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Re-ranking the college football head coaching hires for 2021, from Josh Heupel to Butch Jones

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  • Butch Jones
    Butch Jones
    American gridiron football player and coach
  • Josh Heupel
    Josh Heupel
    American football coach
  • Lance Leipold
    American football player and coach
  • Blake Anderson
    American football player and coach

As it turns out, new Louisiana-Monroe coach Terry Bowden was "the right fit for a program that needs a complete reboot," at least through his first season.

Butch Jones might be "back in more comfortable surroundings at Arkansas State," but that wasn't reflected in the standings: ASU won just two games and sat near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in Jones' first year.

As for rookie Arizona coach Jedd Fisch, he "does not seem to match the qualities Arizona initially laid out as prerequisites for its next coach," and the jury's still out on that one.

Last winter, USA TODAY Sports ranked this season's crop of first-year coaches based on best fit and the best chance for immediate and long-term success. With the 2021 regular season complete, let's reassess how programs fared on the hiring circuit:

1. Josh Heupel, Tennessee

Last year's ranking: No. 11

Tennessee is 7-5 heading into the Music City Bowl against Purdue and, as expected, among the best in the SEC on offense: third in scoring (38.8 points per game), fourth in total offense and sixth in yards per play. Under Heupel, quarterback Hendon Hooker led the SEC in efficiency rating and finished fourth in touchdown passes. The Volunteers have taken a big step forward under Heupel and are ahead of schedule.

2. Shane Beamer, South Carolina

Last year's ranking: No. 12

The Gamecocks pulled off the most unexpected bowl trip in the Power Five in Beamer's debut. Pulling off three wins in the SEC and six wins overall while digging deep to find quarterback play bodes well for South Carolina's chances with Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler under center in 2022. Hiring an assistant who worked under Steve Spurrier, Frank Beamer, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley was a good idea. Who would've thought?

3. Blake Anderson, Utah State

Last year's ranking: No. 10

Anderson led a team that sat near the bottom of the Mountain West in 2020 to the conference championship, taking home the crown with an impressive 44-13 win against San Diego State. Is it sustainable? Putting a stranglehold on the MWC seems unlikely, but Anderson's track record strongly suggests the Aggies aren't going anywhere.

4. Lance Leipold, Kansas

Last year's ranking: No. 5

Leipold didn't take the Kansas job until late April. As if rebuilding the worst team in the Power Five wasn't hard enough. But the Jayhawks showed fight in Leipold's debut even if the record (2-10) doesn't paint the picture of a program quickly turning the corner. The win against Texas was one of the highlights of the season.

5. Gus Malzahn, Central Florida

Last year's ranking: No. 1

Cincinnati ran away with the American, leaving the Knights way out of the mix in the New Year's Six race. That doesn't necessarily make Malzahn's debut an unsuccessful one: UCF still beat Boise State, won eight games in the regular season and finished third in the conference standings despite losing star quarterback Dillon Gabriel in September. (Gabriel is now gone for good after transferring to UCLA.)

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See salaries for assistant college football coaches through the years

6. Andy Avalos, Boise State

Last year's ranking: No. 4

Avalos has a chance to get his eighth win in the Arizona Bowl, and don't underestimate the importance of hitting that marker: Boise has won at least eight games in every complete, non-pandemic season since 1999. The Broncos lost several close games, including a 21-20 loss to Oklahoma State, and notched wins against Brigham Young and Fresno State. In other words, this is a better team than the record suggests.

7. Charles Huff, Marshall

Last year's ranking: No. 8

Huff has done a great job on the recruiting trail and continued to build a roster that will stay among the favorites to take home Conference USA. His first team lost the division to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of the regular season but was the fourth-best team in the conference.

8. Terry Bowden, Louisiana-Monroe

Last year's ranking: No. 17

Bowden took over one of the worst teams in Football Bowl Subdivision history and was sitting at 4-3 before a five-game losing streak to end the year. He'll have to continue this growth without offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, who left to become the head coach at Jacksonville State.

9. Steve Sarkisian, Texas

Last year's ranking: No. 3

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian exits the field following a 31-24 loss to Baylor at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. (Stephen Spillman, USA TODAY Sports)
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian exits the field following a 31-24 loss to Baylor at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. (Stephen Spillman, USA TODAY Sports)

What should we make of Sarkisian's first year? Texas had the program's longest losing streak in nearly 70 years. Sarkisian became just the program's second coach since World War II to post a losing record in his first year, joining Charlie Strong. But the recruiting machine is rolling, the roster is getting a huge influx of talent — including quarterback Quinn Ewers — and there is some hope that 2022 will yield something better.

10. Bret Bielema

Last year's ranking: No. 10

Things went even better than expected for the former Wisconsin coach. Illinois won five games overall and closed with a bang, posting wins in the second half against Penn State, Minnesota and Northwestern. Next season will begin to tell if Bielema can lift the program into contention for the Big Ten West.

11. Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Last year's ranking: No. 2

As with Sarkisian, it's hard to know what to make of Harsin's first year as Auburn gets set for the Birmingham Bowl against Houston. For one, the Tigers went 6-6 in the regular season and was sixth in the SEC West, with half of those wins coming in non-conference play (Akron, Alabama State, Georgia State). Auburn also topped Arkansas and Ole Miss and nearly knocked off Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But this team coughed up a huge lead against Mississippi State and flopped against South Carolina. Harsin and his staff did sign a pretty good recruiting class, however.

12. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt

Last year's ranking: No. 7

Speaking of really good recruiting classes: Vanderbilt's first full group under Lea sits inside the top 35 nationally, even if that was only good for 13th in the 14-team SEC after the early signing period. That remains a very good sign after a winless season in conference play. The expectations for 2022 will be to get out of the cellar in the East and be in range of five or more wins heading into November.

13. Kane Wommack, South Alabama

Last year's ranking: No. 14

The former Indiana defensive coordinator had a major impact on South Alabama's defense, cutting more than a yard off the Jaguars' per-play average compared to 2020. This improvement led to a perfectly acceptable 5-7 finish, but USA left potential wins on the field against Texas State (33-31), ULM (41-31) and Troy (31-24).

14. Maurice Lindquist, Buffalo

Last year's ranking: No. 15

Lindquist took over a reworked roster that also lost several major contributors to the transfer portal after the offseason coaching change. That contributed to Buffalo falling from the top of the MAC East to just a pair of wins in conference play. Some growing pains were expected for the rookie coach, however, and there's still a good amount of optimism around Lindquist and the program heading into the offseason.

15. Will Hall, Southern Mississippi

Last year's ranking: No. 13

Hall was his own worst critic during a 3-9 season, even calling himself the "biggest fraud" in the past 50 years of Southern Miss football after dropping his debut. Look for the Golden Eagles to improve with another year to grasp his offensive system, but that might not mean Hall will get his second team into the postseason.

16. Jedd Fisch, Arizona

Last year's ranking: No. 16

This was always a major rebuild. Still, the Wildcats' one-win season didn't do much to appease a fan base hungry to get out of the bottom of the Pac-12. Arizona did play much better down the stretch, beating California and hanging tight with Washington, USC and Utah, so maybe hope isn't lost.

17. Butch Jones, Arkansas State

Last year's ranking: No. 6

After getting jettisoned from Tennessee and learning new tricks as an off-field assistant for Nick Saban at Alabama, Jones' return to the Group of Five ranks was an absolute disaster. After posting a winning record in every non-pandemic year since 2011, the Red Wolves slumped to 2-10, with just one win coming against the FBS, and gave up at least 40 points six times.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Re-ranking head coaching hires for 2021