By any standard, the list of head coaches among Notre Dame and its 12 opponents this fall is impressive.
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Stanford’s David Shaw have posted some of the most noteworthy win totals in the country the last half-decade while Miami’s Mark Richt and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly have had success for the better part of two decades.
Few coaches do more with less than Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Duke’s David Cutcliffe. There is no more highly-touted up-and-comer than Virginia Tech’s 39-year-old Justin Fuente while N.C. State’s David Doeren and Texas’ Charlie Strong landed Power 5 conference jobs on the strength of their fine work at Northern Illinois and Louisville respectively.
When it comes to offensive innovation and productivity, new Syracuse head coach Dino Babers sits atop the list, although the challenge is greater than ever before with the struggling Orange. Those with the most to prove include USC’s Clay Helton, Nevada’s Brian Polian and Army’s Todd Monken.
For the purpose of the First-Rate series, only head coaches and their coordinators are part of this evaluation.
13) Army (HC-Jeff Monken, OC-Brent Davis, DC-Jay Bateman, ST-Sean Saturnio) – Monken picked up where Paul Johnson left off at Georgia Southern, winning double-digit games in his first three seasons at the helm. But the West Point offense took a sharp dip last year in Monken’s second season, although the return of key skill-position personnel should provide an uptick in ’16 under OC Davis. DC Bateman oversaw a unit that shaved five points and 55 yards total offense off the ’14 numbers. Army’s coverage units were among the nation’s best last year under Saturnio.
12) Nevada (HC-Brian Polian, OC-Tim Cramsey, DC-Scott Boone, ST-Marc Nudelberg) – The shoes to fill don’t get much bigger than the footprints left by HC Chris Ault, who in two stints with the Wolf Pack (spanning 28 seasons) won 233 games. But Nevada has gone 7-6 in four of the last five seasons, two under Ault and two (2014-15) under Polian. The offense has taken a giant leap backward under Polian as double-digit points per game have been shaved from Ault’s last go-round with the innovative Pistol. DC Boone has made improvements since the Wolf Pack allowed a putrid 6.6 yards per carry in ’13, but there’s still ground to cover. Polian is looking for a spike in his coverage units with the hiring of ST coordinator Nudelberg, who has nine years of experience at Florida State and Florida.
11) USC (HC-Clay Helton, OC-Tee Martin, DC-Clancy Pendergast, ST-John Baxter) – Helton was 5-4 last year after taking over for the beleaguered Steve Sarkisian five games into the season with victories against Utah, Cal, Arizona, Colorado and UCLA, and losses to Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin. The average margin of defeat in those first three setbacks was 16.3 points per game. Helton’s offense remained formidable after his elevation to HC. Martin, the former Tennessee QB great, was named OC in his fifth year with the Trojans. Where USC figures to make the greatest jump is on defense where Pendergast begins his second stint with the Trojans. In his only previous season in Los Angeles, his defense clipped off three points and 60 yards per game. Keep an eye on USC’s ST as Baxter also heads into his second stint with the Trojans. At Michigan last year, Baxter’s Wolverine units were among the nation’s top 30.
10) Syracuse (HC-Dino Babers, OC-Sean Lewis/Mike Lynch, DC-Brian Ward, ST-Tom Kaufman) – Babers took an Eastern Illinois program that won four games in the two years prior to his arrival to a pair of playoff berths. He then won 18 games in two seasons at Bowling Green, which matched his predecessor with the Falcons, Dave Clawson. Babers brought OCs Lewis and Lynch with him from Bowling Green. The Falcons averaged an astounding 42.2 points ppg. and nearly 550 yards total offense in ‘15. In one year as DC at Bowling Green, Ward clipped off about five points, nearly a yard per rush, and 75 yards total offense in ’15. ST coordinator Kaufman also comes from Bowling Green, which had the nation’s No. 14 overall units two seasons ago.
