Primed for Power 5: Coaches ready to step up

The gap between power conferences and the so-called Group of Five continues to grow. When the 12-team College Football Playoff was proposed, an adrenaline rush of hope surged through the Group of Five.

The SEC’s impending acquisition of Oklahoma and Texas, the looming expansion of the Big 12 and the subsequent politicization of the playoff have tempered any optimism.

With the remaining eight Big 12 schools facing a significant revenue cut (the most dire of estimates is nearly $25 million) when its current television deal expires in four years, there’s uncertainty all around the non-power leagues.

Will the Big 12 play saboteur and attempt to annex top teams from the Mountain West and the American Athletic Conference? What could the trickle down look like?

These questions loom over the Group of Five, where the most successful coaches face an annual question: Can I cross the moat? Here’s a look at the Group of Five coaches best positioned to move up in this cycle.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on the sideline during a game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Jan. 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell on the sideline during a game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Jan. 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach

He’s 31-6 the last three years at Cincinnati, and this season will include marquee games at Indiana and Notre Dame. Fickell has never lived outside the state of Ohio and has a huge name in that Midwest footprint, where he’s been a dogged recruiter. Can he build the Bearcats to be strong enough that they can jump the moat? He’s not anxious to leave, as his most ideal fits come at a handful of elite Midwest jobs.

Billy Napier, Louisiana

Napier (28-11) shied away from interest from Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina, which aren’t exactly paragons of program and administrative stability. Napier has the best job in his conference; look for him to target a top-half of the league job wherever he goes. Remember, he was the offensive coordinator at Arizona State before being hired at Louisiana in 2018. A win at Texas to open the season would be an exclamation point on a resume that’s already got him poised to make a jump.

Jay Norvell, Nevada

The Wolf Pack are coming off a dynamic 7-2 season and have the core of team that promises to be a factor in the national conversation, as quarterback Carson Strong is one of the country’s most intriguing prospects. Norvell, 58, has coached at many of the places that are in the crosshairs — Arizona State, UCLA and Nebraska. He’d be a prime target for anything that opens out West.

Sonny Dykes, SMU

Dykes has gone 17-6 the past two years at SMU, deftly utilizing the transfer portal and recruiting locally with abandon. He’d be the leading candidate for any job in the Texas footprint, and it’s not lost on the Tech brass that Sonny’s father, Spike Dykes, spent 14 years as coach there. Dykes will be picky about leaving, as he’s found a perfect fit at SMU after an awkward one at California.

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina

The magical college football story of 2020 sets up well for a sequel. Coastal returns star quarterback Grayson McCall and 18 other starters. Chadwell drew interest from multiple SEC programs last year, and that profile will rise as the Chants should be favored by more than a touchdown in every game until Oct. 20.

Hugh Freeze, Liberty

There’s an old saying in college basketball — you have to be better than your problems. Freeze has been very good at Liberty, as he’s sent the program soaring by going 18-6 and winning two bowl games. After going 10-1 last year, however, he wasn’t better in the eyes of the open SEC jobs than the infamous escort incident and NCAA issues that imploded his Ole Miss career. With Malik Willis back at quarterback, will winning help distance Freeze from his past?

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze celebrates with his team after defeating Georgia Southern in the 2019 Cure Bowl. (James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Liberty coach Hugh Freeze celebrates with his team after defeating Georgia Southern in the 2019 Cure Bowl. (James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Bill Clark, UAB

With two Conference USA titles in the last three seasons, it’s surprising Clark hasn’t found himself in the mix for higher-profile jobs. The job he’s done resuscitating UAB after the program shut down has been one of the most impressive in the sport this generation. He’s 26-11 the last three years, and recruiting will only pick up thanks to new facilities and a resplendent stadium that debuts this year.

Brent Brennan, San Jose State

The UCLA graduate has pulled off one of the most impressive turnarounds in the sport, pulling San Jose State from 1-11 in 2018 to blowing out Boise State to win the Mountain West last year. If San Jose State shows some spark at USC on Sept. 4, Brennan’s stock will only continue to rise. The Spartans have 19 starters back, including quarterback Nick Starkel.

Jason Candle, Toledo

He’s been in the mix for a handful of marquee jobs the past few years — UCF, Missouri and Boston College among them. The Rockets have flipped trajectory after slipping to 6-6 in 2019, as they’ve replenished offensive weapons and have a defense that should thrust them back into league title contention.

Jeff Monken, Army

He’s emerged as a candidate at a flurry of high-profile places the past few years — Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kansas among them — but hasn’t quite gotten across the goal line. Army’s 9-3 season pushed Monken in the spotlight even more last year. Games with Wisconsin, Wake Forest and Liberty offer some high-profile opportunities to seize the spotlight.

Mike Neu, Ball State

He coaches the defending MAC champs and has beaten Candle in two straight head-to-head matchups. Another MAC title is possible, with 18 starters back and 16 super seniors. Neu has NFL experience as Drew Brees’ quarterback coach in New Orleans and calls plays for Ball State. His DC, Tyler Stockton, also trends as one of the top Group of Five coordinators.

