Conference USA
Which new FBS head coaches are most likely to succeed?
Conference USA

Which new FBS head coaches are most likely to succeed?

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 7:32 p.m. ET

Among the many emails former Tennessee athletic director John Currie received when he began to search for a coach to replace Butch Jones was one from an Alabama athletic department staffer with the subject ''Head Coaching Analysis.''

It included six pages of charts, graphs, numbers and pictures that told the story of every head coach hired since 2000 by the ''Top 25 historic football programs,'' determined by using decades of The Associated Press rankings .

Using a weighted formula that combined winning percentage, percentage of top-10 finishes in the AP poll and percentage of seasons winning a national championship, and putting extra emphasis on the most recent five seasons, each coach's stint at a school was given an efficiency rating.

What the numbers revealed was mostly what we already know: Nick Saban is doing great at Alabama; Urban Meyer's tenure at Ohio State has been excellent; and hiring Pete Carroll worked out really well for Southern California.


The numbers also showed that coaches most likely to succeed at those schools had previous Power Five head coaching experience. Also, coaches who were previously a Power Five assistant had higher efficiency ratings than coaches who were previously a head coach at a Group of Five school.

While far from scientific, the research is interesting and probably useful.

Instead of grading the newly hired head coaches in college football -a truly flawed and impossible exercise- here is another approach: A most-likely-to-succeed list that takes into account program expectations and recent history, along with that coach's potential and fit for the job. Remember that this is a long play; last year's most likely to succeed was Purdue's Jeff Brohm , which looks pretty good right now but is still to be determined.

With that, the most likely to succeed list among the head coaches starting new jobs in 2018:

1. Chip Kelly, UCLA

UCLA is one of the nation's most confounding programs. With all that talent around them, the Bruins are rarely relevant nationally, and haven't played in a Rose Bowl game since 1999. It is fair to question whether Kelly can recreate his Oregon success (46-7), but it's not as if he returns to a Pac-12 with imposing obstacles.

2. Willie Taggart, Florida State

Sky-high expectations and Taggart's .485 winning percentage make for some skepticism about this marriage. But at every place Taggart has worked, the team was bad before he took over and got better during his tenure. The native Floridian has already showed he is capable of recruiting at an elite level.

3. Dan Mullen, Florida

Mullen benefits from taking over a program that has been underwhelming since Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow flirted with repeat national titles. At Mississippi State, Mullen consistently maxed out a program that lags behind the rest of its division competition in tradition, history and resources. Now he moves toward the front of the pecking order in the SEC East.

4. Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

Moorhead comes to Starkville from Penn State, where he was offensive coordinator for two seasons, but he also has been a head coach at FCS Fordham - a tough place to win where he went 38-13 in four seasons. In the SEC West, Mississippi State fans generally have the most realistic expectations for their favorite team. Mullen raised the standards. Moorhead seems well-situated to continue to meet them.

5. Scott Frost, Nebraska

Few topics fuel the college football content machine like the question: How can Nebraska be fixed? It has been nearly 20 years since the Cornhuskers won a conference title. The Bo Pelini era was the peak of the last 15 years. All that is to say, Frost is taking over a program with adjusted expectations. The job is challenging, but Frost has the highest upside of any coach Nebraska has had since Tom Osborne and what qualifies as success in Lincoln has never been lower.

6. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Texas A&M last won a national championship in 1939. Aggies fans expect Fisher, who won a title with Florida State, to do the same with A&M. He also has the craziest contract in college football at 10 years, $75 million guaranteed. Unless Fisher goes on a Saban- or Meyer-like run, it's hard to envision this deal ending well, but there should be some good times before the fall.

7. Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

Sumlin had a nice run at Texas A&M and if he can duplicate it at Arizona, which has never played in a Rose Bowl, the folks in Tucson would be content. Here's the question: What's the conversion rate on SEC West success in the Pac-12 South?

8. Mario Cristobal, Oregon

Cristobal did a pretty solid job at FIU in his first turn as a head coach. He then spent four seasons at Saban's career rehabilitation center and launching pad in Tuscaloosa before landing in Eugene as Taggart's offensive coordinator. Cristobal faces the same challenges as Taggart, who bailed for his dream job after just one season. Oregon became one of the rarest things in college football, a pop-up superpower. It remains to be seen if any coach can repeat Kelly's success, but that's what Ducks fans want.

9. Chad Morris, Arkansas

Morris' deep ties to Texas high school football should pay dividends for the Razorbacks, and a return to a more pass-oriented attack should appease those Hogs fans who miss Bobby Petrino. What success looks like at Arkansas is hard to pin down. Would something like Sumlin's record at Texas A&M or Mullen's at Mississippi State do? It should.

10. Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

By virtue of not being Greg Schiano, Pruitt has Vols fans fired up about possibly having their own Kirby Smart - a Saban assistant who can implement the process. Or maybe Pruitt will be Will Muschamp? Unlike Nebraska, it does not seem as if expectations have been adjusted in Knoxville. And Alabama is still on Tennessee's schedule every year.

11. Josh Heupel, UCF

Point: There could not be a better time to become head coach at UCF. The roster is loaded and the program has ''national championship'' momentum. Counterpoint: UCF fans think last year is the new normal. For a first-time head coach, this looks like a boom-or-bust deal.

12. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern

Georgia Southern lost its triple-option way for a couple years, and Lunsford, a longtime assistant in Statesboro, is tasked with getting things back to normal. Competing in the FBS could lower the Eagles' ceiling permanently, but just getting the offense right shouldn't be too tough.

13. Sonny Dykes, SMU

Talk about terrible first impressions: Dykes gave coaching SMU's bowl on short notice a try and the Mustangs tanked. Really, though, this looks like a good match if Dykes can just do what he did at Louisiana Tech (22-17 overall and 14-7 in conference).

14. Matt Luke, Mississippi

Luke got the job, in part, because it is going to be a tough one. He will have to deal with the fallout from NCAA sanctions while competing in the toughest division in college football with a program that has traditionally resided in the lower half of the standings. Luke could be successful by simply owning the Egg Bowl rivalry with Mississippi State, which has never been more heated.

15. Steve Campbell, South Alabama

Campbell has had great success outside of FBS as a head coach, but will it translate? South Alabama is still a relatively new FBS program so it's hard to know what the ceiling is. Perhaps Campbell's time in Division II (Delta State) and junior (Mississippi Gulf Coast) prepared him for some of the challenges of a program still in its infancy.

16. Mike Bloomgren, Rice

One of the ideas behind hiring Bloomgren is that Rice, a small private school with high academic standards, could use some version of Stanford's blueprint to be successful in Conference USA. Sure, why not?

17. Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette

Another school hoping to get a taste of what Alabama is cooking by hiring one of Saban's sous chefs.

18. Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

Oregon State is traditionally the most difficult job in the Pac-12. The 39-year-old first-time head coach brings with him the credibility that comes from having been a star player at the place where he will be coaching and six years as an assistant to Chris Petersen. Smith's low position in these rankings is more about how tough it is to win in Corvallis than his potential.

19. Dana Dimel, UTEP

The 55-year-old Dimel did stints as head coach at Wyoming (pretty good) and Houston (not so good), but has been an assistant for the last 15 years. It doesn't look like a big-upside hire, but you can understand why UTEP would go the veteran coach route. The Miners' last run of respectability came under Mike Price and there is hope that Dimel can keep UTEP out of the Conference USA basement.

20. Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Arizona State's grand experiment with a 63-year-old former NFL head coach who has been out of the business for 10 years is impossible to forecast. Much of the fan base is skeptical, but maybe the lowered expectations work in Edwards' favor.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at


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