With Cal’s decision to hire Justin Wilcox as its new head coach and Western Michigan tabbing Tim Lester to replace P.J. Fleck, it appears that the college football coaching carousel mercifilly is done.
Twenty-one schools changed head coaches over the past few months (including a rare three post-Christmas firings). And it’s worth evaluating which new coach has it the toughest. Some like Ed Orgeron and Fleck walk into relatively stable situations while others … yeah, not so much.
Not all rebuilding jobs are created equal. Here are the nine newly-hired head coaches with the toughest jobs ahead.
USA TODAY SportsJasen Vinlove
Tom Herman, Texas
If compiling this list were simply about talent inherited, Herman wouldn’t even come close to making it. Charlie Strong left the cupboard full for Herman, to the point that Strong himself expects big things for the 2017 Longhorns.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just about talent inherited. All jobs aren’t created equal and expectations at all new jobs aren’t the same. That’s why Herman is here. Is any coach expected to win bigger and quicker than he is? And will any fan base be less patient if those wins don’t come right away?
Herman will have some time to figure it out, but the operative word there is “some.” Texas fans are already impatient after not playing in a bowl game the past two years, and that patience will continue to wear thin if Texas doesn’t win big … quickly.
Randy Edsall, UConn
Edsall is in almost the exact opposite situation as Herman; he inherits virtually no talent but inherits a patient fan base that will give him the time needed – which will likely be years – to rebuild.
That’s not to say things will be easy. Edsall has college football’s worst offense, a group that averaged just 14 points per game and went three straight games without scoring a single touchdown. To make matters worse, the Huskies lost their only true playmaker when wide receiver Noel Thomas elected to declare for the NFL Draft. And Edsall immediately walks into a quarterback controversy where soon-to-be senior Bryant Shirreffs and sophomore Donovan Williams spent the end of the regular season battling for time.
Even if Edsall did make the hire of the offseason in tabbing former Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to call plays, it’s still going to take a while to get this offense – and this program – rolling.
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Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic
No offseason college football article – be it about coaching changes, recruiting, facility upgrades, you name it – would be complete without mentioning Kiffin. It’s an unspoken rule when writing about college football.
Obviously, we’re kidding, but with Kiffin back in a head-coaching role we’ll hear plenty about the boy wonder all offseason. And for once it will have nothing to do with his antics -- but instead about the team he inherits. And the Owls were lousy last season. They averaged just 26 points per game; that would be problematic enough, but they also had one of the worst defenses. Florida Atlantic allowed just under 40 points per game, ranking 123rd out of 128 FBS teams. It finished the season with an abysmal 77-56 loss to Middle Tennessee State.
So good luck, Lane Kiffin. You’re going to need it.
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Tom Allen, Indiana
Regardless of what you think about why Kevin Wilson was fired (there were accusations of player abuse), you can’t argue with his results. Wilson got the Hoosiers bowl eligible two years in a row in the toughest division in college football (one that includes Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State). For comparison’s sake, the Hoosiers had made one bowl game in 17 years before Wilson’s arrival.
That’s what makes this job so tough for Allen. The ceiling for Indiana football isn’t that high, but it feels like Wilson came close to hitting it in his final few years in Bloomington. The odds that Allen will come closer to the basement are about the same as the odds that he will maintain the success Wilson had.
Tim Lester, Western Michigan
There are the obvious issues with stepping into this role, like the fact that Western Michigan loses starting quarterback Zach Terrell and Biletnikoff finalist Corey Davis at wide receiver. There is also the reality that anything worse than a 13-0 regular season and a MAC title will be a step down from the bar P.J. Fleck set this past season, even if Fleck would have had trouble reaching it next season.
But the biggest problem with being “the guy that replaces P.J. Fleck” is that, umm, you’re the guy replacing P.J. Fleck! Besides the wins and losses, Fleck was (and still is) a rock star, a larger-than-life personality that not only won games but put Western Michigan on the map. As they say, you never want to be the guy who replaces a legend and Fleck is about as much of a legend as Western Michigan ever had.
Willie Taggart, Oregon
You could argue that because of resources, facilities and a relatively rational fan base (by Power 5 football standards), Oregon was the most desirable job on the market. However, the Ducks job was available for a reason: Oregon wasn’t very good last year.
Taggart will have the dual challenges of rebuilding one of college football's worst defenses (it allowed 41.4 points per game last season) while also taking over an offensive cupboard that is barer than most realize. Specifically, the Ducks’ inability to develop a starting quarterback the past three years has forced them to take back-to-back graduate transfers, which isn’t the way any program wants to build long-term.
Add in that Taggart is walking into a quickly improving division in college football -- one that includes Chris Petersen and David Shaw at its flagship universities -- and Taggart has his work cut out for him. It doesn’t help that there is already controversy just a few weeks after he accepted the job.
Jeff Brohm, Purdue
As they say, the proof is in the pudding -- and Purdue’s pudding went sour a long time ago. The Boilermakers have had just one winning season in the past nine and have won a total of eight games in the past three years. After allowing just under 40 points per game in 2016, they have holes to fill immediately and play in one of the toughest states in which to recruit, meaning that those holes won’t be easily filled.
What is the ceiling for this program? If things go well, perhaps Purdue can catch up with the Minnesotas and Nebraskas of the world. But it’s going to take a monumental effort to get to get past Wisconsin at the top of this division, let alone be competitive with the Michigan and Ohio State. Brohm is a brilliant young coach. But, man, does he have his work cut out for him.
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Justin Wilcox, California
That Wilcox got this job in mid-January -- after the previous coach was fired a full two months after the season ended -- tells you everything you need to know about the situation he walks into: It’s a mess. Not only on the field, but administratively as well. The fact that Wilcox is expected to immediately ignite a fan base and be a savior for an athletic department that is losing a reported $20 million only adds to the pressure.
And that doesn’t even begin to factor in that Sonny Dykes basically left the cupboard bare. Wilcox inherits college football’s second-worst defense (the Golden Bears allowed about 46 points per game) and loses senior quarterback Davis Webb from a 5-7 team.
Wilcox is going to need to time to fix the mess in Berkeley. But with so much financial pressure on the program, will he get it?
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Matt Rhule, Baylor
Where do we begin with Baylor? The deplorable off-the-field transgressions of Art Briles’ program have been well-documented, but what hasn’t been discussed is the state of the program on the field. And Rhule has a tough job ahead.
The Bears lost senior quarterback Seth Russell, and the man who was supposed to replace him – Jarrett Stidham – transferred before the season began. Baylor also lost its top two rushers (Terence Williams and Shock Linwood) and top two receivers (both K.D. Cannon and Ish Zamora are going pro) from a team that was 7-6 last season. The fact that many key players from the 2016 class left campus in the midst of Briles' firing doesn’t help, and even though 2017 recruiting is picking up steam, it’s hard to imagine Baylor will sign a full class.
Plus, Rhule is trying to completely turn around the culture of a broken program – and to a smaller degree, school as well – and doing it with no experience working in the region. Rhule is going to need time, and even that might not be enough. He’s got the toughest rebuilding job in college football.