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College football's 25 most intriguing coaches of 2019

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Back because you simply can't live without it, we present the 2019 edition of the college football Most Intriguing lists. First up: Most Intriguing Coaches.

[More Most Intriguing lists: QBs | Non-QBs]

1. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Is he the new straw boss? The pulverizing of Alabama and His Majesty Nick Saban in last year’s national championship game suggests that a transition is happening. Swinney’s 2019 Clemson team returns 100 percent of its passing yards, 84 percent of its rushing and 81 percent of its receiving from that four-touchdown walloping. That will get you the richest contract in the history of the sport (10 years, $92 million).

2. Ryan Day, Ohio State

The last time Ohio State hired a permanent head coach who had not previously been a permanent head coach at the college level was 1946. His name was Paul Bixler, elevated from offensive coordinator just like Day, and he went 4-3-2 in one season before downsizing to Colgate. Suffice to say, expectations are set for a longer and more successful tenure for Day. Is he Lincoln Riley 2.0, or will the shadow of Urban Meyer swallow him?

3. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

He’s been a head coach for two seasons, he’s 24-4, and his quarterbacks have won two successive Heisman Trophies. Now Riley will try to make it an unprecedented Heisman hat trick with a third different QB, Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts. With returning star power at running back, receiver, tight end and on defense, do the Sooners have what it takes to close the gap on Alabama and Clemson and elevate Riley to the top coaching echelon?

4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Has a four-year losing streak to Ohio State and a three-year bowl losing streak taken some of the sass out of Harbaugh? Aside from churning out a weekly podcast, he stayed off-radar for a long time — fewer stunts, fewer Twitter barbs — and then pointed out that former nemesis Urban Meyer is a controversy magnet. So maybe Sassy Harbs is back. With Meyer cleared out and the Buckeyes coming to Ann Arbor, it would seem a perfect time to win the Big Ten. Anything less would be a disappointment.

5. Tom Herman, Texas

He’s been the superstar coach future bet for five years, since calling plays for Ohio State’s 2014 national championship team with three different starting quarterbacks. Is the future now? Herman’s second Texas team won 10 games, including an authoritative Sugar Bowl beating of Georgia, and returns productive quarterback Sam Ehlinger. But much of the rest of the starting units need to be rebuilt. Does he have enough to unseat Oklahoma in the Big 12?

6. Nick Saban, Alabama

Never in his powerful Alabama tenure has Saban had his nose bloodied the way it was in Santa Clara last January by Swinney and Clemson. Saban raised eyebrows at SEC media days by saying his coaching staff lost focus late last season — earning him points for candor or criticism for excuse-making, depending on your viewpoint. Saban’s Crimson Tide program always reloads and remains at the forefront of the sport, but his primacy is directly threatened now. What will the response be from ‘Bama this year? Will a third straight season replacing both offensive and defensive coordinators catch up with the Tide?

7. Clay Helton, USC

The hottest seat in college football is also one of its most glamorous, as Helton’s fifth season takes on highest urgency. Kliff Kingsbury was hired to save the offense, then that backfired — now it’s up to fellow Air Raid disciple Graham Harrell. But not only is Helton’s future uncertain; the same can be said for his boss, Lynn Swann. The Trojans’ first half of the season is as follows: Fresno State (12-2 last year), Stanford (9-4), at BYU (7-6), Utah (9-5), at Washington (10-4) and at Notre Dame (12-1). By mid-October, Helton’s fate could be sealed and Urban Watch could be kicking into high gear.

8. Kirby Smart, Georgia

He’s been agonizingly close to slaying the Saban dragon the past two seasons. What will it take to get it done? Smart has piled up stellar recruiting classes, and Georgia returns the nation’s most underappreciated quarterback in Jake Fromm. The general consensus is that the Bulldogs are the closest thing to a longterm peer with Clemson and Alabama, and simply need to win the big one(s) to prove it. The schedule sets up nicely for another SEC championship game collision course with the Tide.

9. Willie Taggart, Florida State

Not many second seasons are as urgent as Taggart’s in Tallahassee. Year One was an unqualified disaster: most losses (seven) since 1975; worst loss ever to Clemson (59-10); worst loss ever at home (see: Clemson). Florida State has more depth and experience this year, but needs a quick offensive fix from new coordinator Kendal Briles and an overall upgrade in competitiveness and execution. The Seminoles’ minus-11 turnover margin was their worst since 1983.

10. Mack Brown, North Carolina

The Tar Heels’ back-to-the-future hire was the surprise move of the 2018 coaching carousel. Brown last coached in 2013, and was last at the top of his game in 2009. Can he regain the magic that made him one of America’s most successful coaches of the 1990s and 2000s? There is a lot of work to do at a program that was 5-18 the past two seasons, although the injury plague was perverse during that time. The schedule is rugged, with only FCS Mercer on Nov. 23 looking like a sure thing.

11. Les Miles, Kansas

The other Sunshine Boy hire in college football, alongside Mack Brown. The 65-year-old Miles, who last coached in 2016 and last had a heavyweight team in 2011, at least has managed to do something nobody else has done in more than a decade: Make people pay at least temporary attention to Kansas football. We’ll see whether Miles can sufficiently modernize his approach to get the Jayhawks out of the Big 12 basement.

12. Mario Cristobal, Oregon

He’s got a big opportunity with one of the most experienced teams in the country, led by a potential No. 1 draft pick in quarterback Justin Herbert. Cristobal also has moved to the top of the Pac-12 recruiting heap, signing the highest-rated class from that conference in 2019 and on his way to repeating that in ’20. The question is whether the former head coach at Florida International can manage a game — the brutal giveaway against Stanford last year hasn’t been forgotten.

13. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish program is in the best shape it’s been in 25 years — and they still lost by 27 to Clemson to end the season. When will Notre Dame be good enough to once again legitimately compete for a title? For the second straight season, Kelly must navigate a schedule full of logistical land mines — six opponents will have an open-date advantage on the Irish. Games at Georgia and Michigan will be huge.

14. Manny Diaz, Miami

No 2019 first-time head coach landed a better gig than Diaz, who actually was named at Temple but split three weeks later when this gig came open. Diaz comes home to the city where he was born and where his dad was once the mayor. The charismatic inventor of the Turnover Chain will try to transfer some of that swag and energy to the offensive side of the ball, where the ’18 Hurricanes were plagued by bad quarterback play.

15. Ed Orgeron, LSU

Coach O nudged his career record above .500 for the first time in 2018, with a 10-3 season improving his overall mark to 41-36. The Tigers were definitely improved last year, but still short of ultimate expectations at a place where beating Alabama and Nick Saban is considered paramount. Orgeron has tweaked the offense yet again in hopes of closing the Crimson Tide gap; new boss Scott Woodward will be an interested observer.

16. Kyle Whittingham, Utah

The Utes had a breakthrough of sorts last year, winning the Pac-12 South outright for the first time, but that may just be a springboard to a bigger breakthrough this season. Will yet another offensive coordinator switch turn Utah into the best team on the West Coast? Whittingham is also a sneaky-good Twitter follow, producing entertaining answers to questions in periodic #AskCoachWhitt sessions.

17. Scott Frost, Nebraska

A lot of people think the Cornhuskers are next to rise to the top of the Big Ten West power vacuum. If Frost’s year-over-year improvement at Central Florida is an indication, they’re right — the Knights went from 6-7 his first season to 13-0 and some dubious “national champion” talk. Year One in Lincoln was pretty much a bust, with an 0-6 start and 4-8 overall record. But the foundation for better days may have been built.

18. Dino Babers, Syracuse

Nobody has played Clemson tougher the past two years than Babers’ Orange, with an upset win in the Carrier Dome in 2017 and a narrow loss in Death Valley in ’18. Yes, Clemson also had starting quarterback injuries in both those games, but the Orange improvement under Babers is substantial. Coming off a 10-win season, even the loss of foundational quarterback Eric Dungey may not set the program back.

19. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Fleck combined hokey sloganeering and stunning results at Western Michigan, including a 13-1 season and a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Through two seasons at Minnesota, it’s mostly been hokey sloganeering — the Gophers are 12-13 under Fleck. But this team has the pieces to challenge in the wide-open Big Ten West and could make a third-year breakthrough.

20. Jeff Monken, Army

In a sport increasingly smitten with the passing game, he’s a magnificent anachronism. In every one of Monken’s five seasons at West Point, the Cadets have thrown the fewest passes in the nation — but the last two seasons, as his teams have gotten better, they’ve almost stopped throwing altogether. Army threw just 65 passes in 2017 and 98 in ’18, the only two times in the last seven seasons any team has attempted fewer than 100 passes. The Cadets’ record in that time: 21-5.

21. Matt Campbell, Iowa State

The Cyclones were picked to finish third in the Big 12, which is rare air for a program that traditionally dwells far lower in the standings. But Campbell has resisted other job offers and built something worthy of respect and high expectations. These are the highest expectations in Ames in at least two decades, maybe four.

22. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

He’ll be a hot Power Five job candidate after being choosy and patient last year, when the Bearcats won 11 games with a freshman starting quarterback. Fickell’s defensive prowess was evident in his second season at Cincy, with that unit yielding its fewest yards per game since 1996 and fewest points per game since 1981. Cincinnati opens at home against UCLA and then plays Ohio State in the Horseshoe, giving Fickell two high-profile auditions for anyone who may be in the hiring market.

23. Chris Klieman, Kansas State

He’s the first FCS coach to land a Power Five job in more than a decade. But not just any Power Five job — Klieman is replacing Bill Snyder, far and away the greatest coach in K-State history and someone with not only his name on the stadium, but a keen interest in his legacy. (He very much wanted his scantly qualified son to replace him.) Klieman, from the championship factory at North Dakota State, will have his work cut out for him juicing up an offense that ranked 111th in scoring and 114th in yards per game.

24. Randy Edsall, Connecticut

You think you’ve had a bad 12 months? Try being Edsall, who presided over the worst defense in FBS history and then had the program basically gutted out from under him with the basketball-first move back to the Big East. Then again, Edsall did avoid being fired after that 1-11 train wreck of 2018, so he still has continued employment going for him.

25. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

He rearranged deck chairs on a titanically awful offense, moving assistants around but not firing the key guys. Will it work? And will he keep his job if it doesn’t? One potential factor in State’s decision making, if the Spartans sputter again: Dantonio has a $4.3 million retention bonus coming his way if he’s still the coach on Jan. 15, 2020.

Just missed the list: Mike Leach, Washington State; Dana Holgorsen, Houston; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern; Jeff Brohm, Purdue; Herm Edwards, Arizona State; Gus Malzahn, Auburn; Dan Mullen, Florida; Bill Clark, UAB; Neal Brown, West Virginia; Scott Satterfield, Louisville; Mark Stoops, Kentucky; Jim McElwain, Central Michigan; Kirk Ferentz, Iowa; Seth Littrell, North Texas; Gary Andersen, Utah State.

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