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Steve Sarkisian, Luke Fickell and the 25 Most Intriguing College Football Coaches of 2021

For various reasons, all eyes will be on these names this fall as another NCAA season gets underway.
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The Most Intriguing lists are back. As we continue to preview the college football season, we’ll take a look at the coaches, players and off-field power brokers who will generate the most curiosity and interest in 2021:

Most Intriguing Coaches

1. Steve Sarkisian, Texas. The Longhorns spent nearly $50 million to fire Tom Herman and hire Sark, with the express purpose of him leading the $100 million charge into the Southeastern Conference era (whenever it comes to pass). That’s a lot to throw on the shoulders of a guy with a 46–35 career record who hasn’t been a head coach since 2015. But everything is bigger in Texas, including the gambles. Sark will need some time to build his program but could be afforded little of it. Dangerous underdog Louisiana comes to Austin on Sept. 4 with hopes of making a mockery of Texas’s SEC summer power play.

2. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati. He’s turned down Power 5 opportunities for several years now while rebuilding the Bearcats into the nation’s top Group of 5 program. This season could be the historic breakthrough on behalf of everyone who has been left out of The Club—if they’re good enough, the schedule provides the opportunities. Cincinnati returns four-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder and most of the key players from the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense. Replacing defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is important, but Fickell comes with a defensive pedigree of his own, and UC should be fine in that area. Will a guy with a 31–6 record the past three years still be at Cincinnati in 2022?

3. Matt Campbell, Iowa State. He’s the Power 5 version of Fickell, having stayed put at Iowa State for six seasons despite interest from several “destination” programs in recent years. Now he’s looking at the potential payoff season. If Campbell’s loaded squad is good enough to break Oklahoma’s hammerlock on the Big 12 title and make the College Football Playoff, it would be one of the more impressive feats of the 21st century in the sport. This is still a program that has lost 111 more games than it has won. Aside from the tap water, greatness doesn’t come easily in Ames.

Steve Sarkisian at a Texas practice

Sarkisian comes to Austin after being Alabama's offensive coordinator last season.

4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan. The man who arrived as the emperor of Ann Arbor six years ago has now seen his clout cut in half contractually. A pay cut, a reduced buyout, a remade staff—all the signs of a make-or-break season are at hand. If he has a quarterback, Harbaugh may have his best team since 2018, or even 2016—but will it be good enough? He still hasn’t beaten Ohio State, and he even lost to rebuilding Michigan State last year. Anything less than 9–3 is beneath Michigan standards, and 9–3 against a schedule that features Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State and the Buckeyes will be difficult.

5. Kirby Smart, Georgia. Sooner or later, Smart figures to wrap his hands around the national championship trophy. Is this season too soon? He appears to have his best quarterback in JT Daniels, who finished last season very sharply after a long recovery from a knee injury suffered at USC in 2019. The rest of the offense is talented, although receiver questions continue to arise with the injury to George Pickens and the cloudy status of tight end Arik Gilbert. The defense will never be bad under Smart. His biggest box to check: in-game coaching, and the ability to stop having one meltdown performance every season.

6. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma. He’s never lost more than two games in a season, but he’s also never run the table in the Big 12 or won a College Football Playoff game. At Oklahoma, the expectations are to check all boxes, as it did under Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops. Everyone believes Riley is a worthy heir to that throne; he just has to do it. Riley’s defense improved last year, and if both that unit and quarterback Spencer Rattler take another step forward, the Sooners have the tools to (2) beat Kansas State for the first time since 2018; (2) avoid being hammered in the playoff; and (3) potentially win a national title.

7. Scott Frost, Nebraska. He’s Harbaugh with less success to date, the heralded QB alum whose homecoming tenure has been a crashing disappointment. Now add a reported NCAA investigation to the mix. After three straight losing seasons, does Frost need to get above .500 and into a bowl game in 2021? This much we know: He has a new boss—a fellow alum from the Tom Osborne ’90s, but Trev Alberts might be wired more for a bold move that puts his own stamp on the program than any loyalty to a figure from the glory days. The schedule is a mixed bag: three road games in the first five, but also just one vastly superior opponent in the first nine (Oklahoma). Frost’s job standing could go down to the closing gantlet of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.

8. Chip Kelly, UCLA. Kelly was the mega-hire of late 2017, the guy Florida wanted, the up-tempo savant whose NFL travails were forgiven as soon as he signaled his desire to return to the college game. But like Frost, he’s under-delivered with three straight losing seasons. Kelly should have his best UCLA team this season, built around a more experienced Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback, but the defense must improve after giving up more than 30 points per game in each of Kelly’s seasons. Kelly will get a big chance to change his stumble-out-of-the-gate narrative on Sept. 4, when LSU comes to the Rose Bowl.

