By now you have heard the news of Hugh Freeze resigning from his post as Ole Miss’ head football coach after rumors of him making call(s) to an escort service forced Ross Bjork and Jeffrey Vitter’s hand. Matt Luke is now the interim head coach for the 2017 season and Bjork mentioned in their press conference that he would not be the coach in 2018.
When they hired Freeze, he was an up-and-coming, young coach making his way through the channels of college football before being lifted from Arkansas State and handed $5M. Will Ole Miss go with the new kid on the block candidate? Or will they go with the proven coach who has experience at a Power 5 program and can come in and pick up where Hugh left off. And by that I mean winning Sugar Bowls and recruiting at a high level, not the other stuff.
So who do they go after? Here are some names (in no particular order) that could be on the proverbial smokin’ hot board:
Head coach at Memphis
The second-year man for the Tigers has done an incredible job following up Justin Fuente’s final two-year hurrah in the Bluff City (19-7 record, finished No. 25 in AP poll in 2014). His lone year at the head of the Memphis program, his Tigers went 8-5, finished third in the AAC and made it to a bowl game. The intriguing thing about Norvell is his high-powered offense, ability to coach a quarterback, and recruiting success at a Group of 5 program, primarily in Mississippi.
At 36 years-young, he is one of the nation’s youngest head coaches and will look to build upon his eight wins in his first year after enjoying four successful years as Arizona State’s associate head coach and offensive coordinator. While at ASU, the Sun Devils averaged at least 34.6 points a game in each of the last four seasons. He also helped Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson shatter Paxton Lynch’s single season passing touchdowns school record and throw for 3,698 yards in 2016. He would be a young, excitable name to come into the program when it needs some energy and positivity immediately.
In year two, his Tigers are off to a blistering start (currently 6-1) and aside from a lopsided loss to UCF, they have been impressive with two wins over ranked opponents and an offense that is ranked 20th in S&P+ rankings. Other than the road loss to Scott Frost and the Golden Knights, Norvell’s offense has scored 30 or more points in every other game. And despite his defense being ranked in the 100’s, they are 2nd in turnovers gained and 10th in the country in turnover margin.
Head coach at Oregon
Bjork told the Clarion-Ledger last month that he wanted a “proven coach that has been at the highest level, a known commodity as a recruiter, and a leader”, and Taggart certainly fits that bill. Their relationship started at Western Kentucky back in 2010 where he had back-to-back 7-5 seasons before leaving for the South Florida gig.
He rebuilt USF and went a combined 19-7 in his last two years in Tampa, won the AAC East in 2016, then bolted for Eugene to replace Mark Helfrich went 4-8 and finished 6th in the Pac-12 North.. His overall coaching record (46-50) isn’t as sexy as fellow target Charlie Strong’s, but he has proven he can rebuild, recruit, and win everywhere he has been.
The Bradenton, Fla. native had top 100 classes his last two years at WKU, an astronomical feat when looking at the grand scheme of things and ya know recruiting to a Conference USA team that has only been a FBS program for seven years. Then at USF he had the 54th, 42nd, and 66th (twice) ranked classes, including the best in the AAC three times. After taking the position at Oregon, he secured the 19th ranked class for 2017 and now has the 6th ranked 2018 class. He’s proven, can recruit, and is a leader. All three criteria filled for Bjork.
The hangup with Taggart is going to be a combination of the NCAA ruling and what happens in the Sunshine State. He is a native son and he will almost certainly want to see what the Gators do with their vacancy and if Jimbo Fisher leaves, who Florida State will contact. It is certainly a long shot, but if Ole Miss can make him happy via the checkbook and he can get back closer to home, it could happen. But, don’t hold your breath.
Head coach at UTSA
The New Orleans, La. native might be a name that some of you recognize after his time as an Ole Miss running backs coach (2005-2007) or as a LSU assistant (2010-2015) where he was associate head coach and running backs coach. Since then, he has taken over the head coach position at UTSA after former Miami Hurricans legend Larry Coker resigned. In his first year, the Radrunners went 6-7, finished second in his division and signed the No. 1 recruiting class in Conference USA.
This year, his Roadrunners are currently 4-2 and should be favored to win out, despite two tough games against UAB and Marshall on the schedule. Outside of the two losses to Southern Miss and North Texas, his defense has held opponents to 12 points per game in their four wins. UTSA is 2nd in the nation in red zone defense, 18th in sacks, 39th in team passing efficiency defense, and 47th in S&P+ defense rankings.
