The opening of three key SEC jobs this season -- Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee -- sparked debate within the Athlon office, and, it seems, through rabid SEC fans.
Which job is the most desirable?
It’s a loaded question, for sure. Tradition, resources, commitment, recruiting base, competition level and other perks and challenges all come into play.
Two years ago, we ranked every coaching job in the country in our preseason annual. Much has changed since then, not least of which conference affiliations.
We attempted to revisit the topic of ranking coaching jobs this year. We asked: Which jobs would have the greatest likelihood of yielding success within the next five years for the average coach?
Here are our rankings of the programs in this year’s coaching carousel. We’ll continue the exercise as more jobs open, but here’s the first look, with the three major SEC jobs near the top but behind a late-opening vacancy in Eugene, Ore.
Last three coaches: Chip Kelly (46-7), Mike Bellotti (116-55), Rich Brooks (91-109-4)
New coach: Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator
Pros: Starting with Rich Brooks' tenure, Oregon has completed a gradual rise from a moribund program in the Pac-8 to a national power. The Ducks have carved out a niche as one of the most innovative programs in the country, from cutting edge offense, to posh facilities and creative uniform combinations. Though Oregon isn’t a great state for recruiting talent, the Ducks have been able to pick up elite prospects from California while unearthing gems from Texas.
Cons: The cloud of an NCAA investigation into the Ducks’ relationship with recruiting scout Willie Lyles looms over the program. Oregon built itself into a perennial top-25 team in the early 2000s but didn’t arrive as a national title contender until USC was on probation. If USC (or UCLA, for that matter) return to form, what does that mean for the Ducks’ title prospects?
Last three coaches: Derek Dooley (15-21), Lane Kiffin (7-6), Phillip Fulmer (151-52-1)
New coach: Butch Jones, Cincinnati coach
Pros: Tennessee is in the second tier of SEC jobs after Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, but that’s still good enough to be one of the top 15 or 20 jobs in the country. The program’s been down, but it’s in better shape than when Derek Dooley took over, even if the on-field results didn’t show it. Three coaches in three seasons rocked the program’s stability, as did the defections from the 2009 signing class, many of whom would have been seniors this season. Despite rough times, the commitment from the administration and fans remains. The SEC East is still tough, but not as brutal as the West right now. The right coach could elevate the program in a hurry.
Cons: The new coach will have to deal with not being Jon Gruden, the candidate a vocal portion of the fanbase considered the Volunteers’ savior. Tennessee’s not a great state for high school talent, so the Vols have to beat Georgia and South Carolina for recruits on their home turf. Even Vanderbilt has become more of a factor in recruiting in recent seasons. Tennessee may not be in the SEC West, but its permanent crossover game is with Alabama, making the road to Atlanta that much tougher.
Last three coaches: John L. Smith (4-8), Bobby Petrino (37-14), Houston Nutt (75-48)
New coach: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin coach
Pros: Arkansas was right in the mix for SEC titles with Alabama and LSU until scandal cost Petrino his job. Razorbacks fans have long believed that is the rightful place for the Hogs, but history doesn’t say the same. Before Petrino, Arkansas had only one top-15 finish since 1989. Still, Arkansas is the biggest show in the state, and Petrino proved it can contend for a national title with the right coach.
Cons: The SEC West is brutal with Alabama, LSU and now Texas A&M operating at full strength. Arkansas must recruit Texas if it’s going to be an SEC contender. That task became more difficult since Texas A&M joined the league and enjoyed quick success.
Last three coaches: Gene Chizik (33-19), Tommy Tuberville (85-40), Terry Bowden (47-17-1)
New coach: Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State coach
Pros: Like most of the SEC jobs, Auburn is one with plenty of commitment and resources (read: money), a rabid fanbase ... and outsized expectations. The Tigers should be able to recruit in Alabama and Georgia as always, and Auburn can win and win big, too. The Tigers are two years removed from a national title, and have had five winning conference seasons in four different decades. In the SEC, only Georgia can say the same.
Cons: See the names of the last three coaches? All went undefeated. All ended up fired. Every SEC job has its pressures, but the job at Auburn seems to find some dramatic conclusion. Going toe-to-toe with Nick Saban hasn’t made the job any easier.
