Category: College football

Coaches on the hot seat – 2017

In relation to my previous post, here are the hot-seat coaches entering the 2017 season.

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Todd Graham, Arizona State

Graham (39-26 overall) came to Tempe in 2012 following a brief, controversial tenure at Pittsburgh. While his first three years at ASU were a resounding success — winning two bowl games during that time period — Graham’s program has since gone in reverse, posting losing records in the past two seasons. The primary problems have been a porous secondary and numerous misses on the recruiting trail; Graham’s staff has struggled to keep the top Phoenix area talent home.

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Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

A 44-21 record in five years is good, right? Not when you’re in the meat-grinder that is the SEC and when your teams have taken annual nosedives in November, which is why Sumlin occupies what could be the hottest seat in the nation right now. The Aggies have finished 8-5 for the past three years despite starting undefeated all three times, and while Sumlin continues to flex his recruiting muscle, fans are getting restless. A&M hasn’t finished above fourth place in the SEC West since Sumlin’s debut season in 2012, when his offense was led by Johnny Manziel….say, whatever happened to that guy, anyways?

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Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

Turns out College Station isn’t the only town in Texas where fans are disgruntled. Kingsbury (24-26 overall) had a sweet homecoming when he came back to Lubbock in 2013, this time as a head coach after previously being a record-smashing QB at Tech in the early days of Mike Leach. However, he has had little consistent success since then, with only one bowl win and routinely terrible defenses. What else can you say about a team that can put up 50-plus points multiple times and still lost by double digits? Tech will always light up the scoreboard, but they simply haven’t had any type of sustained momentum under Kingsbury.

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Paul Haynes, Kent State

Haynes (12-35 overall) simply hasn’t made much of an impact at his alma mater. A former defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Arkansas, Haynes has made a nice enough impact on that side of the ball. But the offense has been mediocre at best during his tenure, and the Golden Flashes have repeatedly lacked adequate athleticism at the skill positions. Haynes might be out of a gig if he can’t get the Flashes to their first bowl game since 2012.

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Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette

Hudspeth (24-31 overall), a Mississippi native, made a big splash when he was hired. His first three seasons were huge, helping lift the Ragin’ Cajuns to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history. However, the celebration was short-lived — the Cajuns had to vacate 22 wins due to the actions of former assistant coach David Saunders, who committed academic fraud in order to recruit otherwise-ineligible junior college players. Since then, the Cajuns have gone 10-15 in the past two years under Hudspeth, missing the postseason both times. And if that wasn’t enough, 13 Cajun players were arrested on misdemeanor theft charge earlier this summer, stemming from the dorm room robbery of a recently-dismissed player. Hudspeth might need a winning season to save his job and quiet the well-deserved noise surrounding the program.

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David Bailiff, Rice

It’s easy to feel bad for the 59-year-old Bailiff (overall 56-69), who has built a historically-awful Rice program into a respectable and competitive team, even securing two 10-win seasons in 2008 and 2013. However, it’s safe to say that most of the magic has been lost, with the Owls having lost 13 of their past 17 games; they started last season 0-6 before stumbling to a 3-9 record. Bailiff might need to win big this season in order to keep his job under new athletic director Neil Brodeur.

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Sean Kugler, UTEP

Kugler (18-31 overall) is a UTEP alum with NFL connections, which is a nice start. He’s earned kudos from the El Paso community by recruiting lots of local kids, but the Miners have honestly been mediocre under Kugler’s watch. A 2014 bowl game notwithstanding, UTEP hasn’t been able to take advantage of Kugler’s smash-mouth brand of football. They have particularly struggled on defense, and bringing in veteran coordinator Tom Mason last year did little to improve the situation.

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Matt Wells, Utah State

Wells (28-25), a Utah State alum, took over the program after a record-setting 2012 season, which earned then-coach Gary Andersen a job at Wisconsin. Wells took the Aggies into uncharted territory in the Mountain West, but they have been up-and-down since. USU won 19 games in their first two years of Wells’s tenure, but in the two years since, the Aggies have gone 9-16, including a below-.500 mark in the conference. Logan is a hard place to win consistently; has Wells’s program hit its peak already?

 

Coaches on the rise – 2017

The 2017 college football season is almost here, so now is as good a time as any to examine which FBS coaches are on the rise entering the season.

 

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Neal Brown, Troy

Brown (14-11 overall) enters his third season at Troy coming off the winningest campaign in school history — the Trojans finished 10-3 and beat Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl last year. Brown is a disciple of the Air Raid offense, earning his stripes under offensive gurus like Mike Leach and Hal Mumme. Look for the 36-year-old Brown to get his chance in the near future, presumably at a program that needs a shot in the arm offensively.

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Scott Frost, UCF

It may be too early to judge Frost’s tenure at UCF, as he’s only entering his second year as head coach (6-7 overall). But what a debut season it was — Frost took over a winless program and got the Knights to a bowl game in one season. The highest-rated recruiting class in school history was the icing on the cake in February. Frost was previously an offensive coordinator at Oregon, where he helped mold Marcus Mariota into an NFL-caliber starter and Heisman winner.

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Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan

Creighton (10-27 overall) didn’t get much love nationally, but the man can seriously coach. He was hired at EMU in 2014 and walked into a trainwreck, but he earned his stripes at lower levels of football, including the FCS. Last year, the rebuilding project paid off, with the Eagles earning their first bowl berth since 1987 and first winning record since 1995. At EMU and his previous stops, Creighton has been acclaimed for his ability to overcome limitations such as lack of adequate facilities and low levels of fan support. It’s safe to say that he’s a rising star for a reason, and he’s still relatively young by head coaching standards (48).

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Mike Bobo, Colorado State

So far, so good for Bobo (14-12 overall), who took over a loaded roster from Jim McElwain in 2015 and has since guided the Rams to back-to-back bowl games. Bobo was Mark Richt’s long-time offensive coordinator at Georgia and has successfully used those southeastern recruiting connections to his advantage at CSU. The Rams will be opening a brand-new $220 million on-campus stadium in 2017, giving Bobo a much-larger stage to show off his exciting brand of football. Watch out for him.

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Craig Bohl, Wyoming

Everyone loves stories about the Little Program That Could, right? Well, Bohl has made a career out of it, first at FCS juggernaut North Dakota State, where he won three national titles and unearthed a hidden gem in future NFL QB Carson Wentz. Now, Bohl is quietly building a contender in the equally isolated terrain of Laramie, Wyoming — he won Mountain West Coach of the Year honors last season after leading the Cowboys to a spot in the conference championship game. His recruiting prowess and coaching lineage are not to be underestimated — plus, he played for Tom Osborne at Nebraska back in the 70s.

 

2017 Top 25 college football preview

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#1 — USC Trojans

What an epic turnaround. The Trojans rebounded after an ugly 1-3 start last September, rattling off nine straight wins, including a breathtaking last-second win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Sophomore QB Sam Darnold plays beyond his years, and he’ll be surrounded by a terrific supporting cast.

Good News: Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones II are an awesome place to start on offense, and there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings at wide receiver. Linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith are a dynamic duo in the front seven, and coaches think that sophomore Jack Jones can continue the tradition of star Trojan cornerbacks.

Bad News: The Trojans lost superstar receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL, and also have to replace three starters along the offensive line. The interior of the defensive line looks dangerously thin by USC standards. Starting placekicker (and Rose Bowl hero) Matt Boermeester was indefinitely suspended in the offseason, with the Trojans possibly turning to a true freshman at that position.

Bottom Line: USC has underachieved when in this position before, but if they navigate a tricky early schedule, they’ll be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race. Darnold could be a Heisman frontrunner, and the Trojans should be able to quickly reload at receiver.

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#2 — Alabama Crimson Tide

Oh, so close. The Crimson Tide were one solitary second away from yet another national title, falling to Clemson on the last play of regulation. But there’s no reason to think that Nick Saban’s team won’t be national contenders again, right? Plenty of talent is always waiting in the wings, and a couple of players postponed NFL paychecks to come back to Tuscaloosa for one more ride.

Good News: Sophomore QB Jalen Hurts showed his immense potential last season, and he’s already developed a good rapport with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Hurts has a mammoth offensive line to protect him, and still has receivers like Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster to throw to.

