Looking back on it now, it all seems so predetermined. Of course Houston was going to romp through the American, claim the Group of Five's Peach Bowl slot and slay Florida State en route to a 13-1 season. After all, the Cougars had a capable roster left behind by Tony Levine and staff, they had a spark plug quarterback in Greg Ward, they had a highly-paid coaching staff (by Group of Five standards) and they had a budding superstar in head coach Tom Herman.
Alas, the view out of the windshield is never as crystal-clear as the view out the rear-view mirror.
If you'll recall back to one year ago, Houston's hire of Herman was regarded favorably, but nobody saw Herman's stock rising faster than the price of land in Silicon Valley. Remember, Boise State -- fresh off its Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona on New Year's Eve 2014 -- was all but a given to claim the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl slot, and Cincinnati was heavily favored to win the AAC. SB Nation's Bill Connelly gave the Cougars a generally optimistic outlook for 2015, but still ranked them seventh in the AAC, 13th among mid-majors and 67th nationally.
Then, of course, the season started.
Houston beat Louisville on the road, dismantled Vanderbilt, and took down Florida State by two touchdowns, coming just four points shy of an undefeated season while finishing with a No. 8 ranking in both polls. In coaching circles, Herman went from a proverbial Triple A call-up to MVP candidate in a matter of weeks, with his name being mentioned for two SEC jobs and daily threads devoted to him on Texas and Texas A&M message boards.
Herman's place in the coaching world is established. The question now becomes who can become this year's Tom Herman.
As a refresher, the list of first-year head coaches in 2016:
- Mike Neu, Ball State
- Mike Jinks, Bowling Green
- Kalani Sitake, BYU
- Scott Frost, Central Florida
- Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina
- Kirby Smart, Georgia
- Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern
- Nick Rolovich, Hawaii
- D.J. Durkin, Maryland
- Mike Norvell, Memphis
- Barry Odom, Missouri
- Seth Littrell, North Texas
- Chris Ash, Rutgers
- Jason Candle, Toledo
- Frank Wilson, UTSA
The short answer: probably nobody. Herman's debut into coaching rivaled only two others in the BCS/CFP era -- Larry Coker's insta-national championship at Miami in 2001 and Chris Petersen's undefeated Fiesta Bowl run at Boise State in 2006. It's a high bar to clear.
But of the 16 coaches listed above, two have a path that mirror's Hermans.
First, there's Kirby Smart. Like Herman, Smart inherits a situation where the previous coach won consistently, but not big enough to keep the natives happy. Simple victories aren't the objective here; trophies are. And like Herman, Smart arrives as the top lieutenant of an all-timer coach whose success will provide a model to be emulated. But Georgia is widely viewed to enter the season in a transition year, re-tooling as it builds toward a run under five-star quarterback Jacob Eason in a division headed by a now-or-never Tennessee team.
Plus, Smart's ascendance would lack the same sizzle Herman's did. Where would he go after a proverbial SEC championship? He's already in his dream job.
No, the clearest 2016 parallel to where Herman was in 2015 is his American West rival Mike Norvell at Memphis. Though he arrived under different circumstances -- Justin Fuente won his way to the Virginia Tech job -- Herman and Norvell are cut from the same cloth. Both are young (Herman accepted the Houston job at 39; Norvell is 34). Both are aggressive, spread offensive coordinators arriving from Power Five programs. Both are aligned with mentors after whom they'll model their own programs. Both are goateed. The similarities are endless.
Like Herman, Norvell inherits a Memphis team viewed with a "yeah they could be good in a couple years" sigh, a Year 1 regroup in a year where the Group of Five's alpha dog has already been crowned before the season even starts. This time, ironically, it's Houston. Connelly has Memphis pegged 11th among mid-majors and 67th nationally, the same spot the Cougars started a year ago.
But most importantly, Norvell has that you-know-it-when-you-see-it, Herman-ian quality of "he just gets it" mastered. Like Herman, Norvell walked into a program he'd never coached before with an innate understanding of someone whose parents met at the 50-yard line of the Liberty Bowl.
"You see the excitement that is built around what we’ve been able to do at the Liberty Bowl and to join into a community that has such great culture and tradition and festivals and things like that, it’s a joy to be a part of it because we represent the community," Norvell told USA Today in May. "I knew when I went to Memphis, I never lived there but I knew a little bit about what it's all about. We’re working. We’re staying after it, but when we do get down time there’s no greater place to be than being out there and being involved in what we have."
Again, there probably isn't a Herman among the crop of 2016 first-time hires. The odds just aren't there. But if one coach fits the mold of morphing from "that hire makes sense" to "everyone knew that was a home run" in three months, it's Norvell.
And his 2016 Memphis team does pull a 2015 Houston, you better believe I'm retroactively taking credit for it.