The Campus Insiders 2016 First-Year Head Coach Rankings are headlined by Justin Fuente, who led Virginia Tech to its first division title since 2011, and Clay Helton, who steered his team out of an early-season nosedive to become the nation’s hottest program.
Nearly a quarter of this year’s college football programs were run by a coach in his first year at the helm. And while most endured the usual struggles and inconsistencies, there were outliers. More than half of the rookies piloted their schools to bowl eligibility, and three, Toledo’s Jason Candle, USC’s Clay Helton and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, can use that postseason game to earn win No. 10.
Each of the newcomers faced a similar set of hurdles—start revamping the culture and climate in a new gig and often on a completely unfamiliar campus. Oh, and if you can help spark the fan base and get the turnstiles to rotate faster, that sure would be appreciated as well. While a few first-year coaches made instant splashes, the vast majority are still learning on the job and pouring the concrete foundations on which Year 2 will be built.
The Honeymoon Is Already Over
29. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
A smooth transition was not expected for a coach who’d spent the previous 11 seasons at BYU. But two wins? Mendenhall opened with a loss to FCS Richmond, closed with a six-touchdown collapse to rival Virginia Tech and suffered through a campaign season for the first time in his career. His offseason mission will be to continue changing the culture of a program that’s endured eight losing seasons in the last nine years.
28. Chris Ash, Rutgers
Give or take a win or two, the Knights were supposed to finish somewhere near their final 2-10 mark. It was the way they were routinely Ash-kicked, losing to Big Ten East members Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State by a combined score of 224-0, that was so unsettling in Piscataway. With all due respect to Kansas, Rutgers may have taken over as the Power Five’s worst football program.
27. Lovie Smith, Illinois
Illinois’ new mantra under Smith and AD Josh Whitman is “We Will Win.” Direct, yet not overly creative or specific as to when said winning might occur. It didn’t happen all that often in 2016, save for victories over Murray State, Rutgers and Michigan State. The bigger concern is whether or not Smith will have the patience and stamina to build at this level after coaching pro athletes for the previous two decades.
26. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern
The momentum the Eagles had under Willie Fritz? Yeah, that’s gone. Summers inherited a team that had won nine in back-to-back years, including a program-first bowl game. And all of the staples of GSU’s trademark ground game was back, too. But a program steeped in a winning culture went 5-7, though it did avoid lugging a long losing streak into the postseason by stunning Troy on the final weekend.
25. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Hopson stepped into one of the best situations for a first-year coach. Many of the key pieces from last year’s nine-win squad, like quarterback Nick Mullens, were back. Yet, the Golden Eagles needed to upset Louisiana Tech on the final weekend just to achieve bowl-eligibility. Hopson is a defensive guy, but it was the D that really let down Southern Miss in 2016.
24. Barry Odom, Missouri
The torch has been passed. The steady decline continues in Columbia. The program that won consecutive SEC East titles just a couple of years ago has now had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the beginning of this century. The script was flipped by 4-8 Mizzou, with the offense perking up but Odom’s D being uncharacteristically soft, which is something that must be addressed in the spring.
23. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green
Good news? The Falcons will begin 2017 on a three-game winning streak. Bad? They just suffered through their first losing season since 2011, while twice allowing 77 points. Bowling Green failed to adapt to the losses of QB Matt Johnson and receivers Roger Lewis and Gehrig Dieter, which will heap pressure on Jinks to quickly turn things around on a campus unaccustomed to losing.
22. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina
In his first season in Greenville, Montgomery did little to quell the notion that predecessor Ruffin McNeill had probably earned a little more patience. The Pirates raised expectations with a Week 2 upset of NC State, and then proceeded to lose nine of the final 10 games, most in hideous fashion. The bar is set high at ECU, so Montgomery must quickly learn from the mistakes he and his staff made in 2016.
You’ve Got Time … You’ll Need It
21. Everett Withers, Texas State
Withers’ debut in San Marcos pretty much went as planned, though it sure would’ve been nice to win a Sun Belt game. It was all downhill after a shocking upset of Ohio in the opener, the 2-10 Bobcats rarely ever threatening after halftime. Plus, dual-threat QB Tyler Jones regressed as a senior under the new administration’s watch.
