Grading 2020-2021 G5 Coaching Hires

Coaching changes are a way of life in college football.  This is especially true in the Group of Five (G5).  In 2019, ten of the 64 (nearly 16%) of the Group of Five changed coaches.  Four of the ten position changes resulted from Power Five (P5) schools hiring existing G5 head coaches. 

In 2020-2021, most experts expected coaching turnover to be lower due to the abbreviated schedules and the impacts of COVID-19.   However, we have witnessed roughly the same level of turnover at the G5 level as eight teams have replaced coaches.  Three coaches were plucked away by the P5 (Bryan Harsin from Boise State, Josh Heupel from UCF, and Lance Leipold from Buffalo).   Four other coaches were fired.  Two others resigned, with Blake Anderson moving inside the G5, from Arkansas State to Utah State. 

Grading coaching moves is truly speculative.  Culture, geographic knowledge, experience, ability to connect with players, coaching staff, etc. are all factors that impact a coach’s ability to succeed.   The table below provides the details of each coaching change.  We summarize these changes in the sections below the table. 

Will Hall – Southern Mississippi

Will Hall had served as the offensive coordinator at Tulane from 2019-2020.  Tulane’s offense was potent both years, averaging over 33 points and ranking in the top quarter of scoring offenses in the FBS.  Hall favors a run-oriented spread option attack, but isn’t afraid to put the ball in the air (Tulane averaged nearly 200 yards per game passing in his combined two seasons).   Hall served as head coach at West Alabama (3 seasons) and West Georgia (3 seasons), where he compiled a 56-20 (.741) record and was two-time Gulf South Coach of the Year.  

Hall should bring enthusiasm and offensive innovation to Southern Miss.  Luring Austin Armstrong from Louisiana to serve as defensive coordinator will help not only with shoring up the defense, but also with recruiting in the deep south. 

Grade: B+

Blake Anderson – Utah State

Blake Anderson had a very solid run at Arkansas State, compiling a record of 51-37 (.579) over seven years.   During this run, Arkansas State won the Sunbelt one year and tied for the league crown in two others.  Anderson was 2-4 in six bowl games. 

The Arkansas State teams have been increasingly known for their high-powered air attack.  In 2020, the Red Wolves ranked behind only Florida in passing yards per game (they were in the top 10 in 2019).  In addition, Anderson is widely viewed as an excellent developer of players and very focused on team and community.   This mix of skills should be a welcome addition in Logan Utah. 

Grade: A

Kane Wommack – South Alabama

With his hiring to lead South Alabama, Womack becomes the youngest head coach in the FBS.  Womack served the past two years as Defensive Coordinator for Indiana.  He had previously been defensive coordinator at South Alabama 2016-2017.   The 2020 Indiana defense ranked 20th in total defense in FBS and 19th in points allowed. 

Womack is a highly respected recruiter and should provide an immediate spark for a Jaguar’s program that has compiled a 9-26 record over the past three seasons.   His knowledge of the program, the recruiting area, and the conference will help a great deal as he assumes his initial head coaching role.   His hiring of Major Applewhite, the former Houston HC and an offensive analyst at Alabama the last two years was enormous.   Applewhite can help Wommack with the transition into the head coaching role, while also adding a strong presence on the recruiting trail in talent-rich Alabama.  

Grade: A-

Terry Bowden – Louisiana-Monroe

Bowden provides a big-name coaching hire in Monroe, which is starved for success.  The Warhawks have posted only one winning season in their 14 years in FBS.  That season (2012) marks their only appearance in a bowl game.  

Bowden brings 25 years of coaching experience to Monroe.  He had winning records at his first four stops (Salem, Samford, Auburn, North Alabama), before struggling to build a contender at Arkron.  Overall, his coaching record is 175-114-2 (.605).   At Akron, his teams were 31-44 (.413), which was roughly on par with the previous three previous head coaches. 

Bowden has spent the last two years working with as an unpaid assistant Clemson while attending the university to achieve a graduate degree.   Bowden is a name candidate and knows the area well.  However, it remains to be seen how much “juice” remains in his tank. 

Grade: C+

Butch Jones – Arkansas State

Speaking of big-names, Arkansas State jumped into the fray with hiring of former head coach at Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Tennessee.   Jones has posted a winning record at every stop in his career and has an 84-54 (.608) record.  He had served the past three seasons on the staff at Alabama.

