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Ranking Major CFB Coaching Hires: Strong No. 1

by Christopher Smith
Jan 09, 2014 7:29 PM EST



Unlike the NFL, college football doesn't have a Black Monday.

Instead, the coaching carousel started to spin back in September when USC fired Lane Kiffin.

It's played out over a period of months, and still will as Vanderbilt has an opening to fill in the SEC. But the majority of the jobs are finalized with Penn State and Louisville naming head coaches today.

I've ranked the major-conference hirings. Let me know where I went wrong.

1. Texas

New Hire: Charlie Strong, former Louisville head coach

Analysis: A defensive-minded coach, Strong went 37-15 at Louisville. His No. 1 mission will be to secure and develop an A-list quarterback for the Longhorns, which his predecessor was unable to do. Strong has proven capable of the latter with Teddy Bridgewater, and with the Texas name and resources, should be in position to recruit if not a carbon copy, something close.

A long-time assistant at Florida, Strong has worked under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, two coaches in the current college football pantheon along with Nick Saban. Bridgewater obscured what was a sound and underrated Louisville defense. It may take two or three seasons, but Strong will have Texas competing for Big 12 titles and a spot in the College Football Playoff before long.

Red McCombs' comments aside, it appears that new athletic director Steve Patterson did well to seize control of the hiring process and cut down on the number of behind-the-scenes chiefs as well, converting them to loud and obnoxious Indians.

Open Because: Long-time coach Mack Brown resigned after a damning track record with quarterbacks in the last four years.

Grade: A

2. Washington

New Hire: Chris Petersen, former Boise State head coach

Analysis: Any time you lose a coach to one of the Top 5 jobs in the country (Texas, Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma) and the replacement has a legitimate argument as better than the original, you've made a good hire. Petersen was 92-12 at Boise State with two BCS bowl wins.

Washington isn't the first school to try to lure Petersen from Idaho, but lucked out with the timing as the Broncos had a down year after moving to the Mountain West Conference and the coach probably is as aware as ever of his former program's ceiling. It's forgotten now, but USC actually interviewed Petersen as well. Reports cited "differing philosophies" between Trojans athletic director Pat Haden and Petersen.

Huskies fans have an inflated sense of self-worth about their program, which clearly is behind Oregon, Stanford, USC and UCLA in the Pac-12, but Petersen is capable of getting Washington in place to pick off any one of those schools if they slip in any given year and contend for a top three spot in the conference.

Open Because: Steve Sarkisian left for USC.

Grade: A-

3. Penn State

New Hire: James Franklin, former Vanderbilt head coach

Analysis: This was a great hire for Penn State. For everything Bill O'Brien accomplished in the wake of Joe Paterno and crippling NCAA sanctions, he left the Nittany Lions in the lurch. With limited scholarships and signs of fracturing within the roster, especially at quarterback, the school will benefit from a name with buzz, which Franklin provides.

By now, we've all memorized Franklin's resume during his short career at Vandy. Job well done, right? I think he went too far, but Dennis Dodd of CBS makes a good point in reminding us of the sex scandal that took place on Franklin's watch with the Commodores, which doesn't mesh well with State College post-Jerry Sandusky. Also, Franklin's accomplishments, remarkable as they are, represent a pretty small sample size and include 2013, a fluky year in the SEC East. Franklin probably is a touch overrated at this point.

Still, he comes with an abundance of benefits aside from a strong on-field coaching resume. His passion, salesmanship and ability to lift a brand fit what Penn State needs to grit through the next two tough seasons.

Open Because: O'Brien bolted for the Houston Texans after winning 15 games in two seasons and taking the NCAA sanctions baton to the halfway mark.

Grade: B+

4. USC

New Hire: Steve Sarkisian, former Washington head coach

Analysis: Anyone would be better than Lane Kiffin at this point, as interim coach Ed Orgeron and interim-interim coach Clay Helton proved in the last half of the season. USC was in a tough spot with Orgeron endearing himself to the players and fans, but I think they made the right decision in avoiding the former Ole Miss flameout, which is supported by the fact that he hasn't come up publicly in a single head coaching search since.

