Evaluating College Football Head Coaching Changes: Part 3
Next up on our review of head coaching changes (see Part 1 and Part 2) is our non-power 5 hires. I pay a lot of attention to the smaller conferences. Every oddsmaker and bettor knows that Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State are extremely good and loaded with talent. But not everyone knows the inner-workings and tendencies of a middle-tier Sun Belt team. In most cases, the following first-year coaches are young, energetic, and in win-now mode with the hopes of parlaying their success into a higher paying gig. Not all will succeed but I’ve isolated a few that should pay dividends for bettors.
Steve Campbell – South Alabama
This is a slam dunk hire. South Alabama was not as bad as its 4-8 record. The Jaguars actually improved on the defensive side of the ball even though they were ultra-young. They also had two quarterbacks who were injured and that resulted in zero offensive identity. Despite all that, South Alabama beat an 11-win Troy team on the road as +18 underdogs and also took down Arkansas State catching +12.5. That tells me there are tools to work with. Enter Campbell who in three years took FCS Central Arkansas from 19 ppg to 36 ppg. He runs a spread offense adopted from his stint as OC at under longtime MTSU head coach and offensive guru, Rick Stockstill. Campbell began his coaching career as an offensive line coach and will use that knowledge to create lots of motion and big run plays that eventually set up play action. He’s the perfect hire for a squad that has had lots of trouble moving the football. Campbell is a good recruiter, runs a difficult offense to prepare for, and has experience on defense. USA’s early schedule is tough with four out of its first six on the road including trips to Oklahoma State, Memphis and Appalachian State. Be patient because there’s a lot of money-making potential.
Sean Lewis – Kent State
I wonder how excited Lewis’ agent was when he found out his client wanted to take on one of the toughest jobs in the country. Lewis is the youngest coach in college football at just 31 years old. He was head coach Dino Babers’ offensive coordinator at both Syracuse and Bowling Green. Kent State hasn’t averaged over 21 ppg since 2012. Bowling Green averaged double that output in 2015 under Lewis. He has zero offensive talent to work with but does have a solid defensive foundation as former head coach Paul Haynes recruited well — something that was hard to notice due to how infrequently the offense put together sustained drives. It won’t take much for Lewis to win his players over; they’re obviously starved for any type of success. That success may not equate to straight up wins but expect more points on the board and more competitive showings.
Billy Napier – UL-Lafayette
Former head coach Mark Hudspeth leaves the program — particularly the offense — in good shape for Napier who had offensive coordinator stints at Arizona State and Clemson. The Ragin’ Cajuns improved in nearly every offensive category in 2017 despite using three different underclassmen quarterbacks. Napier can take the spread he ran at ASU and plug-and-play in Year 1. The obstacle will be defense as Napier has no history of working with that side of the ball. He does however have some recruiting roots in the area after spending three seasons at Alabama and at 39 years old should be a good fit long term. Similar to last season (8-4 O/U) I’m projecting a lot of high scoring shootouts from this bunch.
Dana Dimel – UTEP
Here we have the second most difficult job in the nation and I was a bit shocked a 55-year-old former Bill Snyder assistant took it. UTEP finished 130th in scoring and total offense last season. The previous coaching staff showed zero ability to draw up a game plan and even lesser of a clue on how to develop its players. On paper, Dimel isn’t a bad fit as he lots of experience working with overlooked kids during his time at Kansas State. His run-based offense is perfect for a squad that is undersized and lacking talent. UTEP isn’t going to the postseason any time soon but Dimel offers hope that points will be put on the board in a more frequent manner. My only quibble is his age and whether or not he’ll see the rebuild through or jump to a higher paying power conference OC gig should the opportunity arise. Still, UTEP is in much better hands than the last regime.
Chad Lunsford – Georgia Southern
Lunsford technically isn’t a first-year head coach. He’s been with the program since 2013 and was named the interim after Tyson Summers was fired midseason. Summers upset the fan base by straying from the triple option that the program has long been noted for. That will return under Lunsford who knows the system well having worked with the offense as an assistant. The defense showed mild improvement after he took over for Summers including a 52-0 win over South Alabama. He doesn’t however have much of any experience working on that side of the ball and will be ultra-thin on depth. To me, the season hinges on the offensive line. A key injury or two could derail any noticeable improvement.
Read all four installments evaluating new hires for the 2018 college football season:
Part 1: Power Conference Coaching Changes
Part 2: Power Conference New Hires (continued)
Part 4: Non-Power 5 New Hires