Handicapping the New Group of Five Conference College Football Head Coaches

Date | AuthorAdam Burke

Last Updated: 2019-06-11

The college football coaching carousel was spinning at a high rate of speed last offseason. In all, there are 27 new head coaches. Our quest to have you fully prepared for the start of the upcoming college football season includes a look at these new program leaders.

In this article, specifically, we’ll take a look at the Group of Five newbies. The Power Five Conference newbs can be found here and there are quite a few of those, including Scott Satterfield, Neal Brown, Geoff Collins, and Matt Wells, all of whom left Group of Five openings when they changed addresses.

It is important to know what you’re dealing with as far as coaches. Schemes change. Personnel changes are inevitable. There are new coordinator hires. Restarts and new expectations. Recruiting windfalls or drop-offs can happen. All of these things are part of the handicapping process because you have to know what to expect.

This is a look at the new Group of Five conference head coaches (listed alphabetically by program):

 

Tom Arth (Akron) – Expectations are never high in the Rubber City for the football team. The futbol team, on the other hand, has sky high hopes year in and year out. InfoCision Stadium is already falling apart, despite being completed this decade, and it sort of fits as a metaphor for the team. Terry Bowden was a respected name and his family’s legacy sure has its place in college football, but even he couldn’t solve this job.

Akron misses out on the recruiting riches of the Buckeye State far too often. Tom Arth comes from John Carroll, a private university just outside of Cleveland that has produced Josh McDaniels, Greg Roman, Don Shula, Jerry Schuplinski, London Fletcher, Bill and Chris Polian, David Caldwell, and Tom Telesco. Those are all important football names, with coaches, players, and execs. For whatever reason, JCU has been a football factory.

Maybe Arth becomes the next branch of that long-standing coaching tree. Arth didn’t have much success at Chattanooga, but he’s back home in Ohio, where he has strong recruiting ties. Let’s be honest, Akron’s bar isn’t very high, so this isn’t a bad fit.

Outlook: That John Carroll list is insane. Offensive coordinators, quality control analysts, GMs, borderline Hall of Famers. I don’t know if Tom Arth will ever rank among them, but he played quarterback in the NFL and in NFL Europe. Akron’s offense desperately needs a shot in the arm. His deep Ohio ties and offensive background should help, though probably not right away.

 

Eli Drinkwitz (Appalachian State) – Young head coaches have been a thing in recent years. Eli Drinkwitz joins the mid-30s crowd led by Sean Lewis, Jake Spavital, Will Healy, and Lincoln Riley. Drinkwitz, formerly the OC at NC State, didn’t have far to go from Raleigh to Boone, though he did go up in elevation quite a bit. Drinkwitz’s genius was first seen by Gus Malzahn at Auburn back in 2010, which is some high praise.

He inherits a great situation. Scott Satterfield left every shred of Appalachian State’s program in fine form with his move to Louisville. He’s even got all of his skill positions in tact. He’ll call his own plays, but will rely on an extremely experienced defensive coordinator in Ted Roof.

Outlook: While Satterfield’s departure could sour the perception of the Mountaineers, it shouldn’t. Drinkwitz has a fast, experienced, athletic team, which is exactly the type of situation you would want as a head coach with your first team. The Mountaineers may be even better this season, in all honesty.

 

Scot Loeffler (Bowling Green) – At least Scot Loeffler isn’t part of the Dino Babers coaching tree? Loeffler has been a much-maligned OC throughout his career, with stops at Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Auburn. With the exception of last season at BC, he has not acquitted himself well. I’m not sure what Bowling Green is doing here, but they hired Mike Jinks via a Google search, so…

This is a hard program to coach. There has been an exodus of players, namely quarterbacks, and Jarret Doege has transferred with the coaching change. Loeffler is from the area and was a coach at Michigan, so that’s a feather in his cap, but I don’t even know if he’s accomplished enough to put the cap on.

