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Top 25 College Football Head Coaches on the Rise for 2016

Tom Herman

Tom Herman

Whether it’s a player, team or coach, the next big thing is always on the minds of fans for all 128 college football programs. Regardless of the job or program, coaches are always under the microscope and under to pressure to win – and win immediately. With the heavy scrutiny and pressure to win right away, it’s no surprise college football’s coaching carousel never stops. And as expected, there’s always a wave of rising stars in the head coaching ranks ready to make their mark on an upcoming season and potentially attract the interest from a bigger program.

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With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the top rising stars in the head coaching ranks. Here are the top 25 rising stars to watch in the head coaching ranks for the upcoming season:

College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches on the Rise for 2016

25. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

Hawaii is one of the most unique (and challenging) jobs for any head coach at the FBS level. However, there’s not a coach more aware of the challenges and what it takes to win in Honolulu than Rolovich. The former Hawaii quarterback and assistant under June Jones and Greg McMackin returns to the Rainbow Warriors after four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Nevada. This is Rolovich’s first head coaching gig, and the 2016 schedule provides few breaks. However, with Rolovich in charge, the future looks bright for Hawaii over the next few seasons.

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24. Trent Miles, Georgia State

Miles hasn’t had it easy in his eight-year career as a head coach. He took over at Indiana State – his alma mater – in 2008 after the program went 1-32 in the three previous seasons. After a 2-22 record from 2008-09, the Sycamores showed marked improvement over the next three years. Miles guided Indiana State to a 6-5 record in 2010, followed by another 6-5 mark in 2011 and a 7-4 record in 2012. Miles took over at Georgia State in 2013 and inherited a program in need of major repair. The Panthers transitioned to the FBS level in 2013 and were short on depth and talent. However, just as he did at Indiana State, Miles brought improvement to Georgia State. The Panthers went 1-23 from 2013-14 but finished 6-7 and earned the program’s first bowl trip last season. 

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23. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa

The Golden Hurricane showed significant improvement in Montgomery’s first season. After a 2-10 record in 2014, Montgomery guided Tulsa to a 6-7 finish last fall and ended a two-year postseason drought with a trip to the Independence Bowl. Montgomery was regarded for his work in Waco as an offensive assistant under Art Briles at Baylor, and his background on that side of the ball was a huge asset for Tulsa last season. The Golden Hurricane averaged 37.2 points a game in 2015 – up from 24.7 in 2014. 

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Related: College Football's Top 50 Most Underrated Players for 2016

22. Neal Brown, Troy

Brown’s first season at Troy resulted in a 4-8 record, but the Trojans weren’t too far from a bowl trip. The Trojans lost four games by 10 points or less, including two by three points. Brown had a tough assignment in replacing Larry Blakeney at Troy, but the program is pointed in the right direction entering 2016. The Kentucky native was hired as Blakeney’s replacement after serving as an offensive coordinator at Troy (2008-09), Texas Tech (2010-12) and Kentucky (2013-14). With 13 returning starters, along with Brown’s second year at the helm, the Trojans should push for their first bowl since 2010.

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21. Mike Bobo, Colorado State

Colorado State looked to the SEC to find the right coach to get the program back on track in 2012. The result was a standout hire in Jim McElwain, as he guided the Rams to a 22-16 record from 2012-14. After McElwain left for Florida, Colorado State once again looked to the SEC for its next coach. The result? Another standout hire. Bobo has deep ties to Georgia, which includes a stint in Athens as the Bulldogs’ quarterback (1993-97) and later as an assistant from 2001-14. Bobo went 7-6 in his debut with the Rams last season and should have this program back in the mix for another winning season in 2016.

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20. Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)

The RedHawks are only 5-19 under Martin’s direction, but there are signs this program is ready to turn the corner in 2016. Martin is a big reason for the projected improvement by Miami (Ohio), as the former Notre Dame assistant has inked back-to-back solid recruiting classes and returns 13 starters from a team that lost four games by nine points or less in 2015. Martin went 74-7 as Grand Valley State’s head coach from 2004-09 and guided the program to back-to-back Division II titles in 2005-06.

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19. Mike Norvell, Memphis

Memphis took a big step forward under Justin Fuente’s tenure, going 19-7 over the last two years and finishing No. 25 in the Associated Press poll in 2014. While Fuente leaves big shoes to fill, Norvell is more than capable of keeping this program on track. At 34 years old, Norvell is the nation’s youngest head coach and takes over at Memphis after four successful years as Arizona State’s play-caller. Under Norvell’s direction, the Sun Devils averaged at least 34.6 points a game in each of the last four seasons. Prior to Arizona State, Norvell also worked as an assistant under Todd Graham at Tulsa and Pitt. 

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18. Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette

Hudspeth opened his tenure at UL Lafayette by finishing 9-4 and winning the New Orleans Bowl every year from 2011-14. The Ragin’ Cajuns were unable to overcome some key personnel losses on both sides of the ball season and finished 4-8 – the program’s first losing record under Hudspeth. Despite the setback in 2016, Hudspeth is still one of the Sun Belt’s top coaches and should have UL Lafayette back on the right side of the win column this fall. 

