FAU's Lane Kiffin takes the top spot in the C-USA coach rankings
With Lane Kiffin at FAU, Butch Davis at FIU, Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech and Bill Clark at UAB, Conference USA has a deep collection of coaches at the top of the league. Kiffin takes the No. 1 spot on this list after guiding the Owls to a C-USA title last fall, while Clark led the Blazers to an 8-5 record in the program’s return to the gridiron. Marshall’s Doc Holliday, MTSU’s Rick Stockstill, North Texas’ Seth Littrell and Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder round out the next tier of coaches. Conference USA has two new coaches for the 2018 season. Dana Dimel was hired to take over at UTEP, while Mike Bloomgren replaces David Bailiff at Rice.
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 Conference USA 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 Conference USA:
Ranking Conference USA's College Football Coaches for 2018
14. Brad Lambert, Charlotte
Lambert was the first coach for Charlotte’s football program and helped the 49ers transition to the FBS level over the last five years. However, Charlotte is just 17-41 under Lambert’s watch and has yet to record a winning record. After posting a 4-8 mark in 2016, the 49ers slipped to 1-11 last fall and lost to FCS opponent North Carolina A&T. Building a program from scratch is never easy. However, with a new athletic director in place, Lambert needs to show big progress in order to return in 2019.
13. Dana Dimel, UTEP
UTEP’s decision to hire Dimel came as a surprise, but the veteran coach brings a wealth of experience to El Paso. After his playing career at Kansas State concluded in 1986, Dimel worked with the program as a graduate assistant until 1988. He was promoted to assistant coach with the Wildcats in 1989 and eventually became the program’s offensive coordinator in 1995. Dimel was hired at Wyoming to replace Joe Tiller in 1997 and went 22-13 in three years with the Cowboys. He left to take over at Houston in 2000 but was dismissed following an 8-26 record over three seasons. After a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Kansas State (2005) and three years at Arizona (2006-08), Dimel returned to Kansas State as the program’s offensive coordinator. Dimel was able to maximize his talent with the Wildcats, and his background on this side of the ball is crucial for a team that averaged only 11.8 points a game in 2017.
12. Mike Bloomgren, Rice
Rice is one of college football’s toughest jobs, and as a first-year coach, Bloomgren will have his hands full with a roster that went 1-11 last fall. However, Bloomgren has experience working with a program under strict academic standards. After all, he worked from 2011-17 at Stanford, including the last five seasons as the program’s offensive coordinator. Prior to joining David Shaw’s staff at Stanford, Bloomgren worked as an assistant with the Jets from 2007-10. Bloomgren has never been a head coach before and will need a few seasons to rebuild the program.
11. Mike Sanford, WKU
With successful stops as an assistant at WKU, Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame, along with experience working under head coaches like David Shaw, Willie Taggart, Bryan Harsin and Brian Kelly, Sanford was considered one of college football’s top coaches on the rise prior to 2017. The Virginia native also inherited a team coming off back-to-back Conference USA championships, which set the bar high for 2017. Inconsistent offensive line play and a lack of a rushing attack prevented WKU from repeating its success of the previous two seasons, as Sanford’s debut ended with a 6-7 record. While last year didn’t meet preseason expectations, the Hilltoppers have plenty of young talent in the program to provide optimism for 2018 and beyond.
10. Frank Wilson, UTSA
Wilson was widely regarded as one of college football’s top recruiters prior to taking over at UTSA in 2016. The Louisiana native spent time as an assistant at Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Tennessee and LSU and also had a successful stint as a high school coach in New Orleans, allowing him to build connections throughout the Southeast. The Roadrunners finished 6-7 and claimed the program’s first bowl bid in Wilson’s first year (2016) and finished 6-5 last fall. UTSA is 12-12 through two seasons under Wilson. The Roadrunners are a threat to get back to the postseason once again in 2018, and Wilson’s work on the recruiting trail should start to pay off in the near future.
9. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
With extensive ties to the state of Mississippi, Hopson seemed like the perfect fit to take over the program in 2016. Through two years, that line of thinking seems to be on track. Southern Miss is 15-11 and has earned two bowl appearances under Hopson’s watch. After finishing 4-4 in Conference USA play in 2016, the Golden Eagles improved to 6-2 in league action last fall. Prior to Southern Miss, Hopson went 32-17 as Alcorn State’s head coach from 2012-15. He also has previous stops as an assistant at Marshall, Southern Miss, Ole Miss, Michigan and Memphis.
8. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Having Wilder ranked No. 8 in Conference USA is a good indicator of how deep this league is with head coaches. After the football program was dormant for over 60 years, Old Dominion returned to the gridiron in 2009. Wilder was instrumental in building the program from scratch, as well as transforming the Monarchs into a team that was capable of being competitive right away. Old Dominion went 9-2 in 2009 and finished 8-3 the following year. Wilder guided the Monarchs to back-to-back FCS Playoff bids from 2011-12, before the program used the 2013 campaign to reclassify to the FBS level. Old Dominion went 6-6 in its FBS debut and finished 10-3 to earn the program’s first bowl trip in 2016. The Monarchs are 72-37 under Wilder’s direction.