Outlook: Losing Dave Clawson and Dino Babers in pretty short order wrecked this program. That’s okay, Bowling Green is a hockey school anyway. But, football is the chief revenue driver and this doesn’t seem like it will be a successful hire. I can’t see this team moving forward in 2019, especially with Doege’s transfer. At least Brian Van Gorder is an experienced DC that won’t be in over his head at a MAC school.

 

Jim McElwain (Central Michigan) – What John Bonamego had in intensity and passion, he lacked in coaching acumen. The Chippewas needed to make a move. They didn’t recruit well enough and the pixie dust and pray approach for Bonamego fell apart last season. Jim McElwain is quite a hire. It’s not often that you see a former Florida head coach in the MAC, but here we are.

McElwain got his feet wet in Michigan last year on Jim Harbaugh’s staff after being unceremoniously run out of Gainesville. His offenses at Florida were a trainwreck. I’d like to think a former Alabama OC and a head coach for six years could figure out how to play offense in the MAC.

Outlook: The question here for me is the personnel. Central Michigan doesn’t have a lot of it. Former Akron quarterback and Cleveland Brown Charlie Frye is the OC here. Tennessee transfer Quinten Dormady is kind of fun. Don’t sleep on the Chips, who usually play stout defense with those corn-fed Midwestern boys in the front seven.

 

Will Healy (Charlotte) – Brad Lambert got a raw deal. The 49ers overachieved and won five games last season. It was only their fourth season in FBS and sixth in Division I. Lambert was the only coach that the program had ever had. Well, now there is a second one and it is 34-year-old Will Healy.

Healy rebuilt the Austin Peay program from a bottom-feeder to a contender in a short amount of time and is clearly a rapid riser in the business given his age and the fact that he already has a FBS HC job. He’s going to bring some youthful exuberance to the program. He’s got a good running game and a strong defense to build around. If he can find a quarterback, perhaps a bowl berth is in the near future.

Outlook: We’ll have to see how this plays out. Rebuilding Austin Peay in the OVC is a lot different than competing with teams in Conference USA. But, Charlotte is a big area with a lot of potential donor money if he can drum up some enthusiasm. Year 1 might not go well, but you have to think a guy with this much helium brings a lot of potential down the line.

 

Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina) – This is a new* hire, in the sense that Joe Moglia ran the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers last season, but this has always been a coach-in-waiting situation. Chadwell gave up his head coaching position at Charleston Southern to be the OC at Coastal in 2016. This was always going to be his job, so not much should change in Conway.

Better health at the quarterback position should help Chadwell and the Chants. Chadwell was the interim HC in 2017 under some very unique circumstances. Moglia missed the year because of health-related issues and it was Coastal’s first year in FBS. With more FBS-level talent now, he should have more success.

Outlook: This one doesn’t move the needle a whole lot one way or the other because this will still be status quo for the Chanticleers.

 

Mike Houston (East Carolina) – East Carolina has been spinning its wheels since firing Ruffin McNeill. That move never made any sense and it made even less sense when Scottie Montgomery failed miserably with the Pirates. Mike Houston goes from a very strong James Madison program to an East Carolina program without much of an identity.

Ironically, Houston was the head coach when the Dukes crushed the Pirates to open the 2017 season. There is quite a bit of talent here, as kids that don’t get into ACC or SEC schools start looking to stay close to home and that means places like East Carolina. Perhaps Houston can fast-track this program to some success.

Outlook: East Carolina has a long way to go, but freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers led the team in passing and rushing, so Houston has a young QB to build around. He also has a veteran defensive coordinator in Bob Trott, who has a ton of work to do. ECU was -14 in turnover margin last year, so they may have some upside coming into the season anyway. This could be a good buy low candidate.

 

Dana Holgorsen (Houston) – The highest-paid Group of Five head coach is this man. Dana Holgorsen peered into his crystal ball and saw what was coming in Morgantown with personnel losses and the state of the program as a member of the Big 12 and decided it was time to move on. He was interested in Texas Tech, but they weren’t interested in him. He shifted gears to Houston and the rest is rock and roll history.

