Moving Year Part 2 – the G5
Plus Grading Kansas Coaching Hire
Continuing in the vein of last week’s column, I wanted to focus on five Group of 5 programs that face pivotal “moving” years in 2021.
Some teams have either been moving up into a new and more permanent height in their conference. Others may have slipped a bit and, with another subpar year could find themselves in a more permanent decline. Remember – this ranking is about program trajectory, not hot seats for coaches.
UCF – Considered possibly the best or one of the 2-3 best non Power 5 coaching jobs in the country due to proximity to talent and moments of excellence, UCF hasn’t always won that way. Scott Frost, remember, took over a winless UCF that had cratered in the final years of George O’Leary and, after he left, Josh Heupel started strong but his final two years featured growing numbers of losses before he bolted. Now Malzahn takes over – and I expect him to do very well with UCF with his power spread/modern single wing offense. However, a 7-5 or even 8-4 would be the third straight year where the Knights were just pretty good not great. Can Gus reignite the program’s excellence? 2021 – even though it’s just his first year – is a big one for the program.
Houston – For a program who has fired two different coaches in the last decade after 8 win seasons because “it’s not good enough”, the Cougars have sure put up with a lot of losing, relatively, since Dana Holgorsen was lured from West Virginia. A somewhat bizarre first season in 2019 where after early losses the team redshirted several players – including star QB D’Eriq King who then promptly transferred (to Miami who is on our Power 5 moving year list). That losing season was followed by 2020’s 3-5 effort. To be fair, it was disjointed partially because of COVID outbreaks on the team and on opponents’ teams, affecting the schedule. So will the real Houston please stand up? Another losing season, or middling 6-6 and this train is officially off the tracks and Houston is in AAC lower tier.
Coastal Carolina – Suddenly (and appropriately) the darlings of the Sun Belt are the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina. An amazing 11-1 season (with a very close and entertaining loss in their bowl game to equally outstanding Liberty) came after being picked by prognosticators to finish at or near the bottom of the Sun Belt. They’ve had a precipitous rise, now the question is whether they can have staying power. The Sun Belt is fast becoming a competitor with the Mountain West as the seond best G5 conference, behind the AAC. Coastal’s ability to win 9-10 games a second season in a row would begin to lock in their place with Appalachian State and Louisiana as the three dominant powers – but we need to see more than one great year. My bet is that they will continue to succeed.
Fresno State – In my formative years of watching college football Fresno State became a real giant-killer in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then as the very successful Pat Hill era came to a close after a final, losing season, Tim DeRuyter was hired and took off like a shot, winning 9 then 11 games in his first two seasons before three straight losing seasons and a terrible start to a fourth led to his firing. Then Jeff Tedford, former Cal coach thought to be a “retread” hire came in and fired the program right back up finishing as runner up in the Mountain West Conference in 2017 and winning MWC in 2018. However, Tedford resigned after his third year, a losing campaign, citing health reasons. New coach Kalen DeBoer (how millennial-great is that first name?!) went 3-3 in his first, COVID-abbreviated season in 2020. I recount the history because it’s clear – Fresno State has the potential to be year-in/year-out winners and contenders for the Mountain West Conference title. However, since the late 2000’s there have been peaks and valleys constantly. The Central Valley region of California loves the Bulldogs. DeBoer with a solid winning season can help get the program fully back on track. A losing season would be concerning for the immediate future. This is a big year.
Florida International – When Butch Davis took over the Panther program after the disastrous Ron Turner era he started off with 8 and then 9 wins and seemed poised to make FIU more of a permanent bowl fixture and South Florida power. The last two years were 6-7 and 0-5. Things seemed to stagnate. There’s no reason that FIU can’t be much more permanent contenders in Conference USA but if the Panthers don’t rebound to at least a 6-7 win record (ideally greater) questions will abound about whether Butch still has it.
BONUS – Grading the Kansas Head Coaching Hire:
Lance Leipold – A
When Kansas had to fire Les Miles due to revelation of his outlandish behavior at LSU - right as spring practice was about to start – many thought they might have to go with an interim head coach for 2021. Kansas is, quite possibly, the worst Power 5 program right now. There’s a variety of reasons for that but the ineptitude has been historic with only a couple of brief splashes of success in the mid-90’s and mid-2000’s. They’ve tried retread big names, young up and coming head coaches and cheap assistants as the head guy. All results since 2009…bad. So it wasn’t an ideal place to attract a coach in the best of circumstances. However, Lance Leipold is a proven success, winning huge at Division II Wisconsin-Whitewater, a midwestern job, and then building Buffalo up into a real power in the MAC. He is somewhat system-agnostic, meaning he has won a variety of different ways and is an energetic recruiter. Now – he’s never been near the Power 5 and this is a job where winning 6 games in a season is probably 2-3 years away at least. I might have rated this an A- if it had been in the normal course of the coaching carousel. I also strongly agree with writers like Steven Godfrey and Andy Staples who urged Kansas to go to triple option football as a way to equalize the talent disadvantage. Kansas went a different direction but Leipold was about the best the Jayhawks could hope for. We’ll see if it works – but “works” is just being competitive in most games.