Sean Lewis, Kent State

At 35, Lewis is the archetype of the young, energetic and play-calling head coach that ADs and search firms tend to adore. He’s been historically good at Kent, guiding them to the school’s first bowl win and leading the nation in total offense and scoring offense last season. If Kent can win the school’s first MAC title since 1972, he’ll soon be soaring to greener pastures.

Kalani Sitake, BYU

BYU’s 11-1 season came in part because of the magic of Zach Wilson and in part because of a watered-down shotgun schedule due to COVID-19. BYU should be stout in the post-Wilson era, and that will be tested immediately with a game against Arizona (neutral) and then home games with Utah and Arizona State. A 3-0 start would position Sitake well for bigger jobs out West.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake walks off the field after a close loss to Boise State on Nov. 3, 2018. (Loren Orr/Getty Images)
BYU coach Kalani Sitake walks off the field after a close loss to Boise State on Nov. 3, 2018. (Loren Orr/Getty Images)

Jeff Traylor, UTSA

He flipped UTSA from 4-8 to 7-5 in his first year last season, reenergizing the program and announcing them again as a factor in Conference USA. He’s a former star Texas high school coach, and is well positioned for bigger jobs in the state.

Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

He’s the epitome of a professional, steady football coach. Louisiana Tech has reached seven straight bowl games and Holtz has won 115 career games as an FBS coach. He drew interest from Kansas last year, and his diverse geographic profile could help him become a candidate anywhere east of the Rockies.

Willie Fritz, Tulane

Taking Tulane to three straight bowl games is the equivalent of a modern football miracle. The school’s recruiting has also been historically good. At 61, Fritz still shows he has energy for the right opportunity. Could something in the Big 12 footprint open that needs a steady hand? It will help that talented second-year quarterback Michael Pratt (20 TD passes) gives the school an identity for years to come.

Will Healy, Charlotte

Charlotte’s 2-4 season cooled Healy’s name a bit in the industry. He drew Power Five interest after leading Charlotte to its first-ever bowl game in 2019. Huge showcase on the opening Friday of Week 1, as the 49ers play Duke at home in a game that will have a lot of national eyeballs.

Troy Calhoun, Air Force

Calhoun is 14-5 the last two years, and he’s long been linked — and many times turned down — higher-profile jobs. He’s been at Air Force since 2007, but at 54 it’s possible he has one more challenge ahead. The track record is proven after 101 wins at a hard job.

Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

After going 11-2 in 2020, Navy sunk to 3-7 last year and got shut out against Army. Niumatalolo has an impressive body of work, going 101-67 entering his 15th season. A turnaround could get him back in the conversation, as he’ll always be viable on the West Coast and at resource-challenged jobs.

Willie Taggart, FAU

Taggart went 5-4 in his debut, and he’s already stocking the program with talent. A few boom years at one of the best jobs in the league will reposition him for interviews at Power Five jobs.

FCS COACHES TO WATCH (alphabetical order)

Nathan Brown, Central Arkansas

Brown impressed last year in high-profile games against Austin Peay, UAB and in the Trey Lance showcase against North Dakota State. He brings quarterback pedigree and a strong offensive track record.

Brian Bohannon, Kennesaw State

He’s 52-16 in five years, and has long been considered a prime candidate if any of the coaches ever left one of the military academies. He’s led Kennesaw to three FCS playoff appearances, and he has a great reputation in Georgia from his time at Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech.

Bob Chesney, Holy Cross

He’s won a combined 82 games in 11 seasons at Salve Regina, Assumption and Holy Cross, which don’t exactly have storied football pedigrees. He’s led his teams to the playoffs in five of the past six years. Two of those came the past two years at Holy Cross. The others were at Assumption College in Division II.

Curt Cignetti, James Madison

He’s made the FCS final four in both of his seasons there. His background going back to Nick Saban’s early staff at Alabama would make him attractive in the FBS.

Matt Entz, North Dakota State

Trey Lance’s sudden departure ended the championship streak. But Entz is a national championship-winning coach, which will always bring value.

Jay Hill, Weber State

He’s dominated the Big Sky, going 26-4 the past four years. After leading Weber State to five straight postseasons, he’s emerged as a candidate for a handful of FBS jobs. He has a big showcase at Utah to open the season.

Nick Hill, Southern Illinois

The Salukis ended up in the FCS playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. The school announced itself with a thumping of North Dakota State last year. Hill fits the mold of former quarterback and play-caller that’s attractive in modern football.

K.C. Keeler, Sam Houston State

He’s the first coach to ever win FCS national titles at different schools, winning at Delaware in 2003 and then Sam Houston State last year. It’s hard to top Keeler’s winning pedigree, as his teams have played in nine national championship games in his career.

Scotty Walden, Austin Peay

Can he follow Will Healy’s lead and catapult from Clarksville to the FBS? He served as Southern Miss’ interim coach last year and also brings head coaching experience in Division III. Will the best recruiting class in the OVC translate to wins?