Last three coaches: Bret Bielema (68-24), Barry Alvarez (117-74-1), Don Morton (6-27)
New coach: Gary Andersen, Utah State coach
Pros: With three consecutive Rose Bowls, it’s never been better at Madison, but perhaps there was a feeling Wisconsin had topped out. For all the Badgers’ success, they’re a tiny step behind Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and an unsanctioned Penn State in prestige. The commitment is there and the athletic director, Alvarez, knows better than any what it takes to win at Wisconsin.
Cons: The Badgers don’t have the best recruiting base in Wisconsin, but they hit for a high average in scooping up the state’s top talent. The Badgers won their recent division title with help from NCAA sanctions at Ohio State and Penn State. With the Buckeyes and Michigan returning to elite levels, Wisconsin may have a tougher time reaching the Rose Bowl or better. Also, getting recruits from warmer climates always will be a challenge.
Last three coaches: Jeff Tedford (82-57), Tom Holmoe (16-39), Steve Mariucci (6-6)
New coach: Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech coach
Pros: Cal’s not the moribund program it was when Jeff Tedford took over. Even with sub-standard facilities, Tedford managed to bring in NFL-caliber talent. The long-awaited upgrades of the athletic center and Memorial Stadium have finally come to fruition. A public school with new facilities in a great location in California make this an attractive job.
Cons: The Bears just fired their all-time wins leader, so mid-level bowl games aren’t going to cut it anymore in Berkeley. The competition is as tough as its been in several years as rival Stanford and Oregon are among the national elite, UCLA is on the rise and sanctions have expired at USC. Cal can be a winner, but it may never be a consistent national power like USC or Oregon.
7. NC State
Last three coaches: Tom O’Brien (40-35), Chuck Amato (49-37), Mike O’Cain (41-40)
New coach: Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois coach
Pros: With a strong recruiting base in state and some of best facilities in the ACC (upgraded during the Amato era), it’s a surprise the Wolfpack have not been more successful. Doeren will walk into a winnable league even amid expansion. No ACC team has finished in the top 10 since 2009, and rival North Carolina is under NCAA sanctions. And NC State has already proven it can beat Florida State.
Cons: That strong recruiting base? Well, not much of it is going to NC State. Only a handful are even staying in state. And even if the ACC is winnable, NC State faces the tougher ACC division with Florida State and Clemson (and soon Louisville) in the Atlantic. Doeren will have to fight all the problems associated with a program being long-time underachiever.
8. Texas Tech
Last three coaches: Tommy Tuberville (20-17), Mike Leach (84-43), Spike Dykes (82-67-1)
New coach: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator
Pros: Texas Tech can be a consistent winner, no matter the coach. The Red Raiders have had only one losing season in the last 20 years. Mike Leach helped cultivated a unique identity for the Red Raiders as one of the the first major-conference homes for a pass-happy spread offense. As with any program in Texas, Tech will have a leg up in recruiting.
Cons: Speaking of recruiting, simply being in Texas is not a cure-all. Most of the state’s top prospects aren’t in West Texas. Like the rest of the Big 12, Texas Tech must win recruiting battles in Houston and Dallas to be successful. While Tech has a solid tradition of going to bowl games, conference titles have not been part of the mix. The Red Raiders have not won a share of a conference title since 1976, though Tech tied for a Big 12 South title with two other national title contenders in 2008.
Last three coaches: Butch Jones (23-14), Brian Kelly (34-6), Mark Dantonio (18-17)
New coach: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech coach
Pros: One of the top jobs remaining in the Big East, Cincinnati won at least a share of the conference title in four of the last five seasons. Ohio is a good state to recruit, and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky is a quality metro area. The Bearcats also have been able to successfully recruit the Southeast. The track record of recent coaches proves, for better or worse, it can be a good stepping stone job.
Cons: With Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse leaving the Big East, Cincinnati is near the top of the list of teams left out of conference expansion. Though Cincinnati is the No. 2 football program in the state, it’s a distant No. 2 to Ohio State. The Bearcats rarely will beat out the Buckeyes or other Big Ten squads for top Ohio talent. Facilities have improved over the years, but Nippert Stadium likely will one of the smallest venues in major college football.