Holgorsen was an assistant for nearly a decade in the Lone Star State and it’s safe to say he still has some of those connections. Houston is also one of the best Group of Five jobs and any expansion of the wrongly-named Big 12 from 10 teams to something more would include Houston. Holgo gets a bonus if that happens, too.

Outlook: In terms of walking into a new situation, Holgorsen wins for the best one. This has been a very healthy program for a while. There is a lot to replace on defense, but D’Eriq King is back at QB, so Holgorsen has a player there to build around. Houston will contend for the AAC, though some early-season look-ahead lines have been a bit optimistic.

 

Hugh Freeze (Liberty) – Whoo, boy. This is something. Hugh Freeze, fired for a slew of transgressions from Ole Miss, is back in the coaching ranks. His recruiting classes spoke for themselves in Oxford, but he had more coffers at his disposal. What he does in Lynchburg, Virginia is up for a lot more debate. The Flames just transitioned to FBS and credit Turner Gill for overseeing that process.

College football has a very short memory. If Freeze can make some noise in the Sun Belt, bigger jobs will come calling. It’s inevitable. This is exactly the type of team we would expect Freeze to have. They’re going to play lightning fast with a skilled and solid offense. The defense is lacking. Several teams in the Group of Five are moving to a 4-2-5 defense this season and Liberty is one of them. Perhaps that will help? They allowed 485 yards per game last season.

Outlook: Well, we know Freeze can coach and we know he can recruit, no matter how unscrupulous his methods are. Liberty won six games last year, but wasn’t eligible for a bowl. With six wins this year, they would be. Freeze has an attainable goal and an Independent schedule. Liberty does play four straight road games (with a bye week), so watch for situational spots, but Freeze inherits a decent team.

 

Thomas Hammock (Northern Illinois) – This is a weird hire. I don’t think it takes much to live up to Rod Carey’s accomplishments, but Thomas Hammock has never been a head coach. He was a co-OC in 2010 under Jerry Kill at Minnesota and the assistant head coach at Wisconsin from 2011-13, but he’s been coaching running backs in the NFL the last five years. Hammock was a running back at Northern Illinois from 1999-2002.

It’s hard to question this athletic department with a hire. Carey didn’t win a bowl game, so the bar is low, but Hammock has never been a head coach. That’s asking a lot, especially with a program that expects to win MAC West titles and represent the division in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game.

Outlook: This is a program that deserves the benefit of the doubt. Hammock should also be a star on the recruiting trail. But, he’s never handled a defense. Sutton Smith is a load to replace on defense and the coordinators aren’t really household names either. I’m worried about a drop-off from NIU in 2019.

 

Rod Carey (Temple) – Remember the comment about head-scratching hires? This is one of them. It really felt like Rod Carey underachieved greatly at Northern Illinois. The program was one of the best in the Group of Five after the jobs done by Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren.

You can’t fault Temple for going safe here, after both Matt Rhule and Geoff Collins were plucked in short order. The Owls have been a poaching ground for bigger programs and nobody will be coming after Carey, who can sustain the program’s focus on the trenches. Still, I’d have gambled a bit and gone after somebody with some upside. You’ve had good luck hiring and the line of coordinators looking for a bigger job would be wrapped around the block for any hiring cycle.

Outlook: I’ll pass on this hire and look at Temple as a regression candidate. Carey went winless in bowl games and goes from the MAC to the AAC, which is a much, much tougher conference.

 

Jake Spavital (Texas State) – There used to be two certainties in the power ratings world. Alabama was #1 and Texas State was in the bottom five. Neither of those things is true this year. Texas State made strides under Everett Withers, who did all he could to build up the program. He was let go for his efforts. Jake Spavital is now the second-youngest head coach in college football.

Spavital has Texas ties with a stint as the OC at Texas A&M. He’s also called plays at Cal and West Virginia. The 34-year-old is another one of those hot prospects getting a Group of Five job this season. Offensive coordinator Bob Stitt is also one of the most enjoyable assistant hirings of the season. This will be a fun team to watch finally.

