Back by popular demand (or force of habit), it’s the College Football Most Intriguing lists. First off, the Most Intriguing Coaches for 2017:
1. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State. The mullet-haired rattlesnake hunter is all man, and now nearly 50. A decade removed from one of the most memorable rants in college football history, Gundy has improbably become the face of the transitioning Big 12 conference and might have his best team in 13 seasons on the job in Stillwater.
2. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. At one time Kelly appeared on his way to becoming the next great coach of the Fighting Irish, starting down the national title path walked by Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz. Coming off a 4-8 debacle in year seven, he’s coaching for his job amid major staff change and a personal rebooting. Is 2017 a career rebirth or the end of his run in South Bend?
3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. One-man publicity whirlwind has made the Wolverines hyper-relevant very quickly. He also upped the ante on the rest of the sport by taking his team to Rome for spring practice. What will he think of next? Who knows? But one of these days the master plan must include beating Ohio State and finishing better than third in the Big Ten East.
4. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma. The youngest head coach in FBS suddenly replaced one of the most decorated head coaches in FBS when Bob Stoops shockingly retired in June. The 33-year-old Riley’s first team comes with a Heisman-finalist quarterback, a stellar offensive line, a good defensive nucleus – and the same questions Stoops faced about whether the Sooners can compete with the nation’s elite.
5. Tom Herman, Texas. The Longhorns won the race to hire a guy who is widely considered the college game’s next coaching superstar. Now all Herman has to do is elevate the blueblood program out of a seven-year malaise and get back to the business of Big 12 titles and contention for national titles. No pressure, no expectations, Tom.
6. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic. Shady’s back. After being fired by Al Davis, Pat Haden and Nick Saban – the most recent of those dismissals during last season’s College Football Playoff – Kiffin is now a head coach for the fourth time. This job comes at the level where he probably should have started his career. Has the 42-year-old finally matured enough to handle the big chair?
7. Ed Orgeron, LSU. Plan B for the school that lost the Tom Herman Sweepstakes was to promote its interim to the full-time position. That’s Coach O, whose 22-29 career record doesn’t stack up terribly well with the guy LSU fired (Les Miles was 141-55) or the school’s overall winning percentage (.650). Orgeron sincerely loves LSU and the state, but that will go only so far if he doesn’t win big and win fast.
8. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. Once considered too goofy to truly win big, Swinney last January became a member of the most elite fraternity in college football coaching by winning the national title. He’s one of just four active coaches with a championship ring, and recruiting like a guy who plans to win several more. Can he compete for a title without cornerstone quarterback Deshaun Watson?
9. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. He was the king of East Lansing for years, culminating in a Big Ten title and CFP playoff berth in 2015. Then it all went to hell. The Spartans were the biggest bust of 2016, plummeting to 3-9 and sent reeling by a succession of off-field issues. That was enough to seriously dent Dantonio’s previously ironclad status, and it lends urgency to a ’17 rebound effort.
10. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State. Rebuffed LSU to stay put in Tallahassee and pursue a second national title – which would tie him with program patriarch Bobby Bowden and others. He might have the team to get him there this season – if quarterback Deondre Francois can have a season somewhat like Jameis Winston did in 2013 (minus the off-field issues).
11. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. His athletic director, Scott Woodward, put him squarely on the hot seat in late May, declaring that Sumlin “has to win this year.” And by win, he means more than the eight-victory plateau of the past three seasons. Sumlin’s teams have repeatedly flopped in the second half of the year, a trend he must break to retain his $5 million-a-year job.
12. Jim Mora, UCLA. Another coach who once seemed like he had all the answers and now is surrounded by questions. UCLA tenure started 29-11 but the Bruins have been 12-13 the past two years – including consecutive blowout losses to USC. Injuries have played a big role in that decline, but it becomes a flimsy excuse after a while. Opener against Sumlin will carry added freight in terms of job security.
13. Nick Saban, Alabama. The king of college football had his scepter stolen by Swinney last year in a shocking turn of title-game events – after Saban complicated his own championship pursuit by ousting Kiffin following the CFP semifinals. This year he has the rare luxury of returning experience at QB – but also a rare deficit in experienced defensive studs. Can he rule the SEC and the entire sport once again?
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts walks with coach Nick Saban during Alabama’s fan day practice on Aug. 5. (AP)
14. Willie Taggart, Oregon. Tasked with rebuilding what Chip Kelly constructed and Mark Helfrich let slide into disrepair. Taggart comes with Jim Harbaugh’s endorsement and a taskmaster’s reputation – the latter of which created early criticism when several players were hospitalized after a winter conditioning workout. Can Taggart recreate the buzz that made Oregon a trendy spot for top recruits?
