NCAAF
February 4, 2021
BY Bryan Zarpentine

We Just Ranked Every College Football Head Coaching Hire in 2021

Not even a global pandemic could stop the traditional coaching carousel in college football.

In total, 15 FBS programs have hired a new head coach since the end of the 2020 season. To be fair, some of those openings were created by the coach finding a new job, but most came about because the previous head coach was fired. And frankly, one or two of those firings were downright shocking. However, we won’t dwell on the past. Rather, we’ll look ahead to the future and how those 15 programs look with their new head coach moving forward.

Here is our ranking of how those 15 programs fared with regard to finding a new head coach to lead them into the future.

15. Louisiana-Monroe: Terry Bowden

Could Louisiana-Monroe really not find a promising coordinator or a young coach at the FCS level to take their job? There’s no way the 64-year-old Bowden could have been at the top of their wish list.

Obviously, he has plenty of head coaching experience, but he was also 35-52 during seven seasons at Akron from 2012 to 2018. It’s puzzling why he would get another chance to be a head coach after that, even for a program that was probably the worst in the country in 2020.

14. South Alabama: Kane Wommack

Granted, few people are knocking on the door to coach at South Alabama. But the Jaguars are taking a little bit of a risk by hiring a 33-year-old.

To be fair, Wommack was on the South Alabama staff in 2016 and 2017 before spending three seasons at Indiana. However, he’s not the most established candidate and his lack of experience could make it a challenge for him to turn around a program that is 9-26 over the last three seasons.

13. Marshall: Charles Huff

Marshall took a big risk by firing Doc Holliday, who established consistency and was close to guiding the Thundering Herd to an undefeated season in 2020 until freshman quarterback Grant Wells suffered a complete meltdown late in the season.

Huff undoubtedly brings youth and excitement to Marshall and he spent the last two seasons coaching under Nick Saban at Alabama. But it’s fair to question whether he’s ready to take over a program that’s grown accustomed to being one of the top teams in Conference USA.

12. Arkansas State: Butch Jones

Arkansas State has a history of being a great stepping stone for coaches on their way up the ladder. However, the school is going away from that trend by hiring Jones, who’s on his way down.

To his credit, Jones took Tennessee to three straight bowl games and made the Vols a top-25 team in 2015 and 2016. But his fifth season in Knoxville was a disaster and a major step back for the program. Alas, three years as an assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama made Arkansas State think that Jones is the right fit for the Red Wolves, who play in the suddenly deep and competitive Sun Belt.

11. Arizona: Jedd Fisch

Arizona has nowhere to go but up after the way the Kevin Sumlin era ended.

While Fisch wasn’t the most established name on the coaching market, he does have intriguing potential as a head coach. The 44-year-old has experience as an assistant at both the college level and in the NFL.

In the last three years, he’s been under the tutelage of both Sean McVay and Bill Belichick, so Fisch should be well-trained and ready for the challenge of turning the Wildcats around.

10. Southern Miss: Will Hall

Hall has had an interesting path to Southern Miss but it’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s qualified for the job. He had success at the Division II level with both West Alabama and West Georgia before stints as the offensive coordinator at Louisiana and Tulane.

The 40-year-old has been successful at every stop and will be intimately familiar with the part of the country where Southern Miss recruits, setting him up for success with the Golden Eagles.

9. Vanderbilt: Clark Lea

Lea is another young coach, but he’s ready for the challenge that awaits him at Vanderbilt, where he graduated in 2004 after playing fullback for the Commodores. He’s been an assistant at a power conference program since 2010 with stops at UCLA, Syracuse and Wake Forest before spending the last three seasons at Notre Dame.

Lea has worked under Rick Neuheisel, Dave Clawson and Brian Kelly, so he has the pedigree to be successful. He also understands the unique challenges that Vanderbilt presents to coaches, so he won’t be shell-shocked and will give the Commodores a fighting chance to be respectable inside the SEC.