Jones has plenty of experience having coached at both the G5 and P5 levels.  His departure from Tennessee was tumultuous to say the least.   He had a very rocky relationship with Tennessee media, which didn’t help his cause when the Volunteers struggled in a winless 2017 SEC campaign.    Jones is a proven recruiter and program builder.  He is tough and demanding, but perhaps time with Nick Saban helped his reshape his approach.  If his style meshes at Arkansas State, this could be a great hire.  At this time, we are a bit skeptical. 

Grade: C-

Andy Avalos – Boise State

Boise lost coach Bryan Harsin to Auburn.   Harsin, a Boise State graduate had been coach for the past six years, posting a 69-19 record.  While this was a tough loss for the Broncos, they rebounded quickly by selecting another Boise State alum, Andy Avalos as their new head coach.  Avalos was serving as defensive coordinator for Oregon before accepting the head coaching assignment at Boise State, his first head coach position.  Avalos was a 2004 graduate from Boise, where he was all conference performer and team captain.  He coached at Boise for six years, serving as defensive coordinator for the 2016-18 seasons.  

Avalos brings a ton of enthusiasm and a strong knowledge of the Boise State culture.  He quickly named his coordinator positions, retaining Spencer Danielson on defense, and pulling Tim Plough from UC Davis to run the offense.  Boise State is one of the most visible G5 programs in the country, with a highly loyal fanbase.  The fans may need to be patient as there is some work to do, but in Avalos, they have one of their own. 

Grade: B

Charles Huff – Marshall

One of the biggest surprises of the off season was Marshall’s firing of long-time coach Doc Holliday.  Holliday compiled an 85-54 (.611) record in 11 years with The Herd.  This included 6 bowls wins and eight bowl appearances.  He collected the 2020 CUSA Coach of the Year award, his second such award. 

While the motivation for removing a highly successful coach is unclear, it is clear Marshall wanted to inject their program with youth and excitement.   In hiring Charles Huff, they succeeded in doing so.  Huff served as associate head coach and running back coach at Alabama under Nick Saban in 2020.  He has had successful stints at Mississippi State, Penn State, Western Michigan, and the Buffalo Bills (NFL) among others.   Marshall will be his first head coaching assignment.  While it will be a challenge to quickly improve on Holliday’s record, Huff has shown he is a strong recruiter and developer of players.  Marshall is steeped in tradition.  As long as their fans show a little patience while Huff gets his footing, this hiring could be the catalyst for even better things at Marshall. 

Grade: B+

Gus Malzahn – UCF

Losing Josh Huepel, who compiled a 28-8 record was a blow to UCF.  However, the fan base has to be excited with the addition of Gus Malzahn as their new head coach.  Malzahn, the former coach at Auburn and Arkansas State has never compiled a losing record in his head coaching career. 

Malzahn inherits a UCF team that has ranked near the top of FBS in offence in the past few seasons.  Malzahn, known for his high powered, up-tempo offenses will have plenty of talent to work with at UCF on the offensive side of the ball.  However, he also inherits a defensive team that has struggled mightily.  The Knights gave up over 33 points a game during the regular season and ended with surrendering 49 to BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl.   This will need to be a major focus for Malzahn.  Travis Williams, Malzahn’s former defensive coordinator at Auburn will assume the same role at UCF.  If they solve the defensive woes, UCF fans could have a lot to celebrate in the coming years. 

Grade: A

Maurice “Mo” Linguist – Buffalo

After the late ouster of Les Miles, we wondered if the G5 would be the target for his successor.  We weren’t surprised to see Lance Leipold selected as he had built a strong winning culture at Buffalo.   Buffalo didn’t waste a lot of time and within a week named Maurice “Mo” Linguist from Michigan as their new head coach. 

Following the lead established by Marshall, Buffalo hired a coach with a great reputation as a recruiter, but with no previous head coaching experience.  Linguist played collegiately at Baylor and has held coaching positions with the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo, James Madison, Texas A&M, Minnesota, Mississippi State and Iowa State before accepting the role as Michigan’s co-defensive coordinator.   There is no doubt Linguist can recruit.  He added a lot of energy to the recruiting process at Michigan in his short stay there.  He has spent all of his career on the defensive side of the ball, so a key will be bringing in offensive coaching talent to build on the Bull’s run-heavy foundation.  Unlike Marshall, the Buffalo culture is not steeped in success.  Prior to Leipold’s final 3 seasons, the Bulls has only 2 winning seasons in the previous 21 seasons.  Maintaining the winning ways of the last three years will be a big challenge for a first-time head coach. 

Grade: B-

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