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Ranking College Football's Best and Worst Coaching Hires for 2012


The college football coaching carousel was busy in the offseason, as 28 programs changed hands. Here’s how we rank the new hires:

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Previous Job: College football analyst, ESPN

Pros: Meyer boasts an incredible 104–23 record as a head coach in stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. His teams are 60–18 in conference play, and he has led two teams to a national title (’06 Florida, ’08 Florida) and another to an undefeated season (’04 Utah).

Cons: Meyer’s tenure at Florida didn’t end on the best note. He resigned in December 2009, citing health reasons, but changed his mind the next day. His 2010 Gators struggled on offense and limped to an 8–5 record (4–4 in the SEC). Meyer stepped down once again in December 2010.

Final Analysis: This is a tremendous hire. Ohio State is very fortunate that Meyer was available as basically a free agent the year in which it was looking for a new coach. If Meyer’s health is not an issue and his batteries are recharged, there is little doubt that he will win Big Ten championships during his time in Columbus.

2. Mike Leach, Washington State

Previous Job: College football analyst, CBS Sports

Pros: Leach won at a high level at Texas Tech, compiling an overall record of 84–43 and a mark of 47–33 in the Big 12 in 10 seasons. His offenses were consistently among the most explosive in college football.

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Cons: Leach comes with some baggage — though no one is quite sure just how much. There has to be a reason so many schools passed on him in the past two years, right?

Final Analysis: This is an absolute home run hire for Washington State, which has really struggled to compete in the league over the past five years. With a well-deserved reputation as one of the top offensive coaches in the game, Leach will be able to attract top-flight talent at the skill positions to Pullman. It will be difficult for Wazzu to out-recruit rivals Washington and Oregon on a consistent basis, but the Cougars will at least be relevant with Leach running the ship.

3. Terry Bowden, Akron

Previous Job: Head coach, North Alabama

Pros: Bowden has a fantastic record in 18 seasons as a head coach at Division III Salem (19–13), Division I-AA Samford (45–23–1), Auburn (47–17–1) and Division II North Alabama (29–10). He is very well known nationally and will be able to attract talent to Akron. Bowden spent the 1986 season — his only year as a full-time assistant coach at any level — as the quarterbacks coach at Akron.

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Cons: Bowden hasn’t coached in the FBS (or Division I-A) ranks since 1998, when he was forced out at Auburn after a 1–5 start.

Final Analysis: Bowden is a proven commodity who brings instant credibility to a program that has slipped to the bottom of the MAC food chain. He will get quality players — don’t be surprised if Akron becomes a popular destination for transfers — and win plenty of games. Great hire by Akron.

4. Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Auburn

Pros: Malzahn is regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. Auburn struggled this past season, but Malzahn’s four previous offenses — two at Auburn and two at Tulsa — finished seventh, 16th, first and first nationally.

Cons: Malzahn’s lack of head coaching experience in the collegiate ranks might have been considered a negative had he jumped to a BCS conference job, but not so at Arkansas State.

Final Analysis: Malzahn was reportedly in the running for the top job at Kansas and North Carolina. Didn’t happen — for various reasons. Rather than return to Auburn for another season, he opted to accept Arkansas State’s offer to succeed Hugh Freeze. This is quite the coup for the Red Wolves, who will be favored to repeat as champs of the Sun Belt.

5. Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Wisconsin

Pros: Chryst has been one of the top offensive coordinators in college football over the past nine seasons, two at Oregon State and the past seven at Wisconsin. The Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense in each of the past three years.

Cons: Chryst has never been a head coach on any level.

Final Analysis: It’s been a tumultuous time at Pittsburgh, which fired an alum (Dave Wannstedt) and hired three head coaches (Mike Haywood, Todd Graham and Chryst) in a 13-month period. In the end, however, things have worked out for the Panthers. The highly respected Chryst appears to be an ideal fit. His offenses have been built around power running attacks and efficient quarterback play — a recipe that should work well at Pittsburgh.

6. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

Previous Job: Head coach, Houston

Pros: Sumlin compiled a 35–17 record (24–8 C-USA) in four seasons at Houston, and did so in entertaining fashion. The Cougars averaged 42.6 points on Sumlin’s watch and led the nation in total offense twice and ranked second once. This will be his second stop in College Station (offensive coordinator in 2001-02).

Cons: It’s tough to poke holes in Sumlin’s résumé, but it is worth noting that his record at Houston was 3–6 in games in which Case Keenum did not play (ACL injury in ’10).

