Ranking the college football head coaching hires for 2021, from Gus Malzahn to Terry Bowden

Paul Myerberg
USA TODAY

Editor's note: This story was updated June 17, 2021, to include new hires.

Auburn paid Gus Malzahn $21.45 million to pack up his stuff and never coach the Tigers again. Tennessee owes Central Florida $6 million in combined buyouts for new athletics director Danny White and coach Josh Heupel.

Availability and increased financial flexibility on both sides allowed UCF and Malzahn to connect on a five-year deal worth $2.3 million annually. It's a bargain-basement deal relative to Malzahn's ample SEC experience and the program's goals of reaching the College Football Playoff and aligning itself for the next round of conference expansion.

On paper, Malzahn and UCF are the dream marriage of the 2020-21 coaching cycle, which was expected to barely make a whisper amid the COVID-19 pandemic but still yielded 15 changes, down from 24 moves a year ago.

That says something about Malzahn and UCF — though you can find flaws in the new pairing if you look close enough — and about the uninspiring series of coaching hires, which featured a handful of big names but largely involved Group of Five and second-level Power Five programs.

The hires can't be fully judged until three or four years down the road. For now, let's rank the new names by best fit and the best chance for immediate and long-term success.

Gus Malzahn led Auburn to a 68-35 record in eight seasons before getting fired in December.

1. Gus Malzahn, UCF

Malzahn will inherit one of the top teams in the Group of Five, including one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Dillon Gabriel, and for the first time in his coaching career have the luxury of holding a talent advantage against nearly every opponent. First off, he'll have to show how his hurry-up offense can be tailored to fit Gabriel. But to reel in a coach who won 66% of his games at Auburn (2012-20), beat Alabama three times and played for a national championship is an enormous victory for UCF. 

2. Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Harsin had options over the years but waited patiently for the right opportunity, following the trajectory of a career that has always taken a calculated approach to the next move. His program at Boise State (2014-20), where he won 78% of his games but never fully escaped Chris Petersen's shadow, developed the most important positions on the field: quarterbacks, offensive tackles and edge rushers. As long as the standard for success isn't unseating Nick Saban and Alabama from atop the SEC, Harsin is a very good fit.

3. Steve Sarkisian, Texas

The latest coach to refurbish his reputation with the Crimson Tide, Sarkisian takes over a program fresh off three consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes but in need of a new voice and an established identity on offense. Sarkisian will immediately deliver the latter and make the Longhorns a popular destination for regional and national recruits.

4. Andy Avalos, Boise State

A former Boise State linebacker and defensive coordinator, Avalos is more than ready for a return to his alma mater after spending the last two seasons under Mario Cristobal at Oregon. While former Boise quarterback Kellen Moore was the popular choice to replace Harsin before deciding to stay in the NFL, Avalos is a rising star in the profession and the next possible long-term fit for the Broncos.

Crimson Tide analyst Butch Jones relaxes before the game against the Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.

5. Lance Leipold, Kansas

All he does is win: Leipold took home six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater and then transformed Buffalo into a MAC power. His 2020 team went 6-1, won the MAC East, finished fifth nationally in scoring and became the first team in program history to notch a national ranking. Does this make him overqualified for the nation's worst Power Five job? Not really, since his predecessor, Les Miles, brought a national championship to Lawrence. But this track record makes him a perfect fit: Leipold is drawn to the fine art of program construction, and KU will give him the time, support and starting point to paint his masterpiece.  

6. Butch Jones, Arkansas State

Jones is back in more comfortable surroundings at Arkansas State, one of the most consistently successful programs in the Group of Five. Before being hammered on his way out of the SEC at Tennessee and learning new tricks in his three years as an off-field assistant at Alabama, Jones won 50 games in six seasons at Central Michigan (2007-09) and Cincinnati (2010-12).

7. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt

Lea made his national reputation by putting together three top-15 defenses in a row as the coordinator at Notre Dame. The question of how serving as an assistant at Notre Dame prepares you for running the show with the Commodores — a genuinely important question to ask — is tempered by Lea's time as a Vanderbilt linebacker (2002-04), giving him a taste of how the program has operated in the past and what can be done to bring the team back into SEC contention.