7. Rick Stockstill, MTSU
Stockstill enters 2018 ranked sixth among longest-tenured coaches at the FBS level. The former Florida State quarterback is 79-72 since taking over at MTSU in 2006 and has guided the program to seven bowl trips in that span. The Blue Raiders have not had a losing record since 2011 and have finished at least .500 (or better) in C-USA play in each of the last five seasons. Winning the East Division and a C-USA title is the next step for Stockstill at MTSU. Prior to taking over in Murfreesboro, Stockstill worked as an assistant at South Carolina, East Carolina and Clemson.
6. Seth Littrell, North Texas
North Texas has showed marked improvement through Littrell’s first two years on campus. After the Mean Green finished 1-11 in 2015, Littrell guided the program to a 5-8 record in 2016. Thanks to a high APR score, North Texas earned a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, losing to Army in overtime. Littrell’s encore in Denton was even better than his debut. The Mean Green finished 9-5 overall and 7-1 in C-USA play, winning the West Division and earning a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. Before taking over at North Texas, Littrell had stops as an assistant at North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona and Texas Tech. He’s also regarded as one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Group of 5 ranks.
5. Doc Holliday, Marshall
After the lowest win total (three) in Holliday’s tenure, Marshall rebounded to 8-5 overall and a 4-4 mark in league play last season. The eight-win campaign allowed the Thundering Herd to earn their fifth bowl trip under Holliday, improving his overall mark in Huntington to 61-42. Marshall has three seasons of at least 10 victories under Holliday, including a 13-1 mark in 2014. Holliday was known as an ace recruiter prior to his stint with the Thundering Herd and has spent time at West Virginia, NC State and Florida as an assistant. With Holliday at the helm, Marshall is a threat every year to win Conference USA’s East Division.
4. Butch Davis, FIU
Davis made a big splash in his first year with FIU. The Panthers finished 8-5 overall and 5-3 in league play in 2017, while also earning the third bowl berth in program history. The eight-win season represented a four-game jump in victories from the previous year. Success in the South Florida area is nothing new for Davis. From 1995-00, he guided Miami to a 51-20 record, including an 11-1 mark in 2000. Davis left Miami for a chance to coach in the NFL. He went 24-35 and earned one playoff appearance with the Browns from 2001-04. Davis returned to the collegiate sidelines at North Carolina in 2007. Under his watch, the Tar Heels went 28-23 and posted three consecutive winning records from 2007-10. However, due to an NCAA investigation surrounding the program, Davis was dismissed prior to the 2011 season. The Oklahoma native was never implicated in the investigation. Davis has FIU on the right track and inked the No. 1 recruiting class in Conference USA for 2018 by the 247Sports Composite.
3. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech’s streak of nine-win seasons was snapped at three last fall, but Holtz’s program is poised to rebound and contend for the C-USA West Division title in 2018. The Bulldogs finished 7-6 last year but claimed a bowl victory over SMU to finish out the season. Louisiana Tech is 4-0 in bowl trips, has two West Division titles (2014 and 2016) and is 38-28 overall under Holtz’s direction. Holtz has three previous head coaching jobs on his resume. He went 34-23 at UConn from 1994-98 and guided East Carolina to a 38-27 mark from 2005-09. The Pirates won two Conference USA titles under Holtz’s watch. He later went 16-21 at USF from 2010-12. Holtz is 126-99 overall as a head coach.
2. Bill Clark, UAB
UAB’s return to the gridiron was one of college football’s best storylines from the 2017 season. However, Clark and his staff ensured it was more than just a good story. The Blazers finished 8-5 – the program’s highest win total – and earned a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. After a promising 6-6 record in 2014, UAB’s program was disbanded from 2015-16. While the staff could recruit and develop players once the program was restarted, getting to a bowl game and delivering eight wins in 2017 (after a two-year absence) was worthy of Clark being in the national discussion for coach of the year honors. The Alabama native also spent one year (2013) as Jacksonville State’s head coach, delivering an 11-4 record and a FCS playoff trip. As the 2017 season showed, Clark is one of the top Group of 5 coaches in the nation. And with better facilities on the way and momentum on his side, UAB is going to be an even bigger factor in Conference USA’s West Division.
1. Lane Kiffin, FAU
FAU’s first season under Kiffin was a huge success. The Owls improved their win total by eight games from the previous year, claimed the Conference USA title thanks to a 41-17 victory over North Texas and defeated Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. Additionally, FAU finished the season with a 10-game winning streak. As expected, Kiffin’s offense was prolific. The Owls averaged 40.6 points and nearly 500 yards a game last year. From 2014-16, Kiffin worked as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won one national championship and ranked among the SEC’s best in scoring offense in Kiffin’s three years in Tuscaloosa. Prior to Alabama, Kiffin went 7-6 at Tennessee (2009) and 28-15 at USC (2010-13). The Kiffin-at-FAU experiment was high on intrigue last season. As evidenced by Kiffin’s one year at the helm, the Owls will once again be must-see football throughout the 2018 campaign.