Final Analysis: Sumlin was the obvious choice for Texas A&M after the school made the decision to cut ties with Mike Sherman. Nothing is a given in the world of college football, but it’s tough to envision Sumlin not enjoying success as the boss in College Station.

7. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

Previous Job: College football analyst, CBS Sports Network

Pros: Rodriguez enjoyed a tremendous seven-year run as the head coach at West Virginia, compiling a 60–26 record and doing so with some of the most exciting offenses in the nation. He also succeeded (43–28–2, seven years) at Glenville (W.Va.) State, an NAIA school in West Virginia.  

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Cons: Rodriguez struggled to win games at Michigan, a school where it’s hard not to win. He went 15–22 overall and 6–18 in the Big Ten, the worst three-year stretch at the school since the mid-1930s. Rodriguez has had minor issues with the NCAA at both stops as a head coach at the FBS level. Also, he has not coached out West, and most of his coaching staff does not have experience in the Pac-12 — something that could hurt recruiting.

Final Analysis: This is a very important hire by Arizona AD Greg Byrne, who served as a one-man committee. RichRod has some baggage — struggled at Michigan plus NCAA issues — but he is a very good coach who will play an exciting brand of football. This is a solid hire.

8. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

Previous Job: Head coach, Arkansas State

Pros: Freeze enhanced an already strong résumé by leading Arkansas State to its first-ever Sun Belt title in his only season as the head coach. He also did an outstanding job in his only year as the Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator (2010), and had a 20–5 mark in two seasons as the head coach at Lambuth College, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn.

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Cons: Freeze has only four years of experience in FBS football, two with Ole Miss (2006-07) and two with Arkansas State (2010-11).

Final Analysis: Freeze is a Mississippi native who is a perfect choice to take on the difficult task of making Ole Miss football a consistent winner in the brutal SEC West. The sample size of his work isn’t large, but he has been very successful at every stop.

9. Larry Fedora, North Carolina

Previous Job: Head coach, Southern Miss

Pros: Fedora was successful in his tenure at Southern Miss, with an overall record of 34–19 and a 20–12 mark in Conference USA. Prior to becoming a head coach, he was a highly regarded offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State.

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Cons: Fedora won a bunch of games at USM, but the 22 wins in his first three seasons were actually one fewer than the 23 that Jeff Bower won in his final three years at the school.

Final Analysis: North Carolina has been unable to enjoy sustained success since Mack Brown bolted for Texas in 1997. Butch Davis recruited at a high level but never lost fewer than five games in his four seasons in Chapel Hill. Fedora looks like a great fit at North Carolina — but so did Davis before him and John Bunting before Davis.

10. John L. Smith, Arkansas

Previous Job: Head coach, Weber State

Pros: Smith knows the Arkansas program very well. He was on staff as the special teams coordinator from 2009-11 before leaving (for only four months) to serve as the head coach at his alma mater, Weber State. He has 18 years of head coaching experience.

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Cons: Smith is a bit on the eccentric side, which is fine when things are going well. It will be interesting to see how he handles himself if this team faces some adversity.

Final Analysis: At first, this seemed to a be a curious hire. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Arkansas, with a veteran roster, is built to win now. Smith knows the players and he knows most of the coaches. There should be a seamless transition. The Hogs will no doubt miss Bobby Petrino the playcaller, but in the short term they might not miss Petrino the program CEO.  

11. Jim McElwain, Colorado State

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Alabama

Pros: McElwain spent the last four seasons on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama and was a part of two national championship teams. He is highly respected by his peers and has plenty of experience coaching out West, with stops at Eastern Washington, Montana State and Fresno State.

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Cons: McElwain has no experience, on any level, as a head coach.

Final Analysis: Colorado State, once the premier program in the Mountain West, won exactly three games in four of the past five seasons. That is not acceptable. McElwain’s charge is to add some spice to an offense that ranked 97th or worse in scoring in each of the past three seasons. He wasn’t the sexiest hire of the offseason, but he is a solid coach who should have this program more competitive in the near future.

12. Tim Beckman, Illinois

Previous Job: Head coach, Toledo

Pros: Beckman did a very good job in his three seasons at Toledo, with an overall record of 21–16 and a 17–7 mark in the MAC (including 14–2 in the final two years). And while Toledo is consistently one of the top programs in the league, the Rockets had suffered through three straight losing seasons prior to Beckman’s arrival. He was also a successful defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State (2007-08) and a position coach (cornerbacks) at Ohio State (’05-06).

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Cons: This is being a bit picky, but Beckman’s clock management down the stretch of Toledo’s 63–60 loss at home to Northern Illinois in November was highly questionable. That game ended up costing the Rockets the MAC West title.