Last two coaches: Skip Holtz (16-21), Jim Leavitt (95-57)
New coach: Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky coach
Pros: USF is going to lose more recruiting battles than it wins with Florida, Florida State and Miami, but the Big East can be won even on scraps from the Big Three in the Sunshine State. Heck, Louisville and West Virginia followed that strategy. A big public school in one of the three best recruiting states in the country shouldn’t struggle for talent. Even if the program has struggled to get over the hump, the chatter is that the Bulls job is a desirable one.
Cons: The Big East won’t be a major draw, and making matters worse, rival UCF is now a conference neighbor. In a depleted Big East, USF should be a strong contender to be the top ranked team in the “Group of Five” in BCS 2.0. But, then again, we often said USF “should” be a contender in the Big East, too.
Last three coaches: Jon Embree (4-21), Dan Hawkins (19-39), Gary Barnett (49-38)
New coach: Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State coach
Pros: Colorado has had pockets of success, with three different coaches winning at last 10 games since the 1990 national title. The state usually has a handful of top-flight prospects as well. The days of Colorado competing for a national title may be over, but with time, the Buffaloes could be a bowl contender again.
Cons: The program is a major rebuilding job as it was evident the Buffaloes lacked the talent to compete in the Pac-12. Colorado fired Embree after just two seasons, and athletic director Mike Bohn curiously detailed the various problems with the job, including “the erosion of the fan base and ... ticket sales.”
Last three coaches: Danny Hope (22-27), Joe Tiller (87-62), Jim Colletto (20-43-3)
New coach: Darrell Hazell, Kent State coach
Pros: Purdue went on a nice run under Joe Tiller, but the Boilermakers’ last Rose Bowl appearance was after the 2000 season. It may take a coach with a unique system -- as Tiller’s passing attack was in the late ‘90s and early 2000s -- to win big here.
Cons: Purdue is what it is. It won’t be the best job in the Big Ten, but it won’t be the worst, either. Indiana’s not a great state for football recruiting, but it’s a big public school with a solid fan base. A good coach can win here, but repeating Tiller’s run and his longevity might be tough.
Last three coaches: Joker Phillips (13-24), Rich Brooks (39-47), Guy Morriss (9-14)
New coach: Mark Stoops, Florida State defensive coordinator
Pros: Any SEC job has to be a good one, right? That’s true to an extent. A coach who can win in the SEC is usually in good shape career-wise. The expectations are just different at Kentucky. Winning seven or eight games and going 3-5 in the SEC is doable, and that’s good enough for UK.
Cons: The Wildcats may never have the talent or depth of division foes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina or Tennessee. They’ll have to win on ingenuity, either with an unorthodox scheme or unearthing enough recruits to compete. The coach here also will need to be prepared to be a distant second fiddle to basketball. And Louisville’s move to the ACC will be a curveball. The Cardinals and Wildcats fight over what few in-state prospect the Bluegrass State has. Louisville’s momentum and move out of the Big East may make the Cards more attractive.
Last three coaches: Doug Marrone (25-25), Greg Robinson (10-37), Paul Pasqualoni (107-59-1)
New coach: Scott Shafer, Syracuse defensive coordinator
Pros: The job is in much better shape than when Marrone took over after the disastrous Greg Robinson tenure. After years of languishing near the bottom of the Big East, Syracuse claimed a share of the conference title and defeated the league’s last two BCS participants. The program has great tradition, though nearly all of it before today’s recruits were born.
Cons: The move to the ACC is a positive, but Louisville and Pittsburgh can say the same. Beyond that, Rutgers may be the biggest winner in conference realignment with its move to the Big Ten. Syracuse must fight for the limited pool of top recruits in the Northeast, most of which live in New Jersey.
15. Boston College
Last three coaches: Frank Spaziani (22-29), Jeff Jagodzinski (20-8), Tom O’Brien (75-45)
New coach: Steve Addazio, Temple coach
Pros: Despite all the drawbacks for Boston College, the Eagles were consistent under Tom O’Brien and Jeff Jagodzinski thanks to their ability to locate and develop quarterback and offensive line talent. With Syracuse and Pittsburgh joining the ACC, Boston College won’t be on an island in the ACC anymore.
Cons: Lackluster fan interest, high academic standards and a locale more focused on the Patriots and Celtics make this one of the toughest jobs in the major conferences. Recruiting from the Northeast to compete with Florida State, Clemson and the Carolina schools is a tall order as well.