Bad News: As usual, the talent drain on the Tide’s defense was significant, including defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson, and safety Eddie Jackson. Running back Bo Scarbrough was having a fantastic season before injuring his leg late in the year, and he might not be 100% heading into the fall.

Bottom Line: It’s unwise to bet against the Tide, as they continue to stockpile talent year after year. Still, they’ll need to be sharp straight out of the gate, as they’re playing an equally-hungry Florida State team in the season opener in Atlanta.

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#3 — Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles had a “down” year — only 10 wins — but return plenty of experience and talent from a team that deserves to be in the playoff conversation again. Coach Jimbo Fisher has a number of go-to veterans, and — apart from a late date at Clemson — a favorable schedule.

Good News: Despite a rough start, sophomore Deondre Francois has developed into an outstanding quarterback for the Noles. The linebacking corps is athletic and experienced, and All-American Tarvarus McFadden returns at cornerback.

Bad News: FSU needs new playmakers to step up in the receiving corps, and the offensive line is iffy. The Noles are deep at tailback, but they’re still replacing Dalvin Cook, the program’s all-time leading rusher.

Bottom Line: Florida State looks like a legit national threat again, and if they get past the opener against Alabama in Atlanta, they could be standing at 6-0 heading into an anticipated clash against Louisville in October.

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#4 — Washington Huskies

The Huskies finally arrived in 2016, earning their best record since the Rose Bowl season of 2000. Coach Chris Petersen’s squad got roughed up by Alabama in the playoff semifinal, but a bulk of that team’s talent returns despite some key losses on defense.

Good News: Quarterback Jake Browning, a Heisman contender, returns to lead an explosive offense. Junior tailback Myles Gaskin stiff-armed the NFL to come back after a 1,300-yard season, and senior receiver Dante Pettis is also back.

Bad News: Lots of big-time talent departed the defense, including safety Budda Baker and linebacker Psalm Wooching. While there’s still plenty of talent left, the team’s depth will need to be extra strong, especially in the wide-open Pac-12.

Bottom Line: UW is back for the foreseeable future, and with Browning, Gaskin, and others, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again. But the defense needs to prove itself quickly in order for the Huskies to make a return trip to the playoff.

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#5 — Ohio State Buckeyes

You’d better believe that the Buckeyes will be motivated after getting curb-stopped by eventual national champion Clemson in the playoff semifinal. It was the worst loss of the Urban Meyer era, so he didn’t take any chances in the offseason, bringing in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator.

Good News: Fortunately, QB J.T. Barrett is back, and there’s a legit group of athletes at the other skill positions. The offensive line returns four starters, and did I mention that defensive line? It looks tenacious.

Bad News: Only one starter returns in the secondary, and while Ohio State signed a ton of elite DBs in their recruiting class, it’s unlikely they’ll all be able to contribute immediately. The talent at receiver is mostly unproven.

Bottom Line: Meyer has recruited extremely well, and the Buckeyes are the clear favorite over Michigan and Penn State in the Big Ten East. An early game against Oklahoma should be a key indicator of where the Buckeyes end up on the national scene.

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#6 — Clemson Tigers

It’s weird to have a reigning national champion ranked this low, but Dabo Swinney’s team lost quite a bit from the team that posted that euphoric win over Alabama. Swinney has made it clear that they’re strictly focused on the task at hand this year — no more, no less. We’ll see if this team has the moxie to defend that hard-earned title.

Good News: Clemson has talent in spades across the defensive line and in the secondary. The offensive line has lots of size and depth, while the receiving corps looks great despite the NFL Draft loss of Mike Williams.

Bad News: Who’s replacing Deshaun Watson at QB? There were four candidates in the spring, with the most promising being last year’s backup (junior Kelly Bryant), and early enrollee freshman Hunter Johnson. With Wayne Gallman gone at running back, the Tigers could rely on a by-committee approach until someone emerges.

Bottom Line: Clemson won’t give up its top spot without a fight, but there still aren’t enough proven pieces to return to the playoff picture just yet. While the defense looks strong as usual under coordinator Brent Venables, the offense needs time to grow and adjust to new faces. If the new QB is effective though, watch out.

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#7 — Oklahoma Sooners

No Bob Stoops? No problem. The long-time Sooners coach retired unexpectedly over the summer, and the school immediately promoted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to the head position. The 33-year-old Riley has plenty of experience and talent to go around on his first OU team, starting with Heisman contender Baker Mayfield.

Good News: Start with Mayfield, who led the nation in passing efficiency last year and showed a stunning ability to improvise on the run. He’s a game-changer who will help a young receiving corps find its way early on. The offensive line returns everybody, and the secondary looks strong after an up-and-down 2016 campaign.

Bad News: There’s no getting around the fact that Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook are gone. The record-setting offensive trio leave a huge void, and the Sooners must identify new playmakers quickly. The potential replacements at running back looked solid in the spring, but they must deliver on game days.

Bottom Line: The replacements at the skill positions should pan out OK, but the defense needs to be more consistent overall if OU is to get back to the playoff. Despite a potentially tricky road schedule, the Sooners should be favored to win the Big 12 and be in national contention once again.

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#8 — Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions did lose that heartbreaker to USC in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no reason to be down on them. Coach James Franklin’s third season was a rip-roaring success overall and included a massive upset of Ohio State and a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

Good News: The awesome 1-2 punch of QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley give Lions fans a chance to believe in this offense. There’s only one senior starter on the offensive line, but that group improved by leaps and bounds in 2016. Safety Marcus Allen is a potential NFL first-rounder in 2018.

Bad News: Penn State’s overall depth is suspect, and the run defense was surprisingly inconsistent last season. The receiving corps has some talent and experience, but no major go-to guy or deep threat.

Bottom Line: The Lions should be neck-and-neck with Ohio State throughout the conference season before their matchup on Columbus on October 28th. Even if they lose that game, Penn State could possibly win out and make a New Year’s Six bowl again.

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#9 — Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys return a boatload of offensive talent from last year’s team that went 10-3 and blasted Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. QB Mason Rudolph is one of the best in the country, and James Washington is an elite receiver. If running back Justice Hill can avoid a sophomore slump, this offense could be tough to stop.

Good News: Rudolph, Washington, and Hill are an outstanding trio for the Cowboys, and the offensive line is one of the more experienced units that they’ve had in years. Cornerback Ramon Richards is a legit defender who could also play safety this season.

Bad News: Oklahoma State needs to replace significant production on a defense that wasn’t great to begin with. There’s a lot of inexperience at defensive tackle and at cornerback.

Bottom Line: If the defense comes around, the Cowboys could become threats to grab another Big 12 title, because this offense will be one of the best in the nation. As usual, the season should come down to the Bedlam rivalry game against the Sooners.

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#10 — Auburn Tigers

The Tigers faded badly down the stretch last season after a 7-2 start, losing to rival Alabama and then a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. The quarterback situation never settled down, frustrating coach Gus Malzahn, whose offense was effective in other categories. Still, there’s reason to believe in Auburn again this season, which could mean big things.

Good News: Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham wowed audiences at the spring game, proving that Malzahn might finally have the quarterback he needs. In addition, the running back tandem of Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway could be lethal. The front seven on defense looks strong.

Bad News: There aren’t many proven threats at wide receiver, and this needs to be addressed in order for Stidham to have total control of where the offense goes. The defensive line has plenty of bodies, but they need someone to step up and replace pass-rushers Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, who graduated.

Bottom Line: Auburn has too much talent to not be in the national picture. Malzahn spoke highly of this team at SEC Media Days, saying he sees the same heart and passion on this team that he saw in the 2013 squad, which stunned Alabama and nearly won a national championship. Stay tuned.

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#11 — Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals limped to the finish line last season, but returning the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is always good, right? QB Lamar Jackson is back and still feels like he has something to prove. If his offensive line can protect him, Louisville could do some more damage in 2017.

Good News: Jackson returns, along with a cast of talented playmakers that can make the offense go, including WR Dez Fitzpatrick, RB Jeremy Smith, and WR Traveon Samuel. Defensive back Jaire Alexander and linebacker Stacy Thomas lead an athletic defense under new coordinator Peter Sirmon.

Bad News: Jackson took far too many hits last season, and the offensive line will be an issue until proven otherwise. The defensive line needs to reload after losing a couple of difference-makers to graduation.

