Athlon grades and ranks all 15 college football hires for 2021
College football’s 2020-21 coaching carousel featured 15 changes, including moves at Texas, Auburn, UCF, South Carolina and Illinois. With the carousel completed and all 15 jobs filled, it's time to rank and grade the new hires and see how they fit with their new programs. At the top, it's a close call between the hires of Steve Sarkisian (Texas), Clark Lea (Vanderbilt), Bryan Harsin (Auburn) and Gus Malzahn (UCF) for the top spot. But the next tier features another good group of hires, including Bret Bielema's return to the sidelines and Will Hall at Southern Miss.
Here’s a look at how Athlon Sports views, grades and ranks the 15 new coaches for 2021:
Grading College Football's Head Coach Hires for 2021
1. Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Texas is one of the best jobs in college football but it has just one season of 10 or more wins since 2010. The administration is banking on Sarkisian being the pick to help the program reach its potential, and after a successful stint in Tuscaloosa working for Nick Saban, there’s a lot to like about this hire. Sarkisian called the plays for a Crimson Tide attack that averaged 48.5 points a game in 2020 and 47.2 in ’19. The California native certainly knows how to recruit and develop offensive talent and surrounded himself with a top-notch staff for 2021. Texas is Sarkisian’s third stint as a Power 5 coach. His tenure at USC ended due to personal reasons after just 18 games on the sideline and he also went 34-29 at Washington from 2009-13. Sarkisian has to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of the program better than he did in his first two stops, but his experience at Alabama should pay dividends in Austin.
2. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame
Lea – a Nashville native and former Vanderbilt player – is the perfect hire for the Commodores. He arrives at Vanderbilt after working as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame from 2018-20. The Fighting Irish ranked among college football’s best on this side of the ball during Lea’s tenure and never finished below 14th nationally in scoring defense. He also has previous stops on his resume as an assistant from Wake Forest, Syracuse, Bowling Green and UCLA but this will be his first as a head coach at the FBS level. It’s no secret this is the toughest job in the SEC, but Lea certainly understands the academic challenge and can maximize the strengths of the program.
3. Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Previous Job: Head Coach, Boise State
Going from Boise State and the Mountain West to the pressure-packed SEC West is no easy task, but Harsin is a strong selection for Auburn. After a playing career at Boise State, Harsin worked there as an assistant from 2002-10 and later returned as head coach in 2014. In between those stops, Harsin worked as the offensive coordinator at Texas (2011-12) and head coach at Arkansas State (’13). The Broncos went 69-19 under Harsin’s watch from 2014-20 and won at least nine games in every full season of action. Boise State also finished 45-8 in league play, won the Mountain West three times, and played in a New Year’s Six bowl in 2014. Harsin’s background on offense and track record of developing quarterbacks should help jumpstart a stagnant Auburn attack. While Harsin is an outsider to the SEC, he hired a strong staff to ease his transition in 2021.
4. Gus Malzahn, UCF
Previous Job: Head Coach, Auburn
UCF is arguably the best Group of 5 coaching job and new athletic director Terry Mohajir hit a home run with his first hire in Orlando. Despite a 68-35 record and zero losing seasons, Malzahn was dismissed at Auburn following the 2020 season. The Tigers won the SEC and played for the national championship in 2013 and claimed the West Division title in ’17. Outside of the abbreviated ’20 season due to COVID-19, Auburn won at least seven games every year under Malzahn. Also, he and Mohajir have familiarity after working together at Arkansas State when Malzahn guided the program to a 9-3 finish in 2012. UCF has ranked among the nation’s best on offense in recent years, but there are question marks as to how Malzahn will mesh the talent and scheme from the previous staff to his preferred style. Also, can Malzahn regain his wizardry on offense after Auburn didn’t finish higher than sixth in the SEC in yards per play over his last six seasons?
5. Bret Bielema, Illinois
Previous Job: OLB Coach, New York Giants
Bielema’s last stint as a head coach resulted in his dismissal, but this tenure should go better since he’s back home and in familiar territory in the Big Ten. The Illinois native spent two years working with the Patriots and one with the Giants after a 29-34 record ended his tenure at Arkansas. But prior to that stint in Fayetteville, Bielema won 68 games and claimed at least a share of three Big Ten titles over seven seasons at Wisconsin. Bielema has a tough job ahead to improve recruiting and bring consistency and stability to a program that has just four winning seasons since 2000. His track record at Wisconsin, along with his previous experience in the Big Ten, should suit Bielema well in his effort to change the fortunes at Illinois.
