The 2023-’24 college football coaching carousel is moving faster than usual with many Power 5 programs already finding their new head coach. As we did last year, we’re grading college football coaching hires with a tentative look at how each coaching search played out.
A few marquee openings became available this winter, including at Texas A&M and Michigan State. While one of the top jobs in college football wasn’t available this time, many quality football coaches were hired. With more moves coming as the carousel is always busy, it’s time to review each of the big hires.
Let’s dive into our evaluations and grades on the 2023-’24 college football coaching hires.
Grading college football coaching hires: Ranking hires by Power 5 teams
1. Kalen DeBoer replaces Nick Saban as Alabama Crimson Tide coach
The resources the University of Alabama offers its football coach is unmatched. With the Alabama Crimson Tide, Kalen DeBoer will have everything he needs at his disposal. For one of the best offensive minds in college football, that means an ability to consistently bring in the best players to create a high-scoring offense.
The knock on DeBoer, of course, is his lack of SEC experience. He’s spent the majority of his coaching either on the West Coast or in the central region of the United States. The first year of recruiting and coaching in the SEC will immediately prove far more challenging than anything he experienced in the Pac-12 Conference.
However, DeBoer wins everywhere. He won Pac-12 Coach of the Year twice, NAIA Coach of the year three times and he won eight combined titles, with four GPAC championships and 3 NAIA championships. He went to Fresno State and made the Bulldogs nationally relevant, and then he went and built the Huskies’ football program into a nearly unstoppable force. DeBoer will never meet Alabama’s expectations post-Saban, no one would have, but the Crimson Tide landed one of the best coaches in college football.
- Grade: A
2. Jonathan Smith named Michigan State Spartans head coach
If the Pac-12 Conference wasn’t dying, Jonathan Smith might still be the Oregon State Beavers head coach. However, Smith had little choice but to take a better opportunity elsewhere. In replacing former Michigan State Spartans coach Mel Tucker, Smith has another opportunity to turn around a second football program pretty quickly.
It’ll take Smith some time to build a development factory like he had at Oregon State. In his first three ears with the Bavers, Smith won just nine combined games. However, Oregon State’s recruiting steadily improved and Smith eventually maximized the talent on the roster. While Michigan State won’t reach the mountaintop with Smith, it can be a consistently competitive program with him.
- Grade: A-
3. San Diego State hires Sean Lewis as head coach
The San Diego State Aztecs went 12-2 with Brady Hoke in 2021, nut everything fell. apart quickly after that. What really made things worse for the Aztecs’ football program was the offense. During the 2023 regular season, San Diego State ranked 105th in total yards per game (319.5) and was 117th in scoring (19.1 PPG).
Going from the classic SDSU offenses to Lewis’ scheme will shock San Diego State fans. The Aztecs’ offense is going to be modern, using more spread concepts and RPOs with an emphasis on the passing game. Lewis was one of the best offensive coordinators in college football last season and now gets to recruit skill players to live in San Diego while playing Mountain West Conference defenses. San Diego State made one of the best hires this year.
- Grade: A-
4. Willie Fritz named Houston Cougars coach
The Houston Cougars knew they couldn’t poach one of the high-end head coaches from a Power 5 program, so it went out and hired the head coach who owned the Group of Five. After going 18-7 at Georgia Southern (2014-’15), Fritz took over a Tulane program that won 17 total games from 2011-’15.
After winning nine combined games in his first two seasons at Tulane, Fritz turned the Green Wave into a perennial bowl team. Tulane won the Cure Bowl (2018), Armed Forces Bowl (2019) and most recently won the Cotton Bowl (2022). Remarkably, Fritz built the Green Wave into an 11-win team in consecutive years. Houston might not’ve landed the flashiest coach in college football, but Fritz wins.
- Grade: A-
5. Sherrone Moore replaces Jim Harbaugh as Michigan Wolverines coach
The moment Jim Harbaugh started preparing to leave for the NFL, the Michigan Wolverines knew who would replace him. After all, the University of Michigan got a great look at what Sherrone Moore could do as head coach during Harbaugh’s suspension. Once you beat Ohio State, the job is yours.
Of course, Moore is responsible for a lot more than that. He helped orchestrate an offense that was critical to the Wolverines winning the national championship, with his play designs proving critical in matchups against Alabama and Washington. Michigan knew he had the offensive mind, Harbaugh’s endorsement further cemented that. Once Moore showed in 2023 that he could be a leader of a top program, the succession plan after Harbaugh was clear.
One benefit of going from Harbaugh to Moore is also that Michigan can now devote millions of dollars to a coaching staff, building one of the best pools of recruiters and position coaches in the country. Obviously, Moore isn’t guaranteed to have success and the 2024 season will likely be a letdown year for the Wolverines, but Moore earned this job and he should fare well long-term.