Bottom Line: Louisville has the horses to attempt to dethrone Florida State and Clemson, but that’s the key word — attempt. If the Cardinals were in the ACC Coastal Division, they’d be ranked higher. Still, they’ll have a fighting chance in every game as long as Jackson is still on campus.

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#12 — LSU Tigers

Is LSU ready to be nationally relevant again? Les Miles was fired midway through last season after years of fans complaining that he was too conservative of a play-caller. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was promoted from within, and expectations were raised for 2017. Can the Tigers take advantage of a fresh start?

Good News: Enter offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who has promised to make the Tigers’ offense more exciting and up-tempo. But don’t let that make you think that LSU won’t run the rock: Derrius Guice is next up in the tradition of great tailbacks to come out of Baton Rouge. The defense looks scrappy and aggressive as usual, and Orgeron managed to hang onto coordinator Dave Aranda during the coaching change.

Bad News: Quarterback Danny Etling is good, not great. The linebacking corps returns only one starter, Arden Key, and he sat out spring practice due to undisclosed personal reasons. Placekicking could be an issue.

Bottom Line: Orgeron doesn’t inherit enough talent to challenge for a playoff spot right away, but LSU has a chance to beat out Auburn for second place in the SEC West if the ball bounces their way.

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#13 — Georgia Bulldogs

Year Two of the Kirby Smart era promises to be more exciting than the disappointing 2016 campaign, which saw a couple of ugly SEC losses and an overall lack of consistency. But the Bulldogs could be a sleeping giant this year, primarily due to QB Jacob Eason and 10 returning starters on defense.

Good News: Georgia returns Eason, as well as senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, which is great start for any offense. Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith are two heat-seeking linebackers. Overall, this team is more experienced and hungry than last year — plus, Smart signed a top five recruiting class in February.

Bad News: The Bulldogs need an untested group of receivers to be more reliable, and only two starters return on the offensive line. Eason was up-and-down in 2016 and needs to be better in close games in 2017.

Bottom Line: UGA has been a perennial underachiever in recent years, but this is a big window of opportunity in the SEC East, with Tennessee losing a ton of NFL talent and Florida treading water. If the Bulldogs don’t win the SEC East, color me shocked.

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#14 — Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal had a mystifying 2016 season — they had disappointing losses to Colorado and Washington State, but that was largely overshadowed by the dominance of running back Christian McCaffrey (a first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers). The Cardinal finished with six straight wins, but injuries at quarterback hampered the offense’s overall efficiency. So which Stanford team will we see in 2017?

Good News: Stanford has Bryce Love ready to make a big impact at tailback; he was McCaffrey’s backup last season and showed plenty of promise. As per usual at The Farm, both lines of scrimmage look excellent.

Bad News: In addition to McCaffrey, versatile defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was a first-round draft pick, and he’ll be difficult to replace. Can Keller Chryst reclaim the starting quarterback job when he gets back from a late-season ACL injury? Or will touted youngster K.J. Costello win out?

Bottom Line: The Cardinal have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation the past decade. If they can find an answer at QB and get past a Week 2 date at USC, they’ll be New Year’s Six contenders once again.

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#15 — Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers aren’t flashy. They never have been, really. But what they do is win a lot of games. And that looks likely again in Paul Chryst’s third season, which features a loaded offensive line and an aggressive group of linebackers. Sounds like the start of a winning formula….

Good News: The O-line returns all five starters, and tight end Troy Fumagalli is one of the program’s best products in years. Linebackers T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy cover a lot of ground, and D’Cota Dixon is a potential all-conference pick at safety.

Bad News: Sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook has potential, but posted pedestrian numbers in 2016. Unusual for the Badgers, they have no go-to tailback in the pipeline and might have to rely on Pitt transfer Chris James.

Bottom Line: The Badgers should win another Big Ten West crown in 2017, but they’re hungry for more. A kind schedule should help them in that regard, but more consistent QB play is needed in order for Chryst’s team to take the next step.

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#16 — Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines are back for Year Three of the Harbaugh regime, and they have a ton of young talent ready to be thrown into the fire. Despite disappointing losses to Ohio State and Florida State to end the year, Michigan still nabbed 10 wins. Harbaugh’s recruiting will be put to the test in 2017, as the Wolverines return only five total starters.

Good News: QB Wilton Speight is back, and the offensive line looks solid. There’s plenty of depth at running back, and the defensive line has some young talent waiting to emerge.

Bad News: Ten starters lost on defense — let’s start with that. The Wolverines have massive rebuilding to do in so many areas, and there’s no getting around it. LB Jabrill Peppers, DE Taco Charlton, DE Chris Wormley are all gone and will be playing on Sundays in 2017.

Bottom Line: Harbaugh won’t hear any excuses if the Wolverines disappoint in 2017, but it’s hard not seeing this team take a step back after the massive offseason talent drain. Another 10-win season could very well be in the cards, but for now, Michigan fans must be patient.

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#17 — Miami Hurricanes

Are they back? Are they all the way back? Well, not really. But Mark Richt’s debut season left a good taste in fans’ mouths after years of underachieving. The Canes have solid depth and just look like a more athletic and disciplined football team. If the new QB delivers, Miami could finally inch closer to that elusive ACC title.

Good News: The Canes have the makings of an excellent defense, led by big-time linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud. Defensive end Chad Thomas, a former five-star recruit, finally lived up to his billing last season, and junior running back Mark Walton rushed for over 1,100 yards.

Bad News: Who is the quarterback? That’s the primary question in Coral Gables after Brad Kaaya left early for the NFL. Junior Malik Rosier and sophomore Evan Sherriffs competed in the spring until touted freshman N’Kosi Perry arrives in fall camp.

Bottom Line: The Canes could push for a 10-win season if it all falls into place, but they won’t be top 10 material until 2018. Barring any catastrophic injuries, Miami should be favored in a usually wide-open Coastal Division race.

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#18 — Florida Gators

Florida fans have something to cheer about following two straight SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain. However, McElwain’s offensive background hasn’t translated to tangible results, with the Gators still sporting lackluster units on that side of the ball. With key personnel losses on defense, Florida’s offense needs to get in gear quickly.

Good News: The Gators do have a couple promising quarterbacks, led by redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, but Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire could challenge when he gets to Gainesville in the fall. RB Jordan Scarlett and WR Antonio Callaway are big-time impact players. Only four starters return on defense, but the Gators still have plenty of talent on that unit.

Bad News: Did I mention the offensive line? Yeah, it allowed the most sacks in the nation last year. Florida could have Peyton Manning at quarterback and it won’t matter if the O-line can’t get its act together. There’s also a surprising lack of depth in the secondary.

Bottom Line: Florida is at a crossroads. While another bowl game is almost a certainty, it’s unknown whether they can successfully hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC East and if the offense can take another step forward. An opener against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Dallas will be telling.

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#19 — Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee ended 2016 with a flat thud, leaving fans and critics alike to wonder if they were really as good as advertised. Sure, the Volunteers started 5-0, but often had to grind out victories. And then the wheels came off, with Tennessee finishing a disappointing 9-4 with a .500 record in the SEC. Coach Butch Jones now has to reload and develop more talent, especially on a defense that was frequently mediocre in 2016.

Good News: The talent cupboard isn’t bare, with the Vols boasting an experienced offensive line and a gifted special teams unit. The secondary looks solid, and DE Jonathan Kongbo could be primed for a breakout season.

Bad News: In addition to correcting the lack of mental toughness in last year’s late skid, the Vols need to replace record-setting QB Josh Dobbs and need more depth at tailback. Tackling was a major issue in 2016 and must improve.

Bottom Line: It’s a critical season for Jones, as his Vols need to show substantial progress as they attempt to win the SEC East. If a leaky defense can be fixed and the new quarterback delivers, Tennessee could get there, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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#20 — West Virginia Mountaineers

Was WVU’s 10-3 season a sign of things to come, or a blip on the radar? Skeptics would say that the Mountaineers only beat three teams with a winning record last season (Kansas State, Baylor, BYU) and that they got embarrassed by Miami in their bowl game. But then again, WVU’s other two losses were to elite Big 12 teams (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), so perhaps they’re closer than many think.

Good News: Coach Dana Holgorsen got an extension in the offseason and now he has a legit QB — Florida transfer Will Grier — to command his offense. Combine that with Tony Gibson’s opportunistic defense, and the Mountaineers could be in line to stay relevant.

