Every season the coaching carousel seems to escalate the craziness, and 2016-2017 was no exception. Two gigantic openings were filled at LSU and Texas, and several hot commodities like PJ Fleck, Willie Taggart, and Matt Rhule made jumps to Power 5 conferences. Excluding Brian Kelly, who would certainly make this list if he weren’t already devoting thousands of words to him on this site, who are some of this most intriguing coaches to watch next season?
1. Ed Orgeron
Coach O returns to the sidelines in the SEC West, securing the head coaching job at LSU after successful interim roles in Baton Rouge and at USC. In going with Orgeron, LSU is making a strategic bet on a Dabo Swinney-like leader.
Both Orgeron and Swinney fit the mold of a “player’s coach” that has shown an ability to motivate and develop players, delegating the majority of scheme and strategy details to top coordinators. This an explicit component of Orgeron’s pitch to LSU – he’d be a cheaper option than a coach with a more proven track record, and use the cost savings to lure some of the best coordinators and assistants to Death Valley. This allowed the Tigers to retain Dave Aranda, already a young superstar DC, and hire Broyles Award finalist Matt Canada away from Pitt to fix an underachieving offense.
Orgeron’s reincarnation in the second half of his coaching career has been fascinating. As Ole Miss’s head coach he was a lunatic with his intensity and aggressiveness, but it appears at USC and LSU he’s channeled this into a more disciplined and caring approach (in his own words “I was trying the ‘hard-ass’ approach
[at Ole Miss] and it didn’t work”). LSU will again be one of the most talented teams in the country, should continue to recruit at an extremely high level, but can Orgeron find any more success against Alabama than Les Miles did over the past few years?
2. Lincoln Riley
Riley made my initial list even before Bob Stoops’ surprise retirement, and vaults toward the top as he takes over as Oklahoma’s head coach. Going into this season, Riley had established himself as the hot young offensive coordinator, and I expected him to be a hot name for some middle to high P5 head coaching jobs next offseason. Bruce Feldman’s initial report mentioned he had already turned down opportunities at Purdue, USF, Cincinnati, and Houston. Now he takes over a top tier program at age 33, his first head coaching job.
People who know football pegged Riley as a great hire when Stoops brought him on board in 2015, and he’s lived up to the high expectations. The Sooners jumped from 17th in Offensive S&P+ to 7th that year and 1st in 2016. As impressive as the rapid improvement was the ability to learn and adapt. The main criticism of the 2015 attack was that it leaned too pass-heavy (80th in adjusted run rate) despite a good line and backs. In 2016 the Oklahoma attack was more balanced (51st in adjusted run rate), which I’ll hypothesize played a significant role in better performance both passing (improving from 11th to 1st in Passing S&P+) and rushing (28th to 14th in Rushing S&P+).
With Baker Mayfield somehow back for another year, the Oklahoma offense should remain extremely strong. The question marks with Riley will be how well he handles the transition to head coach responsibilities – managing a staff, recruiting, and all the distractions that come with running a high-profile program in a football-obsessed state.
3. Willie Taggart
Let’s tell this story through headlines featuring Taggart and his programs from the past few years:
August 7, 2015: “Willie Taggart enters third USF season on very hot seat”
November 16, 2015: “Coach Taggart has done near-impossible at South Florida”
August 22, 2016: “USF head coach Willie Taggart is red-hot”
November 26, 2016: “USF coach Willie Taggart savors record-setting resurgence”
December 7, 2016: “Oregon Ducks to hire USF Bulls’ Willie Taggart as next coach” January 13, 2017: “Cristobal hiring shows Ducks are serious about the crystal football”
In summary: Taggart went from looking like a lame duck coach at USF (7-21 through two and a quarter seasons) to star on the rise very quickly. He then gets the job as an outsider at an Oregon program that has hand-picked head coaches from within for a couple decades and makes some splashy coordinator hires. Then bizarre incidents with a strength coach and offseason conditioning.
Reasons for optimism: Taggart’s up-tempo power spread offense gets a talented young QB with a stockpile of skill position talent. Reasons for pessimism: Oregon was 74th in S&P+ in 2016 and Taggart had slow starts at both USF and Western Kentucky (2-10 in his first season at both destinations).
4. Jim Harbaugh
The Harbaugh homecoming has been pretty close to a perfect marriage thus far. It’s uncommon in a coaching search for a fan base to coalesce around one candidate and then for the team to actually land him. But the man in khakis has lived up to the hype, taking a 5-7 team to 10 wins in his first year and the doorstep of a playoff berth last season.
2017 seems like the year a long honeymoon starts ending for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor – expectations for year three will still be extremely high despite massive turnover on both sides of the ball. The schedule isn’t kind to the Wolverines either – they open in Dallas against Florida and down the stretch face road games at Happy Valley and Camp Randall before hosting Ohio State.
Michigan has recruited well enough that the floor remains high, but a step back even to 9-4 could start bending perceptions of Harbaugh from “crazy genius” back toward “just insane”. A less fun but equally plausible outcome is a third consecutive season with double-digit wins that cements the Wolverines status as a title favorite in 2018 (when they’ll return a ton). Anything is in play with a coach who has been successful at every stop, yet hasn’t stayed in the same place more than four years.
5. Mark Dantonio
What makes Dantonio and Sparty extremely intriguing is that unlike other teams with terrible records – Notre Dame, UCLA, or Oregon – Michigan State went 3-9 last season with a veteran team. They had to replace some high draft picks and Connor Cook, but their recruiting had been consistent and Dantonio had established a very high ceiling and floor over the past five years.