16. Southern Miss
Last three coaches: Ellis Johnson (0-12), Larry Fedora (34-19), Jeff Bower (118-84-1)
New coach: Todd Monken, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator
Pros: Mississippi’s a good state for talent, even in the lower tiers that fall to Conference USA. Before the winless season, Southern Miss had 18 consecutive winning seasons.
Cons: So far, Southern Miss has not received the call to the Big East while Conference USA foes Houston, SMU, UCF and Tulane all did. Perhaps that knocks the Eagles down a peg in the eyes of recruits.
17. Northern Illinois
Last three coaches: Dave Doeren (23-4), Jerry Kill (23-16), Joe Novak (63-76)
New coach: Rod Carey, Northern Illinois offensive coordinator
Pros: Do you think a trip to the Orange Bowl might help recruiting? Far from a one-year wonder, the Huskies have won at least 11 games in three consecutive seasons under two coaches. As one of the MAC’s homes for flashy offense, it’s going to be an attractive spot for recruits.
Cons: For a MAC team, not many. The last two coaches landed major conference jobs in three seasons or fewer.
18. Louisiana Tech
Last three coaches: Sonny Dykes (22-15), Derek Dooley (17-20), Jack Bicknell (43-52)
New coach: Skip Holtz, former USF coach
Pros: Louisiana Tech sits on a good recruiting base in Louisiana, though the Bulldogs have rarely pulled enough recruits to keep them consistently competitive. The program will move into Conference USA, which is a better geographic fit than being the Eastern-most program in the WAC and Big West over the years.
Cons: Ruston is a bit off the beaten path in Northern Louisiana. And thanks to the administration’s decision to decline a bowl bid this season, no Louisiana Tech coach since 1978 has gone to multiple bowl games.
Last three coaches: Chris Ault (233-109-1), Chris Tormey (16-31), Jeff Tisdel (23-22)
New coach: Brian Polian, Texas A&M special teams coordinator/tight ends coach
Pros: Nevada is enjoying its most successful period in program history with eight consecutive bowl games and a 13-1 season in 2010. The program has a certain cachet as offensive innovators as the program was the first to run the Pistol formation under Ault in 2005.
Cons: Ault is the only coach to win consistently at Nevada, leading the program on three separate stints. He’s a College Football Hall of Famer and the most important figure in team history, so Polian will be following a legend. The program operates at a lower budget than most of its Mountain West rivals and doesn’t sit on a great recruiting base.
Last three coaches: Steve Addazio (13-11), Al Golden (27-34), Bobby Wallace (19-71)
New coach: Matt Rhule, New York Giants assistant
Pros: This is not your father’s Temple program. The Owls were once so bad, the Big East kicked them out. They’re back in the league, but that may say as much about the Big East as Temple. Still, Al Golden gave the program steady footing starting in 2008. The roster is rebuilding, but winning in the Big East isn’t as tough as it was in Temple’s first go-round in the league. The new coach will hope for a trickle-down effect from scholarship limits at Penn State.
Cons: Golden was a program builder, and Addazio was the high-energy, tough coach Temple needed to keep momentum. So finding the right personality to keep it going will be tough. The Owls’ dreadful history isn’t that far in the past, either.
Last two coaches: Mario Cristobal (27-47), Don Strock (24-38)
New coach: Ron Turner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterbacks coach
Pros: FIU is a job on the rise, thanks to Cristobal’s clean-up job. The talent level is better and the academics are in order. Meanwhile, FIU sits on a great talent base where even the second- and third-level prospects can compete. A move to Conference USA is also in the future.
Cons: The second- and third-tier South Florida recruits don’t necessarily fall to FIU and the like. The Golden Panthers are still a distant No. 2 to Miami in fan support (and even further down the line if you count pro sports and Florida and Florida State). There’s also skepticism about an athletic department that fired a Miami native who reached back-to-back bowl games in 2010-11 and turned down Big East opportunities just a year ago.
22. Western Michigan
Last three coaches: Bill Cubit (51-47), Gary Darnell (46-46), Al Molde (62-47-2)
New coach: P.J. Fleck, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant
Pros: Western Michigan never had a truly awful season under Cubit but never won the MAC, either. There’s little reason Western Michigan can’t have a quick turnaround as Central Michigan, Toledo, Kent State and Northern Illinois have had in recent years.
