The rest of the 2015 season may end up showing that programs like Michigan and Florida still have some work to do before being thought of as a legitimate conference or playoff contender, but one weekend into October has helped demonstrate that new coaches are having quite the impact on the resuscitation of their respective programs. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Florida’s Jim McElwain have breathed new life into their programs and have managed to get a jump-start on rebuilding the reputation of each program. As of today Michigan and Florida are a combined 9-1, and the lone loss was Michigan’s at the hand of a rising Utah program, on the road on the opening Thursday night of the season.
McElwain’s sudden success in Gainesville might be even more of a surprise. The Gators have rocketed up the AP ranking, moving up to No. 11 this week after a demolishing of Ole Miss in The swamp on Saturday. It is the highest Florida has been ranked this point in the season since being ranked No. 10 in the first weekend of October in 2012. Those Gators reached as high as No. 3 polls before going to the Sugar Bowl ranked fourth in the nation and losing to Louisville. The Gators have not been the same since facing the Cardinals, but McElwain has seemingly turned things around.
McElwain’s knowledge of what it takes to win the SEC was among the reasons he won the job at Florida after Will Muschamp was removed as head coach. This season we have already seen he is not afraid to get in a player’s face on the sideline as well. Maybe McElwain was not exactly a sexy hire, but with the Gators off to a 5-0 start for the first time since that 2012 season, the vibes are good once again and Florida seems to have made the right choice.
Few questioned the decision by Michigan to hire Harbaugh. It was a slam dunk hire from the start. What was left unanswered was just how long it was going to take Harbaugh to return Michigan to Big Ten championship contender status. This early in October one could make an argument the Wolverines are the best team in the conference right now. With Ohio State and Michigan State failing to live up to some expectations with closer games than expected, the Wolverines are coming off their second straight shutout victory, outscoring both BYU and Maryland by a combined score of 59-0. Since losing on the road at Utah, 24-17, Michigan has given up just 14 points. Forget about being the most improved team in the Big Ten or nation. The Wolverines have a legitimate argument to be made about being the best team in the Big Ten at this point in time even with the loss to the Utes. Michigan hosts Northwestern this weekend in what will be the first battle of ranked teams in Michigan Stadium since November 2, 2013 (Michigan State). If Michigan pulls together another win, this time against what could be the top team in the Big Ten West, the Wolverines will start creeping toward the top 10 of the national polls for the first time since starting the 2012 season ranked No. 8 (Alabama took care of that).
Both Michigan and Florida had some pieces ready to be used for their new head coaches, but one thing we have seen this season is just how much having a good coach can figure out the rest where their predecessors could not.
Florida and Michigan are not the only programs off to solid starts under new head coaches. Illinois and Houston are each off to good starts under Bill Cubit and Tom Herman, respectively. The Illini named Cubit the interim coach prior to the start of the season when the university suddenly canned Tim Beckman. Aside from a rough trip to North Carolina, Illinois has found ways to get to 4-1. Maybe a favorable schedule and questionable clockwork by Nebraska have helped get them there, and maybe the Illini are about to hit a wall at Iowa this week, but Cubit has been keeping Illinois feeling good about itself when the season could have been thrown in the dumpster from the start.
Herman’s early success at Houston is not to be taken as a surprise. The Cougars also had some good pieces in pace for whoever took over, and Herman was one of the highest-regarded assistant coaches ready to make the jump to a head coaching position last year. His success as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach was transitioned smoothly at Houston with a top 25 passing offense and top 20 scoring offense getting Houston off to a 4-0 start to build momentum for what could be a wildly entertaining AAC West Division race.
Sometimes all a program needs is the right coach to provide a jumpstart, but be cautious of success of the bat. Just remember Michigan also got a spark in the first year with Brady Hoke as head coach, taking a Rich Rodriguez team to the Sugar Bowl in year one. Will any of these coaches turn out to be the next Rich Rodriguez or is there a Jimbo Fisher in the mix?