Realistic Expectations for Every CFB Program with a New Head Coach
When a college football team hires a new head coach, optimism for the long-term future of the program typically rises. The immediate future, however, is not always so rosy.
Since the 2020 season ended, 15 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision have brought in a new head coach. Although a few programs may contend for a conference championship in 2021, most of them needed a change for competitive reasons anyway.
Rather than predicting a win-loss record, we've organized the first-year coaches based on four tiers of expectations.
Each placement is subjective but considers the team's recent performance, returning production and 2021 schedule.
Tier 4: Playing Football in 2021
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks: Terry Bowden
Louisiana-Monroe has one winning season in 27 years. Last fall, the Warhawks would've settled for just one win. Matt Viator's five-year tenure came to an end with a 0-10 record, and ULM hired Terry Bowden to reshape the program. Perhaps he and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez can turn the Warhawks around, but don't expect a magical run in Year 1.
Vanderbilt Commodores: Clark Lea
Derek Mason helped the Commodores reach a couple of bowls in seven seasons, but they finished 10-47 in SEC play. Clark Lea is now inheriting the lowest-scoring Power Five offense in the country. At the least, quarterback Ken Seals provides some experience, and Vandy avoids Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M in cross-division games. Anything more than four victories would be stunning, though.
Tier 3: Can They Make a Bowl?
Arizona Wildcats: Jedd Fisch
Arizona is right on the border of Tiers 3 and 4. Considering the Wildcats have dropped 12 straight games, they won't be confused with a Pac-12 contender. However, the home slate of UCLA, Washington, Cal and Utah is reasonable to manage. While a bowl appearance is unlikely, Arizona could pull off a surprise or two.
Illinois Fighting Illini: Bret Bielema
Lovie Smith didn't leave the roster in a disastrous state, but Illinois still isn't to the point of having a seemingly "guaranteed" win on the schedule. On the bright side, the Illini have seven home games and miss both Michigan and Ohio State. Nevertheless, simply reaching a bowl would be an accomplishment.
South Alabama Jaguars: Kane Wommack
On paper, there's a reasonable case for South Alabama as a bowl contender. Jake Bentley, previously at South Carolina and Utah, is a high-talent quarterback for the Sun Belt. The challenge is a schedule that ends with Arkansas State, at Troy, at Appalachian State, at Tennessee and Coastal Carolina. Good luck with that!
South Carolina Gamecocks: Shane Beamer
This, too, is an awfully cruel Year 1 schedule. South Carolina travels to Georgia and Texas A&M and has a November stretch of Florida, Auburn and Clemson. While all three are at home, that's a nightmarish way to end the season. The upside is Shane Beamer has ample opportunity to get a victory that can validate what his coaching staff will be selling on the recruiting trail.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: Will Hall
What do you make of a program that posted four consecutive winning seasons under head coach Jay Hopson, then fired him after one loss, followed by interim coach Scotty Walden leaving for another job after just four games? We'll call 2020 a completely lost season for Southern Miss. Given his success at every previous stop, Will Hall could elevate the offense immediately. If that happens, a home-heavy start to 2021 can propel the Golden Eagles to a bowl.
Tennessee Volunteers: Josh Heupel
Josh Heupel didn't inherit a great situation in Knoxville, especially as a mass exodus mangled the roster. Among the few players who transferred to Tennessee, though, Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker is a fantastic addition. He gives the Vols a potential (and much-needed) stabilizing force at quarterback.
Utah State Aggies: Blake Anderson
While he's an excellent hire for Utah State, Blake Anderson is entering a tough spot. Utah State finished 1-5 last season and only scored more than 16 points once, in that lone victory. Anderson needs a season or two to refresh the program.
Tier 2: Definite Bowl Contender
Arkansas State Red Wolves: Butch Jones
The schedule does Butch Jones no favors in his debut season. After meeting Memphis, Washington and Tulsa in nonconference play, Arkansas State hosts Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and Appalachian State. If the Red Wolves can muster a 3-3 record in that set, they have seven- or eight-win upside because of a high-scoring offense.
Auburn Tigers: Bryan Harsin
Third-year quarterback Bo Nix has a whole lot to prove, but the returning talent on defense is appealing. Auburn would need a couple of fortunate breaks to legitimately compete, since it travels to Penn State, LSU and Texas A&M in addition to hosting Georgia and Alabama. That's about as difficult as it gets in 2021. Pick off two of them, however, and Auburn could have a respectable start to the Bryan Harsin era.
Tier 1: Conference Title Hopeful
Boise State Broncos: Andy Avalos
This nonconference slate is no joke; Boise State heads to UCF, hosts Oklahoma State and goes to BYU. None of those results will affect the program's reign in the Mountain West, though. Boise State has reached the conference title game in four straight years and doesn't play San Jose State in the regular season.
Central Florida Knights: Gus Malzahn
Cincinnati is the favorite in the AAC, but UCF shouldn't be far behind. Led by third-year quarterback Dillon Gabriel, UCF's offense is likely to rank among the nation's most productive units again. However, the defense finished 95th in yards allowed per play last season. UCF's upside is contingent on the defense becoming even an average group, especially since the Knights travel to Cincinnati and SMU.
Marshall Thundering Herd: Charles Huff
After making the Conference USA Championship Game last season, Marshall returns the bulk of its production. Outstanding defense propelled the Herd in 2020 and should again this fall, but Charles Huff's more aggressive approach may spark the offense, which has second-year quarterback Grant Wells and experience both at receiver and on the line. Throw in a very favorable schedule, and Marshall is a top C-USA threat.
Texas Longhorns: Steve Sarkisian
We're not picking Texas to win the Big 12 over Oklahoma. Still, this isn't a conversation where you need to perfectly tilt your head to envision success. It's plausible. The keys are Steve Sarkisian unlocking a more consistent offense with new QB Casey Thompson and avoiding the upset losses that plagued Tom Herman's tenure. Oh, and beat TCU. That's only happened twice since TCU joined the Big 12 in 2012.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.