Cons: The road to the MAC title game will be tough with division foes Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ball State all playing at high levels.
23. Arkansas State
Last three coaches: Gus Malzahn (9-3), Hugh Freeze (10-3), Steve Roberts (45-63)
New coach: Bryan Harsin, Texas offensive coordinator
Pros: A middling Sun Belt program has been elevated with back-to-back conference championships under two coaches. The right coach should be able to keep the momentum.
Cons: Arkansas doesn’t have the talent depth of other Sun Belt schools in Louisiana and Alabama. Arkansas State remains in the league despite FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas getting the call to Conference USA. Being the fourth coach in four seasons in Jonesboro also brings its challenges.
24. Western Kentucky
Last three coaches: Willie Taggart (16-20), David Elson (39-44), Jack Harbaugh (91-68)
New coach: Bobby Petrino, former Arkansas coach
Pros: Western Kentucky had a successful history in Division I-AA, which gives it an edge over startups programs at the Sun Belt/Conference USA level. The Hilltoppers also remain a candidate to move up to C-USA.
Cons: Taggart elevated the program to Sun Belt contender in the last two seasons, but it remains to be see if the program can sustain its success at the FBS level.
Last three coaches: Mike Price (48-61), Gary Nord (14-34), Charlie Bailey (19-53-1)
New coach: Sean Kugler, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach
Pros: Not a whole lot. UTEP has had seven consecutive losing seasons since Mike Price went 16-10 in his first two years.
Cons: UTEP can claim the Texas recruiting base, but Houston and Dallas aren’t exactly a stone’s throw from El Paso.
26. San Jose State
Last three coaches: Mike MacIntyre (16-21), Dick Tomey (25-35), Fitz Hill (14-33)
New coach: Ron Caragher, San Diego coach
Pros: The Spartans are moving to the Mountain West next season and have access to a good recruiting base in California.
Cons: San Jose State is way down the line of programs scooping up California talent and has been traditionally one of the worst programs in the FBS, despite MacIntyre’s 10-2 effort.
27. Kent State
Last three coaches: Darrell Hazell (16-9), Doug Martin (29-53), Dean Pees (17-51)
New coach: Paul Haynes, Arkansas defensive coordinator
Pros: Hazell proved the program could be elevated to the top of the MAC. The program has momentum and a strong Ohio recruiting base.
Cons: Despite this season’s success, Kent State has reached only two bowl games in its history. The other was in 1972 under legendary Washington coach Don James. Sliding back into mediocrity is a strong possibility here.
28. Utah State
Last three coaches: Gary Andersen (26-24), Brent Guy (9-38), Mick Dennehy (19-37)
New coach: Matt Wells, Utah State offensive coordinator
Pros: With back-to-back bowl appearances and 18 wins season in the last two seasons, Utah State has more momentum than ever in its history. For the first time, there’s a commitment to winning in Logan. Once lumped with Idaho and New Mexico State as the toughest jobs out West, Utah State will move to the Mountain West, giving the job more appeal.
Cons: This is not a program with a deep tradition of winning, though Andersen and John L. Smith have won with the Aggies. Recruiting always will be a difficulty as will the challenge of being the third most prominent program in the state after Utah and BYU.
29. Georgia State
Last coach: Bill Curry (10-23)
New coach: Trent Miles, Indiana State
Pros: The infant program will join the Sun Belt in 2013, and there are worse places to recruit than Atlanta.
Cons: Playing in front of sparse crowds in the Georgia Dome only reinforces the of the program is starting from scratch.
30. New Mexico State
Last three coaches: DeWayne Walker (10-40), Hal Mumme (11-38), Tony Samuel (34-57)
New coach: Doug Martin, offensive coordinator (interim)
Pros: Few. It’s a warmer climate than fellow WAC castoff Idaho.
Cons: The Aggies haven’t been to a bowl game since 1960 and have had only two winning seasons since 1992. New Mexico State is without a conference affiliation and can’t even claim in-state bragging rights as Bob Davie has started turning New Mexico around.
Last three coaches: Robb Akey (20-50), Dennis Erickson (4-8), Nick Holt (5-18)
New coach: Paul Petrino, Arkansas offensive coordinator
Pros: Idaho is an FBS head coaching job.
Cons: No conference affiliation. No recruiting base. No tradition. Off-the-field headaches. How does that sound?