To summarize Bill Connelly’s preview, it’s unlikely to get better this year. Adding to the sudden concerns about program trajectory are sexual assault charges that resulted in the dismissal of three Spartan players. It doesn’t help that MSU’s tailspin has coincided with a surge from Penn State under James Franklin and Harbaugh re-establishing Michigan as a national power.
Player development and scheme have been hallmarks of Dantonio’s success in East Lansing, but any slippage in those areas will doom him long-term when competing in a division where most years he has the fourth most talented roster. With the confluence of a poor 2016, bad outlook for 2017, and real concerns about player conduct, it’s easy to predict a very warm seat for Dantonio heading into 2018, which would have been unthinkable two years ago.
6. Tom Herman
This isn’t an original take, but I think Tom Herman will be very, very good at Texas. Herman and Todd Orlando is a combination of offensive/defensive minds I’d take above every team besides maybe Alabama and Clemson. He inherits a young talented team, and as a welcome gift a top-10 coach resigned at the Longhorns biggest rival program. Throw in Baylor’s tumultuous two years (more on this later), Texas A&M’s shine under Kevin Sumlin fading a bit, TCU coming down to earth – it’s a great time to take over in Austin.
More than the X’s and O’s, I think what makes me confident in Herman’s success is his vision and foresight. Herman seems to understand how to relate to his players, how to connect with recruits in the modern environment, and has a clear vision in what he wants his teams to look like. Add in virtually unlimited resources and the best geographic advantages in the nation, and I’m buying stock in Texas becoming a pretty consistent playoff threat within the next three years.
7. Kevin Wilson
Few coaches had a stranger offseason than Wilson, who abruptly left Indiana in the midst of player mistreatment allegations. The former Oklahoma offensive coordinator had led the Hoosiers to back to back bowl appearances for the first time since the ’90-’91 seasons, and signed a six-year extension just a year earlier.
The controversy lasted all of six weeks, when he was announced as Urban Meyer’s new offensive coordinator in January. Wilson looks to be a clear upgrade over Tim Beck as a coordinator and play-caller, and inherits a veteran QB in JT Barrett to go along with the Buckeyes typical stockpile of skill position talent. Ohio State’s offense should reap immediate benefits, and Wilson is set up for a nice rehabilitation role (he technically resigned and cause was not given for his departure) to rebound into another low P5 or upper group of five job.
8. Jim Mora Jr.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Bruins were poised to overthrow USC as the dominant power in the Pac-12 South – in 2013, Mora routed the Trojans (who had fired Lane Kiffin earlier that season) en route to UCLA’s first 10-win season since 2005. The Bruins were back to consistently recruiting top-15 classes (or better) and went 29-11 in Mora’s first three seasons.
It’s been a much rougher stretch the past two years, with UCLA plummeting to 59th in S&P+ and 4-8 last season (weird, I haven’t seen any Michigan State/Oregon/UCLA 4-8 memes this offseason). Like Brian Kelly, Mora is on the hot seat, but he actually sits in a position much like a different coach Irish fans are intimately familiar with – Charlie Weis.
Like Weis, Mora came from an NFL background and found immediate success and acclaim in a high-profile job. UCLA’s recent struggles have been less dramatic than Notre Dame plummeting to 3-9 in 2007, but Year 5 for Weis looks like a lot like Year 6 for Mora – relying on a five-star, potential top draft pick, junior quarterback to help save his job.
The schedule doesn’t do Mora any favors, and the over/under right now is set at 6 wins for the Bruins. UCLA has to travel to Stanford, Washington, and USC, and starts with a gigantic matchup hosting A&M. Along with Tennessee, this looks to be one of the more likely job openings in the 2017 coaching carousel unless Mora can pull off a big rebound with two new coordinators.
9. Phil Longo
Longo is the next “up and coming” offensive coordinator, leaping from the OC role at FCS power Sam Houston State to Ole Miss. Bruce Feldman wrote a great piece on Longo last season – the standout detail coming in his description of Longo’s division of responsibilities. In the era of ever-expanding read-options, Longo opted to have less responsibility for the quarterback, shifting some of the burden to receivers to identify coverages and adjust routes accordingly.
At 48 Longo is a bit older than the stereotypical “hot young offensive mind”, but the track record for OC’s (in particular Mike Leach disciples) that have been successful at lower levels is pretty solid. Shea Patterson is a great young building block, but the offense loses a ton of returning production – how quickly can Longo get the engine purring against SEC defenses? The Rebels aren’t a playoff contender this year, but could play spoiler again for Bama or LSU.
10. Matt Rhule
Rhule to Waco was a pretty stunning offseason move – not because Rhule wasn’t qualified, but because it seemed like a strange fit. The 42-year old had spent most of his career in the northeast and zero time coaching in the state of Texas. Rhule was also jumping into a program and institution in some state of rehabilitation from a culture that could kindly be described as toxic and morally bankrupt.
On the field, he also brings a defensive focus into a program that emerged from the Big 12 basement thanks to offensive innovation. Since taking the Baylor job, Rhule seems from afar to have done all the right things – making inroads and smart hires to gain leverage with the cult that is Texas high school football, and then getting to work on a complete shift in program values and culture. More news continues to leak out about previous and current Baylor administrators and their reaction (and lack thereof) to the issues on their campus. Rhule has taken on an extremely challenging job, but as a fan I hope he’ll be successful – he brings a different style to the conference, and appears to be genuine about changing Baylor football to a program with a conscious that does things the right way.
Anybody I’m missing? From a Notre Dame perspective, I’ll be interested in the first years for Mike Sanford at WKU and Bob Diaco at Nebraska. Who else do you have your eye on in 2017?