The 25 Most Intriguing College Football Coaches of 2016
Back again by popular demand – or a lack of alternative content – here are the hotly debated Yahoo Sports College Football Most Intriguing Lists. First installment: the Most Intriguing Coaches of 2016.
1. Tom Herman, Houston. Debut head-coaching season was spectacular enough that he could have gone elsewhere, but Herman returned for what could be an even better second act at Houston, which starts the season No. 15 and has two big-splash games in H-Town – Oklahoma early and Louisville late. His immediate impact has helped put the school in the mix for Big 12 inclusion. Regardless of how that turns out, it could very well be time by December for Herman to hunt bigger employment game. If this year goes as expected, he will be a desired candidate for every elite job that opens.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. Who had it better than Jim this offseason? Nobody. No coach commanded more January-August headlines than Harbaugh, who seemingly was everywhere doing everything and saying anything. Now it’s time to back it up on the field. Harbaugh had an excellent debut season at his alma mater, elevating a 5-7 team to 10-3. Now he appears primed for a run at Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 2004 – which is an astounding stat – and a potential corresponding playoff berth.
3. Jim Grobe, Baylor. After being out of coaching for two years, Grobe is the emergency interim boss at Baylor, charged with classing up a program gone way wrong. He’s a short-term solution, but inherits a very talented team. Grobe already has had a few off-field brush fires to deal with, and has been burned by a couple of them. The bigger question is how his conservative coaching style fits the up-tempo, free-wheeling system fired predecessor Art Briles installed. With all the former assistants still on staff, including Briles’ son, Kendal, you wonder whether they even plan to turn on Grobe’s headset on gamedays.
4. Nick Saban, Alabama. You can’t have this list without Saban, because you can’t have a season where his team isn’t a major factor. Despite replacing the Heisman Trophy winner, the starting quarterback and six starters on a great defense, everyone expects Alabama to be in the title chase all year. In fact, they start 2016 ranked No. 1 yet again. Is there any let-up in sight for a guy whose résumé now puts him on the very short list of all-time greats?
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. Came tantalizingly close to taking down Saban and winning the national title along the way. Instead Clemson lost a classic, but Swinney returns the nation’s top quarterback in DeShaun Watson and seemingly has recruited well enough to compensate for major losses to the NFL. Swinney’s unconventional, heart-on-the-sleeve coaching style makes him something of an anomaly in a buttoned-down profession; could he one day succeed Saban at his alma mater?
6. Mark Richt, Miami. He was the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches until being fired at Georgia last year, and now he’s starting over at his alma mater. On paper, Richt is the best coach Miami has had since Butch Davis at least. But is he a fit at a program that underwent a major culture change after his playing days concluded in 1982? There is talent on the roster; if Richt maximizes it, the Hurricanes may finally play in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
7. Kirby Smart, Georgia. The most celebrated first-year head coaching hire since Will Muschamp – will this one turn out better than Muschamp’s failed tenure at Florida? It had better, because Georgia trap-doored a respected, entrenched leader in Richt to keep Smart from going to South Carolina. Smart furthers the Sabanization of the SEC, becoming the third former Saban assistant to take over a team in the Eastern Division. Will Smart start a true freshman quarterback going into a season with three ranked opponents in the first five games?
8. Charlie Strong, Texas. Make no mistake, the powers that be at Texas would like to keep Strong for the long term – but if his third year isn’t a major upgrade from going 11-14 in the first two they will make a change. Everything will revolve around the offense, specifically the quarterback, a position that has been awful for far too long at a program of Texas’ stature. Know this: if the Longhorns aren’t ready for the Sept. 4 opener, at home against Notre Dame, the Tom Herman talk will fill the Lone Star State by Labor Day morning.