9. Nick Saban, Alabama. Where’s the intrigue with the greatest college football coach of all time? It’s in the turnover. While new faces have become standard operating procedure at Bama in recent years, this is an even more pronounced transition year than usual with a new offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien), new quarterback (Bryce Young) and new stars at running back and receiver and offensive line. Just three starters return on offense. The defense may be a throwback to the classic Saban days of pounding the other team into submission and winning with more of a deliberate approach. Or maybe Saban just plugs in new faces and continues racking up 45-plus points per game for the fourth straight season.

10. Dabo Swinney, Clemson. His transition from aw-shucks good ol’ boy to something of a lightning-rod figure has been interesting to watch. Some of that likely comes with people getting tired of Clemson winning, but it also could be attributable to Swinney’s eyebrow-raising stances on some of the change sweeping through the sport (and society as a whole). Clemson’s six-year CFP streak under Swinney has been built on the shoulders of the two best quarterbacks in school history, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. (That, and some extremely nasty defenses.) We’ll see whether Swinney has his next great one in D.J. Uiagalelei, whose early returns have been quite promising. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll see whether he has a championship-caliber offensive line.

11. Kevin Kelley, Presbyterian. The No Punt Guy has come to the college game. Kelley made a name for himself as an Arkansas high school coach who punts only on rare occasions and frequently onside-kicks—precisely the kind of mold-breaking hire a nonscholarship FCS program should take a swing at. Kelley already has done the remarkable, putting Presbyterian on the radar for something other than being routed by Clemson and other FBS opponents in guarantee games. If he has success, copycat coaching styles will follow.

12. Deion Sanders, Jackson State. Sanders—he’s not going to be Coach Prime here—is the other move-the-needle guy at the FCS level. His outside-the-box hiring at Jackson State was a national curiosity, but his first season was partially obscured by the COVID-19 cloud that hovered over it. Greater attention and talent are flowing to Jackson, and also greater controversy—from claiming his belongings were stolen after his first game to walking out of a press conference because he wasn’t referred to as “coach.” The Deion era will not be dull. We’ll see whether it will be successful.

13. Gus Malzahn, UCF. The Knights made the On the Rebound Hire of the Year in Malzahn, shortly after his firing at Auburn. For an AAC program to get a coach in his 50s who played for a national championship within the last decade is a pretty nice coup, and pairing Malzahn’s mind with quarterback Dillon Gabriel could be offensive alchemy. For Malzahn, the challenge is to prove that he’s more than an up-tempo guy whose strategy has become outdated. If this hire pays immediate dividends, the UCF-Cincinnati game Oct. 16 could be one of the biggest in AAC history.

14. Ed Orgeron, LSU. The fall was swift and unceremonious, from an undefeated national championship to a 5–5 hangover that led to a major staff overhaul. Now Orgeron needs a rebound season to prove that he’s more than the sum of Joe Burrow and Joe Brady and the echoes of 2019. At a place where winning is the only thing that matters, an offseason rife with turmoil probably won’t have much of an effect on Orgeron’s approval rating. If his years of successful recruiting mesh with his new coordinators, the Tigers should be back to relevance this fall. If not, we’ll find out the current employment shelf life of a national title.

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15. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina. He was the revelation of the 2020 season, a guy with a lower-level pedigree and a career FBS losing record who suddenly blew up with an 11–0 regular season. After starting the year with four straight wins as an underdog, everyone was talking about Coastal’s teal field, mullets and Chadwell. Coastal held onto Chadwell through the coaching carousel and rewarded him with a new, seven-year deal that pays him an average of more than $1 million a year—certainly a nice reward for the breakthrough season, but not something that is likely to prohibit bigger schools from potential poaching after this season. With 19 starters back, the Chanticleers are a team to watch again.

16. Billy Napier, Louisiana. Napier is the other Sun Belt rising star on the opposite end of the conference from Chadwell. He’s led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 21–4 record the past two seasons, with the landmark win at Iowa State to open last season as the standout. Napier also had his name in the mix for several jobs this past offseason but stayed put, and has 20 returning starters of his own. Louisiana will get a huge opportunity early (at Texas on Sept. 4) and an enticing game late (at Liberty on Nov. 20), plus the potential of a showdown with Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt title game.

