Kirby Smart, Justin Fuente and More Hot Coaching Prospects

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Earlier today on TodaysU.com, I pointed to Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal as standing on the cusp of being college football’s It Man once head coaching vacancies open at season’s end.

A proven winner at FIU and an outstanding recruiter for Alabama, that Cristobal is entering his third season as an assistant and not head coach inspires particular emotions.

Cristobal has good company in fellow Crimson Tide assistant Kirby Smart, at least. Both should get plenty of attention in the months to come, along with some of the nation’s other top assistants. You can also anticipate attention for a few of the best Group of Five head coaches, most notably the few spotlit below.

Kirby Smart, Alabama Defensive Coordinator

Kirby Smart’s name seems to float around every year whenever the coaching carousel starts, but the overseer of what is consistently one of the nation’s premiere defenses has been committed to the Crimson Tide for as long as Nick Saban has been head coach.

Kirby Smart might be…well, smart, to remain at Alabama for the duration of Saban’s tenure. A transition from Saban to his No. 1 assistant seems like a logical progression. However, gaining invaluable head coaching experience in less of a pressure-cooker environment could benefit Smart tremendously. And, with the proliferation of more potent offenses around the SEC, the coming year may be an opportune time for Kirby Smart to explore other options; this offseason starting with headlines that read “Hot-seat time for Kirby Smart?” demonstrate just how pressure-packed working at Alabama can be.

Dave Aranda, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator

When Alabama kicks off the 2015 season, it will be lined up opposite the Big Ten’s benchmark of consistency over the last two decades, the Wisconsin Badgers. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is playing his own role in the continued consistency, remaining in Madison despite the departure of head coach Gary Andersen for Oregon State and flirtations with the NFL.

Aranda will now call the defense for head coach Paul Chryst. Despite the change in leadership, expect the Badgers to continue stymieing opponents with the same effectiveness of last year’s No. 17-ranked scoring defense, and the 2013 season’s No. 6-ranked scoring D.

Though such stinginess has been a calling card for Wisconsin pre-dating Aranda, he proved his worth as Andersen’s defensive coordinator at Utah State in 2012. The Aggies held opponents to 15.4 points per game that season, seventh-best in college football.

A great season, starting with a strong showing opposite Lane Kiffin’s Alabama offense, should catapult Aranda into the stratosphere, much in the same way Michigan State’s success in recent years propelled Pat Narduzzi into the Pittsburgh job.

Matt Wells, Utah State Head Coach

Matt Wells helped continue Utah State’s success under Gary Andersen into a new era. In his first season as Aggies head coach, Wells led them to the inaugural Mountain West Conference championship. His debut campaign capped with Utah State shutting down Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Utah State did not return to the MWC title game in 2014, but actually improved upon their 2013 mark with 10 wins — and that was without star quarterback Chuckie Keeton available for much of the season.

Matt Wells is a Utah State alum, which certainly has to be taken into some consideration when evaluating his interest in other opportunities. But should the Aggies meet their lofty potential in 2015, returning several key pieces to a typically stout defense and Keeton back behind center, interest in Wells will certainly be there.

Justin Fuente, Memphis Head Coach

Few, if any coaches have done as remarkably at one program as Justin Fuente has at Memphis. The Tigers occupied the bottom of the FBS barrel when Fuente left TCU in 2012, finishing 5-31 in the three seasons prior.

In just his third season, Fuente turned the program around 180 degrees, capping the most winning season in Memphis football history with a ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.

Memphis employs an exciting, multifaceted and somewhat unorthodox brand of offense, reminiscent of the malleable way in which Fuente coordinated the TCU offense. The Horned Frogs looked much different with Andy Dalton behind center than with Casey Pachall playing quarterback, for example, and Fuente has instilled that same kind of approach at Memphis.

The Tigers are my pick to win the American Athletic Conference in 2015, an accomplishment that would vault Justin Fuente to the front of several short-lists. His Texas ties make him an intriguing option for the Big 12, though it would have to be the right fit.

Doug Meacham, TCU Offensive Coordinator

TCU obviously felt the void of Justin Fuente in 2013, finishing with one of the worst scoring offenses among Power Five conferences at 25.1 points per game. Enter Doug Meacham.

Brought in from Houston — a program long built on explosive offense — Meacham ignited TCU to the tune of 46.5 points per game in 2014, second-most in the FBS. Meacham’s quarterback-coaching chops helped Trevone Boykin elevate from on-again, off-again wide receiver/quarterback to Heisman Trophy contender.

For his efforts, Meacham won the Frank Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant coach. As for Boykin, his success under Meacham demonstrates the Mike Gundy influence Meacham brough from his time as an Oklahoma State assistant.

Mike Norvell, Arizona State Offensive Coordinator

I tend to buy into the old adage that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and Arizona State sent up billows when it made offensive mastermind Mike Norvell one of the highest paid assistants in college football just prior to last offseason. Locking up Norvell suggests interest in the young up-and-comer is gaining momentum — and why wouldn’t it?

Norvell’s brand of uptempo football stands out, even at a time when offenses all around the Pac-12 and nation employ high-tempo strategies. The Sun Devils ranked 16 in scoring offense last season, 10 in 2013 and 14 in 2012. And it’s not just that Arizona State scores that speaks to Mike Norvell’s offensive acumen: it’s how the Sun Devils score.

Arizona State’s offense shows a variety of looks with unique personnel groupings. Norvell’s adjusted for dual-threat Taylor Kelly and more traditional passer Mike Bercovici nicely, and even shown power with since-transferred Michael Eubank. Moving DJ Foster to wide receiver this offseason in order to get him the ball in space, while running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage tag-team running back duties, should pay big dividends.

It should also generate even more interest in Norvell than before.

Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette Head Coach

Mark Hudspeth is slowly becoming the new Chris Petersen: successful, non-power conference head coach routinely mentioned in association with various openings, only to remain committed to his current home.

Hudspeth hasn’t had quite the same level of success at Louisiana-Lafayette that Petersen had at Boise State, but the Ragin’ Cajuns’ current run of four consecutive postseason appearances, nine wins every season and a Sun Belt championship is unprecedented for ULL.

Mississippi born with a coaching resume exclusively built in the South, Mark Hudspeth is a logical fit for an SEC program — though certain ACC programs make sense, too.