9. Butch Jones, Tennessee. This is The Year for the Volunteers. Of course, we’ve heard that before, almost annually since they decided Phil Fulmer wasn’t good enough for them in 2008. But Tennessee finally broke out of an seven-year run of mediocrity in 2015, graduating to pretty good, and now the expectation is for really good. If the Vols don’t win the SEC East, Jones will face some heat. And to win the SEC East he has to coach better in close, end-game situations than he has to date.
10. Les Miles, LSU. The fact that he’s still employed is intriguing enough, after going into the regular-season finale last year thinking he was fired and somehow emerging with his job. (Of all The Hat’s unexplainable victories, this one tops the list.) But the pressure never goes away in Baton Rouge, nor do the expectations. Miles will be expected to produce a competent passing game, compete for a playoff bid – and, perhaps most importantly and dauntingly, slay Saban and Alabama in Baton Rouge on Nov. 5 to end a five-game losing streak in that rivalry. Otherwise we’ll be right back where we left off last year.
11. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. His outstanding recruiting and player development has ramped up the Fighting Irish program to a level not seen since the Lou Holtz days, and if it weren’t for injuries last year the Irish could have made the College Football Playoff. If Kelly can settle the nation’s hottest quarterback debate and replace some key leaders from last year, Notre Dame has the talent to be in the title hunt. But he’s also facing mounting questions about off-field behavior after booting two seniors in August, following a day with six player arrests in two separate incidents.
12. Hugh Freeze, Mississippi. Rebels fans love him because he’s shocked Saban two years in a row and led Ole Miss to a 34-18 record in his four years. But the NCAA doesn’t love him nearly as much, charging Mississippi in January with multiple rules violations and with more sure to come whenever a long investigation rekindled by Laremy Tunsil’s embarrassment draft night winds down. If the new allegations are serious enough, Freeze may be out of a job no matter what his record is against kingpin Alabama.
13. Chris Petersen, Washington. This looks like the year when the move from Boise State pays off, and Washington reaches a double-digit win total it hasn’t attained since 2000. Petersen’s third team in Seattle has become a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 North, with a talented sophomore quarterback in Jake Browning and a lot of pieces around him (receiver is the question mark). The key stretch will be Sept. 30-Oct. 8, when the Huskies play the two juggernauts of the north – Stanford at home on a Friday night and Oregon in Eugene.
14. Lovie Smith, Illinois. Overlooked for many head-coaching positions when he was a college assistant, Smith now gets his chance as a rebound job from the NFL ranks. His hiring came late (March) and abruptly (new athletic director Josh Whitman suddenly fired stopgap coach Bill Cubit to make room), and he’s taking over a perennial underachieving program. But Smith has injected some buzz into Illinois football for the first time in a long time, and that’s a start.
15. David Shaw, Stanford. At this point, the criticisms of Shaw have pretty much vanished. Some thought he couldn’t sustain Harbaugh’s building job, but he’s gone 54-14 and won two Rose Bowls. Some thought he couldn’t coach an exciting offense, but guess which team has a 12-game streak of scoring at least 30 points, longest active streak in the country? The only things left to do are coach a Heisman Trophy winner and win a national title. The former may happen this year, thanks to Christian McCaffrey. But the latter may be difficult, with Stanford replacing four-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan. Still, as a program, Stanford might be closer than ever before to winning the big one.
16. Urban Meyer, Ohio State. How does Meyer end up this far down the list? By finally facing a reloading season in Columbus. The Buckeyes lost massive amounts of talent to the NFL. They’ll replace it with comparable talent, but far less experience in many areas. Still, they will compete with Michigan and Michigan State again in the Big Ten East and should be a factor in the national race. It is never dull with Urban, so keep an eye on Columbus.
17. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. Last year, Stoops answered critics by revamping his staff and re-acquiring control of the Big 12 from upstarts Baylor and TCU. This year, with Big 12 Player of the Year Baker Mayfield and stud running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon all back, the Sooners are commanding league favorites and might have the team to atone for last year’s second-half collapse in the playoff semifinal against Clemson. But the front half of the schedule is loaded, with games against Houston, Ohio State, TCU and Texas all in the first five.