Bad News: There’s not many proven playmakers at wide receiver, and the offensive line only brings back two starters (although getting LT Yodny Cajuste back from an injury was big in the spring). Kicker Mike Molina was unreliable in 2016.

Bottom Line: A season opener at FedEx Field against Virginia Tech will be a key test to see if WVU is for real or not. The fiery Holgorsen has the Mountaineers on the right track, but it’ll be difficult to stay in the upper echelon of the Big 12, one of the more unpredictable conferences.

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#21 — Washington State Cougars

The Cougars were up-and-down in 2016, starting off with an ugly loss to FCS Eastern Washington and ending with a frustrating bowl loss to Minnesota. But in between, they were as good as they’ve been in years, finishing with a 7-2 Pac-12 record, including big upsets over Oregon and Stanford. Can Mike Leach keep swinging his sword in 2017?

Good News: Start with QB Luke Falk, the most prolific returning starter in the country. The receiving corps is deep as always, and the offensive line is spearheaded by All-American guard Cody O’Connell. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer is a scrappy leader in the front seven.

Bad News: The defensive line didn’t make much of an impact in 2016, registering only 19 sacks. There are plenty of bodies in the secondary, but not many known commodities now that safety Shalom Luani is gone.

Bottom Line: Sustained success is the goal for Wazzu, as is maintaining composure in big games. With that being said, Mike Leach has the Cougars at a level that was unfathomable five years ago. They’ll make another bowl game and challenge Stanford for second place in the Pac-12 North.

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#22 — Utah Utes

Utah has been the bridesmaid of the Pac-12 South. Although they’ve won the most conference games out of any South team in the past three seasons, the Utes are the lone team that hasn’t won the division since the conference expanded in 2011. That could change this year, with a new, exciting offense and an always stout front seven.

Good News: The Utes return two big bodies on the defensive line, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, as well as junior safety Chase Hansen, a major playmaker. Quarterback Troy Williams had moments of brilliance in his first season as the starter. Special teams should be excellent.

Bad News: The offensive line lacks depth and must replace star left tackle Garett Bolles, a first round draft pick. There’s no clear-cut starter at running back, and some new shutdown cornerbacks need to emerge.

Bottom Line: If Williams can take the next step forward under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, the Utes could be in line for another winning season. Utah has the right ingredients to challenge for another nine or ten-win season, but a South title probably won’t happen in 2017.

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#23 — Virginia Tech Hokies

It was quite a debut for Justin Fuente in 2016, who had big shoes to fill following Frank Beamer’s retirement. Nonetheless, the Hokies got back to their standard — a 10-win season and an ACC Coastal title. Fuente will have to reload quickly on offense to compensate for early NFL draft entries, but this looks like another quality group in Blacksburg.

Good News: Another tough, fast, fundamentally-sound Bud Foster defense. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka are the veteran leaders, while the Hokies’ secondary returns every starter. If the offensive line can open up holes for him, RB Travon McMillian has 1,000-yard potential.

Bad News: Someone must step up at receiver to complement senior Cam Phillips, while the quarterback battle must also be resolved. The spring candidates were junior college transfer A.J. Bush, redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, and true freshman Hendon Hooker, with Jackson holding the temporary edge. The offensive line needs to make more strides despite returning three starters.

Bottom Line: Virginia Tech should be neck-and-neck with Miami as the Coastal favorites, as long as the offense can pull its weight and match last year’s productivity. After a season opener against West Virginia, the Hokies have a fairly friendly conference slate, getting Clemson, North Carolina, and Pitt at home.

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#24 — Boise State Broncos

The Broncos have gone 31-9 in the first three seasons of the Bryan Harsin era, so what’s the problem? Well, they’ve seemed to take a step down in the Mountain West in recent years after a decade of dominating the WAC. With Wyoming and Colorado State hot on their tails in the Mountain Division, now is not the time to slip up.

Good News: QB Brett Rypien — nephew of NFL great Mark Rypien — is arguably the Mountain West’s best signal-caller. Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson is a major difference-maker, while the front seven looks steady despite being relatively young.

Bad News: The offensive line needs some rebuilding and reshuffling, while Boise State could use a new playmaker at linebacker following the departure of Joe Martarano, who left the team in order to pursue a pro baseball career. The secondary has plenty of talent, but much of it is young.

Bottom Line: Boise State has Rypien, a solid defense, and a great coaching staff. Those are three places to start, but there’s suddenly little margin for error in the Mountain West standings.

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#25 — TCU Horned Frogs

The 2016 season was unusually mediocre for Gary Patterson’s Frogs, stumbling to a 6-7 record. But they probably weren’t as bad as their record reflected, as most of their problems stemmed from an inefficient offense and general inconsistency. Can they bounce back in 2017?

Good News: The Frogs return 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Hicks, who’s also adept at catching passes out of the backfield. TCU’s defense should be especially sharp in the linebacking corps, with all-Big 12 pick Travin Howard leading the way.

Bad News: Senior QB Kenny Hill was maddeningly inconsistent in his first year as the starter. Sure, some of that could be blamed on a receiving corps plagued by drops, but Hill needs to evolve as a passer and be more patient in the pocket. There aren’t many newcomers vying for playing time at receiver, so it’ll be up to Hill and most of the same crew to improve their numbers.

Bottom Line: The Frogs are capable of contending in the Big 12, but the schedule isn’t particularly in their favor, with road dates at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State, as well as a non-conference matchup at Arkansas. If Hill can right the offensive ship, TCU will get back to their winning ways, but it’s difficult seeing any real shakeup at the top of the conference.

ATHLETE SPOTLIGHT: Mitch Wishnowsky

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When Mitch Wishnowsky was growing up, he had never seen or held an American football. Born and raised in Gosnells, a southeastern suburb of Perth, Australia, Wishnowsky was no different than any other kid in his neighborhood: he wanted to play Australian rules football.

In Australia, there are four different codes of football – soccer, rugby league, rugby union, and Australian rules football – and the most popular one in Perth is Aussie rules, or “footy.” Wishnowsky played a lot of footy as a kid, and showed promise, but never really saw himself playing at the professional level.

At the age of 17, Wishnowsky left high school a year early in order to start work; he had been offered an apprenticeship as a glass installation specialist. Several of his friends began showing him NFL games and explaining how American football was played. On the weekend, Wishnowsky and his friends would occasionally play pickup games of American football at their local park, but their style of play was very rudimentary. They only ran a few plays and just wanted to have a good time.

Wishnowsky still played Aussie rules, too, ending up on the reserves list at the Perth Demons, a local semi-pro team in the West Australian Football League. Still, he was never quite able to draw enough attention from AFL scouts.

After a couple of years, Wishnowsky eventually grew tired of his job and began to consider exploring other professional and educational opportunities. Eventually, he caught wind about ProKick Australia, a training academy for aspiring punters run by former Aussie rules footballer/NFL punter Nathan Chapman.

Chapman’s program is well-regarded around Australia; they select numerous Aussie kids – mostly from footy backgrounds – and help them to transition into American-style punters. To date, Chapman estimates that over 60 ProKick alums have been placed at various colleges in the US. Wishnowsky contacted Chapman and was instantly sold on the idea. He committed to the program and started the long, grueling process of becoming a college football punter.

As good of a track record as ProKick had, Wishnowsky was still worried that he wouldn’t get picked up by an NCAA school right away. Still, he worked hard and soon enough, scouts began inquiring about the 6’4″, 220-pound Aussie.

Wishnowsky eventually made his way from sunny Perth to equally sunny Santa Barbara, California. He got a scholarship punting for the Santa Barbara City College Vaqueros in the fall of 2014, averaging a solid 39.8 yards per punt that year.

Eventually, Wishnowsky got the attention of coach Kyle Whittingham of the University of Utah. The Utes offered Wishnowsky a scholarship and he enrolled in January 2016 with big shoes to fill: he had to replace two-time All-American and two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett, a fellow ProKick alum.

However, Wishnowsky brought a different set of skills to the table than Hackett did – both on and off the field.

