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College Football's 10 Most Underappreciated Head Coaches in 2015

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema

With the 2015 season reaching its final stretch, all 128 teams, players and coaches are making their last push to reach preseason goals, play in a bowl or avoid the hot seat going into the offseason. And this is also the portion of the season where the award scene starts to clear and the candidates for some of college football’s top hardware begins to emerge.

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With 128 head coaches at the FBS level, it’s not easy for every one of them to get the proper attention or appreciation they deserve for their coaching job during the 2015 season. Entering Week 13, it’s fair to say most of the attention for coach of the year honors is with Florida’s Jim McElwain, Houston’s Tom Herman, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. But what about the coaches doing an under-the-radar job this season? With that question in mind, Athlon Sports examines 10 coaches – plus one wildcard name – that deserve more attention for the job they have done in 2015.

10 Underappreciated Coaching Jobs in 2015

Bret Bielema, Arkansas

The Razorbacks won four out of their last six games last season and finished 2014 as one of the hottest teams in the nation. The momentum for Bielema slowed with a 2-4 record through the first six games of 2015, but the third-year coach has Arkansas positioned once again as one of the teams no one wants to play at the end of the year. The Razorbacks have won four in a row, including a dominant 31-14 victory at LSU on Nov. 14. Arkansas enters Week 13 with wins in five out of its last six games and will be favored to get to 8-4 overall with home games remaining against Mississippi State and Missouri. Bielema’s hire of Dan Enos as play-caller has helped the Razorbacks offense take a step forward in 2015, as this unit leads the SEC (conference-only games) in yards per play (6.4) and points per game (32.8).

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Bob Davie, New Mexico

Davie has rebuilt a program that won three games from 2009-11, as the Lobos are poised for their first bowl trip since the 2007 season. New Mexico went 11-26 in Davie’s first three seasons and is 6-4 through 10 games in 2015. The offense hasn’t been the problem for Davie, but the defense ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West from 2013-14. The Lobos have made gains on that side of the ball in 2015, limiting opponents to 26.1 points per game and 5.7 yards per play (down from 6.8 in 2014). New Mexico has scored huge back-to-back victories, defeating Utah State 14-13 on Nov. 7 and a road win at Boise State on Nov. 14. Davie’s team still has a chance to play for the Mountain West title with wins in their last two games of the year – Colorado State and at Air Force.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina

Fedora is making a strong case for ACC Coach of the Year honors. After losing to South Carolina in the opener, North Carolina has reeled off nine wins in a row and is on the doorstep of winning its first Coastal Division title. Offense is always a strength for Fedora’s teams, but the Tar Heels had to get better on defense to contend for an ACC title. Fedora hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to coordinate the defense, and this unit has made marked progress under his watch. North Carolina gave up 6.5 yards per play last season, surrendered 22 plays of 40 yards or more and allowed 39 points a game. Those totals have decreased significantly under Chizik’s direction. The Tar Heels are fourth in the ACC in points allowed per game (18.8), limit opponents to 5.2 yards per play and allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more. This is North Carolina’s best season under Fedora, and the fourth-year coach has this program trending in the right direction. 

Related: Bowl Projections After Week 11

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

There were plenty of doubts surrounding Ferentz’s long-term outlook at Iowa entering 2015. The Hawkeyes seemed to be trending down after a disappointing 7-6 record in 2014 and no finish in the final Associated Press poll from 2010-14. But Ferentz has reinvented himself and made a few tweaks to his coaching style, which included bringing more of an aggressive approach on offense to pair with a solid defense (4.75 yards per play allowed). Ferentz has pushed all of the right buttons in 2015, guiding the Hawkeyes to a 10-0 record and a chance to clinch the Big Ten West Division with a win over Purdue on Saturday. Even if Iowa falls short of winning the Big Ten Championship, Ferentz’s reinvention – known as Ferentz 3.0 in Iowa City – there’s a chance the program wins 12 games for the first time in program history.

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Mike Leach, Washington State

Leach’s 2015 season started with a disappointing 24-17 loss to Portland State. But since the opening week defeat, Leach has guided Washington State to a 7-2 mark over the last nine games. During that nine-game slate, the Cougars picked up road wins over Oregon, Arizona and UCLA and lost by only two points to Stanford. As expected from a Mike Leach-coached team, Washington State leads the nation by averaging 414.4 passing yards per game. However, new coordinator Alex Grinch has brought improvement to a defense that allowed 38.6 points per game last season. With remaining games against Colorado and Washington (and a bowl trip), Leach has a good chance to lead Washington State to first campaign of double-digit wins since 2003. 