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17. Clay Helton, USC. The ultimate survivor enters his seventh season with a chance to actually thrive. Aided by administrative instability and a failed attempt to hire Urban Meyer, Helton may be able to turn down the temperature of his perpetual hot seat—or it may burn him for good. The Trojans appear to have the talent, experience, coaching staff and schedule for a return to the prominence they haven’t enjoyed since Sam Darnold was in uniform. What Helton has to do is not screw it up, which means cleaning up what has been a mistake-ridden program on game days.

USC coach Clay Helton

18. Lane Kiffin, Mississippi. The Eddie Haskell of college football (Google it, kids) earned some off-field credibility this summer, proclaiming that his team is 100% vaccinated—no small feat in a state near the bottom nationally in that department when it comes to the general population. Now we’ll see whether he can earn it on the field, with a team that should be among the most explosive in the nation offensively. The big question will be whether Kiffin cares about stopping opponents, after watching that Ole Miss unit rank 126th out of 127 nationally in total defense last year. If that happens, Kiffin may be lean and mean enough to return the Rebels to the top 25.

19. Herm Edwards, Arizona State. His job security may be hanging by a thread as an investigation into alleged NCAA violations hovers over this season. The charismatic Edwards was an outside-the-box hire with an NFL and broadcasting background, and questions about both his knowledge of NCAA rules and immersion in the day-to-day details of the job have come home to roost. With three assistant coaches suspended, the staff is in a bit of chaos, but the player roster looks good. The Sun Devils return just about every significant contributor on both sides of the ball, led by three-year starting quarterback Jayden Daniels. The schedule is manageable as well.

20. Bret Bielema, Illinois. The big man is back in the Big Ten, after a detour through the SEC and three years on NFL staffs. Bielema brings a strategic identity and a magnetic personality to Champaign, both of which should help in terms of rebuilding an eternally underachieving program. He went 68–24 at Wisconsin and took the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls—but he also was handed a very good situation replacing Barry Alvarez. The foundation isn’t solid at Illinois, so this may take a while.

21. Tom Allen, Indiana. He’s done the unprecedented, turning Indiana into a football winner and galvanizing a basketball-focused fan base. And he’s had a lot of fun doing it, with an over-the-top enthusiasm. With a 13–7 record the past two seasons and a pretty flush returning roster (provided quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s surgically repaired knee holds up), Allen has a chance to build something lasting. He has had to deal with some significant staff turnover the past two off-seasons; will that catch up with the Hoosiers?

22. Bryan Harsin, Auburn. Parachuting into the SEC from Boise State is an interesting career move. With a 76–24 career record, Harsin has never come close to a losing season. That’s a streak he’ll need to keep intact if he wants to have a tenure of any length at a place where the boosters are notoriously demanding and involved. He arrives at Auburn when it appears to be well behind Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC West pecking order, and perhaps others as well. Gus Malzahn hitched his wagon to QB Bo Nix and it didn’t work out well; will Harsin stick with Nix as a junior or be tempted to switch to LSU transfer TJ Finley?

23. Jimmy Lake, Washington. Like Harsin at Boise, Lake has the luxury of following Chris Petersen as the leader of a well-built program. He got off to a solid start last year, going 3–1 in a truncated pandemic season, and could have the team and schedule to win the Pac-12 North this year. The Huskies backslid a bit defensively last year, which is Lake’s specialty. Look for a return to form on that side of the ball. If young quarterback Dylan Morris improves in his second season behind a veteran line and some receiving targets step forward, the pieces are in place.

24. Ryan Day, Ohio State. With a 23–2 record and two College Football Playoff appearances, he’s been everything advertised and more since taking over one of the game’s flagship programs—Urban Meyer without the drama. This year, Day has to break in an inexperienced quarterback and patch a few other holes, particularly on defense. But he has the best wide receivers in the nation and a ton of overall talent at his disposal. Day never got a chance to back up his “hang 100” on Michigan rhetoric last season, but he will this year. He could send Harbaugh to the unemployment line.

25. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M. Fisher backed up his big contract last season, narrowly missing the College Football Playoff and helping push Texas to fire Tom Herman. If Fisher can successfully replace the school’s all-time leading passer (Kellen Mond), the rest of the roster is in place for another big season. Circle the home game against Alabama on Oct. 9; it might be the moment the Aggies have been waiting for since hiring Fisher after the 2017 season.

Just missed the list: Jay Norvell, Nevada. Terry Bowden, Louisiana-Monroe. Mack Brown, North Carolina. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. Shane Beamer, South Carolina. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt. Josh Heupel, Tennessee. Hugh Freeze, Liberty. Lance Leipold, Kansas. Mike Neu, Ball State. Mike Norvell, Florida State. Dan Mullen, Florida. Kyle Whittingham, Utah. Andy Avalos, Boise State, Mike Leach, Mississippi State. 

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