Wilson could be a name to watch because of his ties to the south, Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He is a known commodity around the Southeast and has enjoyed tremendous success as a recruiter, especially at LSU. While he was employed in Baton Rouge, 29 of his players were selected in the NFL Draft, second only to Alabama (30). He is young, fiery and would be a possible jolt to the Ole Miss program with his name recognition on the recruiting trail and recent success at UTSA.
He is relatively new to the head coaching game, but he checks all of the recruiting boxes and then some. Frank has been named recruiter of the year twice by Rivals (2011) and Scout (2015) respectively and he’s also been able to land big-time running backs at LSU and hell, he almost convinced former five-star and NFL back Joe McKnight to sign with Ole Miss back in 2007.
Head coach at UCF
Sticking with the young candidate theme, Frost would be another name to keep an eye on. Some of you might remember him from his days under center at Nebraska in the 90’s. He initially started his career at Stanford before transferring to the Huskers and guiding them to a 24-2 record in two years and a national title in 1997, when they beat the brakes off Peyton Manning and the Tennessee Volunteers.
After a very brief career in the NFL, he got into coaching as a graduate assistant at Nebraska and Kansas State before moving over to defense at Northern Iowa. There he was a linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator for two seasons. Former option quarterback coaching linebackers and running a defense? That sounds pretty cool, to be quite honest. In 2007, the Panthers went 12–3 and led the Missouri Valley Conference in rushing defense (107.1 avg.) and scoring defense.
Once he left there, he arrived at Oregon and worked under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. This is where he made his name. During his four years in Eugene as wide receivers coach, the Ducks reached four straight BCS (R.I.P.) bowls and his room played a big part in giving Oregon a balanced attack on the ground and through the air. He was promoted to offensive coordinator by Helfrich once Kelly left for the NFL and his offense, led by Marcus Mariota, generated a Heisman Trophy and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
As a head coach, Frost turned around a train wreck Central Florida program (0-12) and finished with a 6-7 season and a berth in a bowl game in his first year leading the Golden Knights. His first two recruiting classes have finished 65th and 55th respectively and finished tops in the American Athletic Conference this past year, narrowly beating out Norvell and finishing four spots ahead of Charlie Strong.
One of the more impressive things on Frost’s resume is his coaching tree. He has either played or coached under names such as Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Frank Solich, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Jon Gruden, and Chip Kelly. This Mount Rushmore coaching tree has no doubt helped him in his quest to a New Year’s Six bowl in 2018 as he has guided UCF to a 6-0 record, No. 18 ranking, and an offense that is 3rd in the country in S&P+ rankings.
Head coach at South Florida
Since we’re talking about the American Athletic Conference, let’s discuss the possibility of Charlie Strong’s potential return to Oxford. The former Rebels’ receivers coach spent a single season in Oxford before leaving for Florida and eventually becoming the head man at Louisville. During his time in the Commonwealth, his Cardinals began to roll after consecutive 7-6 seasons. His final two years in Louisville saw his teams finish with a combined record of 23-3, a Big East title, and Sugar Bowl win in 2012.
Before he made his mark following up Bobby Petrino, Strong was destroying the SEC at Florida as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator. In 2006, the Gators were sixth in both total defense and scoring defense and won a national title. His ninth-ranked defense in 2008 led the Gators to another national title after they were able to bounce back from an 11 a.m. loss at the hands of Houston Nutt (lol).
One of the more interesting tid bits about Charlie and his potential candidacy is how he affected Louisville’s defense upon his arrival. He immediately jumped the Cardinals from 65th to 14th in total defense and his 2013 squad led the nation in total defense and—this should be intriguing for Rebel fans—rush defense. He was a relentless recruiter at Louisville as well, finishing 44th, 27th, 45th, and 36th.
And speaking of recruiting, his three years at Texas saw him finish 17th, 10th, and 7th. The wins weren’t there during his time in Austin, but there is no doubt he attracts top talent. And that’s how you win, especially in the SEC West. Strong was rumored to be very interested in the once vacant defensive coordinator role at Ole Miss, but he eventually took the head job at USF. Which brings me to my one question about Charlie: is his immediate success in Tampa his doing or leftovers from Willie Taggart’s tenure? The Bulls are 7-0 and ranked as high as 14th in the country.
