We're at the midpoint of the 2021 season, which means we're getting close to rubber-meets-road time for the FBS hiring class of 2019.
It's an eclectic group of 23 coaches -- one that includes zero representatives from the SEC, Pac-12 or Mountain West.
Among this 23, I count four unqualified successes and, oh, 19 or so coaches entering critical stretches for what they've spent the past two and a half seasons trying to build.
Let's dive in, conference by conference.
Mike Houston, East Carolina (10-17, 5-13 AAC): Houston has never been at a head coaching stop longer than three years, because he's never needed more than two to get a place going. Holding on to that 14-0 lead over South Carolina would've been a milestone win for Houston, but as of now this appears to be a middle-of-the-road AAC team. That's a step above the Scottie Montgomery days but two steps behind the Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill.
Dana Holgorsen, Houston (12-14, 8-9 AAC): The school that bragged about firing coaches for 8-win seasons pulled a major power move by luring away a Big 12 coach... and through two seasons this move was an unmitigated failure. Holgo won seven games in his first two seasons. He tried to game the 4-game redshirt rule with D'Eriq King, only to watch him leave for Miami following a disastrous 2019 debut.
But! Houston has been one of the surprise teams of 2021 thus far. The Cougars have won five straight and generally looked dominant in doing so. SMU comes to H-Town on Oct. 30 in a game that could decide the American West.
Rod Carey, Temple (12-14, 7-10 AAC): Eight wins and a bowl game accompanied Carey's first season. The 2020 campaign saw a free fall to 1-6, which, fine. We're willing to give a pandemic mulligan to all who apply here. This season has seen the Owls start 3-3 (1-1 AAC); their three losses have come by a combined 141-20. Temple will be clear underdogs in two of their final six games (vs. UCF and Houston) and the other four will be varying degrees of toss-ups.
Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech (9-19, 7-14 ACC): We all knew Georgia Tech's transformation into the 21st century wouldn't be seamless, and it hasn't been. But the progress is there, if incremental. The Jackets won two ACC games in 2019, three in 2020, and now sit at 2-2 at the '21 midpoint.
The Northern Illinois loss was ugly and could stick around as an anchor over the entire season; considering Tech closes with Notre Dame and Georgia, they'll likely need to win three of their next four (at Virginia, Virginia Tech, at Miami, Boston College) to reach a bowl game. My how things might be different in the ACC if Collins' crew had punched it in against Clemson.
Scott Satterfield, Louisville (15-15, 9-11 ACC): Satterfield and co. won the Rookie Staff of the Year in 2019, transforming a team that was nearly Kansas-level bad, left for dead by Bobby Petrino, into an 8-5 product that won the Music City Bowl.
And in the two seasons since, Satterfield has taken that hard-earned goodwill and flushed it down the drain. There was the open flirting with South Carolina, compounded by last season's 4-7 record. The 2021 Cardinals are 3-3, and all three losses were painful in their own way: out-classed by Ole Miss in the opener, a near miss over new ACC favorite Wake Forest, and then blowing a 17-point lead at home to Virginia this past Saturday. The Cardinals will be underdogs to Clemson and No. 11 Kentucky, and favorites over Syracuse and Duke. That leaves the next two games that, barring an upset, will shape the tenor of the season, and thus the Satterfield regime: home against Boston College, at No. 22 NC State.
Manny Diaz, Miami (16-13, 11-7 ACC): Underwhelming is the word that comes to mind here. Arguably The U's greatest asset is its prominent set of young alums that continue to hover around the program, and they haven't been shy about sharing their dissatisfaction with the state of the program.
Left to an open vote of fans and football alums, this would be a clear verdict for regime change. But what do the donors and administration think?
Mack Brown, North Carolina (18-13, 13-10 ACC): Brown exceeded expectations early, and now the expectations are exceeding him. He oddly blamed the media for UNC's status as 2021's Biggest Underperformer. Miami is up next, followed by three straight games where the Heels will be underdogs -- at Notre Dame, Wake Forest, at Pitt -- where this season can be salvaged or completely lost.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State (15-13, 9-11 Big 12): If Skylar Thompson could remain healthy, this would be a fringe Top 25 team. This year's team won't play for the Big 12 title, but a top four finish represents an attainable standard of progress.
Matt Wells, Texas Tech (12-16, 6-15 Big 12): Wells was not a popular hire in Lubbock, and the results of the past two and a half seasons have not turned public opinion. Same as it ever was, the Red Raiders just cannot stop anybody. Well aware of that fact, Wells built a defense more heavy on transfers than perhaps any other unit in college football, and the result thus far is a defense that surrenders 47 points a game in Big 12 play.