Final Analysis: Beckman fits the profile of a Big Ten coach: He’s been a head coach in the MAC, a coordinator in a BCS league and a position coach in the Big Ten. He wasn’t the most exciting hire of the offseason, but Beckman looks to be the right guy at the right time for Illinois football.

13. Garrick McGee, UAB

Previous Job: Quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator, Arkansas

Pros: McGee spent the past four seasons under the tutelage of Bobby Petrino, one of the top offensive coaches in the nation. While Petrino called plays for the Hogs, McGee was heavily involved in the game plans, and he coached two outstanding quarterbacks in Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson.

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Cons: McGee has never been a head coach on any level.

Final Analysis: McGee made the somewhat surprising career move in 2007 to leave his position as the offensive coordinator at Northwestern to be a position coach at Arkansas. Turned out to be a wise move. He was elevated to the coordinator position after two seasons and landed his first job as a head coach two years later. UAB is a difficult job, with very little fan support and very poor facilities, but the school is located in a fertile recruiting area. McGee will enjoy some success if he can identify — and sign — the best players in the state who aren’t quite good enough to play in the SEC.

14. Matt Campbell, Toledo

Previous Job: Offensive line coach, offensive coordinator, Toledo

Pros: Campbell did an outstanding job in his three seasons as the Rockets’ offensive coordinator. Toledo ranked eighth in the nation in scoring in 2011 and averaged 51.0 points in its final six games. He is young, energetic and reputed to be one of the top recruiters in the MAC.

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Cons: Youth is a good thing in the world of coaching, but Campbell is only 32 years old, and his coaching staff is among the youngest in the nation.

Final Analysis: It’s a bit of a gamble to hire someone so young and so inexperienced, but this is a gamble that is likely to pay off for UT. Campbell is a bright offensive coach who will keep the momentum headed in the right direction at Toledo.

15. Todd Graham, Arizona State

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Previous Job: Head coach, Pittsburgh

Pros: Graham is 20 games over .500 (49–29) in six seasons as a head coach — at three different programs. In 2006, he took a Rice team that had gone 1–10 the year before to the school’s first bowl game since 1961. He has had only one losing season as a head coach.

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Cons: Graham has bolted after one year twice in his relatively short career as a head coach, leaving Rice after the 2006 season for Tulsa and Pitt in 2011 for Arizona State. This reputation as a program-hopper could hurt recruiting. Also, he has had high turnover among his staff in previous stops. 

Final Analysis: Graham was crucified by the national media for leaving Pittsburgh after one year, but the guy is a pretty good coach. Pitt struggled in 2011 (6–6 overall), but Graham didn’t have the type of personnel needed to succeed in his spread attack. He might not be the most well-liked man in coaching, but he should be able to win consistently at a school that has underachieved over the past two decades.

16. Jim Mora, UCLA

Previous Job: NFL Analyst, FOX

Pros: Mora brings name recognition from his two stints as a head coach in the NFL — Atlanta (2004-06) and Seattle (2009). He is a high-energy guy who hired an outstanding coaching staff that has already shown the ability to recruit well.

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Cons: Mora has one season of experience in the collegiate ranks, as a graduate assistant at Washington in 1984.

Final Analysis: UCLA went outside the box on this hire after its attempt to land Boise State’s Chris Petersen failed. Mora’s lack of experience in college football is a concern, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome. As stated, he has surrounded himself with very good assistant coaches who will help make his transition smoother. Bottom line: Mora is a good coach and UCLA appears to be a solid fit for him. The guess here is that this will be remembered as an outstanding hire.

17. Justin Fuente, Memphis

Previous Job: Co-Offensive coordinator, TCU

Pros: Fuente spent the previous five years working for Gary Patterson, one of the top coaches in the game. He is young — 36 when the season starts — and will bring some much-needed positive energy into the Memphis program. Unlike his predecessor, Larry Porter, Fuente has previous experience as a coordinator, having served as the primary play-caller at TCU the past three seasons.

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Cons: He has no experience as a head coach.

Final Analysis: After enjoying decent success under Tommy West, Memphis took several large steps backward during the two-year Larry Porter era. Fuente has a very difficult job, but he appears to be an ideal fit. He lacks experience, but he is very well respected and has a strong pedigree. Memphis has finally made a financial commitment to football — Fuente will be given every opportunity to succeed.

18. Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State

Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, Texas A&M

Pros: DeRuyter has been an effective defensive coordinator at four stops over the past decade. He inherited a unit at Texas A&M that ranked 105th in the nation in 2009 and had the Aggies ranked 55th and 59th in his two seasons — while playing in the high-powered Big 12.

