The American Athletic Conference has been home to some of college football’s top rising stars in the head coaching ranks in recent years, and the league is filled with intriguing names once again for 2018. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo takes the top spot for the second year in a row, with Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Tulane’s Willie Fritz rounding out the top three. USF’s Charlie Strong checks in at No. 4, with Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery at No. 5. UCF’s Josh Heupel and SMU’s Sonny Dykes are the league’s only new coaches for 2018. However, outside of Niumatalolo and Montgomery, no coach has worked at his current job for more than three consecutive years (2015-17).
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
How did we compile the rankings for the American Athletic Conference coaches? For starters, it’s an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky.
Every team has a different variety or built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the career biography to this point are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for American Athletic Conference:
Ranking the AAC's College Football Coaches for 2018
12. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina
The 2018 season will be a critical one for Montgomery. East Carolina is just 6-18 overall and has only three wins in conference play in his two seasons at the helm. Additionally, of the Pirates’ nine losses last year, only one came by seven points or less. For East Carolina to show marked improvement in Montgomery’s third season, fixing a defense that allowed 45 points a game in 2017 is a must. Also, Montgomery must break in a new quarterback after Gardner Minshew left the program as a graduate transfer. Montgomery has some excellent mentors in his coaching career, as he spent from 2006-09 and from 2013-15 working under David Cutcliffe at Duke. He also had a three-year stint with the Steelers and Mike Tomlin from 2010-12.
11. Josh Heupel, UCF
Heupel has one of the toughest jobs for any first-year coach in 2018. Not only is Heupel replacing Scott Frost – one of college football’s rising stars in the coach ranks – he’s also taking over a program that went 13-0 last season. Needless to say, the bar is set high in Year 1 for Heupel. The South Dakota native takes over in Orlando after spending two years as Missouri’s offensive coordinator. Under Heupel’s watch, the Tigers averaged over 30 points a game in both seasons, including a 37.5 mark that led the SEC in 2017. However, Missouri only averaged only 18 points a game against teams with a winning record last year. Prior to Missouri, Heupel worked as the offensive coordinator at Utah State in 2015 and had a previous stint at Oklahoma from 2006-14. This is Heupel’s first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.
10. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
As an Ohio native and a former Ohio State assistant, Fickell was the right hire to lead the Cincinnati program. The Bearcats finished 4-8 in Fickell’s debut last fall, but there is optimism for the future. Cincinnati inked the AAC’s No. 1 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite, and there’s enough returning talent on both sides of the ball to expect improvement in the win column this fall. Prior to taking over at Cincinnati, Fickell worked as an assistant at Ohio State from 2002-04 and was promoted to co-coordinator in 2005. He remained in that role until 2011 and spent that season as the program’s interim coach after Jim Tressel's resignation. Fickell returned to the co-defensive coordinator role in 2012 and held that title until he left for Cincinnati.
9. Major Applewhite, Houston
Applewhite was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after Tom Herman left for Texas after the 2016 season. Applewhite – a former Texas quarterback – coached the Las Vegas Bowl in 2016 and went 7-5 in his first full year at the helm. The Cougars finished second in the AAC West with a 5-3 mark but four of the program’s losses came by six points or less. Prior to his tenure at Houston, Applewhite worked as an assistant at Syracuse, Rice, Alabama and with his alma mater. With Ed Oliver back for one more season, along with the emergence of quarterback D’Eriq King, Applewhite should have the Cougars in the mix to win the AAC West in 2018.
8. Randy Edsall, UConn
Edsall’s return to UConn didn’t result in a significant jump in wins in his first season, but there were some signs of progress. The Huskies averaged 23.6 points a game – up from 14.8 in 2016 – and lost two contests by three points or less. UConn is probably a year away from contending for a bowl game, but Edsall will have a full offseason to implement his program, which should allow the Huskies to build on last year’s small progress. This is Edsall’s second stint in Storrs, as he previously went 74-70 from 1999-10. During that run, UConn won the Big East title in 2010 and played in four consecutive bowl games from 2007-10. Edsall left for Maryland prior to the 2011 campaign and went 22-34 over four-plus seasons with the Terrapins. He’s 99-113 overall as a head coach.
7. Geoff Collins, Temple
Collins had a tough assignment in his first year at the helm. Not only was the program breaking in new schemes, Temple had to replace several key players from its 2016 AAC title team, leading to an early transition period for the new coaching staff. The Owls started 3-5 but finished the 2017 campaign by winning four out of their last five games, including the Gasparilla Bowl over FIU. The late-season surge should give Collins plenty to build on in 2018, as the Owls could be the biggest threat to UCF in the AAC East. Prior to taking over at Temple, Collins worked as the defensive coordinator at Florida, Mississippi State and FIU and spent a year in an off-field role at Alabama in 2007.
