and cake schedule in 2024. 

The Knights haven’t won eight games in a decade, but they somehow managed to avoid Ohio State, Oregon, Michigan and Penn State this fall. Anything less than trip to the postseason would be seen as a failure for Schiano. 

Deshaun Foster, UCLA — Low

Foster faces a tough road ahead in Westwood, taking over his alma mater well into the offseason after Chip Kelly bolted for Ohio State. The Bruins’ investment in football (see: NIL, recruiting, staff budget, etc.) has come into question, but the team did seem to rally around its former assistant coach this spring. 

It remains to be seen if Foster is the right guy to return UCLA to prominence and the 2024 season stands to be a very bumpy ride (brutal schedule + thin roster).

Lincoln Riley, USC — High

Considering his previous success at Oklahoma, Riley remains on the short list of best coaches to never win a national title, and yet, he looks nowhere near reaching that goal entering Year 3 with the Trojans. Thus far, Riley’s tenure at USC is trending in the wrong direction, and although he made several shrewd defensive hires this offseason, the expectations around USC are not where many expected to the program to be when it made the splashy move of poaching Riley from OU. 

Did he nail the defensive staff hires? Was he right to roll with Miller Moss at quarterback? Is USC ready for the move to the Big Ten? Riley faces a litany of questions this fall. 

Jedd Fisch, Washington — Low

Fisch won 10 games at Arizona in 2023, parlaying his first double-digit season into a job with the national title runner-up. The catch? He inherits a team that must replace 20 starters and saw the AD who hired him leave for the same job at Nebraska. 

Still, the program’s infrastructure is solid and Fisch will be given a long leash to build the team in his image. He’ll be unfairly compared to Kalen DeBoer early on, but he’s not under pressure to produce championship results in Year 1. 

Luke Fickell, Wisconsin — Medium

Fickell’s first season in Madison was forgettably underwhelming, as the Badgers were Big Ten West favorites but went just 7-6. The offensive transition to the ‘Dairy Raid’ spoiled quickly, and the defense regressed from seasons past, too. 

Year 2 should produce better results — only it may not show up in the wins and losses ledger with a schedule that includes Alabama, USC, Penn State, Iowa and Oregon. Wisconsin has fully-empowered Fickell and is going to be patient with the former Cincy coach re-establishing the program as a Big Ten power, but some signs of progress in 2024 would nice.

2024 Pressure Rankings: Big Ten head coaches

  1. Ryan Day
  2. Lincoln Riley
  3. James Franklin
  4. P.J. Fleck
  5. Sherrone Moore
  6. Luke Fickell
  7. Kirk Ferentz
  8. Matt Rhule
  9. Bret Bielema
  10. Mike Locksley
  11. Ryan Walters
  12. Greg Schiano
  13. Dan Lanning
  14. Jedd Fisch
  15. DeShaun Foster
  16. Jonathan Smith
  17. David Braun
  18. Curt Cignetti