Hackett stands only 5’10”, 180 pounds and was highly-regarded for his quick release and kicking accuracy. However, he will admit that Wishnowsky has the superior leg and athleticism:

Mitch has an uncanny ability to hit the ball much harder than most punters. His strengths do not lie with his accuracy; instead, he chooses the most direct route, high and long. I concede defeat when asked who is the stronger and more powerful punter….we have very similar, and yet very different, punting styles.

Off the field, Hackett became a media darling with his dry Aussie one-liners and tongue-in-cheek demeanor. Wishnowsky, comparatively, is a man of few words.

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Upon accepting the 2016 Ray Guy Award for his efforts, Wishnowsky was asked about the amazing track record that Aussies have as college football punters. He simply replied,  “You can roll out, and you can hold onto it for longer. It is changing the game of college football.”

Indeed it is. Utah made history with Wishnowsky, becoming the first school ever to have multiple Ray Guy winners. That makes it four in a row for ProKick too — Hackett won the award twice and Memphis’s Tom Hornsey won it in 2013. And as if that wasn’t enough, Wishnowsky beat out two other ProKick alums to win it all in 2016 – Cameron Johnston of Ohio State and Michael Dickson from Texas. Wishnowsky expressed congrats to his fellow countrymen and runners-up in the 2016 Ray Guy competition.

“No hard feelings. We’re all good mates,” he said with a grin.

Wishnowsky finished the season ranked second in the nation in punting, averaging 48 yards per kick, and won national punter of the week honors three times this past season. He was also named a unanimous first-team All-American.

The scary part? Wishnowsky has two years of eligibility left.

“I suppose I’ll just try to better myself next year,” Wishnowsky says. “I feel like I can get strong, maybe just show a bit more versatility. I wouldn’t mind getting a fake punt on the way at some stage.”

Hey, why not?

2016-17 coaching carousel

There were remarkably few head coaching vacancies in the college football offseason (which has still barely started). Only 21 changes were made nationwide, and as of the end of bowl season, all of them have been filled. So without further ado, here are my opinions of all the hires:

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#21 – Brent Brennan, San Jose State

  • Age: 43
  • Hometown: Redwood City, California
  • Alma Mater: UCLA
  • Previous Job: Outside Wide Receivers Coach, Oregon State

Pros: Brennan was the lone Oregon State assistant who stayed in town after Mike Riley bolted for Nebraska in 2014. While in Corvallis, he mentored several NFL-bound athletes. In addition to his six-year stint at Oregon State, Brennan also was an assistant at SJSU from 2005-2010 under Dick Tomey and has experience in the California high school ranks.

Cons: He has never been a head coach at any level, and SJSU is arguably the toughest job in the Mountain West. The Spartans have delivered only two winning seasons since 1993, and former coach Ron Caragher could never convert significant recruiting success into on-field results.

Bottom Line: Brennan has a strong desire to win, and he’s got an uphill climb to do it in a rapidly-improving Mountain West. If he’s up to the task, Brennan can make the Spartans contenders, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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#20 – Shawn Elliott, Georgia State

  • Age: 42
  • Hometown: Camden, South Carolina
  • Alma Mater: Appalachian State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Line Coach, South Carolina

Pros: Elliott is a blue-collar, no-frills coach who believes in discipline and accountability. He cut his teeth under legendary coaches like Jerry Moore and Steve Spurrier and has excellent experience recruiting the greater Atlanta area. As far as Georgia State goes, the school is investing more in football, as the program will have its own stadium in only a few years.

Cons: Elliott has three years as a co-offensive coordinator under his belt, but other than that, he has very little experience as a program administrator. The Panthers are capable of having on-field success if they recruit right, but Elliott will also have to deal with an apathetic fanbase and mediocre facilities.

Bottom Line: Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb worked with Elliott at App State, so there’s plenty of familiarity there. But the Panthers are a program working with numerous challenges, and Elliott will need to get his players to buy in completely in order to get this thing turned around.

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#19 – Geoff Collins, Temple

  • Age: 45
  • Hometown: Conyers, Georgia
  • Alma Mater: Western Carolina 
  • Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Florida

Pros: Collins was frequently mentioned as a head coaching candidate following his excellent work as DC at Mississippi State (2011-14) and Florida (2015-16). He’s got the energy and football IQ to keep Temple competitive in the American Athletic Conference, and he’s a great recruiter, too. Before his years in the SEC, he worked at mid-major schools like Florida International and UCF.

Cons: A Georgia native, Collins has very little experience coaching or recruiting in Pennsylvania. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the reason Matt Rhule was so successful at Temple was because of his ability to go toe-to-toe with big-name programs on the recruiting trail in talent-rich Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. Can Collins recapture that magic with his own staff?

Bottom Line: The Owls are on a hot streak in the past several years, and it’s rare to be able to sustain consistent success at a place like Temple. But it can be done and has been done, and the hope in Philly is that Collins can keep the magic going while under high expectations.

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#18 – Jay Norvell, Nevada

  • Age: 53
  • Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Alma Mater: Iowa
  • Previous Job: Wide Receivers Coach/Pass Game Coordinator, Arizona State

Pros: In addition to ASU, Norvell has experience working at some of the nation’s elite programs, including stints as offensive coordinator at UCLA, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. From 1998-2003, he worked in the NFL as an assistant with both the Oakland Raiders and the Indianapolis Colts.

Cons: After a record-breaking run under the iconic Chris Ault, Nevada has been spinning its wheels in recent years, which led to Brian Polian’s dismissal. The Mountain West continues to improve around the Wolf Pack, and it’s a telling sign that Polian was fired even after winning his last two games (including a double-digit win over rival UNLV). Polian frequently lamented the inadequate facilities and even suggested that they were lucky to be overachieving given the lack of program resources. Will things be different under Norvell?

Bottom Line: Nevada fans are increasingly nostalgic for the Ault era, in which the run-based pistol offense mowed down opponents with ease and the defense was just good enough to carry the day. Norvell has an exciting offensive pedigree and a sterling reputation as a recruiter. It will be interesting to see how he does in his first head coaching gig.

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#17 – Tim Lester, Western Michigan

  • Age: 39
  • Hometown: Wheaton, Illinois
  • Alma Mater: Western Michigan
  • Previous Job: Quarterbacks Coach, Purdue

Pros: Lester is a WMU alum and former assistant, so he’s understandably excited to come back to his alma mater and continue the work that began under the exciting P.J. Fleck, who departed for Minnesota in early January. Like Fleck, Lester is an offensive guy with enthusiasm and a solid recruiting record. He has also coached at St. Joseph’s and Elmhurst, Division II and Division III programs, respectively, compiling a career record of 40-23.

Cons: Lester has little FBS experience compared to the average coach. He was QB coach at WMU (2005-06) and at Purdue (2016) as well as a four-year stint at Syracuse. However, in a 16-year career, Lester has been at college football’s highest level for only seven of those years.

Bottom Line: Athletic director Kathy Beauregard struck gold in 2013 when she hired then-unknown Fleck, and the hope is that she made the right call here, too. At the very least, Lester is an alum who inherits a fantastic situation in terms of fan support, facilities, and returning talent. The Broncos should stay in the MAC mix.

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#16 – Ed Orgeron, LSU

  • Age: 55
  • Hometown: Larose, Louisiana
  • Alma Mater: Northwestern State
  • Previous Job: Defensive Line Coach, LSU

Pros: Orgeron has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters, both at LSU and in his previous assistant coaching stints at USC, where he spent a combined 11 years. He knows SEC country as well as anybody, as well as the expectations at LSU.

Cons: Orgeron’s only previous head coaching experience was at Ole Miss from 2005-07, where he went 10-25. The LSU administration was rumored to have been very close to hiring Houston’s Tom Herman (a much bigger name), but Texas came in and swooped him up at the last minute.

Bottom Line: After years of complaints from restless fans, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva finally listened and got rid of the charismatic-but-stubborn Les Miles. In promoting Orgeron, they’re showing a lot of faith. Players love him, and he’s long been considered one of the most elite recruiters around, but his previous work at Ole Miss wasn’t exactly inspiring. He’s got work to do in order to return the Tigers to a truly relevant level.

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#15 – Tom Allen, Indiana

  • Age: 46
  • Hometown: New Castle, Indiana
  • Alma Mater: Maranatha Baptist
  • Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Indiana

Pros: Allen has familiarity with the Hoosiers as an alum and a former high school coach in Indianapolis. He’s well-liked by his players, and he did an excellent job as the Hoosiers’ DC in 2016. Before he came to Bloomington, he did another instant turnaround job at USF in 2015 and also coached linebackers at Ole Miss for three years.

