Ranking the Best Coaching Moves After the 2020 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2021

Ranking the Best Coaching Moves After the 2020 College Football Season

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    One of the college football offseason's great traditions is reviewing the latest round of coaching hires and projecting their success in future years.

    The undeniable truth is nobody can be certain of a particular outcome. You, like us, may be convinced Steve Sarkisian is a great hire at Texas. But it might not work out. There's no shortage of such examples in the last five years alone.

    In this initial stage of a hire, however, the judgments are focused on the likelihood of a coach to put the program in position to win.

    While these determinations are subjective, the conclusions are based on history, assistant hires and recruiting.

Best Coordinator Hires

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    Marcus Freeman
    Marcus FreemanGetty Images (Joe Robbins)

    Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame DC

    The single-best hire of the offseason may be Marcus Freeman. While serving as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, he took a unit that ranked 83rd in 2017 to fourth in 2020. Freeman should be a head coach candidate in the near future.


    Pete Kwiatkowski, Texas DC

    After playing for Boise State in the mid-1980s, Pete Kwiatkowski never really left the Northwest. He coached at his alma mater, Snow College, Eastern Washington, Montana State and Washington. Kwiatkowski oversaw top-35 defenses in six of his seven seasons as the solo and co-defensive coordinator at Washington.


    Derek Mason, Auburn DC

    Derek Mason's tenure at Vanderbilt didn't go as hoped, but he's a highly respected defensive coach. In 2012-13, he coordinated top-20 units at Stanford. Mason has a chance to showcase a strong reputation of player development for a championship hopeful.

7. Will Hall, Southern Miss

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Will Hall is a rising star on the offensive side of the ball. The former Harlon Hill Trophy winnerthe D-II Heismanhas spent his entire coaching career in the Southeast, including stops at Louisiana, Memphis and Tulane in the last four years.

    Along the way, Hall has picked up a little bit of everything for his philosophy. Southern Miss will have plenty of modern elements (up-tempo, spread concepts) while mixing in triple-option runs.

    The combination of a strong passing game and a power-run offense can thrive under Hall's direction.

6. Charles Huff, Marshall

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Recognized as one of the nation's top recruiters, Charles Huff brings a wealth of experience on the Eastern half of the United State. He's coached at Tennessee State, Maryland, Hampton and Vanderbilt, with the NFL's Buffalo Bills and for Western Michigan, Penn State, Mississippi State and Alabama.

    All that accrued knowledge will be incredibly valuable at Marshall, which is already a perennial bowl team.

    "Charles charms people easily, and he's really, really smart," a former Penn State colleague told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "He can communicate well in a multitude of settings. He has a lot of range and can recruit many different types of people, and also can see the forest through the trees. He understands the big picture."

    Within a couple of years, Marshall should be the most talented team in Conference USA. In 2020, per 247Sports' composite rankings, the Thundering Herd's class ranked eighth.

5. Andy Avalos, Boise State

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    Andy Avalos
    Andy AvalosGetty Images (Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

    Andy Avalos is headed home.

    While a linebacker at Boise State from 2001-04, he earned first-team All-WAC honors twice. He began coaching in 2006 and returned to his alma mater in 2012. After seven years as an assistant, he joined Oregon as the defensive coordinator in 2019. Avalos had a pair of top-35 defenses, and the Ducks won two Pac-12 titles.

    Given his personal connection, Avalos will have little difficulty selling his belief in the Mountain West's most dominant program. The Broncos have four conference titles since 2012, and Avalos served as an assistant on three of the four teams.

4. Bryan Harsin, Auburn

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Given that Bryan Harsin believed Boise State has outgrown the Mountain West, it's no surprise he left for Auburn. Now in the SEC, though, his grand aspirations will be thoroughly tested.

    Harsin unquestionably deserved this level of opportunity. After two years as the offensive coordinator at Texas, he won a Sun Belt championship with Arkansas State. In seven seasons with Boise Statehis alma materHarsin won three MWC crowns and added three more division titles.

    Because of his limited ties to the Southeast, recruiting against Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC West is a reasonable concern. However, Harsin's staff includes Mason, longtime SEC coaches Mike Bobo, Will Friend and Tracy Rocker and former Auburn running back Cadillac Williams.

    Recruiting will remain a key storyline throughout his tenure, but Auburn should be optimistic about Harsin.

3. Kane Wommack, South Alabama

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    Prior to his three-year stint at Indiana, Kane Wommack coordinated the South Alabama defense in 2016-17. It's a fitting reunion that made Wommack, 33, the youngest coach in the FBS.

    Between that familiarity, his creativity in generating defensive havoc and his reputation as a recruiter, Wommack is an ideal fit at a program that desperately needs a jolt. South Alabama hasn't finished with a winning record in nine FBS seasons.

    Sure, that's a low bar. South Alabama is poised to soar past it, though.

    Wommack also hired Major Applewhite as the offensive coordinator. Applewhite previously held the position at Alabama, Texas and Houston, also serving as Houston's head coach for three years.

2. Blake Anderson, Utah State

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Blake Anderson's wife, Wendy, died of breast cancer in 2019. The family's devastating loss ultimately led Anderson to leave a program he loved simply for personal reasons.

    Under his leadership, Utah State has a great chance to move from perennial bowl contender to annual Mountain West threat. Anderson posted a 51-37 record with two Sun Belt titles at Arkansas State.

    One potentially vital note is Anderson hired several Miami assistants, including ace recruiter Ephraim Banda. If the Aggies can utilize those relationships in Florida and become a factor for prospects in the talent-rich state, that's a massive win.

1. Steve Sarkisian, Texas

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    While no single reason led to Tom Herman's dismissal, his lack of creativity on offense will be a defining memory. Based on what Steve Sarkisian did as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, that portion of the Longhorns' concerns should be gone.

    Oh, and welcome to Alabama Lite.

    Washington's Kwiatkowski will serve as the defensive coordinator, but the staff otherwise has a strong Crimson Tide influence. Sark brought in Kyle Flood as offensive coordinator, landed top recruiter Jeff Banks to oversee special teams and coach tight ends and added Alabama analyst A.J. Milwee as the quarterbacks coach.

    You're not going to find a projection that he'll win a national title here. But if Texas wins a Big 12 title under Sarkisian, he'll have accomplished something not done at the program since 2009.