Outlook: Will it equate to wins, though? The Bobcats have a long way to go, but they weren’t bad defensively last year and managed to win three games. I can’t imagine expectations would be too high this season, but programs in Texas are expected to figure it out with the recruiting riches, so Spavital, despite his age, will have to be on point in 2020.

 

Chip Lindsey (Troy) – Longtime bridesmaid Chip Lindsey is now the bride. After OC stints at Auburn, Southern Miss, and Arizona State, Lindsey finally gets his crack as a college football head coach. He’s twice been a high school coach in Alabama, so his recruiting ties should play very nicely. Troy hit a home run with the Neal Brown hire and this could very well follow the same path.

Lindsey will have to rely on Brown’s recruiting classes at first because the Trojans have very few incumbents at the skill positions. That should be fine because Brown left the program in vastly better shape than he found it from Larry Blakeney. This will be a good hire and Troy should maintain something close to its recent levels.

Outlook: I wonder if people will undervalue Troy this season. Brown was thought to be a star prospect as a head coach and the Trojans return very little of their offensive production. It shouldn’t take Lindsey long to fit in and this is a weak conference overall. Look for the Trojans to have a little value early in the year, especially in conference play.

 

Walt Bell (UMass) – Maybe this one works out, maybe it doesn’t. Walt Bell has some big employers on his resume, but he’s never really produced results correlated to his position. He’s been a coach at Memphis, Oklahoma State, Southern Miss, UNC, Arkansas State, Maryland, and Florida State. You know how when you work in HR and see somebody with a bunch of different jobs, you wonder what’s wrong with them?

I can’t help but feel that way about Bell. He did follow Larry Fedora a few places, but he’s largely bounced around in his coaching career. UMass is better off just trying to outscore teams with that Independent schedule in hopes of getting to a bowl game, so maybe they achieve that with this hire, but there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.

Outlook: And skeptical I am. UMass is a hard enough job to begin with. The school doesn’t have a conference affiliation and usually winds up seeking transfers at key positions. Bell has to replace a phenomenal weapon in Andy Isabella and it won’t be easy. I’d expect a step backwards here.

 

Gary Andersen (Utah State) – Gary Andersen is back for another go-round with Utah State. After quitting on Wisconsin because they wouldn’t lower their academic requirements and throwing assistants under the bus at Oregon State, it is simply astonishing that Utah State would go this route. But, here we are.

This is a massive regression candidate. Off of the best offensive season in school history, Andersen’s lack of creativity and run-heavy style will neuter the Aggies. This is arguably the worst hire of them all.

Outlook: The Aggies top the list as one of the country’s biggest regression candidates with a terrible hire and a hire that doesn’t fit what they did so well last season. The Aggies will still play defense, which counts for something in the MWC, but this hire stinks.

 

Tyson Helton (Western Kentucky) – Mike Sanford Jr. did not work out. An offensive drop-off was expected when both Jeff Brohm and Brandon Doughty left, but it was really, really bad in Bowling Green. Tyson Helton eventually got on track at Tennessee as the offensive coordinator, but it was an ugly start to his tenure. Not ugly enough to dissuade the Hilltoppers from naming him the head coach, apparently.

Helton was on Brohm’s staff. This feels like a panic hire. Sanford needed to be let go, but the Hilltoppers would have been better off grabbing a veteran head coach looking for a job to get the program back to some level of respectability before taking a chance on another young, unproven, offensive-minded guy. Maybe Helton can rekindle that flame that blew out when Brohm left, but I’m not convinced.

Outlook: This hire makes no sense to me. It seems like Helton was hired solely because he was part of the Brohm regime that had so much success. Well, look at what Brohm is doing at Purdue. Maybe it’s just Brohm, who has been a hot coaching commodity for a while. Helton was likely just a passenger in that car and I don’t expect much of anything from WKU this season.

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