Cons: There’s no question that Indiana is one of the toughest jobs in the Big Ten. The fanbase is still shocked that former coach Kevin Wilson was canned after back-to-back bowl games and four rivalry wins over Purdue. It will be interesting to see if the Hoosiers can keep the positive vibes going under Allen.

Bottom Line: This one was bizarre. Wilson was a winner and a great program builder, but didn’t see eye-to-eye with AD Fred Glass and got fired shortly before the Foster Farms Bowl. Glass promoted Allen immediately and didn’t even hire a search firm, so the expectations are crystal-clear: Bloomington wants a consistent winner, and not just in basketball.

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#14 – Major Applewhite, Houston

  • Age: 38
  • Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Alma Mater: Texas
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Houston

Pros: Applewhite has the goods as far as Texas high school connections go. He worked under Mack Brown in Austin from 2008-2013 before jumping to Houston and creating a Group of Five juggernaut. He’s charismatic, smart, and a known developer of talent.

Cons: Tom Herman was a once-in-a-generation find for the Cougars. He wasn’t the first coach to jump from UH to a bigger job, and he won’t be the last. Given those parameters, how long can the Cougs be truly elite under Applewhite? And will the players he inherited – some of whom are playing for their third coach – buy in?

Bottom Line: This was a safe hire, and fans won’t be pissed off about it. As good as Houston has been lately, and as much success as they’ve had, this is still a stepping stone job. It’s difficult for players to stay focused on competing and winning when there’s no guarantee about their coach moving on or not.

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#13 – Mike Sanford Jr., Western Kentucky

  • Age: 34
  • Hometown: Lexington, Virginia
  • Alma Mater: Boise State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Notre Dame

Pros: Sanford has the on-paper qualities that you look for: a great offensive mind, a proven track record as a recruiter and developer of talent, and a coach’s son who has a passion for the game. He engineered a string of excellent offenses at both Notre Dame and Boise State (his alma mater), and was also a position coach and recruiting coordinator at Stanford for several seasons.

Cons: Sanford is still very young and only has three years as a play-caller under his belt. WKU is a program used to explosive offenses; they’ve averaged over 40 points per game the past three seasons under departed coach Jeff Brohm (now at Purdue). Can Sanford keep the ball rolling?

Bottom Line: After a rough initial transition into the FBS ranks half a decade ago, WKU has emerged as one of the more consistent Group of Five programs, winning the past two Conference USA championships. Sanford hitched his wagon to a great team and an administration that is committed to winning. All in all, a great hire.

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#12 – Butch Davis, Florida International

  • Age: 65
  • Hometown: Tahlequah, Oklahoma
  • Alma Mater: Arkansas
  • Previous Job: ESPN analyst

Pros: It is rare for a small school like FIU to land a coach of Davis’s stature. This guy has serious NFL chops and also boasts a 63-43 career record as a college coach, first at Miami (1995-2000) and then at North Carolina (2007-10), where he was eventually dismissed as part of the ongoing NCAA scandal at UNC. Davis was bound to come back at some point.

Cons: Davis will continue to be forced to answer questions about the NCAA sanctions at UNC that happened under his watch. For what it’s worth, he was never named in the official report, but UNC used him as a scapegoat and gave him the axe. There’s no doubt that Davis is a good coach who has learned from his mistakes, but past demons could get in his way.

Bottom Line: The Panthers have the potential to become a factor in Conference USA after underachieving repeatedly under Ron Turner. Davis should be able to recruit South Florida very well and is already bringing quality assistants onboard.

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#11 – Randy Edsall, Connecticut

  • Age: 58
  • Hometown: Glen Rock, Pennsylvania
  • Alma Mater: Syracuse
  • Previous Job: Director of Football Research, Detroit Lions (NFL)

Pros: It’s a sweet homecoming for Edsall, who led the Huskies to the FBS ranks in 2000 and coached there for 12 seasons (1999-2010). He’s a talented recruiter who brings a disciplined and methodical approach to a program he’s intimately familiar with.

Cons: Edsall’s star has fallen slightly after his rocky tenure at Maryland (2011-15). He inherited a roster filled with holes and did the best he could, but the program fell on hard times when the Terps moved from the ACC to the Big Ten. In the end, Edsall stumbled to a 22-34 record and never won a bowl game.

Bottom Line: UConn is a program with limited resources, but Edsall knows the terrain as well as anybody. The AAC continues to improve, but it might have as much parity as any Group of Five conference – so there’s reason to think that the Huskies can rebuild quickly.

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#10 – Justin Wilcox, Cal

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Junction City, Oregon
  • Alma Mater: Oregon
  • Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin

Pros: He may not be a household name, but Wilcox has been flying up the college football ladder as one of the best defensive minds in the game, moving from Boise State to Tennessee to Washington to USC, and finally to Wisconsin. As a West Coast native, Wilcox knows the recruiting terrain as well as anybody, and he’ll certainly bring toughness and discipline to a Cal program that has been treading water in recent years – the Bears were a middling 19-30 under former coach Sonny Dykes and haven’t won a bowl game since 2008.

Cons: The Bears’ defense has been horrendous the past four years under Dykes, and Wilcox will have to set out to change that immediately. But that’s not the problem. The modern-day Pac-12 is far from defense-oriented, so Cal will still have to score points in bunches to have any hope of contending.

Bottom Line: Look, Cal didn’t really have much choice in this hire. Fans and administration were growing tired of Dykes, so they needed to hire a defensive specialist. Wilcox is a former Cal assistant (2003-05) and he’s familiar with the culture and the expectations. Dykes never seemed to be a good fit in Berkeley, and in terms of style, Wilcox might not be either, but this was a pretty solid hire nonetheless.

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#9 – Charlie Strong, USF

  • Age: 56
  • Hometown: Batesville, Arkansas
  • Alma Mater: Central Arkansas
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Texas

Pros: Strong’s disciplined approach will be welcomed by the players he inherits, a high-achieving group that made their mark in the AAC this past year and increased their win total every year under former coach Willie Taggart. Strong has experience and a record of success at smaller programs without the insanely high standards he faced on a daily basis in Austin.

Cons: Strong’s tenure at Texas was marked by upheaval on both sides of the ball, and that’s difficult to ignore. He needs to be more patient at USF, especially with coordinator changes.

Bottom Line: Strong is still a great coach, and USF is a good place for him to go. At the very least, his recruiting connections in Florida should pay immediate dividends. The Bulls should stay relevant.

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#8 – Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Alma Mater: Fresno State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Alabama

Pros: He’s Lane Kiffin. He’s coordinated three spectacular offenses the past three seasons at Alabama under Nick Saban, and can recruit with the best of them. He’ll also have the added bonus of coaching at a program without massive expectations, giving him more time to orchestrate a dramatic turnaround.

Cons: He’s Lane Kiffin. And by that token, he’s been accused of being aloof, brash, and immature following his embarrassing year as the head man at Tennessee in 2009, as well as his controversial tenure at USC. As good of an assistant as Kiffin is, he still has yet to prove that he has the ability to successfully lead an FBS program.

Bottom Line: FAU has a new football operations building under construction, a stadium that’s less than five years old, and they’re surrounded by the South Florida recruiting goldmine. This is a program with plenty of potential, and Kiffin was almost guaranteed to try to get back under the coach’s headset again. Some might take a wait-and-see approach, but it’s safe to say that Kiffin can make the Owls relevant.

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#7 – Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

  • Age: 43
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
  • Alma Mater: Ohio State
  • Previous Job: Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach, Ohio State

Pros: Fickell is an Ohio native through-and-through. He has spent his entire 17-year coaching career in the state (15 of those at OSU). In addition to an interim head coaching stint in 2011 after Jim Tressel was dismissed, Fickell stuck around under Urban Meyer and helped develop some tenacious defenses.

Cons: Cincinnati is the very definition of a stepping stone program. Their past four coaches have all moved on after four years at the school. Recruiting suffered under the most recent coach, Tommy Tuberville, and the Bearcats have underachieved ever since the AAC expanded. They haven’t won a bowl game since 2012.