6. Will Hall, Southern Miss
Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator, Tulane
The Golden Eagles have slipped from the ranks of annual contender in Conference USA, but Hall looks like the right hire to get this program back on track. A native of Mississippi, Hall has also spent a lot of time as an assistant and head coach at lower levels in this region. From 2011-13, Hall went 25-11 as the head coach at West Alabama and finished 31-9 at West Georgia (2014-16). He had one-year stops at Louisiana (2017) and Memphis (’18) before taking over the play-calling duties at Tulane. The Green Wave averaged 26.8 points a game in the season prior to Hall’s arrival but showed marked improvement, upping that total to 33.1 in ’19 and 34.7 in ’20.
7. Andy Avalos, Boise State
Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
Avalos is just the fifth head coach to roam the sidelines for Boise State since 1998, and in terms of fit, it doesn’t get much better in the 2021 carousel. The California native was a standout linebacker for the Broncos (2000-04) and later coached with the program under Chris Petersen (2012-13) and Bryan Harsin (2014-18). After working as a defensive assistant from 2012-15, Avalos took over the play-calling duties in ’16 and remained in that role until he left for Oregon in ’19. The Ducks allowed only 19.5 points a game in Avalos’ first year, and despite some hefty personnel losses, the defense still tied for first in the Pac-12 by holding teams to 5.4 yards a play in ’20. This is Avalos’ first chance to be a head coach, but his background and experience in the program should ensure this hire keeps Boise State at the top of the Mountain West.
8. Blake Anderson, Utah State
Previous Job: Head Coach, Arkansas State
Tragedy in his personal life hit Anderson hard the last two years and leaving Arkansas State for Utah State provides the opportunity for a fresh start and a change of scenery. Anderson is a strong hire for a program looking to get back on track after the team regressed from an 11-2 mark in 2018. From 2014-20 with the Red Wolves, Anderson went 51-37 overall with six bowl trips and claimed at least a share of two Sun Belt titles. The program only had one losing season and finished 38-18 in Sun Belt play. In addition to the stop in Jonesboro, Anderson has spent most of his coaching career in the South with stints at Middle Tennessee, Louisiana, Southern Miss, and North Carolina. However, Anderson previously coached out West as an assistant at New Mexico from 1999-2001. With a good track record as an offensive assistant and head coach, there’s not much to dislike about this hire.
9. Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Previous Job: Head Coach, UCF
New Tennessee athletic director Danny White had an extended search to replace Jeremy Pruitt, only to turn to a familiar face from his last job. Heupel follows his old boss to Rocky Top after three successful years with the Knights. After replacing Scott Frost following a 13-0 season, UCF proceeded to go 28-8 with an offense that averaged more than 40 points a game in all three years with Heupel in control. Additionally, of the eight losses by the Knights from 2018-20, seven came by one score. Heupel has previous SEC experience from a stint as Missouri’s offensive coordinator from 2016-17. The South Dakota native will have to prove he can build a program – a task made tougher by potential NCAA sanctions – and recruit at a higher level than he did at UCF. However, Heupel’s teams should be entertaining on offense, and his tenure will help raise Tennessee’s floor after three losing seasons in its last four years.
10. Butch Jones, Arkansas State
Previous Job: Special Assistant to the Head Coach, Alabama
Jones has worked in an off-field role at Alabama since his tenure at Tennessee ended after a disappointing 2017 season. Although Jones hasn’t coached in an official on-field capacity for the last three years, this is still a solid hire for Arkansas State. From 2007-09, Jones went 27-13 with two MAC titles at Central Michigan and finished 23-14 at Cincinnati from 2011-12. After a 5-7 record in his debut with the Volunteers, Jones guided the program to three straight winning seasons and won nine games in back-to-back years (2015-16). The 4-6 record accumulated before his dismissal dropped Jones’ overall record as a head coach at the FBS level to 84-54. This stop is the fourth by Jones as a head coach at the FBS level and he’s inheriting one of the better jobs in the Sun Belt. Working under Nick Saban allowed Jones to hit the reset button, and his track record suggests he should be able to put a consistent winning product on the field in Jonesboro.