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Related: College Football's Top 100 Transfers for 2016

17. Lance Leipold, Buffalo

Leipold was one of the nation’s top hires in the 2015 coaching carousel and is the right coach to elevate Buffalo back in contention for the MAC East title. Leipold recorded a 109-6 record from 2007-14 at Wisconsin-Whitewater, which also included six Division III titles. The Bulls finished 5-7 in Leipold’s first year and just missed out on a bowl with three losses by six points or less. Buffalo returns only 10 starters, but after establishing a foundation in 2015, Leipold’s team has a chance to surprise in the East Division this year. 

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16. Bob Diaco, UConn

After a 2-10 record in 2014 during Diaco’s debut, UConn took a big step forward last season. The Huskies scored a huge upset win over Houston en route to a 6-7 final record and earned the program’s first bowl trip since 2010. Diaco was one of the nation’s top assistant coaches during his stint as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2010-13 and has quickly made an impact in Storrs over the last two years.

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15. Jason Candle, Toledo

A young, up-and-coming assistant takes over at Toledo after the previous coach left for a job at a Power 5 program. That theme sounds familiar for the Rockets, as the same phrase was used to describe Matt Campbell’s hire for the program at the end of the 2011 season. Campbell went 35-15 during his tenure and hands control of the program to Candle after departing for Iowa State. Candle has worked at Toledo since 2009, including the last four as the program’s offensive coordinator. He also had an impressive debut in the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl, as the Rockets scored a 32-17 victory over Temple. Campbell was one of the MAC’s top coaches, but Toledo shouldn’t miss a beat with Candle.  

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Related: Ranking All 128 Teams for the 2016 Season

14. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State

Arkansas State certainly has a knack in recent seasons for hiring the right coach. Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin each spent one year in Jonesboro as the Red Wolves’ head coach. After cycling through three different coaches in three seasons, Arkansas State needed some stability and got it from Anderson. The Texas native was hired in 2014 after a two-year stint at North Carolina and has guided the Red Wolves to a 16-10 record, which includes the 2015 team (9-4) that claimed the Sun Belt title. Anderson also has stops on his resume from Southern Miss, UL Lafayette, MTSU and New Mexico and is regarded for his work on offense. Arkansas State lost a few key pieces from last year’s team, but Anderson will have the Red Wolves back in the mix to win the Sun Belt title in 2016.

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13. Doc Holliday, Marshall

Holliday has always been regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, but the West Virginia native is more than a coach who just wins on Signing Day. Holliday has helped Marshall return to its winning ways (and at a high level) over the last three years. Holliday replaced Mark Snyder in 2010 and guided the program to a 17-20 record in his first three seasons. However, the Thundering Herd has won at least 10 games in each of the last three years, including a 13-1 record and a No. 23 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2014. 

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12. Chad Morris, SMU

Morris inherited a SMU program in need of major repair and a team without any quick fixes for 2015 or 2016. The Mustangs went 2-10 last year, but Morris is still one of the nation’s rising stars in the head coach ranks and is only one season removed from a successful run as Clemson’s play-caller. Morris helped SMU’s offense averaged 27.8 points a game in 2015 – a significant increase from the 11.1 average from 2014. Expect SMU to take another step forward in 2016.

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11. Chris Ash, Rutgers

Ash has his work cut out for him at Rutgers. After all, this program is facing a tough road in the Big Ten East Division on an annual basis and has slipped in the recruiting rankings after hauling in the No. 24 class in 2012. However, Ash looks like the right coach to get the Scarlet Knights trending in the right direction. The Iowa native worked as an assistant at Drake (1997-99), Iowa State (2000-06, 2009), San Diego State (2007-08), Wisconsin (2010-12), Arkansas (2013) and Ohio State (2014-15) before taking the top spot at Rutgers. Ash is regarded for his work on the defensive side of the ball and seems to have a detailed plan on how to help this program move forward in the Big Ten after stints with the Buckeyes and Badgers. It may take a year or two to recruit and upgrade the overall roster talent, but Ash seems to have Rutgers on track in its third year of Big Ten play.

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10. Matt Wells, Utah State

Wells is the only coach in Utah State history to guide the program to three consecutive bowl trips and is 25-16 since taking over in 2013. After stints as an assistant at Navy, Tulsa, New Mexico and Louisville, Wells was hired by Gary Andersen to coach the Aggies’ quarterbacks in 2011. He was promoted to play-caller in 2012 and remained in that role until Andersen left for Wisconsin. Wells guided Utah State to a Mountain Division title in 2013 and followed that season with a 10-4 mark in 2014. The Aggies slipped to 6-7 last fall but three of those losses were by seven points or less. With dynamic junior Kent Myers ready to take over as the full-time quarterback, Utah State should rebound back into a winning record this fall.

