Between Illinois' firing of Tim Beckman a week before the 2015 season began in August and its removal Saturday of his replacement, Bill Cubit -- a week before the scheduled start of spring practice - it was a busy season of coaching upheaval across the FBS.
Twenty-eight programs made changes at the top, including 13 of the 65 Power-5 programs with the last one being the Illini hiring former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith on Monday. Every major conference experienced at least one change, though it was a relatively quiet year in the Big 12 and Pac-12.
With the coaching carousel likely shut down for a while, we're here to assess the shuffled landscape -- how it might impact the 2016 season and beyond. ESPN.com college football reporters Andrea Adelson, Ted Miller, Alex Scarborough, Mitch Sherman and Jake Trotter got together Friday in a Slack chat to discuss:
After the movement of the past four months, which Power 5 league boasts the most formidable lineup of coaches?
Andrea Adelson: It is undeniable the ACC has gotten way serious about football. Just look at the offseason hires made in the league: Mark Richt at Miami, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia and Dino Babers at Syracuse. These are all A hires given the quality of the head coaches and the directions they could potentially take their programs. Think about the coaches at the top of this league now: Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney, David Cutcliffe, Mark Richt, Bobby Petrino, rising standouts Pat Narduzzi and Larry Fedora, and perennially underrated Paul Johnson (2015 notwithstanding).
Jake Trotter: The ACC has gotten serious about football, sure. But does that mean they have the most formidable pack of coaches?
Adelson: I'd say that is a pretty strong list.
Ted Miller: Big Ten has the best coaches because it's about guys who have cemented their reputations: [Urban] Meyer, [Jim] Harbaugh, [Mark] Dantonio. No other conference is close to that triumvirate. I think the Big 12 might be No. 2.
Alex Scarborough: I could say the same about the SEC, Ted. There's always a lot of buzz around [Bret] Bielema, [Hugh] Freeze and [Kevin] Sumlin, but those guys haven't really broken through yet. There are a few coaches on the hot seat now that you wouldn't have expected only a few years ago.
Adelson: Need more than a year on [Jim] McElwain. And I would love to debate [Nick] Saban vs. Meyer, too. I go back and forth every year on that one.
Trotter: I don't know, is the Big 12 not one? Meyer, Harbaugh, Dantonio is terrific. But who's the fourth best coach in the Big Ten? The foursome of Bob Stoops, Bill Snyder, Art Briles and Gary Patterson is pretty strong.
Mitch Sherman: I like what I see out West, actually. The Pac-12 largely stayed put this year, I think, because most of its schools are happy with what's in place. I agree with Ted about the top of the Big Ten, but the creativity in the Pac-12 and the star power of David Shaw and Jim Mora make me look hard at that league.
Adelson: Star power doesn't win championships, though.
Scarborough: The SEC may be top heavy, but it holds the ultimate trump card -- and, no, we're not talking about The Donald here -- in Nick Saban. If you have the best coach of his generation, that ought to count for something. And, besides, you can look around the rest of the conference and find solid coaches like Jim McElwain, Les Miles and Dan Mullen.
What league stood out this year as taking the most significant step -- forward or in reverse -- as a result of its coaching moves?
Adelson: I go back to the ACC. Fuente was a coveted coach out of Memphis; Richt to Miami left jaws dropping. Mendenhall to UVa was another stunner. Babers also was coveted out of Bowling Green and they all landed in the ACC.
Trotter: The ACC probably had the most impressive run, but that's also because they lost a bunch of coaches.
Adelson: Also true. The way I view it, the ACC teams with openings essentially got the guys they wanted. You could debate whether Scott Frost was the No. 1 choice for Syracuse, but Babers comes in with an impressive reputation. The other three were the top choices.