11. Kane Wommack, South Alabama
Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Indiana
South Alabama is a program with plenty of potential thanks to its fertile recruiting territory and a new stadium that opened in 2020. Wommack was hired to help the Jaguars reach that potential, and after spending two years as the program’s defensive coordinator from 2016-17, he certainly knows what it takes to win in Mobile. The Missouri native spent the last three years at Indiana, including the last two as defensive coordinator. After giving up 29.9 points a game in 2018, the Hoosiers improved once Wommack took control of the play-calling duties, holding teams to 24.4 a contest in ’19 and 20.3 in ’20. Although Wommack is one of the youngest head coaches in the nation and has never been in the role before, this is a good hire for a program that should be more of a factor in the Sun Belt.
12. Charles Huff, Marshall
Previous Job: Running Backs Coach, Alabama
Huff takes over a Marshall program that won Conference USA’s East Division and earned a bowl trip for the seventh time in eight years last season. The Maryland native has been considered a rising star in the assistant ranks and bolstered his resume with a successful two-year stint at Alabama tutoring running backs for Nick Saban. Huff also has stops at Mississippi State, Penn State, Western Michigan, Howard, and in the NFL with the Bills. He’s regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation, which is especially crucial for a Marshall program that needs to tap out-of-state talent to build a roster every year. Huff doesn’t have head-coaching experience at the FBS level, but he’s been a successful assistant working under Saban and James Franklin and knows how to reel in and develop talent.
13. Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Previous Job: Tight Ends Coach, Oklahoma
Taking over an SEC job with no previous head-coaching experience is always a tough assignment, but Beamer seems ready for the challenge after gaining a wealth of knowledge from stints as an assistant at Georgia under Kirby Smart, Oklahoma under Lincoln Riley, and with his father Frank at Virginia Tech. Beamer also worked under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina from 2007-10 and was regarded for his efforts on the recruiting trail that eventually set the stage for the Gamecocks to win 33 games from 2011-13. The South Carolina native indicated this was his "dream job" at the introductory press conference, so there’s no doubt he wants to be in Columbia. Beamer has an impressive resume and was a popular pick among former players to replace Will Muschamp. The lack of head-coaching experience, combined with a program in need of a rebuild, is the biggest hesitation with this hire.
14. Terry Bowden, ULM
Previous Job: Graduate Assistant, Clemson
With a small budget and limited track record of success, ULM is one of the toughest jobs in college football. However, Bowden might be the coach to change the outlook in Monroe thanks to his recent experience with a tough job and limited resources in a state full of high school talent. From 2012-18, Akron went 35-52 under Bowden but went to two bowl games and finished with eight wins in ’15 – the best mark in program history. After his dismissal, Bowden worked for two years in a graduate assistant role at Clemson. Including his record at Akron, Bowden previously had successful head-coaching stints at North Alabama (2009-11), Auburn (1993-98), Samford (1989-92), and Salem (1983-85) to bring his overall mark as head coach to 175-114-2. The upside might not be high for Bowden at ULM. But his track record suggests the Warhawks will end up on much stable ground in 2021 and beyond.
15. Jedd Fisch, Arizona
Previous Job: Quarterbacks Coach, New England Patriots
Fisch has been a bit of a coaching nomad with stints at seven NFL teams and four college programs since 2001. The variety of jobs and locations or organizations have allowed Fisch to gain valuable experience, which will be needed as a first-time head coach at Arizona. The New Jersey native has Pac-12 experience from his stint at UCLA in 2017 but the other collegiate stops on his resume took place at Michigan, Minnesota and Miami. Fisch’s background on offense should play well in the Pac-12, and he’s assembled a good staff for 2021, including veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown. However, Arizona’s decision to pass on proven head coaches in favor of Fisch is curious considering he’s learning on the job as a first-time head coach, inheriting a program on a 12-game losing streak, and looking at an extended rebuilding effort.
(Steve Sarkisian photo courtesy of texassports.com)
Podcast: Ranking, Debating and Grading the 15 Head Coach Hires for 2021