Coaching carousel: Who are the top young coaches to watch in college football?

Pete Thamel
·9 min read

Here’s the annual Yahoo Sports list of the top 20 Group of Five coaches who could draw interest from bigger programs. And as a bonus, there’s also five FCS coaches who have emerged on the radar. (If, of course, there’s much movement on the coaching carousel this year. We dove into that topic yesterday on Yahoo Sports.)

1. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

Luke Fickell, 47, was targeted by Michigan State last season, and both Baylor and Florida State showed interest. At 22-5 the last two years, he’s emerged as the clear-cut top coach in the Group of Five. His buyout starts at $4 million, which in most financial climates won’t scare off a blue blood. Will his son’s commitment keep him at Cincinnati?

2. Bryan Harsin, Boise State

Harsin, 43, has flirted with a few jobs, but the interest in him has yet to match his ambition. He’s 43-11 the past four years and won the Fiesta Bowl after the 2014 season. Can the relentless winning lift him to the level of job needed to depart his alma mater?

3. Billy Napier, Louisiana

In a cycle when his name became red hot after an 11-3 season, Napier stayed patient and appreciates what he has in Lafayette. He turned down interviews at Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He interviewed with Baylor, but his judiciousness showed he won’t jump at just anything. Could Napier, 41, be the next Saban disciple to end up in the SEC?

4. Josh Heupel, UCF

His buyout drops from $10 million to $4.6 million after UCF’s bowl game, which puts him in play for high-profile jobs. He’s 22-4 overall, but keeping that pace this season with 10 opt-outs will be a challenge. Heupel has shown zero desire to leave UCF, which is a better job than many lower-tier Power Five jobs.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 23: Head coach Josh Heupel of the UCF Knights  looks on during the first quarter against the Marshall Thundering Herd at the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium on December 23, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Josh Heupel of the UCF Knights looks on during a game against Marshall on Dec. 23, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Getty Images)

5. Bill Clark, UAB

He’s amid one of the most underrated coaching jobs in this generation of college football, leading UAB back from the brink of extinction. The Blazers won Conference USA in 2018 and reached the title game last season. Clark, 52, lacks a signature Power Five victory, but a marquee Thursday game with Miami this week looms as an opportunity for UAB to showcase its elite defense.

6. Will Healy, Charlotte

This spot is high for what he’s actually accomplished, as he’s 20-27 over four years as a head coach. But it could also be considered low for the interest schools have showed in Healy, 35, after reviving Austin Peay and going 7-6 in his debut season at Charlotte. An SEC school and multiple AAC schools showed initial interest to speak with him last year, but Healy didn’t want to leave Charlotte after just one season. Healy fits the archetype of the new-age Dabo/Fleck coaching style.

7. Sonny Dykes, SMU

Back in his Texas comfort zone, don’t expect Dykes to be eager to leave SMU. The Mustangs went 10-3 last year and are loaded for 2020, with Shane Buechele at quarterback among the seven offensive starters from a team that finished No. 7 in scoring (41.8). At 50, will Dykes seek to leave his comfort zone?

8. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

An 11-2 season in 2019 finished with a victory over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, marking the seventh bowl game for Navy in eight years. Navy rebounded gallantly from a 3-10 season in 2018, with DC Brian Newberry’s hire reviving a moribund unit. When will a have-not Power Five give Niumatalolo, 55, a shot? He didn’t help himself by laying a dinosaur egg against BYU on Monday night.

9. Jason Candle, Toledo

Candle, 40, interviewed at both Boston College and Missouri last cycle, but Toledo’s 6-6 season gave some ADs pause. He’s 34-19 with a MAC title in his four seasons, and he’s still regarded as an elite play-caller. Candle’s staff overhaul, especially bringing in two-time DIII national title winner Vince Kehres to run the defense, will be a bellwether for his potential.

10. Troy Calhoun, Air Force

He’s reached bowls in 10 of 13 seasons at Air Force, with last season’s 11-2 the school’s best season since Fisher DeBerry’s 12-1 gem in 1998. Calhoun, 53, has interviewed for numerous jobs over the years – everything from Tennessee in 2010 to Colorado last season.

11. Seth Littrell, North Texas

He needs a strong season to get back to the ascent he was on, as he interviewed for Texas Tech and Kansas State two years ago and was on the radar of multiple other Power Five schools. Littrell, 42, is still well-regarded in the Big 12 footprint, but UNT flopping to 4-8 has cooled his name.

12. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

He’s been a model of consistency, with six straight bowl appearances and victories. (Louisiana Tech has 12 bowl appearances in school history.) Louisiana Tech capped last season by suffocating Miami, 14-0, in the Independence Bowl. Holtz, 56, has 110 career victories over 15 seasons at ECU, USF and Louisiana Tech. Will his consistency be rewarded?

13. Willie Fritz, Tulane

He’s been around long enough that he taught Michael Bishop in gym class when the former Kansas State star was in junior high. Fritz, 60, has energy that belies his age and 177 career coaching wins. Missouri showed significant interest last season. Can Fritz improve on back-to-back 7-6 seasons at Tulane – no small feat – to earn one more shot?

14. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State

He’s won two league titles, led Arkansas State to six consecutive bowl games and found himself squarely in the mix at Missouri and South Florida last season. He’s been a model of consistency with six straight bowl games and a 36-12 league record.

15. Lance Leipold, Buffalo

Leipold has six Division III national titles (109-6 overall record) and turned Buffalo into a consistent winner (18-9 last two years). At 56, could another challenge loom?

16. Jeff Monken, Army

Army slipped to 5-8 last year after going 21-5 the previous two seasons. Monken ended up in the mix at Mississippi State and Missouri last season, which means other Power Five jobs will be calling in the future if Army gets back to being a consistent bowl team. A 42-0 blowout of Middle Tennessee was a strong start for a rebound season.

Army coach Jeff Monken watches during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)
Army coach Jeff Monken watches during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)

17. Sean Lewis, Kent State

He flipped Kent State from 2-10 to 7-6, delivering the school’s first-ever bowl victory against Utah State in the Frisco Bowl. That earned interest from Baylor’s search last season, which shows his potential upside. Lewis’ wide-open offense, youthful vibe and quick rebuild have athletic directors intrigued. His biggest obstacle is Kent’s non-conference schedule – trips to Texas A&M, Iowa and Maryland loom in 2021.

18. Jay Norvell, Nevada

The Wolf Pack upset Purdue and No. 24 San Diego State, but ultimately proved inconsistent in finishing 7-6. Norvell, 57, has gone 15-11 the past two seasons with a pair of Power Five upsets. If that trend continues, his stock will rise.

19. Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky

After a disastrous debut loss to Central Arkansas, Helton still managed a 9-4 rookie season at WKU. Pretty impressive, considering he took over a 3-9 team. The younger brother of USC coach Clay Helton is well on the way to making his own name after a blowout win at Arkansas and solid victories over UAB, Army and Charlotte.

20. Scotty Walden, Southern Miss (interim)

He’s the youngest coach in the country (30) and slated to be the lowest paid ($110,000). Can he follow the P.J. Fleck/Will Healy model and energize a lethargic program? He’s had success as the youngest head coach in the country at Division III East Texas Baptist University, where he went 7-3 at age 26 in 2016. If he captures the team and wins this season, he’d be a low-salary option for a school steeped in financial issues.

FCS coaches

1. Matt Entz, North Dakota State

Craig Bohl left for Wyoming after the 2013 season and Chris Klieman for Kansas State two years ago. Entz started 16-0 with an unexpected national title and has future top-10 pick Trey Lance for at least one game this year. If the market moves, his buyout is only $315,000.

2. Curt Cignetti, James Madison

He’s 81-28 overall as a head coach and worked for Nick Saban for his first three seasons at Alabama. JMU lost in the title game to NDSU last season, but the JMU program has the infrastructure set up for many return trips.

3. Jay Hill, Weber State

Led Weber to the FCS semis for the first time in school history last season and reached the FCS playoffs four-straight years. He’s gone 32-10 the past three seasons. He’s worked under Urban Meyer, Ron McBride and Kyle Whittingham at Utah from 2001-2013. His buyout is $150,000, which could help his case.

4. Nathan Brown, Central Arkansas

At just 34 and with a strong offensive background, he’s burst onto the national consciousness this season thanks to UCA’s aggressive scheduling. There are plenty of chances for a defining upset with Louisiana, Arkansas State and North Dakota State still on the schedule.

5. Jeff Choate, Montana State

The former Chris Petersen assistant reached the FCS semifinals last season and is 19-9 the last two years. His résumé includes stops at Washington, Florida, UTEP, Washington State, Boise State and Utah State, which could make him attractive to FBS schools.

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