Contextualizing Where Every FBS Head Coach Stands Going Into 2018
In our study of NFL teams, we learned that teams that won or lost an unsustainable amount of close games in a single season had a very strong correlation with overall record regression the next year. It is more valuable, at least in terms of prediction, to treat close games, games decided by seven points or fewer, as ties rather than wins or losses. At the same time, it is more valuable to treat decisive wins, games decided by eight points or more, as true wins or losses.
When applied to college football, this logic also holds up. Over the last decade, Alabama, Boise State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have combined to post an FBS best 457-48 record in decisive games. Collectively, they have gone just 97-71 in close games, a win percentage of just 58 percent. This means that even the best of the best, the programs which blow teams out the most while also avoid being blown out, barely have any significant ability to win single-score games over a large period of time. Truthfully, the ability to win close games is more of a myth than a tangible trait.
The team with the best close game win percentage over the last decade? Ole Dominion with an 11-4 record. Wyoming (30-17) ranks eighth and Louisiana-Lafayette (26-15) ranks ninth. Close game numbers are mostly bunk. The truth is, no matter how important we anecdotally claim winning close games is, 1) winning close games is not nearly as stable year to year as winning decisive games is and 2) the vast majority of wins at the FBS level come from decisive games.
In the end, beating or losing to teams by eight or more points really is the signal for how successful a program is while winning or losing close games is volatile noise. In an attempt to make sense of an FBS landscape that now includes 130 programs, we took a look at how every single coach in the FBS has performed at their current job. By treating the noise (close games) as ties and the signal (decisive games) as wins or losses, we are able to calculate an “expected win percentage,” which gives us a number that better reflects the success of a program more than a pure win-loss record would. This is especially true for coaches with only one or two seasons at their current school, as the "noise" can have a stronger impact on their record.
To be fair to the relative difficulty of building programs in different conferences, head coaches are split up into their respective conferences before ranking them by expected win percentage.
The AAC is the new breeding ground for Power 5 head coaches. Since 2015, the conference has produced Chad Morris (Arkansas), Scott Frost (Nebraska), Willie Taggart (Oregon and Florida State), Matt Rhule (Baylor), Tom Herman (Texas) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) as offensive-orientated coaches. At the same time, turnover at the top of the coaching chain has led to inexperience in the conference.
The four head coaches with at least a 60 percent expected win percentage have all posted two or fewer seasons at their current jobs, with three of them (South Florida's Charlie Strong, Houston's Major Applewhite and Temple's Geoff Collins) joining the AAC last year. Outside of Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, there really is no veteran presence in an ever-changing conference.
Keep an eye on Strong's Bulls moving forward. The team went 10-2 in his first year as a head coach, with a four-point loss to Houston and a seven-point loss to Central Florida being the team's only blemishes. Overshadowed by the success of an undefeated UCF and the personality of FAU's Lane Kiffin, Strong had one of the better starts for a Group of 5 coach in recent memory.
The ACC is the definition of a healthy middle class. The only coaches with an expected win percentage under 50 percent coach for Syracuse, Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke, all programs which have been considered doormats of the Power 5 for years. To some extent, there is only so much coaches can do at those schools. Some, like Duke's David Cutcliffe and Wake Forest's Dave Clawson, are actually meeting reasonable expectations.
At the top end of the conference, there is the long-established Clemson program ran by Dabo Swinney and the revitalized Miami program headed by Mark Richt. Everything in between is essentially college football's middle class, teams which could compete for a second-tier bowl game every year but are not likely to contend for a national title unless something drastic changes.
With a combined record of 3-37 in decisive games, Matt Rhule's Baylor and David Beaty's Kansas give no reason for optimism in the near future. The only other head coach with an expected win percentage under 50 percent in the Big 12 is Kliff Kingsbury, whose Texas Tech Red Raiders have basically done very well against below .500 teams and have done very poorly against teams above .500. Texas Tech is the schoolyard bully, picking on smaller kids without being able to size up competition their own size.
At the top of the conference, the biggest names at the moment are clearly Lincoln Riley, who took the Oklahoma Sooners to the playoff in his first year as a head coach, and Gary Patterson, who has crafted TCU's program with his bare hands over the last two decades. Despite going 7-6 in Tom Herman's first year, Texas is an interesting program to watch. If we do buy into the fact that close game records are more noise than signal, the Longhorns' 1-4 record in close games last year (with two of those coming in overtime) should be looked at as more of a fluke than an indictment.
Big TenThe Big Ten essentially revolves around Wisconsin dominating the Big Ten West while the four powers in the Big Ten East (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State) cannibalize themselves. On paper, these numbers reflect that exactly. In 41 games, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst has lost just one game by eight or more points, an incredible feat. Somehow, though, Chryst has been particularly bad at winning close games, which has hurt his team in big moments.
With D.J. Durkin now gone from Maryland, there are only two head coaches who have established bottom-dwelling programs: Rutgers' Chris Ash and Illinois' Lovie Smith. Combined, they are 7-31 in decisive games since 2016. Their hot seats should be molten headed into 2018, but the rest of the conference is in good standing.
To absolutely no one's surprise, Lane Kiffin's Florida Atlantic Owls are the cream of the crop in Conference USA. After opening the year with a 42-19 loss to Navy and a 31-14 loss to Wisconsin, the Owls rallied to an 11-3 record, including an 8-0 mark in Conference USA. Until you are told otherwise, assume Kiffin is going to be the top dog.
