Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2016

Which first-year coaches did the best job in 2016?

College football’s coaching carousel was active prior to the 2016 season, as 28 programs hired a new full-time coach. It’s no secret coaching changes can have an instant impact on a problem, but some hires need a couple of years to rebuild a mess inherited from the previous staff. Winning right away as a new coach doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success, but it’s easy to get a read on the outlook for any coach after one season. Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente ranks as Athlon's No. 1 coaching hire after one year, followed by USC's Clay Helton, UCF's Scott Frost and Hawaii's Nick Rolovich.

 

With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 28 full-time coaching hires from the 2016 coaching carousel. Interim coaches (Jim Grobe at Baylor) were not considered for this ranking.

 

Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2016

 

1. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

2016 Record: 10-4

 

Fuente ranked as Athlon’s No. 1 hire for 2016 and maintains that place in the postseason after a strong debut in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech finished 10-4 last year and claimed the ACC Coastal Division title for the first time since 2011. The Hokies scored key road wins over divisional foes Pitt (39-36), North Carolina (34-3) and handled Miami 37-16 in Blacksburg. Additionally, Fuente’s team scored a road win over Notre Dame, rallied from a 24-0 deficit to beat Arkansas 35-24 in the Belk Bowl and gave Clemson (42-35) all it could handle in the ACC Championship Game. Fuente’s background on offense provided a needed spark for the Hokies. This unit averaged 34.1 points in league matchups, compared to 25.4 in 2015. The offense also recorded 5.8 yards per play in ACC contests, up from 4.65 from the previous year. With Bud Foster handling the defense, and Fuente working with Brad Cornelsen to run the offense, Virginia Tech will quickly reload and push for another trip to the ACC title game in 2017.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Related: Early Top 50 College Football Players for 2017

 

2. Clay Helton, USC

2016 Record: 10-3

 

USC was one of the nation’s most-improved teams throughout the course of the 2016 season. The Trojans started 1-3 but found a spark behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. USC finished 2016 with a nine-game winning streak, which included a win at USC, victories over rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, along with a 52-49 thrilling win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The 10-win season was USC’s first in double digits since 2013. Additionally, the Trojans earned their first Rose Bowl trip since 2008. Helton is 16-7 overall as head coach at USC and has this team primed to contend for the College Football Playoff in 2017.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

3. Scott Frost, UCF

2016 Record: 6-7

 

Under Frost’s direction, it’s safe to say UCF is a program on the rise and one to watch over the next couple of years. The Knights’ six-game improvement in the win column tied for the most among FBS teams in 2016. Additionally, all seven defeats came at the hands of bowl teams from 2016, and three losses came by seven points or fewer. Even though Frost was regarded for his work on offense, UCF’s defense led the way for this team last fall. The Knights limited opponents to 24.6 points per game and ranked second in the American Athletic Conference by holding opposing offenses to 4.8 yards per play. With another offseason for Frost to find the right answers on offense, UCF could be USF’s biggest challenger in the AAC’s East Division in 2017.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

4. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

2016 Record: 7-7

 

With playing experience at Hawaii under June Jones and a tenure under Greg McMackin as an assistant, Rolovich was the perfect coach to take over in Honolulu after Norm Chow’s dismissal. The Rainbow Warriors showed marked improvement in Rolovich’s first year and finished 2016 with a four-game jump in the win column. Rolovich inherited a team with plenty of issues, so this wasn’t an easy fix. Hawaii finished last in the Mountain West in scoring offense and 11th in scoring defense in 2015. Additionally, a brutal schedule, which featured a trip to Australia to start the year, followed by a road matchup at Michigan the following Saturday wasn’t easy to overcome. But Rolovich helped the offense take a step forward, and Hawaii finished the season by winning its final three games, including a 52-35 victory over Middle Tennessee in the Hawaii Bowl.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

Related: College Football's Top 15 Teams on the Rise for 2017

 

5. Kalani Sitake, BYU

2016 Record: 9-4

 

After Bronco Mendenhall’s departure to Virginia, BYU dipped into its past and hired Sitake to take over. The former BYU fullback under LaVell Edwards worked under Kyle Whittingham at Utah (2005-14) and Gary Andersen at Oregon State (2015) prior to taking the top job in Provo. Sitake’s debut was a success, as he guided BYU to a 9-4 record and a bowl win over Wyoming. Additionally, all four of the defeats came by three points or fewer, including a one-point loss at rival Utah and a three-point defeat to West Virginia. The Cougars scored three wins over Power 5 opponents last season by knocking off Arizona, Mississippi State and Michigan State.

