Ranking every football coach in the AAC from 1-11 heading into the 2020 season

This week at CBS Sports, we've been focused on the sidelines with our 2020 Coach Rankings, counting down the entire list of Power Five coaches from 65-26 and then 25-1. But to limit our coaching analysis to that group would be to ignore some of the best football coaches in the country, some of whom are currently taking residence in the American Athletic Conference. 

Below we have ranked the 11 AAC coaches, using varying criteria that absorbs head coaching history, recent on-field results, future potential and intangibles into one ranking. First-year coaches start with an uphill battle given their limited track record, but the most tenured or winningest coaches don't get a bump to the front of the line either. It's entirely subjective and likely to change dramatically once we see the results in 2020. 

So with history, expectations and numerous other factors in play, here's how we've lined up the coaches in the AAC heading into 2020. 

2020 AAC Football Coach Rankings
1
Luke Fickell: No coach in the conference has seen his reputation change so quickly as Fickell. Two years ago, our staff had him ranked as the No. 10 coach in the AAC, and after the seven-win turnaround to 11-2 in 2018, he jumped up to No. 6. After a second straight 11-win season that this time included a division title and AAC title game appearance, he's made another major jump this time to the top of the rankings. But the win totals don't tell the whole story of an approach that led with defense, focused on player development and now with success to sell has the Bearcats recruiting as well as they have in years. Putting Fickell at No. 1 is not just a result of 22 wins in two years but an indicator of how his approach has made him one of the rising stars in the industry. 2019 AAC ranking: 6 (+5)
2
Ken Niumatalolo: Few things are more interesting than how a coach handles an off year. College football coaches drone on and on about adversity and how success is defined by whether you overcome said adversity, so when they have to face it on a professional level the response is often defined by their character. That's certainly the case with Niumatalolo, who led Navy back to AAC title contention after three straight years of decreasing win totals. Not since Keenan Reynolds' senior year in 2015 had Navy won 11 games or finished ranked in the top 25, and Navy accomplished both in 2020 after going 3-10 the year prior. That kind of turnaround is always going to get a nod here, though it shouldn't come as a huge surprise given the reputation of coach and program in Annapolis. 2019 ranking: 1 (-1)
3
Willie Fritz: Like some others on this list, Fritz brings to the table a more impressive track record of success from previous stops than his current record at Tulane. However, his high ranking hinges on the continued upward trajectory for the program. Fritz won two JUCO national championships at Blinn College, finished as the FCS national runner-up twice at Sam Houston State and went 14-2 in the Sun Belt at Georgia Southern before taking over at Tulane. A share of the division title in 2018 and two straight bowl wins have Tulane going in the right direction as he enters year five, but Fritz has yet to win more than seven games in a season with the Green Wave. 2019 AAC ranking: 8 (+5)
4
Sonny Dykes: Too many times the word "fit" is mentioned in analysis of coaching hires, especially during the speculation part of the process. It's a loose and sometimes reckless way to predict what is yet to come, and increasingly focuses on basic, publicly-available knowledge to make the analyst seem informed. But every now and then there is a cut-and-dry great example of fit that proves the most basic theory true. Is the son of a Texas Tech football coach going to be a better fit in Dallas or Berkeley, California? Dykes' 10-3 season at SMU was a breakthrough, the highest win total in his 10 years as a head coach and most successful conference season since winning the WAC at Louisiana Tech in 2011. He's back in Texas and overseeing one of the most prolific offenses in the country in a fashion that gives plenty of credence to the value of "fit" in a coaching hire. 2019 AAC ranking: 9 (+5)
5
Rod Carey: While just 8-5 at Temple, Carey brings along a head coaching resume that includes four division titles and two MAC championships from his time at Northern Illinois. While the Huskies were a successful program under Dave Doeren before Carey took over, their fall from conference runner-up to missing the postseason might point to Carey's value in DeKalb. Player development under Carey was exceptional at NIU and should continue at Temple, where the NFL has found value on a nearly annual basis. 2019 AAC ranking: 7 (+2)
6
Josh Heupel: A 22-4 record probably deserves higher ranking, but missing out on the AAC Championship Game has UCF fans far more focused on reclaiming conference supremacy than boasting about their coach's winning percentage. Heupel has done more than just keep the car on the road, he's upgraded the engine and landed the program's next prolific quarterback with rising sophomore Dillon Gabriel. 2019 AAC ranking: 5 (-1)
7
Dana Holgorsen: Resume and coaching profile alone should put Holgorsen higher on this list, but since we update the rankings from every year, I think it's important to note when perception and/or reputation have undergone dramatic change. There was a stubborn calm to the way Holgorsen approached his first year at Houston, from the D'Eriq King midseason redshirt to the Cougars' struggles on the field. Maybe Holgo knows best -- back at a program where he was the offensive coordinator a decade before -- and last season's purge will result in a refreshed Cougars squad in 2020. But after falling well short of expectations in Year 1, he takes a tumble -- for one year at least -- in our AAC coach rankings. 2019 AAC ranking: 3 (-4)
8
Mike Houston: While 4-8 in his first year at ECU, Houston brings with him a track record of consistent success at the FCS and Division II levels. His eight years of head coaching at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison included six combined conference tiles, two national runner-up finishes and an FCS National Championship in 2016. Internally, there is a lot of confidence in Houston's direction with the Pirates, but when ranked among his peers, there is plenty of work left to be done at the FBS level. 2019 AAC ranking: 10 (+2)
9
Phillip Montgomery: Heading into his sixth year at Tulsa, Montgomery carries arguably the hottest seat in the conference. His hope, like most Tulsa fans, is to see some awful close game luck swing the other way in 2020 to get the Golden Hurricane back to a bowl for the first time since the 10-3 season in 2016, Montgomery's second year with the program. Tulsa had three missed field goals in a triple-overtime loss to SMU and three missed field goals (including a potential game-winner) in a 42-41 loss to Memphis. Those results, against two division foes who combined to total 22 wins in 2019, suggested that Tulsa is closer to conference title contention than Montgomery's record suggests. But after three straight seasons of less than five wins per year, excuses can't take the place of a bowl bid. 2019 AAC ranking: 11 (+2)
10
Jeff Scott: The Clemson coaching staff had not seen a major shake up since Chad Morris' exit after the 2014 season, so when Scott was announced as the next hire at South Florida, it was a positive reflection on the program. Why would Scott, a former Clemson player, assistant since 2008 and co-offensive coordinator for all five of Clemson's College Football Playoff appearances and two national championships, leave a great situation? The answer is because Scott, along with his coaching mentor Dabo Swinney, see USF as a program where you can win championships. For now, though, the 0-0 overall head coaching record puts a ceiling on Scott's rating compared to his peers. 2019 AAC ranking: N/A
11
Ryan Silverfield: Loyal listeners of the Cover 3 Podcast know that we are fans of the Silverfield hire at Memphis and have expectations that the Tigers will be a top 25 team in 2020 and remain one of the prominent programs in the AAC. Being able to maintain continuity, particularly with a lost offseason due to the pandemic, has proven to be an unintended benefit of the decision to promote from within. With no head coaching track record good or bad, Silverfield starts here but should see his ranking improve with every season as long as he can continue Memphis' winning ways. 2019 AAC ranking: N/A
CBS Sports Writer

Chip Patterson has spent his young career covering college sports from the Old North State. He's been writing and talking about football and basketball for CBS Sports since 2010. You may have heard him... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories