Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield takes the top spot in Athlon’s Sun Belt coach ranks for the second year in a row. The Mountaineers are 21-5 over the last two seasons and will be picked near the top of the league once again in 2017. Troy’s Neal Brown and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson aren’t too far behind, giving the Sun Belt three rising stars on the sidelines. South Alabama’s Joey Jones and Louisiana’s Mark Hudspeth headline the next tier.
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.
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. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It's always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins 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 Sun Belt:
Ranking the Sun Belt's College Football Coaches for 2017
12. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State
With an improved stadium situation and a prime location in Atlanta for fertile recruiting territory, Georgia State is a job with potential in the Sun Belt. Elliott is just the third coach in program history and this will be his first full-time job. Before taking over in Atlanta, Elliott worked as an assistant at South Carolina from 2010-16 and Appalachian State from 1997-09. Elliott was regarded for his work as an offensive line coach and served as South Carolina’s interim coach in 2015 after Steve Spurrier resigned midway through the season. The Gamecocks went 1-5 under Elliott but lost all five games by 10 points or less.
11. Everett Withers, Texas State
Withers and his Texas State staff promised a “Party in the End Zone” last year, but the Bobcats finished 2-10 and failed to win a game in conference play. As expected with any new staff, there was roster turnover and a transition in schemes, which certainly hindered this team’s ability to compete last season. The program’s only victories in 2016 came in overtime against Ohio and versus FCS opponent Incarnate Word. And as a sign of how much work Withers and this staff need to do in 2017: Texas State lost nine of its 10 games by 20 or more points. With the addition of graduate transfer quarterback Damian Williams, along with the No. 1 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite, the Bobcats should take a step forward in 2017.
10. Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Martin has the unique distinction of coaching at two of college football’s toughest jobs. Before taking over at New Mexico State, Martin guided Kent State to a 29-53 record from 2004-10. The Golden Flashes had three seasons of at least five wins (and one six-win campaign) under Martin’s direction but never recorded a winning mark. Progress has also been tough to come by in Las Cruces. The Aggies are 10-38 under Martin and have yet to eclipse three wins in a season.
9. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern
It’s no secret high expectations surround the Georgia Southern job, as it’s one of the best in the Sun Belt and has a lengthy track record of success. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Summers is already under pressure to turn things around after a 5-7 record in 2016 – his first in Statesboro. The Eagles finished 2016 on a high note by beating Troy, but the five-win season represented a four-win regression from 2015. Prior to taking over at Georgia Southern, Summers worked as a defensive coordinator at Colorado State and UCF, while also spending time as an assistant at UAB. The Georgia native hopes to show progress in his second season in Statesboro.
8. Paul Petrino, Idaho
The Vandals are moving back to FCS after the 2017 season, but Petrino and his staff have a chance to close out the FBS run with another solid year. Idaho had a breakthrough season last fall, finishing 9-4 and claiming a postseason victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The nine wins represented the program’s first winning mark since 2009 and equaled the total number of victories recorded from 2011-15. Petrino is 15-33 overall at Idaho and returns enough talent to push for back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.
7. Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina
Moglia might have the most interesting background of any college football head coach at the FBS level. After a coaching career that spanned from 1968-83 at a few high schools and Lafayette and Dartmouth, Moglia decided to venture into business. He worked at Merrill Lynch and eventually became the CEO of Ameritrade in 2001 and remained in that role until 2008. Moglia went back into coaching in 2009 as an assistant in an off-field role at Nebraska and was later hired as the head coach with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League in 2011. Coastal Carolina picked Moglia as its head coach prior to the 2012 season and the move has worked out well for the program. The Chanticleers are 51-15 over the last five seasons and have won at least eight games every year. This is Coastal Carolina’s first year at the FBS level, but the program is in good shape with Moglia at the controls.
6. Matt Viator, ULM
Viator came to ULM after a successful 10-year run at McNeese State and guided the Warhawks to a 4-8 mark in his debut last fall. While the four-win season may not move the needle, Viator had to overcome the loss of his starting quarterback (Garrett Smith) in mid-October. ULM also showed progress late in the year by winning two out of its final four games. During his tenure at McNeese State, Viator led the Cowboys to a 78-33 record and five trips to the FCS playoffs.
5. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana
Hudspeth started his tenure at Louisiana with four consecutive 9-4 seasons and a perfect 4-0 mark in New Orleans Bowl appearances. As a result, Hudspeth’s stock was on the rise, and the Mississippi native became one of the top Group of 5 coaches in the nation. But over the last two seasons, Louisiana is just 10-15 and has not finished higher than fifth in the Sun Belt. Despite the two-year setback, Hudspeth is still 46-31 overall at Louisiana. Prior to guiding the Ragin’ Cajuns, Hudspeth was the head coach at North Alabama (66-21) and had stints as an assistant at Mississippi State (2009-10) and Navy (2001).
4. Joey Jones, South Alabama
Entering his ninth season at South Alabama, Jones ranks as the Sun Belt’s longest-tenured coach. The Mobile native was hired to build the program from scratch in 2008 and has guided the Jaguars to a 48-42 record since 2009. Additionally, the program has two bowl trips in that span, as well as four straight seasons of at least five wins – not bad for a program that joined the FBS level in 2012. Prior to South Alabama, Jones had a short stint as Birmingham-Southern’s head coach and also spent time in the high school ranks in the state of Alabama.
3. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
Arkansas State experienced its share of coaching turnover since 2010. The program cycled through five different coaches from 2010-14, as Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin each left Jonesboro for a more high-profile job. While the coaching turnover created some headaches, stability isn’t a question anymore with Anderson entering his fourth season at the helm. Under Anderson’s watch, Arkansas State is 24-15 since 2014 and has played in three consecutive bowl games. Additionally, the Red Wolves are 20-4 in league play, losing only one Sun Belt contest over the last two seasons.
2. Neal Brown, Troy
Brown’s stock is on the rise after an impressive 2016 season. After replacing long-time coach Larry Blakeney, Brown went 4-8 in his first season at the helm in 2015. But the Trojans showed marked improvement last fall by finishing 10-3 and beating Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl. The 10-win campaign was the first double-digit victory total by the program at the FBS level. Additionally, the bowl win was Troy’s first since 2010. At 37-years-old, Brown is one of college football’s youngest coaches and has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks after spending time as an assistant at Troy, Texas Tech and Kentucky prior to 2015. The Trojans should be co-favorites with Appalachian State for the league crown in 2017.
1. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State
As a former player and assistant under legendary coach Jerry Moore, Satterfield had extensive ties to Appalachian State when he was promoted to head coach in 2013. It’s no secret Moore left big shoes to fill, and Satterfield’s promotion from offensive coordinator to head coach had an added challenge of the program transitioning to the FBS level in 2014. While those obstacles were huge, Appalachian State hasn’t missed a beat under Satterfield. The Mountaineers finished 4-8 in the final year at the FCS level in 2013 but improved to 7-5 in Satterfield’s second season (2014). Over the last two years, Appalachian State has quickly emerged (as expected) as one of the Sun Belt’s top programs. Satterfield led the team to an 11-2 record in 2015, followed by a 10-3 mark last fall. The Mountaineers have also earned back-to-back bowl victories and should begin 2017 as a co-favorite with Troy to win the Sun Belt.