College football's 25 Most Intriguing Coaches of 2015

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College football's 25 Most Intriguing Coaches of 2015
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Back by popular demand (or a lack of alternative content), we have the college football Most Intriguing Lists of 2015. That’s not necessarily the best, not necessarily the most popular – it’s most intriguing. First up, the Most Intriguing Coaches in college football. Feel free to disagree:

1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. Force of personality plus coaching resume plus brand-name school made this an easy choice. Question of when, not if, Harbaugh returns his alma mater to prominence. The ancillary question is how many people he angers along the way. Could help return Ohio State-Michigan to Woody vs. Bo levels of heat.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. Defending national champions come back loaded for a repeat, and Meyer already has helped himself and his team by moving one of three super-talented quarterbacks to a new position. In the jockeying for Greatest Current College Coach, Meyer now stands alongside Nick Saban on the mountaintop. Check back in a few months and he may have the summit to himself.

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3. Gary Patterson, TCU. His eccentric, prickly personality doesn’t mesh well with the spotlight, but there’s no avoiding it this year. With virtually everyone of significance back on offense after a 12-1 season, historic Have-Not could make a run at the College Football Playoff it narrowly and controversially missed last year – and at its first national championship since 1938.

4. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. One of the established oligarchs of the game endured unprecedented fan backlash last year, after a hyped season ended in an 8-5 train wreck. Stoops responded by shaking up his offensive staff; will it be enough to spark a return to prominence after several seasons of good-not-great? If not, will 17 years in Norman be enough? Will it be time to try something new?

Will Nick Saban's Crimson Tide be a national title contender this season? (AP)
Will Nick Saban's Crimson Tide be a national title contender this season? (AP)

5. Nick Saban, Alabama. Saban’s team won 12 games, won the Southeastern Conference championship and went to the first College Football Playoff last year. It wasn’t good enough. Neither was the 11-2 season the year before. That is the standard Saban has created and must attempt to live up to. With a largely rebuilt offense, does he have enough to win his fifth national title – and first since way back in 2012?

6. Steve Sarkisian, USC. He’s authored consecutive 9-4 seasons – the first was exciting stuff at Washington, the second was ho-hum material at USC. Two losses as a double-digit favorite, and three in league play, did not settle any qualms about whether Sarkisian is the guy to return the Trojans to national title contention. With an experienced team and a stellar quarterback in Cody Kessler, hopes are raised for USC’s first Pac-12 title in seven years. Can Sarkisian deliver?

7. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. He’s racked up double-digit wins the last four seasons, but hasn’t beaten league kingpin Florida State in the last three. Expectations are for the Tigers to finally clear the Seminole blockade to the ACC title, and perhaps to make the College Football Playoff. If Swinney can navigate a tricky schedule and do that, it will eradicate any remaining doubts about his coaching ability.

8. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State. For a guy with a 39-3 record and a national championship over the last three seasons, Fisher has endured a lot of criticism. He’s brought that upon himself, with limp responses to a seemingly endless succession of off-field problems at Florida State. (When the university is publicizing pictures of the president lecturing the football team, you’ve got a reputation issue.) We’ll see whether FSU’s victory total – and off-field incident total – decrease in the post-Jameis Era.

9. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. After playing for a national title in his first year at Auburn and winning eight games in his second with a defensive back as his starting QB, the suspicion is that Malzahn can win with just about anyone at the controls of his up-tempo offense. But new starter Jeremy Johnson doesn’t look like just anyone – he resembles Cam Newton. If he plays like Cam, the Malzahn deification campaign will kick up yet another notch.

10. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. That 12-1 run to the BCS championship game in 2012 has turned out to be a spike, not the start of something big for Kelly. In five tumultuous seasons in South Bend, he’s lost four or more games in four of them. But some insiders are saying this is his best team yet, with a stacked defense and plenty of offensive playmakers. If Malik Zaire comes through at quarterback, Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure should be reinvigorated.

Art Briles and Baylor just missed out on the College Football Playoff last season. (AP)
Art Briles and Baylor just missed out on the College Football Playoff last season. (AP)

11. Art Briles, Baylor. The only thing separating him from improbable straw-boss status in the Big 12 are consecutive flops in the Fiesta and Cotton Bowls. With a steadily improving defense that might be his best yet, plus the usual offensive pyrotechnics, Briles is situated to once again duel TCU in the league’s new-era marquee rivalry. If the Bears roll undefeated into that Nov. 27 game, expect a lot of entertaining Briles soundbites – and a lot of criticism of Baylor’s schedule.

12. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. He’s an institution at Iowa – an institution under siege. Ferentz’s record the last four seasons is 26-25, which is performing far below his $4 million a year pay grade. The program has gone flat, with serious doubts about its revival. But he has a schedule built for success, so anything fewer than nine wins may feel like coming up short. Then what?

13. Jim McElwain, Florida. If the Gators’ boom-bust cycle of football coaching hires continues, McElwain will join Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer on the boom side of the ledger. But don’t expect any immediate miracles, given the offensive personnel he inherited from Will Muschamp. Still, if the offense at least looks competently coached and schemed it will be an improvement that bodes well for the future.