8. Charles Huff, Marshall

Huff brings an outstanding résumé as an assistant — led by recent stints at Penn State, Mississippi State and Alabama — to a program with expectations of always being in the driver's seat for the Conference USA championship. Learning under Saban and James Franklin (Penn State) gives Huff an edge over most first-time Group of Five head coaches.

9. Bret Bielema, Illinois

Bielema has a history of success in the Big Ten that bodes well for Illinois. But with a substantial project ahead as the Illini aim for the top half of the West division, Bielema must show he has the energy to recruit and develop talent after the collapse of his tenure at Arkansas (2013-17).

10. Blake Anderson, Utah State

Anderson gets a fresh start after seven strong seasons at Arkansas State (2014-20), where his teams won or shared three Sun Belt championships. Much like Harsin, his predecessor with the Red Wolves, Anderson develops skill talent and has an established blueprint for success in the Group of Five ranks.

11. Josh Heupel, Tennessee

Heupel accepts the toughest job of any new hire: taking the mess that is Tennessee and slowly bringing the Volunteers back into the mix for the division championship and New Year's Six bowls. That's a multiple-year process, if it happens at all. If not the name most UT fans were expecting, Heupel will update an underwhelming offense and make Knoxville an appealing destination for skill talent.

12. Shane Beamer, South Carolina

Beamer has worked for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina (2007-10); for his father, Frank, at Virginia Tech (2011-15); for Kirby Smart at Georgia (2016); and most recently for Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma (2017-20), helping the Sooners to three playoff berths. The résumé speaks for itself. But there are unanswered questions about how Beamer and his staff will fare in a crowded recruiting scene and what the offense will look like in 2021 and beyond.

13. Will Hall, Southern Mississippi

Speaking of offenses: Hall's up-tempo philosophy has been a success on almost every level of NCAA competition, from his time as a Division II head coach at West Alabama (2011-13) and West Georgia (2014-16) through his stints as an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette (2017), Memphis (2018) and Tulane (2019-20). 

14. Kane Wommack, South Alabama

Wommack's age — at just 33, he's the youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision — is not the concern it would've been made out to be a decade ago, when few schools had the nerve to hand over the keys to a coach little more than a decade removed from his own college experience. He's also coached at South Alabama (2016-17) and was recently the defensive coordinator for Indiana's breakthrough 2020 season. In all, Wommack represents a slight gamble for a program in need of a rebuild and an example of a Group of Five team buying low on a young coach viewed as one of the up-and-coming defensive minds in the sport. 

Jedd Fisch's last stop was as quarterbacks coach with the New England Patriots.

15. Maurice Linguist, Buffalo

Linguist takes over for Leipold after a very brief stint as the defensive coordinator at Michigan. The former Baylor defensive back, 37, has been across the college football map since 2012, when he began the first of two seasons as the Bulls' defensive backs coach. Since then, Linguist has spent two years at Iowa State, one year at Mississippi State, a season at Minnesota, two seasons at Texas A&M and one year in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. So what does that tell us about Linguist? He's taken on more and more responsibilities and been hired by some of the biggest names in the sport, if we count his few months with the Wolverines. But there are several unknowns about the Bulls' new coach, who has never been a coordinator and takes over a roster depleted by attrition.

16. Jedd Fisch, Arizona

Arizona is banking on a coaching vagabond with one year of Pac-12 experience (UCLA in 2017) having the chops needed to bring the Wildcats out of the conference basement and into the mix for bowl bids, let alone a division title. Fisch has hired well, including the addition of former Michigan assistant Don Brown as his defensive coordinator, but does not seem to match the qualities Arizona initially laid out as prerequisites for its next coach.

17. Terry Bowden, Louisiana-Monroe

Bowden's time at Akron (2012-18) should give him a taste of what's to come at ULM, which never led for a single second during the 2020 season. Is the 64-year-old former Auburn coach the right fit for a program that needs a complete reboot? In good news, you have to like Bowden's addition of former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg