By Jim Weber
Twenty-six teams will enter next fall with new head coaches. Some are walking into huge rebuilding projects while others are just hoping to maintain the success of predecessors who left for greener pastures. With all the positions now filled, I grade all the coaching moves with a letter grade; keep in mind, all marks are relative to the programs involved.
Urban Meyer (Ohio State): A+
After Jim Tressel was shoved out the door, there was plenty of gloom and doom in Columbus. That is, until they actually upgraded by replacing the Sweater Vest with the second-best coach in college football (I still give Nick Saban top billing). I don’t want to hear that Meyer is nothing without Tim Tebow. The guy has been wildly successful everywhere he’s gone and won two national titles in six years at Florida. He’s already hauling in recruits like he’s fishing with dynamite and will undoubtedly have OSU competing for a national title again in no time.
After the forgettable Paul Wulff Era, Leach his bringing his exciting Air Raid offense and pirate hijinx to the upper Northwest. Is there any doubt this guy is going to be successful? On top of that, people are actually talking about Cougar football and an often-woeful program has turned into must-see TV. That’s a win-win.
Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State): A+
Vanderbilt offered Malzahn $3 million a year after last season and Arkansas State got him for less than he was making at Auburn ($1.3M). That’s what you call making out like bandits, especially when you land one of the best offensive minds in the game. Throw in the possibility of Auburn stud RB Michael Dyer transferring to Jonesboro and the Red Wolves aced a second straight hire (Hugh Freeze).
Larry Fedora (North Carolina): A
If you thought Southern Miss was overrated going into the Conference USA Championship Game, you certainly didn’t think that way after the Golden Eagles pummeled Houston on its own turf. Fedora brings an exciting offense with him to Chapel Hill and with QB Bryn Renner and RB Gio Bernard already in place, the Tar Heels could make some noise in the ACC next season.
Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M): A-
This hire is what you call a perfect fit. Sumlin headed just up the road from Houston to College Station and brings an exciting offense that had the scoreboard ringing during his four seasons with the Cougars. That being said, there are some concerns. How much of Sumlin’s success was QB Case Keenum? How will Sumlin’s offense fare in the SEC? Will Sumlin be able to put together a defense worthy of A&M’s new conference? Aggie fans will take all those question marks over another year of underachieving under Mike Sherman.
Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss): A-
They might need a separate movie for Michael Oher’s old high school coach since he’s gone from Memphis prep coach to SEC head man in seven years. There’s no reason to think Freeze won’t be wildly successful after a 10-2 record in his first season at Arkansas State but coaching in the Sun Belt is a little different than leading a team in the SEC. Will a one-year college head coach be able to hold his own against the likes of Nick Saban and Les Miles?
Justin Fuente (Memphis): A-
Fuente was a hot name last season after helping TCU to an undefeated season and Rose Bowl victory behind a senior-led offense that included QB Andy Dalton. What did Fuente do for an encore? His offense finished ninth in the country in scoring average and went 11-2 with a new cast of characters. Granted, he was co-offensive coordinator and hiring a 35-year old as a head coach is always a roll of the dice, but Fuente could be Memphis’ ticket to a BCS conference invitation.
Paul Chryst (Pitt): B+
Let’s be honest: Todd Graham’s “high-octane” offense never really made sense at Pitt. Enter Chryst, who was long overdue for a head job and loves to pound the ball and has been wildly successful as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator. Look for the Panthers to run the ball down the throats of opponents next season with Ray Graham and Rushel Shell (if he doesn’t renege on his commitment). The only downside? Chryst has never been a head coach before, which is rare for such a high-profile hire.
The RichRod Era was a huge flop at Michigan but the man knows how to coach offense. As has been stated over and over again, Rodriguez better do his homework and hire a top-notch defensive coordinator to make sure things in Tucson turn out differently. If he does that, there’s no reason Arizona can’t compete for Pac-12 South titles and finally reach its first Rose Bowl ever.
Tim Beckman (Illinois): B+
Beckman won a lot at Toledo and the Rockets could have easily gone 12-1 this season instead of 9-4. The concern? Beckman’s defense at Toledo and his unit as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State weren’t any good. If the Rockets gave up 63 points to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, how will Beckman do against teams like Wisconsin and Michigan?
Jim McElwain (Colorado State): B+
It’s hard to argue with hiring a Nick Saban disciple who will be coaching in the BCS Championship Game – especially for a program like Colorado State that has completely fallen off the map. The only problem? McElwain’s offense is pretty vanilla (did you see the first LSU game?) and his run-heavy attack won’t look nearly as powerful without the likes of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in the backfield.
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