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Related: Mountain West Predictions for 2016

9. Bryan Harsin, Boise State

Chris Petersen left big shoes to fill in Boise, but there’s not a coach better suited to lead this program than Harsin. As a former Boise State player and assistant, Harsin is familiar with the program’s rise since joining the FBS level and set the bar high in his first season. The Broncos finished 12-2, claimed the Mountain West title and earned the Group of 5 bowl spot in the New Year’s Six with a win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. Boise State finished 9-4 in Harsin’s second season, with two of the losses in Mountain West play coming by seven points. Even though 2015 represented a small step back in the win column for the Broncos, this program is still in great shape. Boise State is the favorite to win the Mountain Division and could challenge for the Group of 5 bowl spot in the New Year’s Six once again. 

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8. Willie Taggart, USF

USF took a big step forward in Taggart’s third season last fall, finishing 8-5 overall and second in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division. The eight-win campaign was two more victories than the Bulls had in Taggart’s first two years (six) and also brought the program’s first bowl trip since 2010. Taggart didn’t inherit a full cupboard when he replaced Skip Holtz in 2013 but has steadily improved the program’s talent level on the recruiting trail and implemented a “Gulf Coast Offense” to spark the attack prior to the 2015 campaign. Before taking over at USF, Taggart went 16-20 at WKU, which included back-to-back winning seasons after a 2-10 debut in 2010.

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7. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State

No coach is better suited than Satterfield for the top spot at Appalachian State. After serving as the Mountaineers quarterback from 1991-95, Satterfield joined Jerry Moore’s staff in 1998 and remained in that role until 2009. After stints at Toledo and FIU, Satterfield worked for one year as the offensive coordinator (2012) and was named the program’s head coach in 2013. In addition to replacing Moore — a coaching legend in the FCS ranks — Satterfield was tasked with moving Appalachian State to the FBS level. The Mountaineers went 4–8 in Satterfield’s debut but are 18–7 over the last two years and recorded the program’s first bowl trip in 2015.

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6. Jeff Brohm, WKU

Brohm has deep roots in the state of Kentucky from his time as a quarterback at Louisville (1989-93) and as an assistant with the Cardinals from 2003-08. After two years at WKU, Brohm has emerged as one of the nation’s top offensive coaches in the Group of 5 leagues and will be a prime target for job openings at Power 5 programs. The Hilltoppers are 20–7 under Brohm, including a Conference USA title and a No. 24 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2015. Brohm’s play-calling and scheme are key reasons why WKU is one of only four programs to average at least 40 points in each of the last two years. 

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5. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan

Fleck is known for his energy and ability to attract talent to Western Michigan, but he’s proven to be more than just an ace recruiter. After a 1–11 debut at WMU in 2013, Fleck led the Broncos to consecutive 8–5 seasons (2014-15) and claimed a share of the MAC West title last year. Western Michigan is also coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history. Fleck’s stock should climb even higher in 2016, as the Broncos return 14 starters and are poised to challenge for their first outright conference title since 1988.

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Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

4. Matt Rhule, Temple

Temple’s football program suffered through 18 consecutive losing seasons from 1991-08 and was dismissed from the Big East in 2004. However, the perception of the program has significantly changed in recent years. Momentum is at an all-time high for the Owls after Rhule guided the 2015 team to 10 wins (tied for the most in school history), defeated Penn State for the first time since 1941 and climbed to No. 20 in the AP poll in late November.

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3. D.J. Durkin, Maryland

Durkin was regarded as one of the nation’s rising stars in the assistant coach ranks over the last couple of seasons and lands at a program with a lot of potential for his first head coaching opportunity. The Ohio native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green in 2001 under Urban Meyer. He moved onto Notre Dame from 2003-04 but returned to the Falcons as an assistant from 2005-06. Durkin was hired by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford (2007-09) and later spent five years at Florida (2010-14). Durkin reunited with Harbaugh at Michigan in 2015 and helped the Wolverines rank among the nation’s best on defense. Maryland has a tough path in the Big Ten East, but Durkin is a good recruiter and has worked under two of the nation’s top coaches. The Terrapins should show marked improvement under Durkin’s direction over the next couple of seasons. 

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2. Willie Fritz, Tulane

Tulane is the toughest job in the American Athletic Conference, but the program took a major step forward by hiring Fritz away from Georgia Southern. In two years with the Eagles, Fritz went 17–7 and earned one bowl appearance while the program transitioned from the FCS level to FBS play. Success for Fritz isn’t limited to just Georgia Southern. He won 39 games in four years at Blinn (Texas) College, posted 11 winning seasons at Central Missouri and guided Sam Houston State to back-to-back FCS Championship Game appearances. 

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Related: Ranking All 128 College Football Coaches for 2016

1. Tom Herman, Houston

Herman’s “H-Town Takeover” and plan to elevate Houston as the top Group of 5 program is off to a fast start. In Year 1, Herman guided the Cougars to a 13–1 record, an American Athletic Conference title and a victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Winning at a high level is nothing new to Herman. He was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State from 2012-14 and was widely praised for keeping the Buckeyes’ offense humming through several injuries at the quarterback position en route to winning a national title. 

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(Photo of Jeff Brohm courtesy of WKU Athletics)

(Photo of Tom Herman courtesy of (@UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback)