The single greatest predictor of success in college football is coaching. And talent, and money, and location, and tradition, and like a thousand other things. Okay, fine. It all plays into it. But absent everything else but even just a little talent, good coaching can take a basement dweller to a real threat within a few seasons.
It's something that took the Big Ten as a whole a long time to figure out. The Ohio States of the world are going to be successful, generally, even with average coaching because of every other advantage that their program has. Mediocre coaching won't win the Buckeyes any championships, but people won't be losing their minds at their overall record either (actually it's more fair to say that they absolutely would lose their minds, but in the grand scheme of things probably shouldn't be extremely upset with a few 8-5 seasons).
But here's the rub: as a predictor of how well a team will perform, bad coaching beats out everything else. Ohio State fans in 2011 saw what a poor staff in disarray can do to to a team with all-world talent, and the lower third of the Big Ten has seen for years what a poor staff in disarray can do to a team with marginal talent.
That's changed. The Purdues and even the Rutgers of the world saw fit several years ago to make several proactive hiring changes, and went and got guys that don't fit into the traditional mold of "coordinator with a mustache" that they normally got. Instead of hiring on the cheap or safe, the conference went expensive and risky, and for several teams it has paid off. For others, well... let's check in and see how they're doing with their recent (three seasons or less) hires.
LOVIE SMITH- ILLINOIS
I'll start with him since he makes my thesis look the worst. Lovie has been absolutely terrible at Illinois, and 2017 was somehow worse than 2016. There's a reason why some coaches are capable in the NFL and others stick to college, and that reason is recruiting. Illinois is deficient in talent, and Lovie is out here not too worried about it and just kind of shrugging his shoulders. This isn't going to work out.
CHRIS ASH- RUTGERS
Look, he's trying. Chris Ash has tried to emulate Urban Meyer's model at Rutgers, and while his first season was a disaster, the Scarlet Knights did improve somewhat and even won some Big Ten games. That was enough for the administration, who rewarded Ash with a five year contract extension.
TOM ALLEN- INDIANA
Tom Allen has a weird pedigree. He's coached at like a thousand different schools in almost every capacity possible, and ended up in charge at Indiana after Kevin Wilson left. And in his first year he was... pretty good? The Hoosiers won an out of conference road game against Virginia, put the fear of God into Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, and won a couple of conference games. It's something to grow on.
D.J. DURKIN- MARYLAND
This is an interesting one. Durkin is an Ohio dude with a great overall resume and an okay first season that led a lot of people to think he'd be able to build on that in year two. Then some of his best players got hurt and the Terrapins limped to a 4-8 record and the hopes that things will turn around in 2018.
P.J. FLECK- MINNESOTA
Keep rowing that boat, I guess! Getting shut out twice to end the season is not ideal, but 5-7 isn't a disaster. Yet.
JEFF BROHM- PURDUE
What a freaking little miracle this season was. Getting Purdue to 6-6 brings a tear to my eye, especially with how much this team struggled under Darrell Hazell. Four conference wins, a victory over an SEC opponent on the road, and now an opportunity to have a winning season (somehow) if they can pull off a Foster Farms Bowl win against Arizona. They almost beat Wisconsin! Jeff Brohm forever.
PAUL CHRYST- WISCONSIN
It just seems like Chryst has been there for a decade, when in fact it's only been three seasons, because he's just doing exactly what all of his predecessors did: win a lot of games and grind people into dust while doing it.
JIM HARBAUGH- MICHIGAN
Look, I don't really know what to think of what Harbaugh has accomplished so far. Is Michigan in a better state now than three seasons ago? That's inarguable. Is Michigan even close to where they want to be? Absolutely not. Harbaugh is a very good coach. My inkling is that he isn't a great one. It'll be interesting to see if Michigan fans are okay with that.
SCOTT FROST- NEBRASKA
I'm pretty adamant that Nebraska isn't ever going to get back to its glory years because of some inherent disadvantages in recruiting, but if Scott Frost can make UCF an undefeated force of nature on offense, I'm not going to count him out in Lincoln. The Knights had 600 yards or more of offense four times last season, holy crap.
The Scott Frost situation is a perfect example of what I mean about a different perspective in hiring for the Big Ten. While schools with inflated egos like Tennessee struggle with finding a coach that they believe to be commensurate with their supposed blue-blood status, schools like Purdue and Nebraska (and, even if it doesn't work out, Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland) are taking fliers on young, exciting coaches that can do real damage with a few years of good recruiting. It's a lesson that Illinois and the rest of the country might do well to learn from.