College football is rather methodical and predictable in the way that it handles coaching vacancies, with only a few programs changing hands each year. It’s usually the same batch of candidates for the same jobs, usually a struggling Power Five program poaching a Group of Five candidate or a hot Power Five assistant.
But something is different this season. There are five coaching vacancies that are expected to be filled after the season, with USC, South Carolina, UCF, Miami (FL), Maryland, and Illinois set to have openings.
Other programs could also ponder changing direction, including Purdue, Iowa State, Wake Forest, and Rutgers, creating the potential for eighteen coaches to change places in just the span of a month or so.
That’s not even counting the Group of Five jobs that could potentially fire their coaches (looking at you, North Texas). Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: the 2015 College Football Coaching Carousel is gonna be one hell of a ride.
There are a lot of candidates from the Mid-American Conference (AKA “The Cradle of Coaches”) that will certainly field offers from a few of these programs. The only question is: will they leave, or stay? Here are the top candidates:
PJ Fleck, head coach, Western Michigan
PJ Fleck is the youngest coach in the league at 34, and made some bold promises in his first year, going 1-11 in 2013, with a loss to Nicholls State at home highlighting his rookie campaign.
Fleck was sort of a laughing stock at that point (introducing the “Row The Boat” dance didn’t really help his image), but he had the last laugh in 2014, with the Broncos stomping all over their MAC schedule, going 7-1 in the MAC West. WMU competed for MAC West crown until the last week of the season before kicking woes helped the Huskies clinch the division. WMU finished 8-5 and played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
This season is starting to look like the last one, as WMU is currently 3-0 in conference, and 4-3 overall after facing a tough schedule that included Michigan State, Ohio State, and Georgia Southern. Fleck is a master recruiter and has reeled in the best-rated recruiting classes in the MAC the last two seasons, and has learned from some of the best in football, including Jim Tressel, Jerry Kill, and Greg Schiano. Fleck has an overall losing record (13-19), but the rapid turnaround of the Broncos football program, combined with his energy and youth, surely puts him on the radar. A potential boondoggle could be a scary $6.6 million buyout, but it could be totally worth it for a desperate program looking to rebuild their culture.
Potential spots: Miami (FL), UCF, Maryland, Iowa State.
Dino Babers, head coach, Bowling Green
Unlike Fleck, Babers has previous experience as a head coach, coaching the Jimmy Garappolo-led Eastern Illinois Panthers for two years before taking the job at Bowling Green. Babers was also an assistant coach at many stops, including offensive coordinator stops at Arizona and Texas A&M, and was the assistant head coach at UCLA before finding his way to Baylor, where he helped construct Art Brile’s famous Air Raid offense.
Babers’ first season at the helm of the Falcons saw BGSU repeat as MAC East Champions, despite running their offense with the second-string quarterback the entire season (Matt Johnson was lost to a hip injury in the first quarter of the first game). This season, the Falcons demolished Maryland and defeated Purdue on the road, while also taking current Top 25 team Memphis to the wire. They’re also undefeated in the MAC, recently tearing apart a top 20 defense in Kent State just this past week.
Babers has a proven track record as an offensive wizard, but his defenses have typically been below-average. That being said, Babers is 33-15 as a head coach in four years, and has never had a losing season. Surely, that has to count for something.
Potential spots: Maryland, Illinois, Purdue.
Matt Campbell, head coach, Toledo
Matt Campbell has been the couch du jour this season, as his Rockets squad has been ranked in the AP Top 25 for much of the season. It’s been quite the process for Campbell when it comes to building the Rockets, where he has been a part of the staff since 2009, when he was hired on as an offensive line coach.
Campbell took over as an interim coach after Tim Beckman departed for Illinois in 2011, and never really looked back. Campbell is an impressive 33-15 despite never holding a head-coaching job before, and his experience with Division III powerhouse Mount Union, where he won four championships under Larry Kehres, shows Campbell’s character and capability.
Campbell, like Babers, has never had a losing record (or a .500 record!) in his coaching career thus far, and his recruiting classes have been behind only Western Michigan in terms of quality. Campbell is an Ohio native, and it seems like he is quite content in staying there. A huge offer could persuade him though.
Potential spots: Illinois, Purdue, UCF, Iowa State, Maryland.
Rod Carey, head coach, Northern Illinois
It’s a hard spot for a coach when they have to make their debut in a BCS bowl game against the legendary Florida State program on a “neutral field” in Miami, FL. That’s the situation that Rod Carey found himself in after Dave Doeren left for NC State, and he performed admirably, keeping it within a score and a half until the fourth quarter, when EJ Manuel ran away with the victory.
Since then, Carey has only dominated the MAC West (and the MAC) in his two plus seasons as the head man, going 28-9 (18-2 MAC) since taking over the Huskies, appearing in the MAC Championship Game in both seasons and winning one.
The former lineman at Indiana employs a run-first offense that has found success in a conference that is increasingly pass-happy, and until this season, had never lost three games in a row (or in general). If there is anything stopping Carey from experiencing success at a different level, it is the fact that he is a notoriously bad finisher and game manager in close games, a fact that can be seen in cruising bowl losses three years in a row. Well, that and the lack of success his predecessor has had at NC State.
Potential landing spots: UCF or as a G5 replacement.