- Grade: B+
6. Texas A&M Aggies hire Mike Elko as head coach
When Texas A&M seemingly backed out on hiring Mark Stoops to replace Jimbo Fisher, it put itself in serious jeopardy of missing out on a good football coach. Fortunately for the Aggies, Mike Elko agreed to a lucrative deal hours later to return to Texas A&M as head coach.
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Elko’s track record as a defensive mind speaks for itself and he’ll get the most out of the Aggies’ defense. Instead, we’re highlighting Elko’s track record of turning a 3-9 Duke team into a nine-win program the following year. The Blue Devils also won nine conference games with Elko, which happened for the first time since 2014-’15. Under Elko, Texas A&M can go from an eight-win team to a nine-win team.
- Grade: B+
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7. Boise State Broncos promote interim coach Spencer Danielson
The Boise State Broncos promoted defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson to interim coach midway through a disappointing 2023 season. In replacing Andy Avalos, Danielson did the improbable. Taking over a 5-5 team on the brink of its first losing season since 1997, Danielson led the Broncos to three consecutive wins. Most impressively, he oversaw the surprise Mountain West Championship Game win (44-20) over New Mexico State, sending the Broncos to the LA Bowl. Danielson left Boise State with no choice, he earned the full-time gig.
- Grade: B+
8. Northwestern Wildcats keep David Braun
After firing Pat Fitzgerald for cause, the Northwestern Wildcats knew they needed someone who could just provide stability during a challenging time. Most likely, Northwestern wouldn’t be in the mix for a bowl game after everything that happened. Somehow, David Braun found a way to not only lead the Wildcats to a 7-5 record, but Braun also delivered a winning mark against Big Ten opponents. Braun, the Big Ten Coach of the Year, earned the right to have the interim tag removed. While it typically doesn’t work out long-term for interim coaches, Northwestern made the right call retaining Braun for 2024.
- Grade: B
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9. Duke Blue Devils hire Manny Diaz
There’s no replacement for Mike Elko for the Duke Blue Devils. However, 49-year-old Penn State Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz could help the program maintain a quality defense and play an aggressive, physical style of football.
Diaz is remembered for his failed stint as the Miami Hurricanes coach, but he had a better winning percentage (.583) as Mario Cristobal has delivered thus far. It’s also reasonable to think that the Miami job might’ve been a little too soon in Diaz’s coaching career. Time spent under James Franklin on the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff should’ve provided an opportunity to see what works for successful head coaches at the highest level. Diaz faces an uphill climb as Duke’s coach, but he also walks into a situation with moderate expectations.
- Grade: B
10. Jeff Lebby named Mississippi State Bulldogs coach
Jeff Lebby has a tall task in front of him as the Mississippi State Bulldogs football coach. While he has a phenomenal track record as an offensive coordinator at UCF, Ole Miss and Oklahoma, this will be his first head-coaching stint. He’s headed into a loaded SEC with Texas and Oklahoma, making it even more challenging to achieve success. With Ole Miss also on the rise, Lebby faces an uphill battle to make the Bulldogs relevant in the conference and state.
- Grade: B-
11. Curt Cignetti named Indiana Hoosiers coach
The Indiana Hoosiers were desperate for a coaching change, paying one of the largest buyouts ever to move on from Tom Allen. Indiana knows there will always be a ceiling with its football program, but it should be higher than winning four or five games per season. At James Madison, Curt Cignetti ran a Dukes’ football program that went 18-4 in its first two seasons in the FBS. Ironically, he also has experience coaching an Indiana school, only it was the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Cignetti won’t achieve the double-digit winning seasons he had at James Madison, but he could help the Hoosiers win six or seven games every year.
- Grade: B-
12. Trent Bray takes over as Oregon State Beavers coach
The Oregon State Beavers didn’t have a lot of great options. With a ton of conference uncertainty and an ongoing legal battle over the Pac-12 revenue, pursuing another college’s head coach would’ve resulted in a bidding war the Beavers can’t really have. So, Oregon State promoted Trent Bray to defensive coordinator. The good news is that Bray did solid work with the Beavers’ defense and he knows the football program extensively as a player (2002-’05) and assistant coach (2012-14, 2018-’23). However, the financial and conference uncertainty surrounding Oregon State clouds just how successful Bray can be.
- Grade: C+
13. Syracuse Orange hires Fran Brown as head coach
While plenty of schools in the college football coaching carousel bet on proven head coaches, the Syracuse Orange took a different approach. In replacing Dino Babers, Syracuse dove into one of the best coaching staffs in college football and chose to roll the dice on Fran Brown. The Georgia Bulldogs defensive backs coach (2022-’23) has twice served as an assistant head coach at Temple and Baylor. He also has to the area as a New Jersey native. However, there’s always a massive risk in hiring position coaches into a Power 5 head-coaching gig. Syracuse will be patient with Brown and the positive results might now show up for a few years.
- Grade: C-