9) Texas (HC-Charlie Strong, OC-Sterlin Gilbert, DC-Vance Bedford, ST-Jeff Traylor) – The stakes are much higher in Austin after Strong went 14-12 his first two years at Louisville and 23-3 in 2012-13. His 11-14 mark in two seasons at Texas gives him a short rope heading into ’16. OC Gilbert is Strong’s response to one of the worst passing offenses in the country. Gilbert’s Tulsa offense averaged more than 500 yards total offense in ’15. DC Bedford’s unit went in the wrong direction last year, allowing a touchdown and 104 more yards total offense per game than the previous season. Traylor is in his second season in charge of STs after a 15-year stint on the Texas prep level. Last year, the Longhorns were great in both aspects of the punting game and atrocious in both kickoff categories.
8) N.C. State (HC-Dave Doeren, OC-Eli Drinkwitz, DC-Dave Huxtable, ST-Eddie Faulkner) – Doeren’s 18-20 record in his first three years in Raleigh doesn’t match up to the 24-15 mark of his predecessor, Tom O’Brien, from 2010-12. But both sides of the football have shown steady improvement since going 3-9 in ’13. Doeren has brought in/developed talent, but the Wolfpack lost six of their last nine games last year. OC Drinkwitz arrives from Boise State, where he followed on the heels of Mike Sanford, who departed for Notre Dame after the ’14 season. Both averaged 39 points per game with the Broncos. DC Huxtable’s unit has steadily improved since a rough first year in ’13 when the Wolfpack allowed 5.0 yards per carry. Faulkner had the best ST units across the board in ’15 among Notre Dame’s ’16 opponents.
7) Navy (HC-Ken Niumatalolo, OC-Ivin Jasper, DC-Dale Pehrson, ST-Steve Johns) – Does anyone do more with less pure physical ability than Niumatalolo, who enters his ninth year as HC at the Naval Academy? He’s won at least eight games in seven of eight years, including his top mark – 11-2 – in 2015. OC Jasper is in his ninth year coordinating the triple-option attack and 19th in Annapolis. Pehrson took over for long-time DC Buddy Green last year. The 21.8 ppg. allowed by the Midshipmen in ’15 under Pehrson was the lowest yield since 2009. ST coordinator Johns has been with Niumatalolo since ’08. The Midshipmen struggled mightily last season on both coverage units.
6) Virginia Tech (HC-Justin Fuente, OC-Brad Cornelsen, DC-Bud Foster, ST-James Shibest) – Fuente was just 35-years-old when he took over as HC at Memphis in 2012. He inherited a program that won five games in the three years prior to his arrival. Under Fuente, the Tigers won seven games in 2012-13, and then shot up to a 19-7 record in 2014-15. Fuente brought Cornelsen with him from Memphis, where he was QB coach from 2012-14 and co-OC last year. DC Foster has been churning out good-to-great defenses in Blacksburg since 1995, although the unit struggled last season. Shibest is a veteran ST coordinator with 16 years experience, including stints at Arkansas and Mississippi.
5) Duke (HC-David Cutcliffe, OC-Zac Roper, DC-Jim Knowles, ST-Jim Bridge) – Winners of 27 games the last three seasons under Cutcliffe – a victory total that took 10 years to achieve prior to the current run – the Blue Devils are a formidable opponent despite losing nearly half of the team’s starting lineup. Cutcliffe’s offense has averaged more than 30 points per game for the past four seasons. Roper is in his first year as OC after his predecessor, Scottie Montgomery, was named HC at East Carolina. DC Knowles has turned the Blue Devil stop troops into a respectable unit following significant struggle from 2010-12. Opponents averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in ’15. Bridge, Purdue’s OL coach the last three years, replaces Roper as ST coordinator.