Can he sustain success once Quinton Flowers leaves? Ole Miss won’t be able to wait and see, but the question remains. Will USF’s 16th-ranked defense translate to success in Oxford if he were to be hired? Could Shea Patterson step right in to Sterlin Gilbert’s 33rd ranked offense and do his thing in 2018? Only time will tell.
Head coach at Troy
Sticking with the Texas Tech Red Raiders theme, the third-year head coach at Troy has already made waves in a short time frame. The Danville, Kentucky native was named Tommy Tuberville’s offensive coordinator in Lubbock and treated us all to his NASCAR spread offense. In his first year calling plays for Tubs, his offense was top 15 in total offense and passing offense. Brown gained considerable praise in his second year when the Red Raiders defeated No. 3 Oklahoma, earning him the title of Rivals.com National Coordinator of the Week.
He left Lubbock in 2013 to return home and coach Mark Stoops’ offense and quarterbacks at Kentucky. The stint in Lexington was short-lived however. Brown’s Air Raid system never got off the runway as Kentucky went 7-17 in his two seasons in the SEC East. Despite a little improvement in year two, Neal decided it was time to move on and try his hand at being a head coach.
After an understandable transition year one that saw the Trojans go 4-8, he made a tremendous jump in year two, finishing a 10-3 campaign and winning the Dollar General Bowl. It was their first 10-win season since joining the FBS ranks and their first ever top 25 ranking in school history. Now in year three, he has his fellas off to a 4-1 record and are just coming off a huge upset of LSU in Death Valley.
Despite the quick success as a head coach at Troy, the one knock on Brown will be recruiting. The 37-year old was able to secure signatures from three four-stars during his time at Kentucky but at the head of a program he has finished 98th and 96th respectively. Granted, resources are limited at Troy and he did jump to 2nd in the conference with his second full class, but in order to compete in the SEC West year in and year out you’re going to have to win head-to-head battles with Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin, and Ed Orgeron.
The wins and excitement are there (beat No. 25 LSU this year on the road), but we need to see the proverbial ticker move a little more when it comes to recruiting. If his Trojans continue to win and other SEC programs continue to struggle and heat up their head coach’s seats, Brown is going to be a name to watch in November and December if he can win out and capture a Sun Belt title.
Head coach at SMU
This is a name that has been circulating around the coaching search chat room for quite some time since his departure from Clemson. After partnering with Dabo Swinney and being a key cog in Clemson’s meteoric rise, (that almost certainly was due in large part to good, old fashioned hard work and doing things the right way) Morris is a candidate that, for whatever reason despite being on the bad side of 50, is labeled as a young, up-and-coming coach. All jokes aside, you can’t deny the fact that he was an innovative part of Clemson’s offense developing into what it is today and that he has sparked a little bit of interest at SMU.
He is originally from Texas, coached in the high school ranks for 15 years (169-38 career record) before working gigs at Tulane, Clemson, then moving up to head coach in Dallas. He is very active on the recruiting trail, something Ole Miss desperately needs to refill the proverbial cupboard, and he has signed the likes of Deshaun Watson, Chad Kelly, Ben Boulware, and Shaq Lawson. His connections to high school programs in the Lone Star state is invaluable and his reputation for sparking the Tigers’ offense under Swinney still helps on the recruiting trail.
Despite only signing a few non-Texas players while coaching at SMU (his first two classes were ALL Texas players), he still has ties to most of the Southeast from his time at Clemson. His first two full classes at SMU finished 75th and 80th in the country, but one would venture to think that he would be able to spread his crootin wings a bit more at a Power 5, SEC program.
But, I still have my own personal reservations about his ability to recruit and consistently win at a big-time level (11-19 career record at SMU). And not to mention, his defensive efficiency ranks 104th right now. And we all know how I feel about defense being a part of your arsenal as a head coach.
To me, this feels like a similar hire to the one Ole Miss made in 2012 when they picked Hugh Freeze. He is an offensive coach who has a fun offense (27th in offensive efficiency) and ties to a certain family made famous by a shitty movie. If it were me, I would steer clear of a Group 5 coach who has yet to finish higher than 5th in the AAC West, but that’s just me, a blogger. What do I know?
Offensive coordinator at Penn State
Moorhead’s offenses at Penn State have been stellar (18th in S&P+ in 2016, currently 13th in 2017) in its first two years in State College. He was a key cog in helping the Nittany Lions win their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years and has developed a three-star Trace McSorley into an uptempo spread wizard.
