'The Gambletron 2000 says the winner is...Cincinnati by 200 points'
As you may have heard, the two Florida schools in Conference USA made big splashes in their offseason coaching hires. FAU hired Cartman-lookalike and the poster child for nepotism, Lane Kiffin, while FIU hired the most successful coach the Cleveland Browns have had since they returned to the NFL, Butch Davis. Most of the banal talking heads and even the statistically inclined internet cognoscenti believed these to be good hires. If you’ll allow it, I want to make a few contrarian arguments in the paragraphs that follow. Here’s why I don’t necessarily think Kiffin and Davis will succeed at their new locales.
1. FAU and FIU were not particularly good last season. This is not too much of a surprise since both schools parted ways with their head coaches. To be fair, teams improve all the time and a school going from a handful of wins to bowl eligibility in one season would not be extremely shocking, but both the Owls and Panthers were decidedly below average by Conference USA standards last season. While FAU did post solid offensive numbers, both defenses were poor and neither team was particularly unlucky in regards to their final record. In fact, FIU was actually a bit lucky to finish 4-4 in league play despite a negative per play differential.
2. Kiffin and Davis are not used to being underdogs. In his college coaching career, Lane Kiffin has been a head coach at Tennessee and Southern Cal. He has also famously (or infamously) been an assistant at Alabama. Neither of those schools qualifies as an underdog. He was a graduate assistant at Colorado State in 1999, but that is his only experience at a mid-major school. Butch Davis has been a college head coach at Miami and North Carolina. He has also been an assistant at Oklahoma State. North Carolina and Oklahoma State were not college football blue bloods (no pun intended) when he was there, but they were not mid-major programs either. In other words, Kiffin and Davis don’t a lot of experience, especially recent experience, of being one of the have-nots of college football. Speaking of…
3. Many of their coaching brethren in Conference USA do have experience guiding mid-major programs. Rick Stockstill, head coach of Middle Tennessee State, has been with the Blue Raiders for eleven seasons and while his overall record of 72-66 may not get him into the College Football Hall of Fame, he is 54-31 against conference opponents (i.e. teams with similar resources) over that span. Doc Holliday has been the head coach of Marshal for seven seasons and while the Herd collapsed last season, he still boasts a career record of 53-37 and 35-21 against conference opponents. Over at Old Dominion, Bobby Wilder has been the head coach since the program’s (re)inception and has had just a single losing season while guiding the program from birth through FCS to FBS. Even Charlotte, a start-up that has yet to taste great success in FBS, will have Brad Lambert on the sidelines for a fifth consecutive season. Recruiting and developing players is different at the mid-major level and with the exception of Western Kentucky, which has been the most successful Conference USA program over the past three seasons, every division opponent has a head coach with vastly more experience at the lower levels of college football.
4. Lest we forget, Kiffin and Davis did not exactly engineer fantastic finishes at their previous stops. In Kiffin’s four-plus seasons at Tennessee and Southern Cal, his teams finished ranked only once and his career conference record was just 17-12. I know Southern Cal was in the midst of a sanction-palooza, but it should be noted that Ed Orgeron took the Southern Cal team Lane bequeathed him with an 0-2 conference start and guided them to six wins in their final seven conference games. Davis never finished better than 4-4 in ACC play at North Carolina and finished his four years with a pedestrian 15-17 record against conference opponents. While this was an improvement over the John Bunting era, keep in mind the ACC was not a national player during his tenure. Remember 2008 when practically the whole conference went either 5-3 or 4-4? The overlords in Tallahassee were wheezing in the final years of Bobby Bowden’s tenure and Clemson had yet to assume their national standing. The Seminoles and Tigers occupied a different division so the only true national threat in the conference at that time was division-mate Virginia Tech. Even in a watered down ACC, Davis never managed better than a third place division finish.
5. This one applies only to Butch, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, Mr. Davis will turn 66 during the 2017 regular season. At a time when most Americans are settling in
'The 50 year old coaches won over 55% of their games whereas the 60 year old coaches won about 42% of their games.'He goes on to reference some scientific studies showing that while overall knowledge does not decrease until an advanced age, things like processing speed and reasoning begin declining when humans are in their late 20s. The game of football moves very fast, and a decline in processing speed or reasoning could negatively impact a coach's decisions. I'm not suggesting Davis will be drooling on the FIU sidelines, but he will be matching wits with men who are much younger than him. Dupont's research focused on NFL coaches, but the same general idea applies to college coaches as well. And while there are some successful old coaches such as Bill Snyder and Nick Saban, it should be noted that Snyder's second tenure at Kansas State has not been as successful as his first and for all the accolades Saban receives, he does have a few structural advantages at Alabama.
What is an approximation of success for Kiffin and Davis? Is it a bowl game? A winning record? A conference title? A top-25 appearance? A New Year's Six Bowl? If the bar to clear is a bowl game, I think both Kiffin and Davis can get there at least once, but if success means a conference title, I would be be inclined to bet against it.