Bottom Line: If there’s anyone who knows Ohio talent when he sees it, it’s Fickell – it’s safe to say that recruiting local kids won’t be an issue for the Bearcats heading forward. Cincinnati has solid facilities and a recently renovated stadium, so it should be a quick fix if Fickell is up to it.

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#6 – Jeff Tedford, Fresno State

  • Age: 55
  • Hometown: Lynwood, California
  • Alma Mater: Fresno State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Analyst, Washington

Pros: Tedford went 82-59 in a strong decade of work at Cal (2002-2012) and had frequently been named as a coaching candidate in the past few years. He’s a Fresno alum who also coached at his alma mater from 1992-97.

Cons: The Mountain West has improved rapidly, with the Bulldogs going from division champions to bottom-feeders in barely two years. Former coach Tim DeRuyter got the axe due to his lack of recruiting prowess and questionable coordinator hires. Fresno State is a historically good program, but when negativity sets in, things can get ugly fast.

Bottom Line: Tedford is a wonderful coach, and he jumped at the chance to lead his alma mater’s program. The Bulldogs have lacked consistency and toughness in recent seasons, something that Tedford will change immediately. The fact that he wants to be there will strike a chord with a fanbase that never seemed to fully embrace DeRuyter.

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#5 – Jeff Brohm, Purdue

  • Age: 45
  • Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
  • Alma Mater: Louisville
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Western Kentucky

Pros: Brohm went 30-10 in three years at WKU, where his offenses were explosive, averaging over 40 points per game every year. He’s also a former NFL quarterback who has served as a offensive coordinator and/or QB coach at schools like UAB, Florida Atlantic, Illinois, and his alma mater Louisville.

Cons: Purdue is one of the most difficult jobs in the Big Ten, and it’s unclear how Brohm’s flashy spread offense will fit in the hard-nosed, smash-mouth conference. Brohm will need to be able to handle pressure at a program that hasn’t been truly elite since Drew Brees was in town.

Bottom Line: The Boilermakers really got a steal with Brohm, who kicked it up a notch at Western Kentucky and possesses great offensive chops. He will certainly be able to put more fans in the stands and showcase a much more entertaining offense. It’s also worth noting that Purdue administration has demonstrated a bigger commitment to football, as evidenced by the construction of a new football operations building that will open next August.

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#4 – P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sugar Grove, Illinois
  • Alma Mater: Northern Illinois
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Western Michigan

Pros: Fleck might have been a biggest name in the nation, turning #RowTheBoat into a national catchphrase. He had one of the largest turnarounds in recent memory, building Western Michigan into a national contender. After going 1-11 in 2013, his first season, Fleck went 29-11 the rest of the way. This past year, the Broncos earned the school’s first conference title since 1988.

Cons: Fleck walks into an train wreck off the field in Minneapolis. The Gophers went 9-4 this past year under the recently fired Tracy Claeys, but his brief tenure was marked by a player boycott right before their Holiday Bowl matchup against Washington State. Ten Gopher players were suspended indefinitely for an alleged sexual assault that occurred in September, and the non-suspended players were outraged over a perceived lack of due process towards their accused teammates. Claeys went on record publicly that he supported the players and was proud of their boycott. After the boycott was lifted, athletic director Mark Coyle promised that the players were be given another chance, but ended up firing Claeys less than a week after the bowl game (which the Gophers won). There’s smoldering anger in the Minnesota locker room, with many players predicting en masse transfers. Fleck will have to work quickly to win over the players he inherits.

Bottom Line: Don’t count out Fleck. Against all odds, he built something spectacular at WMU. Minnesota is a very difficult place to win as well, but Fleck – only 36 years old – is up for the challenge and should be able to keep the on-field success going. The Gophers are in the middle of a successful run, so if Fleck can mend fences off the field, he could keep them contenders in the Big Ten West.

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#3 – Matt Rhule, Baylor

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Manhattan, New York
  • Alma Mater: Penn State
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Temple

Pros: Rhule engineered a very nice turnaround in his four years at Temple, giving them the first consecutive 10-win seasons in school history, as well as a conference title. He’s known as an ace recruiter, and his defenses at Temple were some of the nation’s best. 

Cons: He lacks the obvious Texas high school ties, having never lived or coached in the state before. Rhule’s offenses produced very good numbers, but not Big 12 level numbers. Fans in Waco expect high-scoring games – can Rhule’s teams deliver?

Bottom Line: Given the tumultuous past year at Baylor, they needed to make a slam-dunk hire, and they did. Rhule brings stability, energy, and a strong desire to win to a program that was in disarray this past year under interim coach Jim Grobe. Rhule immediately faces a daunting schedule and a young team that lacks substantial depth. But he’s not one to back down from a challenge.

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#2 – Willie Taggart, Oregon

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Bradenton, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Western Kentucky
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, USF

Pros: Taggart has experience building programs as a head coach, turning around his alma mater’s program (WKU) and then heading to USF, where he increased his win total every year he was there – including a 10-2 mark this past season. He also spent three years as running backs coach at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh.

Cons: Taggart brings a flashy offense to Eugene that fans will certainly love, but he needs to fix a leaky defense, which has been the main problem at the U of O ever since Chip Kelly left town. Recruiting suffered under Helfrich, and the quarterback position has been a revolving door in the post-Marcus Mariota era.

Bottom Line: With his Florida recruiting connections and sterling offensive resumé, Taggart was a perfectly logical choice to help bring Oregon back to the nation’s elite. He’ll fit in well in the Pac-12.

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#1 – Tom Herman, Texas

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Alma Mater: California Lutheran
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Houston

Pros: Herman was the hottest coach in the nation for a reason. He built an already solid program at Houston into a national contender, with the Cougars showcasing a fast-paced offense and a turnover-hungry defense, en route to a 22-4 record during the Herman era. Herman also began his FBS coaching career as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown in 1999.

Cons: At the risk of stating the obvious, the expectations at Texas are unlike any in the country. No program has higher hopes for football, and Herman needs to prove very early on that he’s not in over his head.

Bottom Line: Herman is a superstar from the Urban Meyer coaching tree, and there’s a definite sense that he knows what he’s getting into at UT. But the first thing he needs to do is to start dominating the in-state recruiting trail and score a win or two over a rival.

Sizing up the Sun Belt, one month in

Hard to believe it’s October – which means we’re five weeks into the college football season. Like many mid-major conferences, the Sun Belt Conference has been topsy-turvy. Some teams have been pleasant surprises, and others have been bitter disappointments. At this point, you can basically shake these teams up in a bottle and see where they land.

So where does everyone stand? Well, let’s find out. I’m recapping the first month of the season for all of these teams, as well as giving them a grade.

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Appalachian State Mountaineers (3-2, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia State, 17-3
  • Up next: Bye week

The Mountaineers have looked equally impressive on both sides of the ball. They raised eyebrows nationally by giving Tennessee a scare in the season opener. Then App State sandwiched that by convincingly defeating Old Dominion, falling to nationally-ranked Miami, and winning a shootout over Akron on the road. App State has one of the most experienced lineups in the Sun Belt, and it shows.

Grade: A-

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Arkansas State Red Wolves (1-4, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia Southern, 27-26
  • Up next: vs. South Alabama (Oct. 15)

The Red Wolves upset the apple cart in the Sun Belt last night with a last second win over the Georgia Southern Eagles. Up until then, Arkansas State’s offense had been a train wreck during an ugly 0-4 start. Even in the first half against Georgia Southern, they were shaky, losing two fumbles. It took sophomore QB Justice Hansen a huge effort to rally the troops and escape with a victory.

Hansen has been the unquestioned starter for a couple weeks now after Chad Voytik (a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh) was benched. With Hansen as a steady hand, new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner needs to get his unit to play faster and with more discipline.

Grade: D+

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Georgia Southern Eagles (3-2, 2-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Arkansas State, 27-26
  • Up next: @ Georgia Tech (Oct. 15)

Who are the Eagles? Are they an triple-option offense that passes, or a more balanced offense that is run-first? The Eagles have certainly been able to score points in bunches, but their star is falling after last night’s loss to Arkansas State and the previous week’s road drubbing at Western Michigan. The defense has been impressive, though, and it helps that first-year head coach Tyson Summers specializes on that side of the ball. This team is capable of rebounding, but they need to guard against complacency.