Still, overly harsh Huskies fans saw Sarkisian only as an OK coach, but weren't overly enamored with him. The Pete Carroll ties help smooth things over with SoCal fans, and Sarkisian should be smiling. It's not difficult to recruit 17- and 18-year-olds to the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles and the nearby beaches when you're the head man for the Trojans.

Sarkisian is a proven coach who is capable of winning with talented players and generally constructs a solid staff of assistants. There's nothing wrong with the hire. But if you're USC, I'd like to think you can do a half-step better.

Open Because: The school ended the Kiffin dumpster fire fairly early in the year and decided not to retain Orgeron as head coach.

Grade: B-

5. Wake Forest

New Hire: Dave Clawson, former Bowling Green head coach

Analysis: Clawson is a miniature version of Franklin: He went 18-8 in the last two seasons at a school not known as a football giant, knocking off undefeated Northern Illinois and Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch in the MAC championship.

It's tough to win at Wake Forest, but it's even tougher to win consistently, as Jim Grobe found out. Clawson's Falcons finished fifth in the FBS in scoring defense this season, allowing just 14.8 points per game before its bowl game, zigging while the rest of the conference zagged. It's not a bad strategy to carry with him to the Demon Deacons in a conference that isn't known to play defense outside of Florida State, Virginia Tech and to a lesser extent Pitt.

I can't rank Clawson ahead of any of the above coaches, but it's hard to imagine Wake Forest doing any better.

Open Because: Grobe resigned after 77 wins in 13 seasons, tying the school wins record.

Grade: B-

6. Louisville

New Hire: Bobby Petrino, former Western Kentucky coach

Analysis: Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is, by all accounts, an intelligent man who made a calculated decision. He's getting supplexed by the national media today, and deservedly so. The spin resonating from Louisville, Ky., is enough to make a competitive eater with a cast-iron stomach lose his lunch. Unless anyone buys that Petrino, a notorious jerk and hypocrite whom most perceive as amoral, is a new man, there are several staff members and players in for a treat.

If you're a high school quarterback with the choice to go to Florida State, Clemson, Miami or Louisville in next year's ACC, which are you picking? We know negative recruiting is common practice, and the Cardinals just gave their new rivals an entire jungle militia to use against them. Petrino knows X's and O's as well as anyone and can develop players, but will he be able to sell himself and his program in the living rooms of moms and dads?

Also, in another underreported element, Louisville (or Petrino) owes Western Kentucky a $1.2 million buyout — chump change for a Texas or USC, but hefty for a man who already comes with baggage.

However, let's not kid ourselves. Major college football is about one thing: Making money. And to a lesser extent, wins and losses. If Jurich and Louisville can weather the public relations hurricane, they may have gotten a steal. How often does a program of Louisville's caliber have a chance to hire a proven head coach who has won in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, Big East and SEC?

The team's already losing a surefire first-round quarterback and one of the most respected head coaches in college football, and the success of Texas A&M and Missouri aside, it's not easy to learn a new conference, particularly when it's an upgrade. This is a huge gamble, but one with plenty of upside — at least in terms of wins.

Open Because: Strong accepted the Texas job.

Grade: Incomplete

Other Notables

Boise State: Bryan Harsin is the man for the job. It's one thing to replace a Bobby Bowden or a Joe Paterno at a major institution, but it's even more of a challenge at a school like Boise State. Petersen did an excellent job. But the transition is mitigated by the fact that Harsin is so familiar with the school as a player and coach, and he also has roots in the area, which will help with recruiting and support.

Wyoming: Hiring away three-time defending FCS champion Craig Bohl from North Dakota State may be the steal of the year considering it's basically a lateral move at this point. But the Cowboys lost quarterback Brett Smith and backup Jason Thompson in the meantime.

Army: Schools that run the triple-option ironically have limited options when it comes to hiring head coaches, but the Black Knights did well to raid Georgia Southern for Jeff Monken. Still, it's hard to foresee the team ending a 12-game losing streak to Navy any time soon.

Arkansas State: So long, one-and-done era. Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will return in 2015 and 2016 unless some school wants to spend $3 million to pry away a Sun Belt coach. Anderson is the fifth Red Wolves head man in five years.

The Rest: Bowling Green, Connecticut, Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern, Massachusetts, Miami (Ohio).

Open Jobs: Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, UAB.