In 2017, 21 new head coaches will stalk the sidelines in the FBS. All will be tasked with improving on what the last guy did. If not, given the high pressure world of major college football, they’ll become the last guy.
What could either help or hurt each is the schedule – the predetermined set of opponents with the power to make the inaugural season a bust or boom all on its own. What follows are the extremes in both scenarios.
5. TIM LESTER – Western Michigan
Steele Schedule Rank: 112
Tim Lester may have the toughest act to follow in the FBS in 2017, taking over for P.J. Fleck (now at Minnesota), who led Western Michigan to a 13-1 mark and a No. 15 rank in the final AP last season. Both were first-ever achievements in program history.
What saves the Broncos’ schedule from being ranked even lower is a season-opening double-whammy at USC and at Michigan State. What makes it easier is a visit from Idaho and FCS Wagner to balance out the non-league slate combined with drawing Akron and Kent State from the MAC East.
Lester played quarterback for WMU in the late 1990s and most recently served as the quarterbacks coach at Purdue.
4. LUKE FICKELL – Cincinnati
Steele Schedule Rank: 113
Luke Fickell takes over for a Cincinnati program that skidded to a 4-8 mark last season. It hasn’t been ranked since 2012, the final year of the Big East.
The good news is, the Bearcats’ schedule sets up well for a rebound. Other than a Week 2 road trip to Michigan, it could be smooth sailing. Additional non-conference games are vs. FCS Austin Peay, Miami (Ohio) and Marshall. From the American West, UC draws Navy, SMU and Tulane, avoiding Houston and Memphis completely.
Fickell played for Ohio State in the 1990s and most recently spent four years as the Buckeye’s defensive coordinator. His only coaching experience outside of Columbus came from 2000-01 when he was a defensive line coach at Akron.
3. BUTCH DAVIS – Florida International
Steele Schedule Rank: 115
If you’re thinking, “Butch Davis, isn’t he the guy from Miami?” Yes – FIU’s new head coach is the same Butch Davis who led the Hurricanes to three Big East titles from 1995-2000. He was also the head guy at the NFL Cleveland Browns (2001-04) and North Carolina (2007-10).
Davis’ schedule bodes well for his return to the sidelines. The only true juggernaut in non-league play are visits to Indiana and UCF. From across the conference in the C-USA West, the Panthers have Rice and UTSA, avoiding heavier hitters like Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. It also gets Western Kentucky at home in Miami.
2. CHARLIE STRONG – South Florida
Steele Schedule Rank: 124
Only six teams in the FBS have an easier schedule than USF in 2017, making Charlie Strong’s quest to reprove himself one step easier.
The only Power team on the Bulls’ schedule is a visit from Illinois, which has suffered five consecutive losing seasons. Other than that, it’s San Jose State, FCS Stony Brook and UMass. In cross-divisional play, USF did draw Houston, but also got Tulane and Tulsa to soften the blow. Navy and Memphis aren’t on the slate at all.
Strong went 37-15 as the head coach at Louisville from 2010-13 and 16-21 in the same capacity at Texas from 2014-16.
1. MIKE SANFORD, JR. – Western Kentucky
Steele Schedule Rank: 127
The easiest schedule for a new head coach in 2017 belongs to Western Kentucky’s Mike Sanford. Like Lester at Western Michigan, Sanford has big shoes to fill in taking over for the departing Jeff Brohm (now at Purdue), who led the Hilltoppers to double-digit win finishes in 2015 and 2016.
Like Strong at USF, Sanford plays Illinois early but adds on a road trip to Vanderbilt in November. What makes easier is the C-USA portion of the slate – Louisiana Tech, UTEP, Charlotte, Old Dominion, FAU, Marshall, Middle Tennessee and FIU. Of the eight, only three posted winning records in 2016.
Sanford played quarterback at Boise State from 2000-04 and most recently served as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame (2015-16). This is his first head coaching job.
5. JEFF BROHM – Purdue
Steele Schedule Rank: 39
Jeff Brohm’s move from Western Kentucky to Purdue not only promotes him from Conference USA to the Big Ten, it ramps us his schedule strength by 88 slots.
The Boilermakers are the only team in the Big Ten to have two Power opponents outside of league play in 2017 – Louisville in Indianapolis in the opener and a road trip to Missouri two weeks later. Though they avoided Ohio State and Penn State out of the East division, they did pick up Michigan. They also got Wisconsin on the road, where they haven’t won since 2003.
Brohm played quarterback at Louisville from 1989-93, going on to play for five NFL franchises from 1994-2000. Other than his posting a 30-10 mark at WKU from 2014-16, his only other head coaching experience came in 2002 with the Louisville Fire of the Arena league.
4. JUSTIN WILCOX – California
Steele Schedule Rank: 35
Justin Wilcox takes over for a Cal program that’s only managed a single winning season in the last five. His schedule is the fifth hardest in the Pac-12 and in the top quarter in the FBS.
The challenge starts early for Golden Bears with a cross-country road trip to North Carolina in the opener and a visit from Ole Miss in Week 3. From the Pac-12 South, they drew both USC and Colorado, the two preseason heavy weights. If that weren’t enough, Cal gets both Washington and Stanford on the road this season.
Wilcox is no stranger to the Pac-12, playing DB at Oregon in the late 1990s. In the last decade, he’s served as the defensive coordinator at Boise State (2006-09), Tennessee (2010-11), Washington (2012-13), USC (2014-15) and Wisconsin (2016).
3. SHAWN ELLIOTT – Georgia State
Steele Schedule Rank: 24
Georgia State’s complimentary gift for making it five years as an FBS program is a Top 25 rated schedule. It will make Shawn Elliott’s task to improve on the school’s 10-39 all-time mark even more difficult.
The toughest date on the Panthers’ slate is a Week 3 visit to Penn State. Then there’s a visit from Memphis, which is 27-12 since 2013. All in all, they play seven opponents that finished last season with a winning record and six that made a bowl game.
Elliott played DE at Appalachian State from 1992-95. He’s spent the last seven years coaching the offensive line at South Carolina.
2. JEFF TEDFORD – Fresno State
Steele Schedule Rank: 7
Jeff Tedford was the head coach at Cal from 2002-12, he takes over for a Fresno State program that’s only won four games in the last two years.
The Bulldogs’ top ten ranked schedule, more difficult than 123 other FBS teams, is anchored by back-to-back road trips to Alabama and Washington in Weeks 2 and 3. If that weren’t enough, they host BYU in Week 11 and then draw Boise State from across the MWC in the East division.
Tedford played quarterback at Fresno State from 1981-82.
1. ED ORGERON – LSU
Steele Schedule Rank: 2
Ed Orgeron served as LSU’s interim head coach for eight games in 2016, the same exact scenario he faced at USC in 2013. Unlike the Trojans, the Tigers opted to name him as their permanent head coach. It’s his first such nod since coaching Ole Miss to a 10-25 mark from 2005-07.
What’s not brutal is LSU’s non-SEC slate, BYU in Houston in the opener and a visit from Syracuse in Week 4. What is nasty is its league line-up – the Tigers get Alabama, Ole Miss (both fellow West division teams) and permanent cross-division rival Florida all on the road. On top of that, they draw Tennessee in Knoxville as their rotating East division opponent.
Ten of LSU’s 12 opponents made the postseason in 2016.