Grade: B-

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Georgia State Panthers (0-4, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Appalachian State, 17-3
  • Up next: vs. Texas State (Oct. 8)

The ball really bounced the Panthers’ way last year, when they won their last four games and qualified for their first bowl in school history. It’s safe to say that they aren’t recapturing that magic this year after an 0-4 start. Granted, they’ve had a tenacious schedule—Ball State, Air Force, Wisconsin, Appalachian State—but Georgia State is averaging a dreadful 13.8 points per game. The defense has been lackluster, too, which is mystifying considering that it’s mostly a veteran group. Adding injury to insult: star wide receiver Penny Hart is done for the year with a broken foot. 

Grade: D-

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Idaho Vandals (2-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Troy, 34-13
  • Up next: @ Louisiana-Monroe (Oct. 8)

The Vandals still haven’t had an impressive win—they’ve beaten UNLV (in overtime) and Montana State by a combined six points, and QB Matt Linehan continues to have turnover issues. The running game has been stagnant, and the secondary has been suspect, despite plenty of veterans back there. But at the end of the day, head coach Paul Petrino will take wins wherever he can get them—and his squad has a chance again this weekend on the road at lowly Louisiana-Monroe.

Grade: C-

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Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to New Mexico State, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

The Cajuns have a chance to rest up this weekend during their bye, but their confidence has to be shaken after falling in double overtime to NMSU and in four overtimes to Tulane the previous week. The Cajuns’ new-look defense has improved, especially in the pass rush, and the receiving corps has been solid, but there are questions about the health of running back Elijah McGuire heading forward. This looks like a middle-of-the-pack team until they prove otherwise.

Grade: C+

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Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (1-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Auburn, 58-7
  • Up next: vs. Idaho (Oct. 8)

New coach Matt Viator knows what he’s getting into, and he’s had significant success at smaller programs. The Warhawks have had an unforgiving schedule—taking their lumps against Oklahoma and Auburn, among others—and are currently on a four game losing streak. Like Georgia State, they’ve had some serious problems scoring. Unlike Georgia State, Louisiana-Monroe can use youth as an excuse (they only have 14 seniors).

Grade: D

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New Mexico State Aggies (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Louisiana-Lafayette, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

In 2016, NMSU has their most experienced team in the Doug Martin era. They were largely competitive in a high-scoring loss to Kentucky, and they’ve clawed out narrow (but significant) victories against Louisiana-Lafayette and in-state rival New Mexico.

All-American running back Larry Rose III is back to 100% after missing a few weeks after  sports hernia surgery. NMSU still has a long way to go on defense, but they’re blitzing more and showing more aggressiveness this season. The Aggies are also fortunate to be heading into their bye week in relatively good health.

Grade: C+

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South Alabama Jaguars (3-2, 0-2 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat San Diego State, 42-24
  • Up next: Bye week

Like Georgia Southern, South Alabama seems to be suffering an identity crisis. They’ve shocked both Mississippi State and a nationally-ranked San Diego State team, but they barely beat FCS Nicholls State in between and also lost to both Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Quarterback Cole Garvin, a transfer from Marshall, has helped add much-needed consistency to the Jaguars’ offense, and the defense looks solid, particularly in the secondary. Nonetheless, it’s a good time for a bye week. 

Grade: B-

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Texas State Bobcats (2-2, 0-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Incarnate Word, 48-17
  • Up next: @ Georgia State (Oct. 8)

The Bobcats have been surprisingly competitive in what was widely predicted to be a rebuilding year under new coach Everett Withers. They upset Ohio in a season-opening overtime thriller, but then took their lumps in beatdowns at the hands of Houston and Arkansas. There’s very little depth, and the defense is inexperienced, but if Texas State can stay healthy, they should have a chance at a couple more wins the rest of the season.

Grade: C-

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Troy Trojans (4-1, 2-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Idaho, 34-13
  • Up next: Bye week

Troy was a trendy preseason pick as the Sun Belt’s dark-horse, and they’ve certainly lived up to that reputation. After pushing nationally-ranked Clemson to the brink in Week Two, the Trojans then added a comeback win over Southern Miss to their resumé, before beating NMSU and Idaho to earn their first two conference wins. The Trojans are entering their bye week with a ton of momentum.

Grade: A-

Coaches on the rise

Now that I’ve recapped who’s on the hot seat in college football, let’s take a look at the coaches who are rising stars:

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Tom Herman, Houston

Herman, an Urban Meyer disciple, has made Houston a national contender in only a season and a half of work there. The Cougars rolled to a 13-1 record and a major bowl victory over a heavily-favored Florida State team in 2015 and are off to an equally impressive start this season behind Heisman-contending quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Herman is still relatively young (41) and is an ace recruiter. There’s no doubt that big-time programs will be on the phone soon.

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Willie Taggart, USF

You may not know his name, but Taggart has been a high-riser in recent years. He coached running backs under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, before turning around a fledgling FBS program at Western Kentucky from 2010-2012. The 40-year-old Taggart is from nearby Bradenton, Florida, so he’s been able to tap into some rich recruiting grounds at USF and go head-to-head with other programs for some of the Sunshine State’s biggest prospects.

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P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan

The energetic, charismatic Fleck took over the Broncos in 2013 after the dismissal of veteran coach Bill Cubit. The Broncos went 1-11 in Fleck’s first year, but then he engineered the nation’s biggest turnaround in 2014 – going 8-5 and earning a berth in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. After another 8-5 campaign last season, Fleck’s star is rising quickly in Kalamazoo. He’s an outstanding recruiter and has coached under many successful names, including former Rutgers head man Greg Schiano. And get this – Fleck is only 35 years old.

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Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State

The 43-year-old Satterfield is an App State guy through and through – a former player and assistant – so it’s unlikely that he will jump ship at the earliest possible opportunity. Still, you can’t ignore how terrific the Mountaineers have been under Satterfield since joining the FBS in 2014. In two full seasons at college football’s highest level, Satterfield has gone 18-7.

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Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky

Brohm, a former journeyman quarterback in the NFL, has brought new life and energy to Western Kentucky, a program that’s enjoyed frequent success since moving up to the FBS in 2009. The Hilltoppers won the Conference USA Championship last season and are off to a solid start this year too with a high-flying offense. In addition to his head coaching chops and NFL resumé, Brohm has also served as an offensive coordinator and QB coach at programs like Illinois, Florida Atlantic, UAB, and his alma mater Louisville. It’s unlikely that Brohm will move up to a bigger job just yet, but his 23-9 record in two and a half seasons is nothing to sneeze at.

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Philip Montgomery, Tulsa

Montgomery is an offensive wizard who helped gear the major turnaround at Baylor, serving under Art Briles from 2008-2014. Then, Montgomery took over a Golden Hurricane program that had gone 2-10 in their first season in the American Athletic Conference after moving up from Conference USA.

It’s safe to say that the transition has greatly improved with Montgomery at the helm. Not only did he take Tulsa to a bowl game in his debut season, he’s also attracting recruits and developing Dane Evans into a fine quarterback in the up-tempo spread offense. He’ll probably take a couple more years to mold the Hurricane into a true contender, but Montgomery is certainly a guy to watch heading forward.

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Bryan Harsin, Boise State

Harsin bleeds Bronco blue – he’s a Boise native, a former player, and a former assistant. Harsin left former coach Chris Petersen’s staff in 2010 after five stellar years calling the plays on offense. He worked under Mack Brown at Texas and also spent a year at Arkansas State before returning to the Treasure Valley. Since then, Harsin has a record of 26-6 at his alma mater, and Boise State is off to an undefeated start this season. It’s safe to say that any fears of a major free fall in the post-Petersen years have been quieted.

 

Honorable Mentions

(These are coaches who are still early into their tenures at their respective schools, but who seem like good fits for their programs, are doing the right things in recruiting, and could be looking to move up in a few years.)

  • Craig Bohl (3rd year, Wyoming)
  • Neal Brown (2nd year, Troy)
  • Chris Creighton (3rd year, Eastern Michigan)
  • Willie Fritz (1st year, Tulane)
  • Seth Littrell (1st year, North Texas)
  • Jeff Monken (3rd year, Army)
  • Nick Rolovich (1st year, Hawaii)
  • Tony Sanchez (2nd year, UNLV)
  • Frank Wilson (1st year, UTSA)
  • Everett Withers (1st year, Texas State)