14. Mark Helfrich, Oregon. Helfrich got the Chip Kelly Monkey off his back last season. Almost. Now, a year after guiding the Ducks to the College Football Playoff championship game, he has one more thing to prove: he can win big without Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. Even with a 24-4 record in two years, there’s still a little wait-and-see left in Helfrich’s career path.

15. Al Golden, Miami. The tenor of his four-year tenure in Coral Gables has changed drastically. First he was the savior who stuck with the program during an interminable NCAA investigation. Now he’s under fire after a 6-7 season that ended with four straight losses – the last three of them as the favorite. Is The U poised to chew up and spit out another coach in search of a return to greatness?

16. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech. Iconoclastic throwback who still sends in his plays by word of mouth and embraces a 1970s offense could have his best Tech team yet – if only the schedule were easier. The Yellow Jackets draw Clemson and Florida State from the opposite division of the ACC and add Notre Dame to traditional rival Georgia in the non-conference slate. Regardless, watching Tech run Johnson’s option remains one of the pleasures of the sport.

17. Mike Riley, Nebraska. What happens when a 62-year-old fixture in the Pacific Northwest abruptly uproots and becomes the new head coach of a traditional Midwestern power? We’re about to find out. The Riley hire was a stunner – not necessarily a bad stunner, just a stunner – and it will be one of the more interesting new-face-new-place storylines to follow this season.

18. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin. Chryst isn’t really a new face in Wisconsin, where he was an assistant coach before moving off to middling success at Pittsburgh. Which is why Barry Alvarez hired him. Now he’s tasked with renewing the Line of Alvarez heritage that has served Wisconsin so well for so long. For a guy who went 19-20 at Pitt, doing it Barry’s Way seems like a good idea.

19. Gary Andersen, Oregon State. The Wisconsin job opened for Chryst after another stunning move – Andersen bailing on Madison for Oregon State, which is one of the three toughest jobs in the Pac-12. Andersen never seemed overly comfortable at Wisconsin, and his 1-5 record there in games decided by seven points or less might have added to his discomfort. The fit seems better in Corvallis, even if the record won’t be.

How long before Texas A&M is a contender under its lavishly paid coach Kevin Sumlin? (AP)
How long before Texas A&M is a contender under its lavishly paid coach Kevin Sumlin? (AP)

20. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. Per the Dallas Morning News, Sumlin will be the SEC’s second-highest-paid coach in 2015, trailing only Nick Saban. But his SEC record in three seasons trails a lot of other coaches: he’s 13-11 in league play, just 7-8 the last two. Sumlin has recruited like a monster, and it’s probably time for a return to Manziel-level winning if he’s going to justify that $5 million a year salary.

21. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech. He’s synonymous with the Hokies, and for more than a quarter century that was a glorious thing. Lately, Beamer and the program he built are mired in mediocrity – 22-17 the last three seasons, .500 in the ACC in that time, bottoming out in a 6-3 double overtime loss last year to lowly Wake Forest. There is optimism for a bounce-back season – but this isn’t the first time for that. How and when the Beamer Era will end is open to widespread speculation.

22. Gary Pinkel, Missouri. Doing the best work of his accomplished career in his 60s. He’s confounded the SEC in consecutive seasons, winning the East twice and going 14-2 in league play in that time. Once again this year, very few people are picking Pinkel’s Tigers to win the division. But count them out at your own peril.

23. Les Miles, LSU. Expectations are down a bit for the Tigers, which usually is precisely when Les does his best work. If LSU gets by the Mississippi State-Auburn double in September, it could well be 8-0 going to Alabama in November for another massive game between those rivals. Eleven losses the past three seasons have brought the Mad Hatter haters out, but this feels like the kind of season where everyone falls back in love with Les.

24. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh. Defensive specialist whose first head-coaching job comes at a place flush with offensive talent. Narduzzi inherits a 1,700-yard rusher, a 1,200-yard receiver and a capable quarterback. If he works the expected makeover on a defense that gave up 147 points in a three-game stretch to division rivals Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina, Pitt could be the surprise team of the ACC this year.

25. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Despite back-to-back Top 10 seasons, Dantonio and Michigan State are back in familiar territory – overshadowed by Ohio State and Harbaugh-infused Michigan. But don’t sleep on the Spartans, who return plenty of talent and experience from last year’s 11-2 team. Harbaugh Mania should serve as excellent motivational fuel for a program that deserves more respect but thrives on less of it.

Two-for-one addition: The Texas Whiz Kids (Tom Herman at Houston and Chad Morris at SMU). Two of the most acclaimed offensive coordinators of the past few years got their head-coaching break, both of them at Texas schools in the American Athletic Conference. Expect quick results from Herman at Houston, and at least expect SMU to score more and possibly win more than one game this year under Morris.

Just missed the list: Bret Bielema, Arkansas; Butch Jones, Tennessee; David Shaw, Stanford; Jerry Kill, Minnesota; Charlie Strong, Texas; Bronco Mendenhall, BYU; Mark Richt, Georgia; Steve Spurrier, South Carolina; Justin Fuente, Memphis; Bobby Petrino, Louisville; Sonny Dykes, California; James Franklin, Penn State; P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan.

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