 

Final Grade: A-

 

6. Mark Richt, Miami

2016 Record: 9-4

 

Despite a successful (145 wins) tenure at Georgia, Richt was fired at the end of the 2015 season. But it didn’t take long for the veteran head coach to find work. As a former Miami quarterback, the opportunity to return was a homecoming of sorts for Richt. The marriage between Richt and the Hurricanes seems to be a perfect one for the program, and he started things off with a 9-4 record. The first season provided its share of ups and downs, as Miami opened at 4-0 before losing four straight. However, the Hurricanes rebounded to win their final five games, including a 31-14 victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Three of Miami’s losses came by a touchdown or less, which included a one-point defeat to Florida State (20-19). Replacing quarterback Brad Kaaya won’t be easy in 2017. However, Richt has this program on the right track and the ACC Coastal Division title is within reach next fall.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

7. Tracy Claeys, Minnesota

2016 Record: 9-4

 

Claeys’ first (and only) season in Minneapolis ended in controversy after he showed his support for a player boycott prior to the Holiday Bowl. Claeys was dismissed in early January, and Minnesota acted quickly in hiring former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck to guide the program in 2017. After Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement, Claeys was promoted to the full-time position following the 2015 season. He went 2-4 as the program’s interim coach in 2015 but guided the Golden Gophers to a 9-4 record in '16. The nine-win campaign was only the eighth time Minnesota exceeded more than eight since 1901.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

Related: Very Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017

 

8. Frank Wilson, UTSA

2016 Record: 6-7

 

Wilson proved he is more than just an ace recruiter in his first season at UTSA. The Louisiana native worked his way through the coaching ranks as an assistant in the SEC at Tennessee and LSU and also was a standout high school coach at O.P. Walker in New Orleans. Wilson replaced Larry Coker (UTSA’s only head coach in its short history) and guided the Roadrunners to a 6-7 mark last season and their first bowl trip in program history. Wilson’s team hung tough against Texas A&M (23-10), nearly defeated Arizona State (32-28) and scored quality conference wins against MTSU and Southern Miss.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

9. Will Muschamp, South Carolina

2016 Record: 6-7

 

South Carolina’s decision to hire Muschamp came as a surprise and so were the on-field results in his first season in Columbia. The Gamecocks were picked last in the SEC East after a 3-9 campaign in 2016 and returned only six starters after a season-ending injury to linebacker Skai Moore. Despite the lack of proven talent, South Carolina was one of the SEC’s biggest surprises this past season. The Gamecocks finished with six victories, including an upset of Tennessee in late October. Muschamp’s team also knocked off Vanderbilt and Missouri in SEC play and only one of its seven losses (Clemson) was by more than 13 points. Not bad for a team with a true freshman at quarterback (Jake Bentley) and several new faces stepping into the lineup on both sides of the ball.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

10. Jason Candle, Toledo

2016 Record: 9-4

 

Candle was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State, and the Rockets didn’t miss a beat in his first year at the helm. Toledo finished 9-4 to post the program’s seventh consecutive winning season, averaged 38 points per game and just missed on finishing with 10 victories. The Rockets lost by three points to Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl, by five to MAC East champ Ohio and by two at BYU. With quarterback Logan Woodside (45 TD passes) returning in 2017, Toledo should be the favorite to win the MAC next year.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

Related: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2017

 

11. DJ Durkin, Maryland

2016 Record: 6-7

 

Entering the 2016 season, Durkin was considered one of college football’s top coaches on the rise and deserves high marks for his first year on the job in College Park. Maryland finished 6-7 last season – a three-game improvement from 2015. Additionally, the Terrapins returned to a bowl game after a one-year absence. The momentum from Durkin’s first season carried over into the recruiting trail, as Maryland is poised to sign a top 25 class. Durkin’s next task is pretty clear: Close the gap between the Terps and the top tier of teams in the Big Ten East. Maryland did not beat a team with a winning record in 2016 and was outscored 159-20 in losses to Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

12. Mike Norvell, Memphis

2016 Record: 8-5

 

Norvell was one of the top coaching hires in last year’s cycle and ensured Memphis suffered no drop off after Justin Fuente departed for Virginia Tech. The Tigers finished 8-5 and earned a third consecutive trip to the postseason. Norvell guided his team to wins over American Athletic Conference champion Temple (34-27), Houston (48-44) and dominated Kansas (43-7) in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Despite losing quarterback Paxton Lynch to the 2016 NFL Draft, the offense didn’t miss a beat. The Tigers averaged 38.8 points a game and 6.3 yards per play. Norvell should have Memphis in contention to win the AAC West Division in 2017.