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Cons: DeRuyter has never served as a head coach on any level.

Final Analysis: Pat Hill did great things at Fresno State, but it was time for a divorce after 15 seasons. DeRuyter, a California native who was educated at the Air Force Academy, is the ideal coach to take over as the program moves from the WAC to the more competitive MWC.

19. Charley Molnar, Massachusetts

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, Notre Dame

Pros: Molnar has 28 years of experience in the collegiate ranks, including 11 as an offensive coordinator. He has spent the past six seasons with Brian Kelly — one at Central Michigan, three at Cincinnati and two at Notre Dame. He is very familiar with the MAC, UMass’ new league, having coached at Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Kent State and Eastern Michigan.

Cons: Molnar has been a full-time assistant since 1989, working at 10 different schools. Only once has he been a coordinator at a BCS conference school, and that was at Notre Dame, where he didn’t call the plays.

Final Analysis: UMass was one of the elite FCS programs in the mid-2000s, but the Minutemen have missed the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. Molnar’s job will be to keep UMass competitive as it migrates to the MAC East. With 11 years of experience in the league, as well as several other stops in the Midwest, he appears to be a solid choice to lead the Minutemen into a new era.

20. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss

Previous Job: Assistant head coach, defense, South Carolina

Pros: Johnson is a highly regarded defensive coach who is fresh off a successful four-year run at South Carolina. He has also been the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, Alabama, Clemson, Southern Miss and Appalachian State. Johnson has four years of experience as a head coach at two different schools (Gardner-Webb, 1983 and The Citadel, 2001-03).

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Cons: Johnson’s staff isn’t exactly comprised of young up-and-comers. The head coach is 60 years old, and defensive coordinator Tommy West is 58.

Final Analysis: Johnson gets his first shot at an FBS head coaching position at one of the top jobs in Conference USA. In his previous stint as a head coach, Johnson struggled early but went 6–6 in his third year at The Citadel — one of only three non-losing seasons at the school since 1997. This hire isn’t overly exciting, but Johnson is a solid football coach who will likely do well in Hattiesburg.

21. Curtis Johnson, Tulane

Previous Job: Wide receivers coach, New Orleans Saints

Pros: Johnson was regarded as an outstanding recruiter during his 10 years (1996-2005) as the receivers coach at Miami (Fla.). He has experience coaching at the highest level of the collegiate ranks and also has spent six seasons in the NFL.

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Cons: Johnson has no experience as a head coach or a coordinator.

Final Analysis: Tulane is one of the more difficult jobs in the nation. Support is extremely low, and the school lacks tradition. There was talk of building an on-campus stadium, but that hit a snag over the winter. This program needs an influx of talent. Johnson should be able to recruit well, which will give him a better chance to succeed than his predecessor.

22. Charlie Weis, Kansas

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Florida

Pros: Despite his lack of success as the head coach at Notre Dame, Weis is still regarded as one of the top offensive minds in football. He should be able to attract quality skill players to Kansas, which has had only one player earn either first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors on the offensive side of the ball in the past two seasons.

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Cons: Weis struggled at Notre Dame, with a 35–27 record in five seasons (16–21 in his final three years). And it’s obviously much easier to win at Notre Dame than Kansas. Also, Florida struggled mightily on offense in 2011 (105th in the nation), Weis’ lone season as the Gators’ coordinator.

Final Analysis: Kansas went to a BCS bowl as recently as 2007, but the program is now clearly the worst in the Big 12. The school wanted to make a splash with this hire. Mission accomplished. But was it a good hire? Time obviously will tell, but it’s difficult to envision a coach who was five games under .500 in his final three season at Notre Dame winning consistently at Kansas.  

23. Bill O’Brien, Penn State

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, New England Patriots

Pros: O’Brien brings a solid résumé to Penn State. He spent 12 years in the ACC (eight at Georgia Tech, two at Maryland and two at Duke) and the past five in the NFL, working for Bill Belichick.

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Cons: He has no experience as a head coach — not ideal for someone who is taking over for Joe Paterno on the heels of one of the biggest scandals in college football history. In his two years as an offensive coordinator at Duke (’05-06), the Blue Devils went 1–22. Also, other New England assistants — Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Josh McDaniels — have not fared well as head coaches.

Final Analysis: Penn State’s decision to turn to O’Brien has been widely criticized, by media and fans. But let’s be honest: The pool of candidates interested in taking over in Happy Valley was not overwhelming. O’Brien’s job will not be easy: The product on the field has been rather ordinary in recent seasons, and the Penn State brand has been greatly tarnished. He will need time to rebuild and prove that he was the right man for the job.

