Ohio has been a model of consistency under Frank Solich’s watch, so it’s no surprise the veteran coach takes the top spot in Athlon’s MAC coach rankings for 2018. Solich is 97-71 since taking over the Bobcats in 2005 and is 155-90 overall in his coaching career. Toledo’s Jason Candle and Northern Illinois’ Rod Carey are next in the rankings, with Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Akron’s Terry Bowden and Miami’s Chuck Martin rounding out the next tier for 2018.
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 the MAC 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 MAC:
Ranking the MAC's College Football Coaches for 2018
12. Sean Lewis, Kent State
At 31 years old, Lewis will be the youngest coach at the FBS level in 2018. While the Illinois native is short on experience, this is the right hire for a Kent State program that has just two winning seasons since 1988. Lewis began his coaching career in the collegiate ranks at Nebraska-Omaha in 2010 and spent one year at Akron as a graduate assistant (2011). He landed on Dino Babers’ staff at Eastern Illinois for two seasons (2012-13) and followed Babers to jobs at Bowling Green (2014-15) and Syracuse (2016-17). Lewis held the co-offensive coordinator title with the Orange for each of the last two years. Even though Lewis will need time to get acclimated as a head coach, the style of play and experience working under Babers should allow the Illinois native to help Kent State improve over the next few years.
11. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green
With a 6-18 record through two years at Bowling Green, Jinks is facing a critical 2018 campaign. The Falcons have posted back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2010-11 and have claimed only five MAC victories in that span. Jinks came to Bowling Green after a three-year stint at Texas Tech coaching running backs. Prior to Texas Tech, Jinks worked in the high school ranks at a couple of different stops, including as a head coach at Steele (2006-12) and Luther Burbank (2005). Jinks inked two of the MAC’s top recruiting classes in 2017-18, but the results on the field have to improve in 2018.
10. Mike Neu, Ball State
Neu’s tenure at his alma mater is difficult to evaluate. The Cardinals went 4-8 in Neu’s debut in 2016 but lost six games by 10 points or less. Any hope of exceeding the four-win campaign quickly dissipated last fall. Ball State was hit hard by injuries at quarterback and running back, which dropped the team to a 2-10 record in Neu’s second year at the helm. Prior to Ball State, Neu worked as an assistant with the Saints (2014-15) and at Tulane (2012-13). He also had a stint as a head coach in the Arena League with the New Orleans VooDoo, going 33-31 over four seasons from 2004-08. Considering the significant injuries last year, Neu’s 2018 team is likely to rebound in the win column and provide a better glimpse of where this program stands in his third season at the controls.
9. Tim Lester, Western Michigan
After Western Michigan finished 13-1 and earned a trip to the Cotton Bowl under P.J. Fleck in 2016, the first-year expectations were high for Lester. However, due to an injury to quarterback Jon Wassink and three losses by seven points or less, the Broncos missed out on a bowl and finished 6-6 in Lester’s debut. The former Western Michigan quarterback returns 12 starters for 2018, so there’s optimism about a rebound year in Kalamazoo this fall. Prior to Western Michigan, Lester worked as an assistant at Syracuse and Purdue and worked as a head coach at Saint Joseph’s (2004) and Elmhurst (2008-12).
8. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
Considering Eastern Michigan might be the toughest job in the nation, Creighton has a strong argument to rank higher on this list. The Eagles are 15-34 since Creighton took over in 2014 but went 7-6 in 2016 – the program’s first winning record since 1995 – and earned the second bowl trip in school history. Eastern Michigan slipped to 5-7 last fall but lost six games by seven points or less. Prior to his tenure in Ypsilanti, Creighton went 42-22 at Drake from 2008-13, 63-15 at Wabash from 2001-07 and 32-9 at Ottawa from 1997-00.
7. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
After a 16-year stint in the NFL as a special teams coach, Bonamego was hired at his alma mater to replace Dan Enos prior to the 2015 season. The Chippewas are 21-18 during Bonamego’s three years at the helm and finished second in the MAC West with a 6-2 mark in league play last season. Additionally, Central Michigan has earned a bowl trip in all three years under Bonamego’s watch.
6. Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)
Martin appeared to have Miami (Ohio) on the verge of a breakout season in 2017. The RedHawks finished 2016 by winning six out of their final seven games and earned the program’s first bowl trip since 2010. The momentum from 2016 was expected to carry into '17, but an injury to quarterback Gus Ragland prevented Miami from reaching its potential. The RedHawks finished 5-7, losing five games by eight points or less. While Martin’s overall record is just 16-33 in Oxford, he inherited a program in need of major repair and has made progress over the last four years. Prior to taking over at Miami, Martin worked as an assistant at Notre Dame and went 74-7 as the head coach at Grand Valley State from 2004-09.
5. Terry Bowden, Akron
The Zips were the MAC’s biggest surprise last fall, winning the MAC East and reaching the program’s second bowl bid in three years. Bowden’s steady leadership is a big reason why Akron has improved in recent seasons. Prior to Bowden’s arrival in 2012, the Zips won only two games from 2010-11. However, Akron has not won less than five games since 2013, and the 8-5 mark in 2015 was the program’s highest win total. Also, of the three bowl games reached in school history, two of those have come under Bowden’s watch. Prior to taking over at Akron, Bowden went 29-9 at North Alabama (2009-11) and also had previous stints at Auburn (47-17-1), Samford (45-23-1) and Salem (19-13). Bowden’s career record stands at 171-106-2 entering the 2018 season.
4. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
The Bulls are 13-23 through Leipold’s three years in charge, but the program is on the verge of a breakout year in 2018. Buffalo finished 5-7 in 2015, followed by a 2-10 record in ’16. However, the Bulls took a big step forward last fall, finishing 6-6 and losing all six games by 10 points or less. Last year’s six wins were even more impressive when you consider Buffalo was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries. Prior to taking over at Buffalo, Leipold guided Wisconsin-Whitewater to a 109-6 record from 2007-14. During that stint, the Warhawks won six Division III titles and made the playoffs in seven out of eight years under Leipold’s watch. The jump from Division III to FBS required an adjustment period, but Leipold has Buffalo poised to contend in the MAC East this fall.
3. Rod Carey, Northern Illinois
Carey has picked up where his predecessor Dave Doeren left off at Northern Illinois, winning 44 games over the last five seasons. The Huskies slipped to 5-7 in 2016 but rebounded to 8-5 last year and could be the favorite to win the MAC West in 2018. Carey guided Northern Illinois to three consecutive MAC title games from 2013-15, with a conference title over Bowling Green in 2014. Prior to taking over as the program’s head coach, Carey worked under Doeren as an assistant in 2011-12 and also had stops on his resume from Illinois State and North Dakota.
2. Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle is a rising star in the FBS head coach ranks and has guided Toledo to a 21-7 record since taking over after Matt Campbell departed for Iowa State prior to the 2015 bowl game. In his first full season at the helm, Candle guided the Rockets to a 9-4 record and a trip to the Camellia Bowl in 2016. Last season, Toledo finished 11-3 and claimed the program’s first MAC title since 2004. Candle is also one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Group of 5 ranks, as his offense averaged 36.4 points a game last fall. In addition to his stint at Toledo, Candle also worked on Mount Union’s staff from 2003-08.
1. Frank Solich, Ohio
Consistent success might be the best way to sum up Solich’s tenure at Ohio. Since taking over in 2015, Solich is 97-71 with the Bobcats and has guided the program to eight bowl appearances over the last nine years. Ohio is also 64-40 in MAC play under Solich and has not had a losing record since 2008. Solich is also the MAC’s longest-tenured coach, and his 13 years at the helm ranks fourth among active FBS coaches. The next step for Solich? Win a MAC title after taking the program to four conference title games since 2006.