We’re still a few months away from the on-field action, but with spring practice sessions mostly concluded, college football’s list and ranking season is upon us. Coming later this week at CBS Sports is the annual ranking of all 65 Power Five head coaches.
However, the AAC’s coaches deserve a little love, too, as the conference continues to produce quality programs led by notable names. Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is entering the league this season at UCF, and he brings the league’s total of former Power Five coaches to four when counting Luke Fickell’s season as Ohio State’s interim head coach in 2011.
Beyond that group, which also includes SMU’s Sonny Dykes (Cal) and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), there’s also a couple of head coaches with particularly impressive resumes from their days as Power Five assistants. Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery was Robert Griffin III’s quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Baylor when Griffin won the Heisman Trophy in 2011. Meanwhile, second-year South Florida coach Jeff Scott was part of two national championship staffs at Clemson as co-offensive coordinator.
The other five coaches have also compiled good records at their current or previous head-coaching stops. So without further ado, here is how our staff lines up the AAC coaches entering 2021 using varying criteria that absorbs head-coaching history, recent on-field results, future potential and intangibles into one ranking.
After a 4-8 debut season at Cincinnati in 2018, Fickell is 31-5 (20-3 AAC) over the past three seasons and has established the Bearcats as the class of the AAC. Fickell’s quick elevation of the program after its demise under Tommy Tuberville has been remarkable. The longtime Ohio State assistant and former Buckeyes interim head coach could have departed for an attractive Power Five opportunity by now but has instead opted to stay and build a powerhouse in his home state. Unfortunately, it appears as though playoff expansion or a move to another league may be Cincinnati’s only path to the playoff. But the fact that Fickell has the program knocking on the door of the CFP is a testament to his chops as a head coach. A win at Notre Dame on Oct. 2 might send Fickell-Mania into overdrive after the Bearcats fell just short against Georgia in the Peach Bowl last season. 2020 AAC ranking: 1
2. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
The fact that Niumatalolo stays at No. 2 in the rankings after a 3-7 season shows the respect the 56-year-old veteran has gained while guiding the program to a 101-67 record since taking the reins from Paul Johnson at the end of the 2007 season. Navy has logged three seasons of 10 wins or more under his direction, including an 11-2 campaign in 2019. A cautious ramp-up to the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous injuries set the program back last season, but Navy and its option attack aren’t going anywhere. If the Midshipmen can settle on a quarterback and keep him healthy in 2021, they should return to bowl eligibility. However, if things break against them again, it could make three out of four years in which the Midshipmen have failed to make a bowl, and that would put Niumatalolo at risk of slipping in prestige among his AAC peers. 2020 AAC ranking: 2
3. Gus Malzahn, UCF
The fact that Malzahn is debuting three spots higher in the AAC coach rankings than his predecessor, Josh Heupel, shows how high the expectations are for the former Auburn coach in Orlando. Heupel was 22-4 in two seasons when he landed at No. 6 on this list last season, and he has since moved on to an SEC gig at Tennessee. So it’s not hard to see why the UCF faithful are optimistic that their football renaissance will continue under a coach who owns three victories against Nick Saban from a solid run in the SEC. The 55-year-old Malzahn could be an upgrade over Heupel, but he needs to demonstrate that he’s still a high-caliber offensive coach after his Auburn teams struggled to reach their potential offensively in recent years. Having a star at quarterback in Dillon Gabriel should mean the Knights start his tenure with a high floor. Nonconference games against Boise State and Louisville in September will give Malzahn a chance to shine early. 2020 AAC ranking: N/A
4. Sonny Dykes, SMU
It took Dykes just two seasons to produce SMU’s first double-digit win total since 1984 as he guided the program to a 10-3 record in 2019. The Mustangs dropped their final two games last season against Tulsa and East Carolina to finish 7-3 in 2020. The ECU loss was particularly confounding as the Mustangs fell behind by 38 and were eliminated from league title contention. But SMU dealt with some devastating injuries last season, and there is no denying Dykes has elevated the program to heights not seen since its pre-death penalty days in the 1980s. The success has been good enough to get the former Cal coach’s name in the mix for Power Five gigs as he was connected to the Tennessee opening this offseason before it went to Heupel. 2020 AAC ranking: 4
5. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Fritz just led Tulane to a third consecutive bowl game for the first time in program history. By going 6-6, the Green Wave also finished .500 or better in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1979-81. However, Tulane is just 6-10 in AAC play over the last two seasons and Fritz is only 29-33 overall in five seasons with the program. Generally speaking, he’s done much better than his three most-recent predecessors at the school. But it’s worth wondering at this point if Tulane is capable of a true breakthrough season under Fritz that sees the program reach double-digit victories for just the second time since 1934. With Oklahoma and Ole Miss on the 2021 nonconference schedule and Cincinnati back on the conference slate, merely reaching a fourth-straight bowl would be solid this season. 2020 AAC ranking: 3 (-2)
Dana Holgorsen has done little with Houston to justify his standing as the highest-paid coach in the AAC.
6. Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Holgorsen is just 7-13 in two tumultuous seasons at Houston, but the 49-year-old former Mike Leach assistant owns a couple of 10-win seasons from his time at West Virginia to prop up his resume for the time being. Holgorsen needs to get things going soon, though, or else Houston’s decision to make him the AAC’s highest-paid coach is going to look really foolish. The recruiting has been mediocre, the first two seasons have been poor and there haven’t been many tangible signs of progress. This year’s schedule offers no excuses for continued failure. Aside from a season-opening game against Texas Tech, Holgorsen’s employer from 2000-07, the nonconference portion is easy (Rice, Grambling State and UConn). The Cougars also have benefit of missing perennial AAC contenders Cincinnati and UCF during league play. 2020 AAC ranking: 7 (+1)
7. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Making sense of Montgomery’s tenure at Tulsa is a challenge, but the former Baylor co-offensive coordinator under Art Briles is trending up again after the Golden Hurricane finished 6-0 in regular-season AAC play last season. Tulsa was also competitive in losses to Oklahoma State in September, against Cincinnati in the AAC title game and against Mississippi State in the Armed Forces Bowl. The solid campaign came on the heels of a three-year stretch that saw Tulsa go just 9-27 with Montgomery at the helm. But, of course, that poor stretch followed a 10-win season in 2016. Montgomery isn’t the first coach to preside over dramatic ups and downs at Tulsa, but his tenure has certainly been a roller-coaster. Star linebacker Zaven Collins is off to the Arizona Cardinals as a first-round draft selection, but Montgomery has enough talent back to keep things moving in the right direction. 2020 AAC ranking: 9 (+2)
8. Rod Carey, Temple
Carey loses more ground than any coach in the AAC after the Owls regressed to 1-6 in 2020 following an 8-5 debut campaign for Carey at Temple in 2019. The Owls lost five games by double-digits last season and generally were just bad on the offensive side of the ball. That’s not a good sign for a coach with an offensive background. The big difference between Carey’s gig at Temple and his seven-year run at Northern Illinois is that he inherited the Northern Illinois gig after serving two years as an assistant there. There was no continuity for Carey as he transitioned into the Temple job, and the amount of roster turnover this offseason suggests the acclimation period is still ongoing. However, the addition of former Georgia quarterback D’Wan Mathis is a huge pickup that should bring reason for optimism. 2020 AAC ranking: 5 (-3)
9. Ryan Silverfield, Memphis
Silverfield did a nice job of keeping Memphis on the rails with an 8-3 record in 2020 during his first season at the helm after his promotion following Mike Norvell’s departure for Florida State. Considering that star playmakers Kenneth Gainwell and Damonte Coxie opted out, Silverfield’s debut campaign could have been much rougher. Now the 40-year-old in his first head-coaching gig will have to put his own imprint on the program as the Tigers replace Brady White at quarterback. Silverfield’s relative anonymity prior to his promotion explains his low spot on this list, but if he keeps Memphis at or near the top of the AAC heap this season with a new signal-caller in place, expect to see him make a nice leap on the 2022 list. 2020 AAC ranking: 11 (+2)
10. Mike Houston, East Carolina
A glance at ECU’s 3-6 record in 2020 during Houston’s second season after a 4-8 record during his first year might suggest the Pirates made little progress. But the Pirates had the benefit of beating up on Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, Old Dominion and UConn during Houston’s debut season. Only one of those victories came in a league game, and that was against a UConn team that finished 0-8 in the AAC and is no longer in the conference. So the fact that ECU went 3-6 in 2020 should not be written off as a total failure. In fact, the three wins were pretty impressive and included back-to-back victories over Temple and SMU to close the season. With most key players returning for Houston’s third season, the former James Madison and Citadel coach will have a good chance to move up on this list. 2020 AAC ranking: 8 (-2)
11. Jeff Scott, South Florida
Consecutive seasons of double-digit victories for South Florida in 2016 and 2017 under Willie Taggart and Charlie Strong feel quite distant after the Bulls bottomed out at 1-8 last year in Scott’s first season. The former Clemson co-offensive coordinator has some work to do if he is going to avoid being cast as the next Chad Morris on Dabo Swinney’s limited coaching tree. Morris went 2-10 in his first season in the AAC at SMU back in 2015 before building the program up to a 7-5 record in 2017 and departing for a failed two-year tenure at Arkansas. A tough nonconference schedule that includes NC State, Florida and BYU does Scott no favors as he seeks to gain traction in 2021. 2020 AAC ranking: 10 (-1)