4) Notre Dame (HC-Brian Kelly, OC-Mike Sanford/Mike Denbrock, DC-Brian VanGorder, ST-Scott Booker) – Kelly may not be in the select group of elite head coaches, but he’s damn good and consistent with an average of nine victories per season and at least eight per his six campaigns in South Bend. When a bad year is eight victories, it brings to mind when the Irish really struggled under Gerry Faust, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, who combined lost at least five times 12 out of 18 seasons. The offense is humming with the Kelly-Sanford-Denbrock team. The defense has struggled and looks like it could struggle some more in Year Three under VanGorder. Irish special teams under Booker have been consistently inconsistent and/or middle-of-the-road.
3) Miami (HC-Mark Richt, OC-Thomas Brown, DC-Manny Diaz, ST-Todd Hartley) – In 15 seasons in the SEC at Georgia, Richt recorded 10-plus victories nine times (four of the last five) with two conference crowns and a 145-51 overall record. Richt, a former Miami QB, is back at his alma mater, where he played under Hurricane architect Howard Schnellenberger. Brown is an inexperienced OC, but Richt will call the plays. In Diaz’s first year as a DC – 2014 at Louisiana Tech – the Bulldogs forced an incredible 40 turnovers. His Mississippi State defense allowed 175 yards rushing and 4.3 yards per carry in ’15. Miami was poor last year on both punt and kick returns. First-year ST coordinator Hartley was the Director of Personnel at Georgia last year under Richt.
2) Stanford (HC-David Shaw, OC-Mike Bloomgren, DC-Lance Anderson, ST-Pete Alamar) – Shaw still has his doubters despite the fact Jim Harbaugh hasn’t been around since the 2010 season. The fact is Shaw has had five solid-to-great seasons as head coach, winning 11 games in 2011 and 2013 and 12 in 2012 and 2015. Bloomgren’s offenses have been fueled by his great offensive lines. Anderson, now in his third year on The Farm, has to prove that ’15 (22.6 ppg., 4.3 ypc.) was an anomaly, and even that wasn’t a bad year considering the firepower in the Pac-12. Fifth-year ST coordinator Alamar had solid units across the board last year with Christian McCaffrey handling punt and kickoff returns.
1) Michigan State (HC-Mark Dantonio, OC-Jim Bollman/Dave Warner, DC-Harlon Barnett/Mike Tressel, ST-Mark Snyder) – Now in his 10th season in East Lansing, Dantonio has established himself as one of the nation’s elite head coaches. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons. He had won four bowl games in a row – defeating Georgia’s Mark Richt, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Stanford’s David Shaw and Baylor’s Art Briles -- before last year’s playoff thrashing at the hands of Alabama. The coordinators are veterans, particularly Bollman with more than a decade of experience at Ohio State. The defense under Barnett, with the exception of last year’s slippage, has been great since the start of the decade. Punt returns/coverage were among the nation’s worst last year under Snyder, the former Marshall head coach and Texas A&M/South Florida DC.
1. Stanford (33 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd, LB 2nd, DB 4th, ST 1st, C 2nd)
2. Notre Dame (34– QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 4th, LB 4th, DB 6th, ST 4th, C 4th)
3. Michigan St. (37 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd, LB 1st, DB 2nd, ST 9th, C 1st)
4. USC (39 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st, OL 1st, DL 7th, LB 3rd, DB 1st, ST 10th, C 11th)
5t. N.C. State (54 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st, LB 5th, DB 8th, ST 2nd, C 8th)
5t. Virginia Tech (54 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th, LB 11th, DB 3rd, ST 3rd, C 6th)
7. Miami (56 – QB 2nd, RB 10th, WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th, LB 7th, DB 7th, ST 5th, C 3rd)
8. Texas (64 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th, LB 6th, DB 5th, ST 11th, C 9th)
9. Duke (75 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th, LB 12th, DB 10th, ST 6th, C 5th)
10. Syracuse (77 – QB 6th, RB 11th, WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th, LB 8th, DB 9th, ST 8th, C 10th)
11. Nevada (82 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th, LB 13th, DB 11th, ST 7th, C 12th)
12. Navy (105 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 10th, DB 12th, ST 13th, C 7th)
13. Army (109– QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th, LB 9th, DB 13th, ST 12th, C 13th)