Miller: Think the Pac-12 took a step back -- Rich Rod, Todd Graham, Jim Mora, Mark Helfrich all took hits after being celebrated in 2015. Big 12 and Big Ten advanced. But to me, the SEC is the interesting case. Feels like Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina all took steps back. Ole Miss feels like the only advancing program, though Florida was not the train wreck it was in 2014.
Sherman: A couple of those Pac-12 coaches are going to rebound in 2016. I'm still a believer in Mora.
Trotter: Having a young talented QB like Josh Rosen helps Mora, too.
Sherman: I'm with you, Andrea. Moves in the Big Ten and SEC this year were largely uninspiring until Illinois snagged Lovie Smith -- and I'm still not convinced he can cross over to the college game, especially in Champaign, Illinois. The ACC was the only league this year that went outside the box with multiple hires.
Scarborough: I think the SEC took a pretty big step back when [Steve] Spurrier and [Gary] Pinkel walked away. And given the down years of [Gus] Malzahn and Sumlin, some of the luster is gone there. If Les doesn't win this year, the herd starts to look awfully thin behind Saban. The new coaches (Kirby Smart, Barry Odom, Will Muschamp) could turn out to be solid, but they're not what you'd call home run hires, in my opinion.
Adelson: I agree with Ted. I have no idea whether Kirby Smart or Will Muschamp can win at their new schools. What was Muschamp, their 10th choice???
Trotter: Be nice, Andrea, he was at least their sixth choice.
Miller: I actually read what we're all writing and feel like many of the top-level hires were uninspiring. Some mid-level, struggling programs did OK. But what about teams that should be national contenders, such as both USCs?
Trotter: Did USC make the most uninspiring hire of anyone? Not saying Clay Helton won't win. But that obviously was a surprise.
Adelson: I think most people kept hitting the snooze button when Helton was hired.
Sherman: Is there a mid-level hire, maybe in the Group of 5 or at a place like Iowa State, that might out-shine the work of the bigger programs in two to three years.?
Miller: Dino Babers at Syracuse.
Adelson: Scott Frost, UCF.
Trotter: I liked North Texas bringing in Seth Littrell. Andrea, what do you think of him?
Adelson: Littrell is a solid coach. They assembled a huge pool of skill players at UNC that is going to be scary again this year. The guy can recruit, too.
Miller: Helton might be a great hire, but there's no buzz factor. USC should have acted like Alabama when it hired Saban, "Hello, Mark Dantonio, you are the next USC head coach. No, you are. Now, how do we make this happen quickly?"
Adelson: Is that who you would have hired, Ted?
Sherman: Dantonio in L.A.? Talk about a fish out of water. It's so crazy, it might have just worked.
Scarborough: I couldn't see him heading West. I would have loved to have seen what Chip Kelly would have done at SC.
Miller: I rank Dantonio No. 3 behind Saban and Meyer.
Which singular hire this year will most shift the balance of power within a league -- or even nationally?
Trotter: Fuente at Virginia Tech? Been a few years since the Hokies were competing at the highest level, but that is a good program.
Miller: Kirby Smart at Georgia. If -- IF! -- he's a Saban clone, then the Bulldogs' results might start to match their talent. More than a few coaches told me that Georgia is a top-10 job. Maybe top-5. And that's not just because I'm from Atlanta, though there MAY be a connection.
Scarborough: Greatest potential to shift power? Richt. We all know what untapped potential exists at Miami. If Richt is as reinvigorated as he says he is, he could turn that around in a hurry.
Sherman: I'm taking Richt, too. Huge name at a sleeping giant of a program.
Adelson: I think he can easily shift power in the Coastal. But Miami is years away from being on Florida State's and Clemson's level.
Miller: Wouldn't it be great for Florida State-Miami to return to relevance?
Sherman: I understand that Clemson and FSU are miles ahead of Miami, but how long, if Miami does things right, before the gap is closed? Michigan was a mess 16 months ago. Why can't Miami rebound just as quickly?