 

Final Grade: B

 

13. Seth Littrell, North Texas

2016 Record: 5-8

 

The Mean Green improved their win total by four games in Littrell’s first season and returned to the bowl scene for the first time since 2013 thanks to a high APR. Both sides of the ball took a step forward on the stat sheet last year. After giving up 41.3 points a game in 2015, North Texas cut that total to 32.6. On offense, Littrell’s group went from 15.2 (2015) points per game to 24.8 last year. While there was clear progress in Littrell’s first season, plenty of work remains for this team. North Texas ranked No. 109 in Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, which was the lowest of any bowl team. The defense loses three of its top five tacklers, and the offense needs more consistency from the quarterback position.

 

Final Grade: B-

 

Related: College Football's Early Top 25 Games for 2017

 

14. Matt Viator, ULM

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Viator inherited a team with just seven returning starters from a two-win 2015 season, a brutal ‘16 slate and had to overcome an injury to No. 1 quarterback Garrett Smith in mid-October. Despite the obstacles, Viator guided ULM to a 4-8 record and picked up three wins in Sun Belt play. The Warhawks also lost two games – to Idaho and Georgia Southern – by a combined five points. Improving the defense is a top priority this spring after this group surrendered 6.65 yards per play in 2016. With Smith returning back to full strength, ULM should have a chance to equal or exceed its win total from last season in 2017.

 

Final Grade: B-

 

15. Kirby Smart, Georgia

2016 Record: 8-5

 

Smart was hired at Georgia to raise this program into contention for the SEC title and College Football Playoff berths on a consistent basis. The jury is still out on Smart’s ability to do that, but he’s winning a handful of battles on the recruiting trail and is poised to sign a top-five class for 2017. As far as Smart’s on-field success in 2016, it was a mixed bag for the Bulldogs. Georgia started 3-0 before losing four out of its next five games. Smart’s team finished with wins in four out of its final five contests, with the lone loss coming against rival Georgia Tech on a last-minute touchdown. Close (or memorable) losses seemed to sum up Smart’s first season. Georgia lost on a last-second Hail Mary pass by Tennessee, was stopped on 4th-and-short against Vanderbilt to prevent a game-winning drive and lost on a late touchdown following a fluke turnover in the finale against the Yellow Jackets. How quickly can Smart’s recruiting prowess pay off for the Bulldogs? It wouldn’t be a surprise if this team is the favorite to win the SEC East in 2017.

 

Final Grade: C+

 

Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2017

 

16. Willie Fritz, Tulane

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Fritz was one of the top coaching hires in last year’s cycle but faced a transition season in 2016. Moving from a pro-style approach to a ground-based attack wasn’t going to be easy. Tulane finished 4-8 last year and scored a win over UConn (38-13) in the regular season finale to avoid a winless mark in American Athletic Conference play. The Green Wave picked up additional victories over UL Lafayette, UMass and FCS member Southern. But most importantly for Fritz and his coaching staff: This team wasn’t that far from bowl eligibility in a transition year. Tulane lost by seven points to Navy, by four to SMU and by 10 to Memphis. With a full offseason to work under this staff and some help on the recruiting trail, Tulane could be a bowl team in 2017.