24. Tony Levine, Houston

Previous Job: Special teams coordinator, tight ends coach, Houston

Pros: Levine has been a highly regarded assistant coach who has worked for some quality head coaches — Kevin Sumlin (Houston), Bobby Petrino (Louisville) and Tommy Tuberville (Auburn) — and spent time as an assistant in the NFL. He is well-liked by the Houston players and plans on keeping many of the same offensive schemes in place.

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Cons: Has only one game of experience as a head coach — a 30–14 win over Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl — and zero time spent as an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level.

Final Analysis: Houston AD Mack Rhoades is a well-respected administrator, but this was a curious hire. It’s a mighty big jump from coaching special teams to being a CEO of an FBS program. Houston has been a consistent winner in Conference USA under Art Briles and Sumlin; the program cannot afford to take a step back as it heads to the Big East in 2013. UH is putting its eggs in an unproven basket.

25. Kyle Flood, Rutgers

Previous Job: Assistant head coach, offensive line coach, Rutgers

Pros: Flood is a native of Queens who has spent the past seven seasons on Greg Schiano’s staff at Rutgers. He was a part of six bowl teams at Rutgers, and he consistently produced quality offensive linemen. Flood is also regarded as an outstanding recruiter.

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Cons: Flood has basically been a position coach in each of his 19 seasons as an assistant. He has had the title of co-offensive coordinator (Rutgers ’09-10) and run game coordinator (Rutgers ’07), but has never been the primary play-caller.

Final Analysis: It’s never a good time to lose a head coach, but Schiano’s decision to leave Rutgers came at a really bad time — the week before National Signing Day. The school made a run at FIU’s Mario Cristobal before turning to Flood, a trusted assistant who would make the transition as easy as possible. On that front, Flood and his staff should be commended for keeping the majority of the Scarlet Knights’ recruiting class intact. Now, they will have to prove they can get the job done on the field.

26. Norm Chow, Hawaii

Previous Job: Offensive coordinator, Utah

Pros: Chow is a Hawaii native who has a reputation as one of the top quarterback coaches in the nation. He served on LaVell Edwards’ staff for 27 years and was the offensive coordinator at USC during the vacated-championship years of the Pete Carroll era.

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Cons: The numbers don’t necessarily back up the popular view that Chow is an elite offensive coach. In each of his last four seasons as an offensive coordinator (2011 at Utah and ’08-10 at UCLA), his teams ranked 109th, 100th, 88th and 111th in the nation in total offense. Chow is the oldest — he will be 66 in the fall — of the 28 new head coaches in the FBS ranks

Final Analysis: Chow is an overrated offensive coordinator who did not land his first job as a head coach until his 40th season in the profession. His background in the state of Hawaii is a plus, but this move does not appear to be a step up from Greg McMackin.

27. Bob Davie, New Mexico

Previous Job: College football analyst, ESPN

Pros: Davie has five years of head coaching experience at Notre Dame. He also has recruiting ties in Texas, one of New Mexico’s primary areas of focus.

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Cons: Davie has been out of coaching since 2001, when he was fired as Notre Dame head coach. The Irish were 19–16 in his final three seasons, with a losing mark in both 1999 (5–7) and 2001 (5–6).

Final Analysis: This is a puzzling hire. I’m not sure why the New Mexico administration believes that a coach who could not win consistently at Notre Dame — more than a decade ago — will be able to build a winner at New Mexico. Glen Mason, the former head coach at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota, was reported to be a finalist. He might not have been the sexiest hire, but at least Mason did well (relatively) at all of his stops as a head coach. 

28. Carl Pelini, Florida Atlantic

Previous Job: Defensive coordinator, Nebraska

Pros: Pelini played a key role in Nebraska’s transformation from one of the worst defensive teams in the nation (112th in ’07) to one of the best (seventh in ’09, 11th in ’10).

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Cons: Pelini doesn’t have the most impressive résumé, having spent only four of his 25 years in coaching as a full-time assistant at a BCS conference school. He coached in the high school ranks for 12 years and served as a defensive line coach in the MAC before being hired by his brother, Bo, in 2008. 

Final Analysis: This hire was a bit uninspiring. Pelini is a Midwest guy who has never coached south of the Mason-Dixon line and has no ties to the state of Florida. He was successful as a defensive coordinator, but he worked for a defensive-minded head coach; you never know just who to credit for a unit’s success in those situations. One other cause for concern: Pelini didn’t get off to great start with a few local high school coaches when he failed to honor some previous verbal commitments.

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