He has also been a head coach before. During his time at Fordham, a Patriot League program in the Bronx, his career record was 38-13, 11-1 in conference, and he won one league title. He worked his magic and turned a 1–10 team into someone who had the second largest turnaround in FCS history in 2012. Then, he followed that up with an encore of 10 straight wins.
Joe is a Pittsburgh native and has no real ties to the southeast, which would be tough recruiting primarily in the Southeast, but he's 43-years young and has been named the top rising assistant coach name by Sports Illustrated and arguably runs the most fun offense in college football at Penn State with Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley and former three-star turned all-star quarterback Trace McSorley.
Head coach at Iowa State
Speaking of turning three-stars into stars, the Cyclones head coach is a kingmaker. The Ohio native earned his stripes in the MAC at Bowling Green (graduate assistant, offensive line coach, run game coordinator) and Toledo (offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, head coach) and now has ISU ranked and the college football world buzzing. As the Rockets’ head man, he won two division titles, 35 games, and led them to four bowl games. All in four full seasons (coached bowl game in 2011 as interim coach).
The 2015 MAC Coach of the Year hit the ground running once he was the full-time guy in Glass City. He signed the conference’s top class twice, finished top 100 nationally every year he was there, and then once he got to Ame, his first two classes finished 55th and 52nd respectively. The 37-year old head man is winning and recruiting well considering where he is currently coaching at. No disrespect to folks from Iowa, but most teenagers probably couldn’t find it on a map, much less want to go play football there.
His overall record in a year and a half at ISU is 8-11 and 5-8 in the Big 12, but the body of work is there and the improvement is following closely behind. His offenses have been ranked 48th and 45th respectively by S&P+ and his defense made a tremendous jump from year one to year two (93rd to 29th). We have discussed several times about the importance of defense and we all know that Ole Miss could use a shot in the arm and then some in that department.
He has a humongous opportunity to continue to impress this weekend when the Cyclones host Gary Patterson and the TCU Horned Frogs at Jack Trice Stadium. If he can follow up his upset of then-No. 3 ranked Oklahoma with another upset over No. 4 TCU, his ‘clones will be on top of the Big 12. Campbell is an incredibly intriguing candidate that is young and already showing promise of being dynamic. But, will he be available for the Rebs or will he move on to bigger and better things?
Head coach at Toledo
Speaking of Toledo, here is another Rockets coach to know. And Ole Miss better move fast if they’re going to give him a call because the hype is real. Hell, Candle’s team dropped 30 points on undefeated Miami’s top 25 defense. On the road.
The former Geneva College and Mount Union wide receiver is only 37-years old(!) and took over the Rockets program when current Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell bolted for the Big 12. Despite his young age and lack of experience, the dude knows how to win, as a player AND a coach. At Mount Union, he was on two national championship teams as a player and four national championship teams as an assistant/coordinator/associate head coach.
As a member of the Purple Raiders staff, he coached NFL wide receivers Pierre Garçon and Cecil Shorts and while on the staff at Toledo, he coached 13 current NFL players, including current Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. In Candle’s two seasons as offensive coordinator, the Purple Raiders went 29-1, losing to D-III juggernaut Wisconsin-Whitewater in the title game in 2007 and winning the national championship in the 2008 rematch against those same Warhawks.
His players earned nine All-American honors under his tutelage as offensive coordinator, most notable, QB Greg Micheli was honored in 2008 with the Gagliardi Trophy a.k.a. the Division III Heisman Trophy. While operating as offensive coordinator at Toledo, his offenses have ranked in the S&P+ rankings as 57th, 38th, 31st, and 41st respectively. His final year as OC, the Rockets finished 10-2 and led the MAC in rushing, averaging nearly 208 yards per game, and ranked No. 2 in the nation in fewest sacks allowed (five).
Despite being in the MAC, he is no stranger to recruiting. He was recognized as one of the top 10 recruiters in the country among "non-Big Six" conferences by Rivals.com, named the MAC “Recruiter of the Year” by Scout in both 2011 and 2012, and his first full class as head coach finished second in the conference and 88th nationally according to 247Sports. His 2017 class is currently 79th nationally and tops in the MAC.
Obviously the SEC West is a completely different monster, but he has shown the ability to do a lot with very little (16-5 career record, 9-2 in conference). That will surely be a hurdle for whoever the new coach is because of self-imposed sanctions and scholarship reductions, but maybe Candle is up for the challenge since he’s already convincing Alabama and Florida recruits to come attend school in Ohio and play in the MAC.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check back throughout the process for updates. We will be adding and removing names until Ross Bjork gets his man.