20. Mike Neu, Ball State
It was a learning experience for everyone in Muncie, from Neu and his assistants to their first collection of Cardinals. The coach brought little college experience back to his alma mater, which won three games in 2015. Neu was plus-one, finishing 4-8, and has the D inching in the right direction, but needs to upgrade the overall talent level at Ball State.
19. Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe
The Warhawks overachieved in 2016, a credit to the job done by Viator and his assistants. Graduations and transfers gutted the defense, and linchpin QB Garrett Smith was lost to injury midway through the season. Still, Louisiana-Monroe persevered with true freshman Caleb Evans behind center to finish strong and double last year’s two wins.
18. Dino Babers, Syracuse
Transforming the Orange is going to be a process, which Babers knew when he accepted this job. He took a big step toward installing the new up-tempo offense, an important development in improving the overall talent level. And Syracuse did upset ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech. But the D allowed at least 45 points in six different games, the crux of a program that’s finished no better than 4-8 for three straight seasons.
Hopefully You Leased Instead Of Purchasing
17. Jim Grobe, Baylor
In theory, Grobe could have used his lone season in Waco to earn a more permanent role. In reality, he walked into a nearly impossible situation, succeeding the deposed Art Briles at the end of May. The Bears started 6-0, even beating Oklahoma State, but then unraveled down the stretch with an 0-6 finish. Scandal-ridden Baylor now turns its attention to Matt Rhule, who will attempt to guide the program into a new era of prosperity and stability.
The Ground Floor Is Down … Go Build On It
16. Willie Fritz, Tulane
The Green Wave scored more, allowed less and won one more game than in 2015, a 38-13 rout at Connecticut to close the campaign. It’s a start, a place on which Fritz can further build come 2017. He inherited a program that had finished below .500 in 13 of the prior 15 seasons, so this won’t happen overnight. But history says Fritz is going to get to where he’s going with the Green Wave.
15. Kirby Smart, Georgia
It’d be foolish to overreact to Smart’s debut, especially since he went with rookie QB Jacob Eason. But it was still a pretty bad year for the first-time coach. The Dawgs enter the postseason 7-5 in a year they could have easily been 10-2. The Hail Mary loss to Tennessee and one-point heartbreakers to Vandy and Georgia Tech will haunt the staff as it preps for the Liberty Bowl. Live and learn, which is what Eason and Smart plan to do between now and the 2017 Appalachian State opener.
14. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
The devil is in the details when properly sizing up Campbell. True, he went 3-9, which was Paul Rhoads’ record during his final year in Ames. And the season opened with a tough loss to Northern Iowa. But the Cyclones were better than their record, losing to Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma by an average of just six points. Campbell is changing the culture, and after using so many underclassmen optimism is will rise entering 2017.
13. Seth Littrell, North Texas
The hiring of Littrell looked heady when the administration announced it. Looks even better today. The new staff was immediately impactful in Denton. The offense improved in the red zone, the D was more opportunistic and the team rose from one win in 2015 to 5-7 this year. And since the Mean Green hits the books as hard as opponents, Littrell is getting 15 more practices and a bowl berth to continue coaching up his student-athletes.
12. D.J. Durkin, Maryland
The Terps are 6-6, with a chance to finish the year with a winning record and a bowl win. It would have been unrealistic to expect much more from a program that went 3-9 last year and clearly lacks the talent of the top Big Ten East squads. Durkin has infused more energy into Maryland, a trend the ace recruiter fully expects to continue on Signing Day.
11. Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle didn’t have to do a ton in the way of roll-up-the-sleeves coaching. He was hired from within, so there was no need to learn new personnel, and his offense returned enough playmakers to be borderline turnkey. To his credit, Candle has done a nice job of developing QB Logan Woodside, who’s thrown a nation’s-best 43 touchdown passes. However, the 9-3 Rockets were winless against their three toughest opponents, BYU, Ohio and Western Michigan.
10. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota
Claeys sure is a curious case. He went 8-4 in his first full year as the head coach, competing in every game, including the losses. Looks decent enough on paper. However, there’s no palpable energy surrounding the program, which directly correlates to the coach’s personality. Even worse, dating back to last October, when Claeys supplanted an ailing Jerry Kill, he’s 0-7 in trophy games, capped by a heartbreaking 13th straight loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago.
