Here are the ten most impactful coaching hires heading into the 2016 season.
#10 Barry Odom – Missouri
The Missouri Tigers decided to hire a familiar face from within for 2016 in Barry Odom. Odom has several ties to this Missouri program and was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator in 2015, which was Gary Pinkel’s last season as head coach. Besides a three-year stint at Memphis as the defensive coordinator, Odom was an assistant from 2009-2011 under Pinkel. There’s no doubt Missouri had a top-notch defense last season, but Odom is going to have to fix the lack of offensive production. Quarterback, Maty Mauk, has been dismissed from the football team so at least the Tigers don’t have to worry about his silliness. Drew Locke showed some potential when taking over for him in 2015, but we’ll see if Odom goes away from what Pinkel did on offense. Odom received a five-year deal, which is worth $2.35M annually to start off. The good news is that the Tigers are in the East, the “easier” side of the SEC, so winning is definitely possible. Also, there is already a well-established culture in Columbia for Odom to operate in. It’s just that he is going to have to recruit and fix some personnel problems this season.
# 9 Tracy Claeys – Minnesota
Like Odom, Tracy Claeys is known for his defensive side of the ball play. Claeys took over for Jerry Kill in the middle of 2015 after Kill resigned due to health problems. Claeys followed Kill around the coaching world, being a longtime defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, and Minnesota, just to name a few. Claeys went 2-4 last year after taking over for Kill, but won the Quick Lane Bowl to carry some momentum into the 2016 season. This is one of the more interesting new head coaches to watch because I feel like his first full season as a head coach could either be a huge success or a big disappointment. Claeys can have that big impact, but there’s going to be a lot of “ifs.” Mitch Leidner needs to build off of his success in the bowl game because the Gophers only averaged just over 22 points per game in 2015. There will be a lot of gaps to fill on defense and Claeys has handed the play-calling duties over to defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. We might not see the impact of Claeys until 2017.
#8 Will Muschamp – South Carolina
Will Muschamp has been doing everything right so far, according to Steve Spurrier. It didn’t take long for Muschamp to find another head coaching gig after being fired from Florida after 2014. Muschamp spent the 2015 season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator and jumped on the South Carolina opportunity once he was offered it. I’m surprised he’s already getting another chance as head coach this soon after a questionable exit at Florida. There’s no doubt Muschamp can coach defense because he turned the Gators into one of the best defenses in the country, but we all saw how awful the offense was and the inability at times to handle being the head coach. Muschamp will turn the Gamecocks defense around, potentially this season. But his problem is that he has nothing to work with on offense. The quarterback situation is still a mess and the personnel on offense is in flux. There are big issues with where the program is at right now compared to other SEC schools, but the potential is there for Muschamp to do wonders.
#7 Dino Babers – Syracuse
Dino Babers has only been a head coach for two years, but in those two years at Bowling Green, he won 18 games and scared the crap out of opposing teams with his offensive system. Babers had Matt Johnson to gun-sling the ball around, but quite honestly, Syracuse isn’t totally deficient in talent on the offensive side of the ball. Scott Shafer left behind a young but promising defense and an okay roster in general. The only problem with the personnel though is that Babers likes to play Tampa-2 on defense, which won’t suit Syracuse well because its weakest link is the defensive front. Playing in the Carrier Dome only helps Babers with his “pass all the time” offense. The only problem is that Babers even admits his offensive system doesn’t take off until year two. I would have Babers higher on the list, but the Orange have an unhealthy schedule to eat this season. I’ll still watch Syracuse though because it has healthy uniforms that look filthy good with the polished navy-blue and orange.
#6 Jay Hopson – Southern Miss
This could quietly be one of the best hires of the past offseason. Jay Hopson, a 24-year coaching veteran, inherits a good Southern Miss program left by Todd Monken. The native Mississippian transformed the Alcorn State program and led it to consecutive SWAC championships with a 32-17 record in his four-year stint as head coach of the Braves. Hopson already had two different stints coaching at Southern Miss; one as the defensive backs coach from 2001-2003 and the other stint as the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator from 2005-2007. The Golden Eagles have plenty of depth on defense besides the defensive-line, but they bring back a great quarterback in Nick Mullens after a 9-5 campaign in 2015. I like this hire because if you’re associated with Southern Miss, you’re getting a guy that knows Southern Miss football and a guy that doesn’t have to tear down and rebuild because of how good Moken left this team when he left.