15. Clay Helton, USC. Widely panned hire that is well on its way to working out splendidly. The stopgap successor when Steve Sarkisian imploded in 2015, Helton started his head-coaching career 6-6. Then he turned the offense over to Sam Darnold and won nine straight last season, capped by an epic Rose Bowl triumph. This year the challenge will be doing it when everyone sees USC coming.
16. James Franklin, Penn State. Franklin also faces the highest expectations of his head-coaching career. The nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt were miraculous but pressure-free, and last year’s Big Ten championship season similarly was greeted as an unforeseen bonus. Now the Penn State fans are on the muscle like the vintage Paterno years. The good news for Franklin: He has the team to deliver.
17. Matt Rhule, Baylor. Made one of the riskiest moves of the 2016 coaching carousel, leaving a small but successful niche at Temple for the hazmat situation in Waco. The exceedingly normal, straitlaced Rhule immediately puts a likeable face on the Baylor makeover project. But the time for winning the news conference is over, and it’s now time to win on the field. How long will that take?
18. Matt Luke, Mississippi. He’s the emergency interim at scandal-racked Ole Miss, replacing the disgraced Hugh Freeze in late July. Luke is a well-respected assistant who appeared ticketed for South Carolina until his alma mater convinced him to stay as the potential replacement for Freeze if the NCAA investigation turned really bad. Other things turned really bad instead, and now Luke gets his shot.
19. Charlie Strong, South Florida. Colossally misplaced at Texas, the fired former coach of the Longhorns is back in his comfort zone at USF. He’s had years of recruiting success in the state, and the lower profile of the Bulls football program is similar to what he encountered while winning big at Louisville. Add in the fact that Taggart left him a talented and experienced team, and Strong should win immediately.
20. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. The last we saw of him, his team was shockingly blown out and shut out in the CFP semifinals by Clemson – the first shutout of Meyer’s 194-game career. Expect an immediate recovery this season from the Buckeyes, who seem to have all the requisite talent for a run at Meyer’s fourth national title – if a retooled offensive staff can revive a sagging passing game.
21. Butch Jones, Tennessee. Self-bestowed “Champions of Life” title not buying near as much job security as champions of the SEC East would. Jones missed a golden opportunity last year with an experienced team, losing four games and ending the regular season with an embarrassing defeat at Vanderbilt. Now his future is in doubt with a new athletic director, John Currie, calling the shots.
22. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota. Is he P.T. Barnum or the Next Urban? Fleck’s sloganeering and hyperactivity may seem contrived, but it works with the teenagers who matter most. He recruited far beyond Western Michigan’s profile and produced the school’s greatest season, culminating in a Cotton Bowl bid – and a job upgrade. Now he must beat Wisconsin and the beasts of the Big Ten East, not win the MAC.
23. Butch Davis, Florida International. South Florida is the Start Over capital of college football, with Mark Richt in his second year at Miami and Davis joining Kiffin in rebound jobs at fixer-upper programs. Out of coaching for several years after major violations on his watch at North Carolina, Davis returns to the territory where he perpetuated the Hurricanes dynasty a long time ago.
24. Jeff Brohm, Purdue. After years of subsisting on a shoestring budget and making unimaginative coaching hires, Purdue modernized in a hurry. The school made a major facility commitment and opened the checkbook to land a creative offensive coach in Brohm. Don’t expect an immediate turnaround, but the Boilermakers should quickly improve their competitiveness – and attractiveness to recruits.
25. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa. Rising star with a fertile offensive mind who has overseen the Golden Hurricane’s rapid revival, going 10-3 last year in his second season. Montgomery could be a hot candidate for bigger jobs – unless his close ties to former boss Art Briles and Baylor hold him back. The breadth of the Baylor stain could be measured by Montgomery’s marketability.
Just missed the list: Bill Clark, UAB; Chris Petersen, Washington; Mark Richt, Miami; Bret Bielema, Arkansas; Randy Edsall, Connecticut; Kirby Smart, Georgia; Luke Fickell, Cincinnati; Mark Stoops, Kentucky; Rich Rodriguez, Arizona; Mike Leach, Washington State; Nick Rolovich, Hawaii; Dino Babers, Syracuse; Major Applewhite, Houston; Jeff Tedford, Fresno State; Bill Snyder, Kansas State.