9. Kalani Sitake, BYU
It’s never easy replacing a longtime, successful coach, such as Bronco Mendenhall in Provo. But the high-energy Sitake has so far passed the test, winning eight games in his first season as the head guy. And 2016 could have been so much better. All four of the Cougars’ losses to Utah, UCLA, West Virginia and Boise State were by no more than three points, fueled by a salty D that’s No. 2 nationally in takeaways.
8. Mark Richt, Miami
Offseason onlookers set the bar too high for Richt’s first team in Miami, which lacked the experience and depth to win the ACC Coastal, as many predicted. The 8-4 Canes weren’t quite ready, particularly after anointing so many underclassmen on both sides of the ball. But they’re peaking as the bowl season begins, winning four straight by at least two touchdowns, meaning Richt’s coaching is starting to pay tangible dividends.
7. Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Muschamp is ahead of schedule. Naturally, this is just the first leg of a long journey. Still, by doubling last year’s three wins, South Carolina is a surprising postseason participant, particularly since the roster was void of ready-made stars and QB Jake Bentley was dealing for Opelika (Ala.) High School last fall. Stunning Tennessee on Oct. 29 was the high point of Muschamp’s regular season.
6. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii
Rolovich assumed one of the toughest FBS jobs a year ago. Budgetary issues, an exhausting amount of travel and a program coming off five straight losing seasons. Yet, despite all of the obstacles, the Warriors have won their most games since 2011, with a chance to reach 7-7 in the Hawaii Bowl. There’s a spark again at Aloha Stadium, and Rolovich is just getting started in his rebuilding plans.
Hurry, Lock This Guy Down With a Long-Term Extension
5. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Norvell moved from Arizona State to the relatively unfamiliar terrain of West Tennessee. And he was taking over a program that was losing its two central figures, coach Justin Fuente and first-round NFL QB Paxton Lynch. Back to the land of mediocrity? Nope. Norvell coached up transfer QB Riley Ferguson, the triggerman of a 40-point-a-game offense, and can match last year’s 9-4 mark with a bowl victory.
4. Frank Wilson, UTSA
Everyone knew Wilson was an elite recruiter from his days on Les Miles’ LSU staff. Turns out he can pilot a program, too. Wilson has been a revelation in his first year in San Antonio, taking a team that went 3-9 a year ago to its first bowl game in program history. The 6-6 Roadrunners made tangible strides on offense, headlined by the backfield of QB Dalton Sturm and backs Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes. And just wait until Wilson starts bringing a higher caliber athlete to the Alamodome.
3. Scott Frost, UCF
Winless in 2015. Bowling in 2016. Frost’s first season with the Knights reads like the latest in a long line of Disney fairytales. From disarray at the end of the George O’Leary era to a new direction, Frost has UCF pointed north again. And he won six games, three outside of Orlando, with an offense that was light years from where he needs it to be. Like Wilson in San Antonio, the bar will be markedly higher once Frost gets one or two more recruiting classes on campus.
2. Clay Helton, USC
In-season turnarounds can be very tricky, especially for a novice head coach. But Helton has engineered a rebound from a 1-3 start that has changed the entire outlook on his future. Misguided early calls for his head surfaced in September, but that was long before the Rose Bowl-bound Trojans snapped off eight straight wins, including over Pac-12 Championship Game participants Washington and Colorado. Plus, Helton answered impulsive critics by empowering a bunch of young kids, like redshirt freshman QB Sam Darnold, so he’s erecting something built to last.
1. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Fuente was among the most coveted head coaches at this time last year. He showed why in 2016 by guiding the Hokies to their first ACC Coastal Division crown in five years. Sure, they lost to Clemson, 42-35, in a valiant title game effort, but Fuente has already eradicated all of the must and staleness that had accumulated during the final years of the Frank Beamer era. And he’s wasted no time fixing an offense that’s dogged Virginia Tech this entire decade. The Hokies are on the verge of regaining their ACC relevancy, with a young coach whose best days in Blacksburg are out in front of him.