18. Clay Helton, USC. The latest and last quizzical Pat Haden hire became the interim coach last September when Steve Sarkisian melted down, and he got the full-time job in November. Since the full-time hire, Helton is 0-2, losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. That will likely go to 0-3 after the season opener against Alabama, kicking off the nation’s hardest schedule. Eventually he will win – but will he ever win big enough to reach the Pete Carroll level of hero status in L.A.?
19. Bryan Harsin, Boise State. Just as Petersen seems poised for a breakout year at Washington, his successor seems similarly positioned at his old job. Harsin has a 3,500-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver and a schedule that makes 13-0 look conceivable. If Houston isn’t the first serious playoff challenger from outside the Power 5, Boise might be.
20. Jim Mora, UCLA. He’s done well, with the distinct feeling that he could perhaps have done better. That’s the book on Mora’s first four years, the last two of which began with high preseason expectations (seventh in 2014, 13th in ’15) and ended with a total of seven Pac-12 losses. With eventual NFL No. 1 pick Josh Rosen a sophomore and a new contract extension on the books, it’s time for Mora to raise the program another level.
21. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech. For the first time since 1986, there is a new coach in Blacksburg. Fuente was a hot commodity after breathing life into dormant Memphis, and Tech won the sweepstakes to get him. The Hokies probably are looking up at North Carolina and Miami in the ACC Coastal, but the schedule gives them a chance to revive a long-overrated homefield advantage and begin a climb back to prominence.
22. Mike Leach, Washington State. Perpetually intriguing, but perhaps also highly competitive in the Pac-12 North. The Cougars went 9-4 last year, with nail-biting upsets of Oregon, Arizona and UCLA on the road. With a 4,500-yard passer and seven other offensive starters back, Leach’s offense will be hard to stop once again – and with a few breaks, Washington State could play a prominent role in who wins a very strong division. Count on the usual Classic Eccentric Pirate Moments from Leach along the way.
23. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. No fan base sours on its coaches more quickly than Auburn’s, which is why Malzahn has gone from genius national runner-up coach in 2014 to coach on the hot seat in 2016. That’s how it works in the ferocious SEC West, when consecutive league records of 4-4 and 2-6 are not well received. Most surprising was Malzahn losing his offensive mojo last year, overseeing an attack that was punchless, error-prone and markedly slower than his vintage up-tempo system. Malzahn needs a turnaround this year, or he might join Gene Chizik on the Auburn flameout coaching heap.
24. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. Sumlin’s situation in College Station isn’t much different from Malzahn’s in Auburn. The offensive mastermind has lost his way – and the defense has been nowhere near good enough to compensate for that. The added problem at A&M is high turnover among highly recruited quarterbacks, and repeated stupid staff hijinks. Sumlin doesn’t need anymore off-field problems, because he’s got enough on the field to worry about. He’s recruited very well, though, so the opportunity for a rebound is there.
25. Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky. If you’re looking for a hot coach to watch, Brohm pretty much checks all the boxes. He’s won in a hurry (20-7 record in two seasons at WKU), he’s a creative offensive mind (44 points per game each year) and he’s in a job that can’t realistically compete if the bigger schools come calling. Brohm does have to replace a record-setting quarterback – but if he can do that and keep winning, it would answer the final question about his readiness for the next level.
Just missed the list: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia; Jimbo Fisher, Florida State; Bobby Petrino, Louisville; Will Muschamp, South Carolina; Mark Dantonio, Michigan State; Kalani Sitake, BYU; Mike Riley, Nebraska; Mark Helfrich, Oregon; James Franklin, Penn State; Bret Bielema, Arkansas; Willie Taggart, South Florida; Scott Frost, Central Florida. Bill Snyder, Kansas State; Jim McElwain, Florida; P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan.
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