Related: 7 Coaches to Replace Gary Pinkel at Missouri

Rocky Long, San Diego State

Long isn’t the flashiest coach at the FBS level, but the defensive mastermind is simply a winner. He was promoted to head coach at San Diego State after Brady Hoke left for Michigan in 2011, and the Aztecs are 39-23 over the last five years. Additionally, San Diego State has not missed out on a bowl appearance under Long’s direction. The formula for success for Long's teams are pretty simple - run the ball and play defense. Since 2011, the Aztecs have not finished lower than third in the Mountain West in fewest yards per play allowed. At 7-3 in 2015, the Aztecs are poised for their best season in Long’s tenure at San Diego State. If this team finds a way to win its last four games (assuming SDSU wins the Mountain West’s West Division and plays in the conference championship), the 11 wins will tie the most in program history (11 in 1969). 

Todd Monken, Southern Miss

Southern Miss fell on hard times after Larry Fedora’s final season (2011). Ellis Johnson was picked as Fedora’s replacement, and the Golden Eagles suffered through a miserable 0-12 season in his only year in Hattiesburg. Monken replaced Johnson in 2013 and inherited a significant rebuilding project. Even though Southern Miss went 4-20 in Monken’s first two years, there were signs of progress. The Golden Eagles are in the midst of their best season since 2011, sitting at 7-3 with two games remaining and a chance to win Conference USA’s West Division on Nov. 28 at Louisiana Tech. Monken’s offense ranks third among Conference USA teams at 38.6 points per game, while the defense went from 12th in the league in yards per play allowed (6.4 in 2014) to 5.03 in 2015.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

Houston, Memphis and Temple have garnered most of the national attention from the American Athletic Conference this season, but Navy ranks as the highest Group of 5 team headed into Week 12 action. The Midshipmen are 8-1, with the only loss coming at Notre Dame in a matchup where quarterback Keenan Reynolds missed over two quarters of snaps due to injury. Navy has a huge showdown at Houston on Nov. 27 to decide the American Athletic Conference’s West Division – and likely a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Niumatalolo has won at least eight games in each of the last four seasons and deserves coach of the year consideration if Navy wins the American Athletic Conference in its first year in the league.

Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State

Barring two losses by Arkansas State in its last two games, Appalachian State is going to fall just short of winning the Sun Belt title. However, the Mountaineers are going to be a factor for the conference championship on a yearly basis under Satterfield’s direction. After going 4-8 in his first year as Appalachian State’s coach, Satterfield guided the program to a 7-5 mark in its first season at the FBS level (2014) and is 8-2 through 10 games in 2015. The Mountaineers have nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to their losses – Arkansas State and Clemson – this year. With games remaining against UL Lafayette and South Alabama, there’s a good chance for Appalachian State to reach double-digit victories for the first time since 2010.

Willie Taggart, South Florida

With a 6-18 record in his first two seasons at South Florida, Taggart entered 2015 sitting squarely on the hot seat. While all signs suggested Taggart would be a home-run hire for the Bulls, this program struggled to find its footing and was 5-11 in American Athletic Conference games in Taggart’s first two years. However, Taggart is building a strong case as one of the leading contenders for coach of the year honors in the American Athletic. The Bulls have showed marked improvement after a 1-3 start, winning five out of their last six games, including a 44-23 victory over Temple last Saturday. Taggart is one of the top recruiters in the Group of 5 conferences and has USF pointed in the right direction.

Bonus Candidate: ​Bill Clark, UAB

At first glance, it may seem odd to consider Clark for a space in this article. However, let’s consider all the UAB coach has had to overcome over the last year. The Blazers shut down their football program in December but later reinstated the team for 2017 after donations and fan support showed there was more than enough interest for UAB’s team to return. Needless to say, Clark has a monumental task in rebuilding a program from scratch. Clark is already putting the pieces into place for 2017, which includes improved facilities and a recruiting class that ranks No. 1 (247Sports Composite) among Conference USA teams. With no team in 2016, Clark is simply selling a vision to this year’s recruiting class. Imagine what Clark and his staff can do with better facilities (a new stadium?) and on-field results in the next few years.