Neal Brown, West Virginia (13-15, 7-13 Big 12): Brown was hailed as a great fit at WVU, yet he finds himself just a game ahead of Wells -- thanks in large part to a 23-20 loss to Tech in Morgantown. The Mountaineers are scoring 17.7 points a game in Big 12 play so far.
Mike Locksley, Maryland (10-19, 5-18 Big Ten): The Terps went from one Big Ten win to two in Locks' first two seasons, and this year began with a 4-0 start. Maryland was blown out by Iowa and Ohio State, but you can live with that so long as you win most of the games against everyone else. Take two against Minnesota, Indiana and Rutgers and the program will make its first bowl trip since 2016. Even if the Terps fall short of that, the program is still in a better place than where Locksley found it.
Ryan Day, Ohio State (28-3, 18-0 Big Ten): Day stepped to the plate with the bases full and no one out, and the inning's still going. Hiring Kerry Coombs as his defensive coordinator -- and the subsequent loss to Oregon -- represent the only blight on Day's 31-game tenure, and thus far the entire program, including Coombs himself, has responded positively. The standard is still a national championship, but even if the Buckeyes fall short it's clear the program sent the right batter to the plate.
Will Healy, Charlotte (13-12, 9-5 C-USA): Charlotte has gotten everything they signed up for with the Will Healy Experience. His debut season ended with the coach donning scuba gear to announce the program's first bowl trip. The 49ers played just six games last season, but six games into this one they're 4-2 and 2-0 in C-USA play. More importantly, Charlotte is well positioned for a possible move to the American.
Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky (15-15, 10-6 C-USA): The Hilltoppers can still score with anyone, racking up 40 points and 550 yards per game. But as WKU keeps scoring, the trend line is pointing down: from 9-4 in '19, to 5-7 in '20, to 1-4 thus far in '21. The most recent game is emblematic, a 52-46 home loss to UTSA. All is far from lost (WKU is just 0-1 in C-USA play) but the defense will have to improve before the program can compete seriously for a conference title.
Hugh Freeze, Liberty (23-7): Freeze remains obviously overqualified for this job. He's 17-2 in his last 19 games, and a revenge/reunion trip to Oxford looms on Nov. 6. Liberty may become a victim of its own success as Freeze becomes more in demand this winter.
Walt Bell, UMass (2-20): The 16-game losing streak is now history, thanks to Saturday's 27-13 win over UConn. The 2-20 record looks bad, yes, but this program has bigger issues than the coaching staff.
Tom Arth, Akron (3-21, 2-14 MAC): Akron also has larger problems than the coaching staff, but Arth is no longer working for the AD who hired him. The Zips are making progress, from no wins, to one, to a 2-4 start to 2021. Is, say, a 3-9 season enough to buy him a fourth year?
Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green (5-18, 2-13 MAC): It's never a good thing when a program that's 2-14 in MAC play points to its victory over you and says, "See! At least we're better than them!" BG's last MAC win came on Nov. 2, 2019.
Jim McElwain, Central Michigan (13-12, 9-6 MAC): Isn't it amazing, with how eventful McElwain's Florida tenure was, how quiet everything's been in Mount Pleasant? The Chips won the MAC West in 2019, but ever since then they've been kind of just another team.
Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois (9-15, 6-10 MAC): A 5-7 debut gave way to an 0-6 free fall in 2020, but the first half was a positive one in DeKalb. NIU opened with a win at Georgia Tech, and they're off to a 2-0 start in MAC play this season. The Huskies should be 4-0 heading into a 2-game stretch on Nov. 3-10 that will decide whether or not they head to Detroit for a ninth time: at MAC East leader Kent State, home against defending MAC champ Ball State.
Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina (25-17, 14-12 Sun Belt): At 17-1 and 10-0 in SBC play since the beginning of last season, the conversation at the Beach should now be on two parallel tracks -- How much money can we marshal to keep Chadwell here as long as possible? And if that's not enough, how much of this infrastructure can we keep in place when the inevitable happens?
Jake Spavital, Texas State (7-22, 5-12 Sun Belt): For better or worse, Spavital's tenure will be defined by his move to sign zero high school recruits in the 2021 class, instead going all-in on transfers. And so far... the results are all over the place. The Bobcats played Baylor to within nine points, were blown out at Eastern Michigan, and lost to FCS Incarnate Word. Both wins have come in overtime, including a 4 OT marathon win over South Alabama on Saturday.
Chip Lindsey, Troy (13-16, 7-10 Sun Belt): One of the most historically successful program in the Sun Belt, Troy has been passed by Louisiana, App State and Coastal. The Trojans play all three within their next five games. Even if Troy doesn't win any of those three games, there's enough meat on the bone that the Trojans should become bowl eligible for the first time in Lindsey's three seasons.