Other notable coaches in the conference are Louisiana Tech's Skip Holtz, son of Lou, UTSA's Frank Wilson, noted as a strong recruiter during his time with LSU, and Marshall's Doc Holliday, who has been creatively recruiting at his mid-major program long before Kiffin joined the conference. At the bottom end of the conference, the upstart Charlotte 49ers under Brad Lambert are 3-21 in decisive games.
Brian Kelly's 2012 Notre Dame team that went to the national championship game went an incredible 5-0 in close games. To some extent, the elevated status he gets for that season, from our perspective, is based on a good amount of luck. With that being said, his 45-14 record in decisive games is one of the best for someone with his tenure.
Behind Notre Dame, there are two tiers of independent teams. The mid-level independents are BYU (expected win percentage of 56 percent) and Army (53 percent). For BYU, Kalani Sitake's two years are below their expectations. For Army, Jeff Monken's four years have revived the program. The third tier of Mark Whipple's UMass and New Mexico State's Doug Martin, who combined have gone 16-58 in decisive games, are some of the lowest lows in FBS football.
Before the AAC took over as the breeding ground for future Power 5 coaches, the MAC had one of the best runs for a Group of 5 conference. Now, there are really only two coaches who separate themselves from the pack in the MAC: Toledo's Jason Candle and Northern Illinois' Rod Carey.
In MAC play, Candle, who originally replaced Matt Campbell as Toledo's offensive coordinator, has gone 13-3, establishing himself as the post-P.J. Fleck face of the conference. Rod Carey, who went from North Dakota offensive line coach in 2010 to full-time Northern Illinois head coach in 2013, has also gone an impressive 32-8 in conference play. Unfortunately, Carey has not been able to repeat the success that he had in 2013 and 2014.
Other than the long-established Frank Solich at Ohio and the Fleck's replacement (Tim Lester) at Western Michigan, there is not much optimism elsewhere in the conference. The other seven head coaches with tenure have a collective decisive game record of 67-101. If there is anyone to highlight, Buffalo's Lance Leipold started to turn around that program last year. If they can continue their passing game success, he could be the next riser in the MAC.
Mountain WestTurnover at the Group of 5 level is only natural. If you do well, someone is likely to give you a job with a higher salary and more resources. If you do not do well, you will be fired. The Mountain West, possibly because of how different coaching out west is compared to the heart of football, is very different in this way. For the most part, the top coaches in the conference are also the established coaches.
Boise State's Bryan Harsin's expected win percentage essentially mirrors Lane Kiffin's, only that he has done it for four straight seasons. Still, he is not given much burn during when coaching carousel rumors are burning hot. Two other long-term coaches, San Diego State's 68-year-old Rocky Long and Air Force's option mind Troy Calhoun, rank among the Mountain West's best. After coaching California for 11 years, it is hard to claim now Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford is “young.”
The big surprise on this list is Colorado State's Mike Bobo, a 14-year Georgia assistant, ranking sixth in the conference in expected win percentage. Going into Year 4, Bobo has posted three straight seasons of 7-6 at a job that many expected him to leave within three years. At least he is not San Jose State's Brent Brennan, who went a lousy 1-11 in decisive games last season.
Pac 12With a 53-7 record in decisive games, Stanford's David Shaw stands head and shoulders above the pack in the Pac 12. The big story in the conference, though, is inexperience, as Washington State's Mike Leach (at 21-25 in decisive games) is the second-“worst” coach in a conference that has hired five new head coaches this offseason. There is no real low end of the established coaching spectrum in the Pac 12 right now, as the failing programs have all turned over.
Truth be told, outside of knowing that Stanford, Washington and USC are the conference's top three teams, there is just not much we can make out of the Pac 12 at this point. Even a coach like Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, who had one great season sprinkled in with some low points, is unpredictable.
SECAlabama's Nick Saban is 111-5 in decisive games. We may not see anything like him for the rest of our lives. For LSU's Ed Orgeron, who has the second-best expected win percentage in the SEC, to catch up to that number, he would have to go 97-2 in his next 99 decisive games. Replicating what Saban has done just seems like an impossible task in the modern era, even if every program in the conference is chasing Saban-like goals.
Saban, Orgeron, Georgia's Kirby Smart and Auburn's Gus Malzhan are the only four coaches in the 14-team conference with an expected win percentage above .500, a rarity for what is claimed to be the strongest conference in college football. With more than a third of the SEC's programs hiring new head coaches this past offseason, we will not really be able to make heads or tails of the conference's coaches for a year or two.
The best program you spend absolutely no mental energy on is Appalachian State. In four years of FBS football, Scott Satterfield has gone 31-9 in conference and has posted a 30-9 overall record over the last three years, good enough to win the last two Sun Belt titles. All but three years of Satterfield's football life have been spent at Appalachian State, including as a player, but there is a chance that a Group of 5 program takes notice of him within the next hiring cycle. We have seen mid-major coaches, like Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky, even leave their alma mater for better Group of 5 jobs.
With one of the smallest presences of a Group of 5 conference, the Sun Belt is simply not a conference which attracts much on-field talent. This is one reason why only two other head coaches, Arkansas State's Blake Anderson and Troy's Neal Brown, have an expected win percentage over .500. Consistently winning in the positions they are in could earn them jobs at bigger schools soon. On the flip side, Joe Moglia (Coastal Carolina), Matt Viator (Louisiana-Monroe) and Everett Withers (Texas State) have gone a combined 9-37 in games decided by eight points or more, letting everyone know what the floor of a program in this conference could look like.