 

Final Grade: C+

 

17. Matt Campbell, Iowa State

2016 Record: 3-9

 

As expected, Campbell’s first season in Ames was a struggle. The Cyclones ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in scoring offense and defense in 2015 and won just three games in the final year under Paul Rhoads, so immediate improvement to a bowl was unlikely. For the first time in Campbell’s career as a head coach, he finished a season with fewer than seven wins. Iowa State finished 3-9 with victories over Kansas, Texas Tech and San Jose State. However, the Cyclones were more competitive than their record suggests. Four losses came by seven points or fewer, including defeats to Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

 

Final Grade: C+

 

18. Dino Babers, Syracuse

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Similar to a few other coaches in this range, Babers inherited a rebuilding project and needs another year or two to recruit and improve the overall talent on the team before competing for winning seasons. Babers came to Syracuse after successful stints at Eastern Illinois (19-7) and Bowling Green (18-7) and was regarded as one of the nation’s best offensive-minded coaches. The Orange offense took a step forward under Babers, improving their yards per play total to 5.5 from 5.1 in 2015. Syracuse scored two wins in ACC play, including an upset of Virginia Tech in mid-October and finished the year 4-8 after an entertaining 76-61 shootout loss to Pitt. With quarterback Eric Dungey returning, the Orange should be set on offense for 2017. However, the defense gave up 38.6 points per game in 2016 and is the biggest concern headed into spring practice.

 

Final Grade: C

 

Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2017

 

19. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss

2016 Record: 7-6

 

Hopson was hired just before National Signing Day to replace Todd Monken after he left Hattiesburg to be an NFL offensive coordinator. While Hopson got a late start, a C-USA West Division title and a potential double-digit win season was within reach for a team that returned quarterback Nick Mullens and six starters on defense. Instead of building off their nine-win campaign from 2015, Southern Miss took a step back. The Golden Eagles started the year with an upset at Kentucky but lost five out of six games over the final month of the season, before a win over Louisiana Tech secured win No. 6 and bowl eligibility. An injury to Mullens and a minus-17 turnover margin certainly played a role in the second-half slide.

 

Final Grade: C-

 

20. Barry Odom, Missouri

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Replacing Gary Pinkel – the winningest coach in Missouri history – was no easy task for Odom in his first opportunity to be a head coach. However, Odom knows what it takes to win in Columbia since he is a former Missouri linebacker and coached under Pinkel before a stint as the defensive coordinator at Memphis (2012-14). From 2012-15, Odom emerged as one of the top assistants in the nation for his work on the defensive side of the ball. But the transition from coordinator to head coach wasn’t easy. In his first year at the helm, Odom guided Missouri to a 4-8 record and watched his defense slip from No. 2 in the SEC in scoring to No. 12 (31.5 ppg). The Tigers did finish the year with a little momentum thanks to wins in two out of their last three games, including a 28-24 upset of Arkansas. Getting the defense back to its 2015 level is a must, but Odom also needs the offense to take a step forward in SEC matchups (22.6 ppg in conference games).

 

Final Grade: C-

 

21. Mike Neu, Ball State

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Ball State dipped into its past after Pete Lembo left Muncie to coach special teams at Maryland. Neu – a former Ball State quarterback from 1990-93 – arrived on campus after coaching quarterbacks with the Saints from 2014-15. In his first season as a head coach at the FBS level, Neu experienced his share of ups and downs. Ball State started 3-1 with victories over Georgia State, Eastern Kentucky and FAU. However, the Cardinals finished the year 1-7 over the final eight weeks. The lone victory in that stretch came against Buffalo (31-21). However, Neu’s team wasn’t far from bowl eligibility. Ball State lost four MAC games by seven points or fewer and was defeated by just 10 against Indiana and Akron.

 

Final Grade: C-

 

22. Lovie Smith, Illinois

2016 Record: 3-9

 

Smith’s first year was a scramble, as he wasn’t hired until early March after athletic director Josh Whitman decided to fire Bill Cubit on his first day on the job. While the move to hire Smith should pay off in the future, the Fighting Illini struggled on the gridiron in his first season. Illinois finished 3-9, with its victories coming against FCS member Murray State, Rutgers and a surprise upset of Michigan State. A 34-31 loss against Purdue was arguably the low point of Smith’s first year, and this team has a ways to go in order to be competitive in the Big Ten West. The Fighting Illini lost five conference matchups by 20 points or more and averaged just 16.8 points per contest in Big Ten games.