6. Sonny Dykes, SMU
Dykes is back on the sidelines in a full-time role after a one-year absence. With most of SMU’s staff following Chad Morris to Arkansas, Dykes decided to coach SMU in the bowl game against Louisiana Tech, as the Mustangs lost 51-10 in the Frisco Bowl. In 2017, Dykes worked in an off-field analyst role with TCU, which came one season after he was dismissed at California. From 2013-16, Dykes led the Golden Bears to a 19-30 record and one bowl appearance (2015). Prior to California, Dykes went 22-15 at Louisiana Tech (2010-12) and led the program to a 9-3 record in 2012. Dykes also has stops in his career as an assistant at Kentucky, Texas Tech and Arizona. As a Texas native, Dykes is certainly familiar with what it takes to win and how to recruit in the Lone Star State. Additionally, his high-powered offense should be a good fit at SMU.
5. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Montgomery enters his fourth year at Tulsa looking to get the program back on track following a 2-10 record in 2017. While last season’s two-win campaign came as a surprise, the Golden Hurricane are just a year removed from winning 10 games in 2016. Additionally, the program showed marked improvement in Montgomery’s first year at the helm in 2015. Tulsa finished 2-10 in Bill Blankenship’s final season but improved its win total by four games, finishing 6-7 in Montgomery’s debut in 2015. Prior to Tulsa, Montgomery worked as the co-offensive coordinator at Houston (2005-07) and Baylor (2008-14). He’s considered one of the top offensive minds in the Group of 5 ranks, helping Tulsa’s 2016 unit average 42.5 points a game.
4. Charlie Strong, USF
Following a disappointing three-year run at Texas, Strong returned to the state of Florida to replace Willie Taggart at USF. The Bulls fell short against UCF in an epic 49-42 thriller in Orlando last season but still finished 10-2 overall and claimed a victory in the Birmingham Bowl. USF wasn’t quite as dominant as some predicted, yet still ranked No. 21 in the final Associated Press poll. Strong has connections to the Sunshine State from previous stints at Florida (1988-99, 1991-93 and 2003-09) and will have no trouble attracting talent to Tampa. He previously went 37-15 as Louisville’s coach from 2010-13, including 23 wins over his final two years in charge. Strong went 16-21 at Texas but is a better fit at USF and should keep this program near the top of the AAC in 2018.
3. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Tulane just missed on a bowl game in Fritz’s second season at the helm last fall, but five-win 2017 campaign was another sign this program is headed in the right direction. And considering Fritz’s track record, it won’t be long (likely 2018?) before the Green Wave returns to the postseason and turns some of the close losses – eight by 10 points or less over the last two years – into victories. Fritz is 9-15 overall and 4-12 in AAC play since coming to New Orleans. Prior to Tulane, Fritz went 17-7 at Georgia Southern (2014-15), 40-15 at Sam Houston State (2010-13) and 97-47 at Central Missouri (1997-09). Fritz has won consistently at a high level at all three of his previous head coaching jobs prior to Tulane. The Green Wave is in good hands with the Kansas native guiding the program in 2018 and beyond.
2. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Norvell inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Justin Fuente in 2016, but Memphis hasn’t missed a beat over the last two years. Under Norvell’s direction, the Tigers are 18-8 overall. Memphis finished 10-3 last fall – just the program’s second season of double-digit victories – and claimed the AAC West Division title. The Tigers fell short of an upset bid against UCF in the conference title game last year, losing 62-55 in double overtime. Before taking over for Fuente at Memphis, Norvell worked under Todd Graham at Tulsa (2007-10), Pitt (2011) and Arizona State (2012-15). In addition to his success as a head coach and assistant, Norvell is known for producing high-powered offenses. The Tigers averaged 45.5 points a game last season, up from 38.8 in 2016.
1. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach after Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech at the end of the 2007 season. Since then, the Hawaii native has reeled off 84 wins over the last 10 years, which is the most by a head coach in Navy history. Under Niumatalolo’s direction, the Midshipmen have played in nine bowl games over the last 10 seasons. Additionally, Navy only has one losing record during that span. Niumatalolo guided the program through a transition period into the American Athletic Conference, and as expected, the level of success hasn’t changed. The Midshipmen won 11 games and finished No. 19 nationally in 2015 and claimed the AAC West Division title in 2016 with a 9-5 record overall.