Cincinnati's Luke Fickell is on the rise in the AAC coach rankings after leading the Bearcats to 11 wins last season
The American Athletic Conference features an interesting mix of coaches for the 2020 season. Coaching veterans like Tulane's Willie Fritz and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo rank near the top of the conference, with rising stars in Cincinnati's Luke Fickell and UCF's Josh Heupel also in contention for a spot in that tier. Houston's Dana Holgorsen looks to rebound after a 4-8 record in his debut, while the AAC features two new coaches in Memphis' Ryan Silverfield and USF's Jeff Scott. East Carolina's Mike Houston is a rising star to watch in the coming years.
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 AAC 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 the AAC:
Ranking AAC's College Football Coaches for 2020
11. Ryan Silverfield, Memphis
Silverfield has big shoes to fill in replacing Mike Norvell as the head coach at Memphis in 2020. After recording six losing seasons from 2009-13, the Tigers enter this fall with six consecutive trips to a bowl game and 30 wins over the last three years. Norvell built off what Justin Fuente established from 2012-15 and continued to elevate Memphis into an annual contender in the AAC. Silverfield spent the last four seasons tutoring the Tigers’ offensive line and had stints in the NFL with the Vikings (2009-13) and Lions (2015) before working under Norvell. Silverfield’s tenure got off to a solid start with a good showing in the Cotton Bowl loss to Penn State, but the bar is set high for this first-time head coach in 2020.
10. Jeff Scott, USF
Scott was instrumental in helping to lift Clemson into national title contender status on an annual basis. And it’s unlikely the former Clemson receiver will rank near the bottom of this coaching list in future seasons. Scott is considered a rising star after his successful stint in Death Valley. From 2008-19, he worked with the program’s wide receivers and was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in 2015. While Scott wasn’t the primary play-caller, he helped to shape one of the nation’s top attacks and consistently developed playmakers on the outside. Scott is a native of Florida and was regarded for his ability to work the recruiting trail at Clemson. Those strengths should pay off in the talent-rich state over the next couple of seasons.
9. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Tulsa was better than its 4-8 record suggested in 2019, but the four-win campaign left Montgomery’s overall mark at 25-37 going into the ’20 season. After posting a 16-10 record through his first two years (2015-16), the Golden Hurricane are only 9-27 over Montgomery’s last three seasons. Additionally, Tulsa has not played in a bowl since 2016. Montgomery is regarded for his work on offense after successful stints as an assistant at Houston and Baylor. However, the Golden Hurricane have finished eighth or lower in the AAC in scoring offense in each of the last three years. The 2020 season will be an important one for Montgomery to show the program is trending in the right direction.
8. Mike Houston, East Carolina
Houston is likely to move up this list in future seasons. The North Carolina native guided East Carolina to a 4-8 mark in his debut last fall, but the program showed clear signs of improvement late in the 2019 campaign. Prior to arriving in Greenville, Houston went 37-6 and won an FCS title at James Madison from 2016-18. He also guided The Citadel to a 14-11 record from 2014-15 and went 29-8 at Lenoir-Rhyne from 2011-13. Houston is 84-33 overall as a head coach.
7. Rod Carey, Temple
Carey’s first season in Philadelphia was a success. Temple started the 2019 campaign with two wins over Power 5 teams – Maryland and Georgia Tech – and also earned a 30-28 upset over Memphis in mid-October. Additionally, all four of the team’s regular-season losses – Buffalo, SMU, UCF and Cincinnati – came against bowl teams. Carey came to Temple after going 52-30 at Northern Illinois from the 2012 bowl season to the end of ’18. Under Carey’s watch, the Huskies had eight or more wins in five out of his six years at the helm.
6. Sonny Dykes, SMU
SMU took a big step forward in Dykes’ second year at the helm. After going 5-7 in his debut in 2018, the Mustangs finished 10-3 and spent time in the top 25 rankings last fall. The arrival of Texas transfer Shane Buechele at quarterback was instrumental in SMU’s improvement, as the offense averaged 41.8 points a game – up from 30.4 the previous year. Dykes – a native of Texas – previously went 19-30 at California from 2013-16 and 22-15 at Louisiana Tech from 2010-12. He’s 56-56 overall as a head coach at the FBS level and has SMU poised for another winning mark in 2020.
5. Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Holgorsen’s first year at Houston didn’t go according to plan. The decision by quarterback D’Eriq King to redshirt and eventually transfer was a significant setback for a team looking to contend for the AAC title. Fast-forward to 2020 and Holgorsen is banking on the arrival of a handful of transfers to improve on defense, while the offense has enough firepower to take a step forward after a 4-8 mark last year. Holgorsen arrived at Houston after guiding West Virginia to a 61-41 record from 2011-18. The Mountaineers had just one losing season under Holgorsen’s direction and posted two double-digit win totals. Holgorsen is a good fit at Houston and his track record suggests the 2019 campaign was probably just a one-year blip before leading improvement over the next couple of seasons.
4. Josh Heupel, UCF
Heupel took over after Scott Frost guided UCF to a 13-0 record in 2017. While the bar was set high, the Knights haven’t missed a beat with Heupel at the helm. UCF is 22-4 overall and has just two losses in AAC play with Heupel on the sidelines. The program has also finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll in back-to-back years. It’s no secret Heupel’s background is on offense after working a coordinator during stints at Oklahoma, Missouri and Utah State. That acumen has been on display in Orlando, as UCF is only one of six teams to average at least 40 points in back-to-back seasons (2018-19).
3. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Fritz has been a consistent winner at every coaching stop and at different levels of competition in his career, so it’s no surprise Tulane is trending up entering the 2020 season. After a 9-15 start to his tenure in New Orleans, the Green Wave have posted back-to-back seven-win campaigns and played in consecutive bowl games for just the second time in program history. Fritz started his head-coaching career with a stint at Blinn College (1993-96) and was hired at Central Missouri in ’97. In 13 years at the helm, Fritz guided Central Missouri to 10 winning records and no season of fewer than five victories. He left for Sam Houston State in 2010 and proceeded to guide the program to four winning seasons, including back-to-back trips to the FCS title game (2011-12). Fritz went 17-7 at Georgia Southern from 2014-15 and was instrumental in helping the program transition to the FBS level. Look for Fritz to keep moving Tulane in the right direction in 2020 and beyond.
2. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Cincinnati is emerging as one of the top Group of 5 programs thanks to Fickell’s efforts over the last three years. The Ohio native took over prior to the 2017 season and finished 4-8 in his debut. However, the Bearcats improved significantly the following year, recording an 11-win season and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. Cincinnati also finished in the top 25 for the first time since 2011. Fickell guided the program to another 11-win mark last season, which also included an AAC East Division title and a trip to the conference title game. Fickell is 26-13 overall at Cincinnati and also has a 6-7 mark on his resume as Ohio State’s interim coach in 2011. The next step for Fickell: Win the AAC and go to a New Year’s Six bowl in 2020.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
1. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Niumatalolo’s place atop the AAC coach rankings was cemented in 2019. After a 3-10 record in 2018 – just the program’s second losing season in his tenure – Navy rebounded to an 11-2 record and finished No. 20 in the final Associated Press poll. Niumatalolo was promoted to head coach prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl and has 10 seasons of seven or more victories over the last 12 years. Additionally, of the five double-digit win totals at Navy, three have come under Niumatalolo’s direction. With a 98-60 mark going into 2020, Niumatalolo is the winningest coach in program history.
(Top photo courtesy of Cincinnati Bearcats Football Facebook page)
Podcast: Ranking the Group of 5 Coaches for 2020