Ranking the coaches in Conference USA is never easy, but there's no debate at the top. UAB's Bill Clark is the unquestioned No. 1 coach for 2020, and the gap between Clark and the league's other coaches could grow if the Blazers win their second C-USA title in three years this fall. Coaching veterans Butch Davis (FIU), Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech), and Doc Holliday (Marshall) headline the next group. Charlotte's Will Healy ranks No. 5, but the middle of the league is difficult to rank. North Texas' Seth Littrell, FAU's Willie Taggart and WKU's Tyson Helton have a case for the No. 6 spot.
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 the Conference USA:
Ranking Conference USA's College Football Coaches for 2020
14. Dana Dimel, UTEP
Dimel inherited a UTEP program with just one winning season since 2006. However, over the last two years, the Miners are 2-22 and won only one contest in Conference USA play. UTEP’s only victory in 2019 came against FCS opponent Houston Baptist, and 10 of its 11 defeats came by more than nine points. This stint in El Paso marks Dimel’s third as a head coach at the FBS level. He went 22-13 at Wyoming from 1997-99 and finished 8-26 at Houston from 2000-02.
13. Jeff Traylor, UTSA
Traylor has extensive ties to the state of Texas from his time as an assistant and head coach in the high school ranks. He’s also gained valuable experience at the FBS level thanks to stops at Texas (2015-16), SMU (2017), and Arkansas (2018-19) and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. However, the jump from high school coach and assistant to FBS head coach is a big one. Traylor spent 15 years as the head coach at Gilmer High School (2000-14) and went 175-26 with five state titles.
12. Ricky Rahne, Old Dominion
With a prime location in a fertile recruiting territory, Old Dominion is a job with plenty of potential. Rahne hopes to elevate this program after Bobby Wilder took the Monarchs to one bowl trip since moving to full-time FBS status in 2014. Rahne – a former quarterback at Cornell – arrives in Norfolk after spending the last nine years (2011-13 Vanderbilt and 2014-19 at Penn State) working under James Franklin. After working with quarterbacks (2014-15) and tight ends (2016-17) in Happy Valley, Rahne was promoted to play-caller in 2018. Under Rahne’s direction, the Nittany Lions averaged 33.8 points a contest in his debut, followed by a 35.8 mark in ’19. In addition to stints at Vanderbilt and Penn State, Rahne worked as a full-time assistant at Cornell (2005) and at Kansas State (2007-10). This will be his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.
11. Mike Bloomgren, Rice
Rice is a tough job, but Bloomgren has made steady progress over the last two years. The Owls went 2-11 in his debut (2018) and finished 3-9 last fall. Although Rice is just 5-20 under Bloomgren, the program was more competitive in 2019, as four of its losses came by one score, and the team finished 2019 on a three-game winning streak. The Florida native spent time as an assistant with the Jets (2007-10) before landing on Stanford’s staff under David Shaw in 2011. Bloomgren coached the offensive line from 2011-17 and also worked as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2013-17.
10. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Hopson came to Southern Miss after a successful four-year run at Alcorn State. The Mississippi native went 32-17 with the Braves from 2012-15 and won at least nine games in each of the last three seasons. Hopson has led Southern Miss to four consecutive winning records and has a 28-22 overall mark going into 2020. Additionally, the Golden Eagles have three bowl trips and a 20-12 record in Conference USA since 2016. Hopson has been solid, but can he elevate the program into conference titles on a consistent basis? That’s the big question going into his fifth season in Hattiesburg.
9. Tyson Helton, WKU
Helton’s first season in Bowling Green got off to a rocky start thanks to a 35-28 loss to Central Arkansas in the season opener. However, the Hilltoppers quietly rebounded the following week against FIU (20-14) and won eight out of their last 10 games to finish with a 9-4 mark. Helton’s 2019 stint was his second opportunity as a coach at WKU, as he spent the 2014-15 years as an assistant on Jeff Brohm’s staff. He also worked at Hawaii (2001-03), Memphis (2004-06), UAB (2007-12), Cincinnati (2013), USC (2016-17), and Tennessee (2018) as an assistant. With 15 returning starters, Helton’s team could be the frontrunner to win Conference USA’s East Division in 2020.
8. Willie Taggart, FAU
After a 9-12 start to his tenure, Taggart was dismissed from Florida State in just his second year on the job. Taggart wasn’t out of work long, as he takes over at FAU after Lane Kiffin left to be the head coach at Ole Miss. The Owls have won two out of the last three Conference USA titles, so Taggart isn’t inheriting a program in need of major repair. While Taggart’s stint at Florida State didn’t work out, he was successful in a three-year run at his alma mater Western Kentucky and during a four-year stretch at USF. After a 2-10 debut with the Hilltoppers, Taggart went 14-10 over his final two seasons. The Bulls started 6-18 but finished 18-7 in Taggart’s last 25 games. Additionally, Taggart went 7-5 in his only year at Oregon (2017). Overall, Taggart is 56-62 as a head coach at the FBS level.
7. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Stockstill ranks among the longest-tenured coaches in college football. After stints as an assistant at Clemson, East Carolina and South Carolina, Stockstill landed the top spot at Midde Tennessee prior to the 2006 campaign. The Blue Raiders went to a bowl in his first year and capped the ’09 season with 10 wins and a New Orleans Bowl victory. Middle Tennessee has been to five bowl games over the last seven years but has not won more than eight games in that span. Stockstill’s overall mark sits at 91-86 going into the 2020 season, and there’s pressure to rebound after a 4-8 mark – the program’s lowest win total since 2011 – this fall.
6. Seth Littrell, North Texas
After back-to-back nine-win seasons (2017-18), the Mean Green slipped to 4-8 last fall. Despite the disappointing 2019 campaign, Littrell is still 27-25 since taking over in Denton prior to 2016. North Texas has played in three bowls under Littrell’s watch and won Conference USA’s West Division title in 2017. Prior to taking over in Denton, Littrell was a highly-regarded assistant thanks to stops at Texas Tech (2005-08), Arizona (2009-11), Indiana (2012-13), and North Carolina (2014-15). With Littrell at the controls, expect the Mean Green to bounce back in 2020 and 2021.
5. Will Healy, Charlotte
At age 35, Healy is one of college football’s youngest coaches and also a coach on the rise for 2020 season. After working as an assistant at Chattanooga from 2009-15, Healy was hired as Austin Peay’s head coach in 2016. The Governors won just one game in the three years prior to Healy’s arrival. After an 0-11 record in 2016, Healy guided the program to an 8-4 mark in ’17 and a 5-6 record in ’18. After guiding major improvement at Austin Peay, Healy was hired as the head coach at Charlotte after the 2018 season. The 49ers are a young football program but did not have a winning record in their six seasons on the gridiron. Healy quickly changed the program’s fortune. Charlotte finished 7-6 in his debut and the program went to its first bowl game (Bahamas). Healy is 20-27 overall in four years as a head coach.
4. Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday enters 2020 ranked second in Marshall’s program history with 78 overall victories. Since taking over as the head coach in 2010, the Thundering Herd have just three losing seasons and have played in seven bowl games. Marshall won 23 games from 2013-14, including the 2014 Conference USA title and a No. 23 overall finish in the final Associated Press poll. Additionally, the Thundering Herd have just one losing record (2016) in Conference USA play since 2010. Holliday is a native of West Virginia and coached with the Mountaineers from 1983-99 and again from 2008-09.
3. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Holtz has been a model of consistency since taking over at Louisiana Tech prior to the 2013 season. The Bulldogs finished 4-8 in Holtz’s debut but have won at least seven games in each of the last six years. The program has won at least nine in four of those seasons, including a 10-3 mark last year. The 10-win campaign was the highest win total for the program at the FBS level. Holtz has also guided Louisiana Tech to six consecutive bowl victories. He previously went 16-21 at USF (2010-12), 38-27 at East Carolina (2005-09), and 34-23 at UConn (1994-98). Including the 56-36 mark at Louisiana Tech, Holtz is 144-107 overall as a collegiate head coach.
2. Butch Davis, FIU
Davis has guided FIU to new heights since taking over in 2017. For the first time in program history, the Panthers have played in three consecutive bowl games. Additionally, FIU’s 17 wins from 2017-18 set a school record for the most in a two-year stretch. Davis is 23-16 overall in Miami and has elevated the Panthers into a consistent contender for bowl games (or more) in Conference USA. The Oklahoma native previously went 51-20 at Miami from 1995-2000 and finished 28-23 over four years at North Carolina from 2007-10. Davis’ overall record at the FBS level sits at 102-59 going into the 2020 season.
1. Bill Clark, UAB
Clark enters the 2020 season as arguably the best coach in the Group of 5 ranks. The Alabama native inherited a program that won just five games in the two years prior to his arrival in 2014. The Blazers showed marked improvement that season, notching a 6-6 record – the program’s first non-losing mark since 2004. However, the program was shut down for two years, forcing Clark to rebuild from scratch in 2017. UAB returned with a fury in ’17, as the program won eight games – the most in school history at that point – and earned a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. A year later, Clark topped the 2017 campaign with an 11-3 mark, Conference USA title and a win over Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl. Despite losing a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, UAB won Conference USA’s West Division and finished with nine victories in 2019. Clark’s overall record at UAB is 34-19 and the program has yet to record a losing mark under his watch. Just how big of an impact has Clark had on the program? Consider this: The Blazers have just seven seasons of six or more victories since 1996. Four of them have come under Clark’s tenure. Counting an 11-4 year at Jacksonville State in 2013, Clark is 45-23 overall as a head coach.
(Photo of Bill Clark courtesy of UABSports.com)