Today, once again, I’m branching off into uncharted territory: to boldly blog where no one has blogged before.
Nah, just kidding. I’m just here to give some opinions about the mid-major college football landscape (which definitely has been blogged before).
For those of you unfamiliar with Division I college football, the conferences outside of the so-called “Power Five” football conferences are fighting for national respect.
The conferences are as follows: the Mountain West, the Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA, and the Mid-American Conference. The American Athletic Conference (formerly known as the Big East) is considered on the bubble–not quite a mid-major, but not Power Five material either. For arguments’ sake, let’s consider them mid-majors, too.
Traditionally and historically, there are several mid-major powers. I consider the current Top 10 mid-major powerhouse programs to be:
- Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA)
- Bowling Green Falcons (MAC)
- Boise State Broncos (MW)
- East Carolina Pirates (AAC)
- UCF Knights (AAC)
- Nevada Wolf Pack (MW)
- Fresno State Bulldogs (MW)
- San Diego State Aztecs (MW)
- Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC)
- Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC)
Of course, there are others. But those ten teams have proven themselves in the past decade and have carved out a unique niche in the national picture.
Now, let’s switch gears and discuss coaches. In my opinion, coaches at the mid-major level deserve more recognition and praise than they are given. Unlike Power Five coaches, these coaches fight hard to ensure that their facilities are good, their recruiting improves, and retain their student-athletes–all on a much lower budget than the Nick Sabans and the Urban Meyers of the world. Some of these programs are in remote areas without a local recruiting blueprint (i.e. Boise State, Marshall) while others have stringent academic/moral requirements (i.e. BYU, the Air Force Academy).
COACHES ON THE RISE:
Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina: McNeill’s 2014 squad has had big victories on the road against ACC foes (Virginia Tech and North Carolina) and is currently 3-0 against conference competition. The Pirates’s passing attack is one of the best in the nation, but don’t forget that McNeill made his mark as a defensive guru under Mike Leach at Texas Tech (2000-2009). As an ECU alum, he’s also helped raise booster support and get local kids to join his program in Greenville.
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State: The 45-year-old Anderson looks likes he’s finally brought stability to Jonesboro; ASU has had four different head coaches in the past four years. A noted recruiter, Anderson coached under spread offense guru Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and North Carolina. He’s also a Jonesboro native, giving him reason to stick around longer than his predecessors.
Jim McElwain, Colorado State: McElwain is a proven winner, and he’s already done a marvelous job turning things around for the Rams, who finished 8-6 and won the New Mexico Bowl last year. McElwain coached at Alabama under Nick Saban from 2008-2011, where he was part of two national championship teams.
Matt Rhule, Temple: After positive results under Al Golden and Steve Addazio, Temple needed someone to keep the momentum going. Enter the 39-year-old Rhule, who spent six years as an assistant with the Owls before spending 2012 as an assistant with the New York Giants (he returned to Philly before last season). Rhule’s significant success on the recruiting trail is already reaping rewards on the field, and that’s keeping the Owls relevant in the American Athletic Conference.
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan: You can’t say enough about the energy that Fleck has created around the WMU program. In addition to major facility upgrades, Fleck pulled in a decorated recruiting class in February 2014–the highest-rated class in the history of the Mid-American Conference. MAC programs had better watch out, because Fleck’s only 33 and he’s just getting things started.
Brian Polian, Nevada: Polian has the bloodlines (he’s the son of longtime NFL executive Bill Polian) and the recruiting acumen to make some noise in Reno. The Wolf Pack have great facilities and a history of gridiron success, so Polian seems to have been a good match for them. He was an assistant coach at Notre Dame, Stanford, and Texas A&M, respectively, from 2005-2012.
Willie Taggart, USF: Taggart is from the coaching tree of Jim Harbaugh, and he coached under Harbaugh at Stanford before turning around Western Kentucky’s program. Now, he’s back in his home state of Florida, where he’s looking to transform the underachieving USF Bulls into a conference contender. Taggart, age 38, has already done a great job at keeping Tampa-area recruits close to home, so he should get USF to where they need to be.
Justin Fuente, Memphis: Fuente, a former Oklahoma quarterback and TCU assistant, has really built something out of nothing at Memphis. He still hasn’t led the Tigers to a bowl yet, but their time is coming, and when it does, Power Five conference teams will be on the phone.
COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT:
Bill Blankenship, Tulsa: Blankenship had remarkable success at various Oklahoma high schools before heading to coach the Golden Hurricane in 2011. But Tulsa suffered through a 3-9 season in 2013, their final in Conference USA before heading off to the American Athletic Conference. His overall record is 23-23, including a 1-6 start this season. If things continue to go downhill, Blankenship might be given the axe sooner rather than later.
Norm Chow, Hawaii: Chow, one of the most celebrated offensive minds in the country, finally got his first head coaching gig in his hometown of Honolulu. Since then, it’s been a nightmare for the 68-year-old Chow, going 6-26 in two and a half seasons. Hawaii’s suffered through porous defenses, mediocre offensive lines, and inconsistent QB play throughout Chow’s tenure. Will athletic director Ben Jay–who did not hire Chow–soon be forced to hit the reset button?
Trent Miles, Georgia State: Miles has only been in Atlanta a year and a half, so he’s not on the hot seat just yet. But his record is a mere 1-19, with the lone victory (so far) coming over FCS Abilene Christian in the 2014 season opener. The Panthers are in the middle of a fertile recruiting region, but have an apathetic fanbase. Miles is no stranger to adversity, having built his alma mater’s program out of nothing (Indiana State), but this is a different situation.
Bob Davie, New Mexico: In 2012, Davie surprised many by jumping from the ESPN broadcast booth into the middle of a train wreck in Albuquerque. His first season was better than expected (4-9) and his pistol offense has racked up yardage, but since 2012, the Lobos have been 5-14, including 1-10 in the Mountain West. Davie is on contract until 2019, but his days might be numbered if there isn’t significant improvement on both sides of the ball. His overall record? 9-23.