Adelson: Michigan lost to its two biggest rivals last year, too, let's not forget. Miami can win the Coastal, yes. But I still think the Canes are a few years away from challenging FSU/Clemson. I was at the Miami-Clemson game last year. It was 58-0, guys. Here is my question about Richt: He couldn't win the winnable SEC East. Can he win the winnable Coastal?
Miller: Andrea, my guess is Miami is betting on him being reinvigorated after things got a bit boring at UGA, which is why Georgia probably feels Smart can turn things around quickly. And then, maybe, we also get an old school UGA-Florida back. Imagine: FSU-Miami and UGA-Florida return because of coaching switcheroos.
Adelson: That is exactly what Miami is betting on -- but Richt's teams over the last several years failed to live up to the hype. Does that change now that he's in Miami, where the recruiting classes he inherits were not nearly as strong as what he had to work with at Georgia? And the facilities aren't as good. And the home stadium situation is a disaster.
Scarborough: Who here can legitimately see Kirby Smart winning the SEC in the next two seasons? Because, quite frankly, that's the bar. If he pans out, Georgia looks great. If he doesn't, everyone will wonder why they gave such a big job with high expectations to someone with zero head coaching experience.
Sherman: I don't see it, Alex. After all, Smart worked for Saban. And we know what Saban does to his former assistants. And it's more than that. For a new coach that needs to win right away, a freshman quarterback is not the right answer in the SEC.
Scarborough: Bingo. The Jacob Eason train is pulling out of the station two years too early, Mitch.
Trotter: Sorry, I have no confidence in Georgia winning the SEC anytime soon. Have fallen for that too many times in the past.
Miller: SEC has worked in cycles through the years. I can remember in the 1990s when the West was a joke compared to the East triumvirate of Florida/Tennessee/Georgia, with Spurrier absolutely tormenting everyone. Perhaps we are cycling back. Maybe Tennessee leads the charge this fall ...
All coaching factors considered, what chance do you give the conference you cover to win more than its share of playoff games over the next five seasons?
Trotter: Oklahoma is capable of winning it all next season. And Baylor and TCU aren't far behind. The Big 12 desperately needs to rack up some playoff wins. It's been seven years since the league played in a national title game. And 11 years since the league won it all.
Scarborough: I'm done betting against Alabama, so I'll start there with the SEC. I can't see how the Tide don't win another championship (or two) over the next handful of years with the talent they have. Beyond them, though, I'm not sure. Florida very well could get there. I thought Tennessee was on the upswing, but I wonder how this off-field drama boils over. I see the SEC staying on a similar trajectory, which is strong but not getting stronger.
Adelson: I think the ACC is in really good shape with Florida State and Clemson at the top right now. Both have playoff-caliber teams going into 2016, and I don't expect them to take a dip back in that regard unless something bizarre happens with their coaching staffs. ... What the ACC needs is to develop another set of contenders -- Miami would be enormous; Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Louisville all have potential. They just have to win on a consistent basis. But the gap Clemson and FSU have on the league right now is so large, those are the two holding the flag, at least for right now.
Sherman: Despite all the positive energy in the Big Ten around Harbaugh, and Iowa's resurgence, and Northwestern's 10-win season, and Dantonio's playoff run, it all boils down to this: Urban Meyer is the only coach we've seen who's proven he can win at that level. Dantonio's close, but look what happened on New Year's Eve. Harbaugh needs to win more than on social media. I think he'll get a league title in the next five years, but I'm not banking on any coach from this league other than Meyer to walk away with the big prize before 2020.
Miller: Pac-12 will win CFP games if it can get a spot, but that might require more strategic scheduling. If USC gets back to its Pete Carroll days, it could dominate in a playoff format that forgives, say, one loss. Pete Carroll would have won two more national titles if he'd had the CFP. The question with the Pac-12 is whether Oregon is taking a step back and who emerges? Chris Petersen and Washington? Mora and the Bruins? Seems like Pac-12 might be entering a transitional phase.