#5 Justin Fuente – Virginia Tech
It’s hard to replace the greatest coach to ever be at the helm in Blacksburg, Frank Beamer, but Justin Fuente is the right guy for the job. I love the fact that he’s an offensive minded coach because it sits well with Virginia Tech. It sits well with the Hokies because Fuente is a smart man and decided to retain Bud Foster as the defensive coordinator, who’s been there for years under Beamer. I think the Hokies can take off right away with the recruiting hot-bed on the east coast and in the southeast region of the country. Fuente has a lot of returning starters this season from 2015, but the key losses are crucial; ones like J.C. Coleman, Michael Brewer, and Kendall Fuller. I think Fuente brings a genuine excitement to the Hokies program. “I can’t wait to lead our team out of the tunnel on Sept. 3, and I know Hokie Nation will be ready too”, said Fuente.
#4 Clay Helton – USC
This was one of the more unsexy hires in the offseason, but it was the one choice USC got right this offseason. The bad choice was hiring Lynn Swann as the man to replace Pat Haden as the athletic director. Helton took over as the interim coach in 2015 when the childish but helpless antics of Steve Sarkisian surrounded the program. There’s one thing Helton has that neither Pete Carroll, Lane Kiffin, nor Sarkisian had; and that’s being blue collar. USC and UCLA are practically the same; both programs are Hollywood and the players act Hollywood. The Trojans don’t have that toughness and grit it takes to win football games. The players are treated like royalty and can only find nothing but trouble in a glamorous party-town of Los Angeles. The fans reflect this too. The games are an event and not a football team on the field to many people of L.A. Helton is the perfect guy for this job because he has and will change that culture with his no-nonsense attitude. A USC offensive tackle even said, “We haven’t had a solid set of guidelines until now.” Helton has a hashtag around the program that says “#allaboutball.” Even though Cody Kessler is gone at quarterback, watch out for USC in 2016 with a different instilled culture.
#3 Bronco Mendenhall – Virginia
Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw Bronco Mendenhall leaving BYU coming. Mendenhall went 99-43 in his 11-year tenure as the head coach of the Cougars. For a program that has been in the dumpster for a while now, I’d say Mendenhall was a complete steal for Virginia. If you saw the Cougars’ 2016 schedule, you could understand why he would bolt for another job; brutal isn’t a good enough word for it. The well-respected coach brings a deep proven resume to the Cavaliers in terms of how quickly and successfully he brought BYU out of the dumpster. Mendenhall will bring a different but better identity, especially on defense. In the past eight out of ten seasons at BYU, he had the Cougars finishing in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. This could bode well for the Cavaliers because the ACC relies heavily on its offense to win games. The bottom line is that Mendenhall will give the Virginia offense an identity and make the defense much stronger even with rebuilding that has to be done, especially on the defensive line. But discipline is the biggest thing he will bring to this program. The Cavaliers last season had way too many mistakes and penalties and were careless with the football. That won’t happen under Mendenhall.
#2 Kirby Smart – Georgia
It’s a proven fact that if you’re on a branch off of the Nick Saban coaching tree, you’re going to be a good coach. Kirby Smart hasn’t proven himself as a head coach yet, but he’s a winner from winning multiple championships at Alabama as a defensive coordinator. Smart is going to make Georgia a national powerhouse sooner rather than later. Smart wanted this head coaching gig because Georgia is familiar to him. The former Bulldog assistant coach and player has plenty to be excited about because of the resources he has to work with to take this program to new heights. Smart is already on track with accomplishing a major feat that needed to be done in the offseason and that was to keep the commitment of five-star quarterback, Jacob Eason. I saw this nationally fifth-ranked recruit out of Washington impress in the spring game. I can’t see any way that Smart can start Greyson Lambert over Eason even though Lambert has experience. I’m telling you; Eason has the potential to be better than Matthew Stafford was at Georgia and can win the Heisman. The spring game looked like a piece of cake for Eason. Everyone wants to pick Tennessee and Florida in the SEC East. DO NOT sleep on the Bulldogs; Smart is already the second or third-best coach in the SEC, even without head coaching experience.
#1 Mark Richt – Miami (FL)
Mark Richt might not get the most results out of his Hurricane team in 2016, but I believe he will have the biggest impact. Much like USC, there is a culture problem at Miami. Too many people thought the “Temple Tough” Al Golden would restore “The U” when taking the Miami job, but he didn’t leave it in any better shape than where the program was when he was hired. The program is just dead with very little fan support. The stadium is miles and miles away from campus with students closer to the beach. Nobody is excited…until Richt got hired. The Miami alum shows promise to rejuvenate and energize a dead fan base and bring some of the swagger back from its glory days. It might sound cheesy, but Richt will build a winning and loving culture that players will buy into; all of his Georgia players did. He only got fired from Georgia because he couldn’t win the big games; with the fact that he had no quarterback last season too. Richt has one of the best quarterbacks left on the roster in Brad Kaaya and has put a vibe of confidence in this whole team since spring ball.