8. South Carolina: Shane Beamer

Beamer undoubtedly has the pedigree to be a head coach, which plays in his favor. He’s the son of legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer and spent the last three seasons as an assistant at Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley.

As a bonus, he spent four years as an assistant on the staff at South Carolina from 2007 to 2010, so he’s familiar with the program. The SEC can make a first-time head coach feel out of his depth real fast. But on the other hand, given his last name and his resume, few would be surprised if Beamer became one of the great, young head coaches in college football in the years to come.

7. Boise State: Andy Avalos

Not yet 40, Avalos is young for a head coach, especially at a prominent program like Boise State that expects to win and compete for championships. Then again, Chris Petersen wasn’t much older when he took over the Broncos.

Also, Avalos was a standout player for the Broncos when Peterson was the offensive coordinator and on the staff at Boise State late in Petersen’s tenure. It’s hard to knock Boise State for hiring a distinguished alum, especially after the great job Avalos did with the Oregon defense during the last two seasons.

6. Central Florida: Randy Shannon

Technically, Shannon is still the interim coach at UCF, but the Knights would be wise to make that move permanent. He’d be a continuity hire, having joined the Central Florida staff in 2018.

Josh Heupel was also a continuity hire when Scott Frost left and that move worked out for the Knights. Plus, Shannon is familiar with recruiting pipelines in the state of Florida and had a respectable tenure as the Miami head coach from 2007 to 2010.

He’s more than qualified for the job and should have no problem building on UCF’s recent success under Frost and Heupel.

5. Auburn: Bryan Harsin

Auburn firing Gus Malzahn was one of the bigger shocks of this year’s coaching carousel. However, hiring Harsin helps to make up for the controversial decision.

Harsin’s track record speaks for itself, as he’s won four conference titles between his eight seasons at Arkansas State and Boise State as a head coach. He’s a proven winner who knows how to run a program with high expectations.

The only caveat is that he has no experience coaching in the SEC, so there could be a steep learning curve, especially in the unforgiving West Division.

4. Utah State: Blake Anderson

Utah State should be ecstatic that they convinced a Jonesboro, Arkansas native to leave Arkansas State and come to Logan. The Aggies are likely a stepping stone for Anderson on his way up the ladder, so he may not be a long-term solution. However, after Anderson’s success in turning Arkansas State into a winning program, he’s a great candidate to get the Aggies back on track after a disastrous 2020 season.

3. Tennessee: Josh Heupel

Tennessee did a great job of trading up by firing Jeremy Pruitt and replacing him with Heupel.

The former Oklahoma quarterback has quickly become a hot commodity in the coaching ranks and he knows a thing or two about winning at a big-time program. To be fair, riding the co-tails of Scott Frost at Central Florida was a little easy compared to rebuilding at Tennessee and getting the Vols to the same level as Florida and Georgia. However, Heupel was 28-8 at UCF, including the 2018 season that ended in the Fiesta Bowl, so he’s ready for the challenge ahead of him in the SEC.

2. Illinois: Bret Bielema

It was always going to be tough for Bielema at Arkansas. To his credit, he had three winning seasons in five years with the Razorbacks. But he belongs in the Big Ten, where he once led Wisconsin to three straight conference championships.

His coaching style is a perfect fit for the Big Ten and spending the last three years as an assistant in the NFL will make him a better coach. The Fighting Illini had a breakout campaign in 2019, which means the cupboard is far from empty, putting Bielema in a position to get Illinois rolling sooner rather than later.

1. Texas: Steve Sarkisian

Surprise, surprise, the best job available was filled by the best new head coach in college football.

Yes, Sarkisian had some personal issues that got in the way of his tenure at USC. But by all accounts, he’s moved past those problems and has gotten his professional career back on track. Keep in mind that Sarkisian took a Washington program that was 0-12 the year before he arrived and turned them into a perennial bowl team in two years. Since leaving USC, he’s spent time with Nick Saban at Alabama and was an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

He’s proven that he’s both deserving and ready for a second chance to be the head coach of a major program.

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