 

Final Grade: D

 

Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017

 

23. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green

2016 Record: 4-8

 

Jinks experienced a fast rise through the coaching ranks. After working as a high school head coach from 2006-12 at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, he spent three years as an assistant at Texas Tech (2013-15) before landing the top spot at Bowling Green. Despite inheriting a core of players from a team that won 10 games in 2015, along with an offense that was similar to what was run at Texas Tech (and Steele HS), the Falcons slumped to 4-8. Bowling Green surrendered 77 points two times (vs. Ohio State and Memphis), scored a one-point win over FCS member North Dakota, and missed out on a bowl for the first time since 2011. On the positive side, Jinks’ team finished 2016 on a three-game winning streak – but all three victories came against teams with a losing record.

 

Final Grade: D

 

24. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

2016 Record: 2-10

 

Virginia’s hire of Mendenhall was a curious one last offseason. The Utah native had never coached east of Louisiana, with most of his experience coming from stints at BYU, New Mexico and Oregon State. From 2005-15, Mendenhall guided BYU to a 99-43 record and went to a bowl game in all 11 seasons in Provo, Utah. And for the first time in his coaching career, Mendenhall is headed into an offseason after a losing campaign. Virginia finished 2-10 and ended 2016 with a seven-game losing streak. The Cavaliers posted wins over Central Michigan and Duke but lost to FCS member Richmond, UConn and were easily handled 52-10 by rival Virginia Tech. The first-year struggles were expected, as Virginia returned only 10 starters from 2015 and entered the year with question marks at quarterback and up front on defense.

 

Final Grade: D

 

25. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina

2016 Record: 3-9

 

After a stint in the NFL with the Steelers and three years (2013-15) working under David Cutcliffe at Duke, Montgomery was considered an up-and-coming star as an assistant. The North Carolina native started his head coaching career with a 2-0 mark, which included a win over NC State (33-30) in Week 2. However, the Pirates struggled to find success the rest of the way and finished 3-9 with just one win in American Athetlic Conference play (UConn 41-3). Despite an offense that averaged nearly 30 points per game and was led by standout receiver Zay Jones, East Carolina lost its final four games by at least 20 points. Fixing a defense that allowed 36.1 points per contest is a priority this spring. With a handful of key receivers departing Greenville this offseason, Montgomery is facing a rebuilding year in 2017.

 

Final Grade: D

 

Related: College Football's Early Top 50 Players for 2017

 

26. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern

2016 Record: 5-7

 

A 5-7 record in your first year as a head coach wouldn’t normally be a cause for concern. However, that’s not the case at Georgia Southern. This job is one of the best in the Sun Belt and the bar is set to win conference championships and compete for bowl bids. Former head coach Willie Fritz left plenty of talent from a nine-win team in 2015 for Summers to work with, including standout running backs Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby. However, instead of building off the bowl appearance, the Eagles regressed to 5-7 and beat only one team (Troy) with a winning record. The victory over Troy likely saved Summers from a one-and-done year in Statesboro. Summers made staff changes this offseason to bring the offense back to an option attack, and there’s enough talent in place to challenge for a winning record in 2017.

 

Final Grade: D

 

27. Chris Ash, Rutgers

2016 Record: 2-10

 

A quick fix wasn’t going to happen for Rutgers in 2016. Ash inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2015, was littered with question marks on the depth chart (including quarterback) and has slipped in recruiting since reeling in back-to-back top-30 classes from 2011-12. And as expected, the Scarlet Knights struggled mightily in Ash’s first season. Rutgers won just two games and finished winless in Big Ten play. The offense was shut out four times and managed just 9.6 points in conference games. The defense also had its share of issues, surrendering a whopping 40 points in Big Ten contests. Ash still has a lot of work ahead of him in 2017, but the addition of new play-caller Jerry Kill should help the offense, and the staff is putting together a signing class that could reach the top 40. The future looks positive for Rutgers under Ash’s direction. However, another tough year is likely in order for 2017.

 

Final Grade: D

 

28. Everett Withers, Texas State

2016 Record: 2-10

 

Texas State opened 2016 with a road win at eventual MAC East champion Ohio (56-54), but Withers’ team struggled the rest of the year. The only other victory by the Bobcats came against FCS member Incarnate Word (48-17), as this team finished the year on an eight-game losing streak. Both sides of the ball entered 2016 with overall talent and depth concerns, so it’s no surprise Withers’ #PartyInTheEndZone is off to a slow start in San Marcos. A reason for concern: Texas State went 0-8 in Sun Belt play and only one loss came by single digits.

 

Final Grade: D-

Event Date: 
Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 12:01

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