Which college football coaches are in danger?
You’ve heard this before. So feel free to proceed with skepticism.
By all reasonable accounts and predictions, this will be a slower job market for high-end college football jobs. There are only two marquee jobs that can be considered reasonably hot – USC and Auburn – and the rest of the potentials are the flotsam and jetsam jobs that open with the predictability of the tides.
But in terms of marquee jobs that drive the market and cause ripples through the industry, there aren’t many on the landscape. Interviews with agents, search firm executives and athletic directors across the industry yielded a consensus that the market itself could still be active, with about 20 jobs opening. (According to NCAA data, there’s been an average of 23 job changes the last four years.)
But the thrust of those numbers are expected to come from the Mountain West, Conference USA and some low-end Big Ten gigs. “It’s going to be slow,” said a veteran industry source. “If Clay Helton and Gus Malzahn go 9-3, it’s really going to be really slow.”
With the NFL looking more like college football, the best chance for high-end openings may come from the NFL-upward mobility of intriguing coaches like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Florida’s Dan Mullen. “The only chance it gets really interesting in college is if guys go pro or a high-end guy makes a move,” said another industry source. “It could be pretty boring.”
Here are the rest of the jobs in the crosshairs in college football this season, broken down by which are hot and which are worth monitoring.
None. The general expectation will be for the ACC to sit tight this year, as Louisville, Miami, Georgia Tech and UNC all opened up last season.
FLORIDA STATE – This will be the only ACC job that can be considered moderately hot. This may not be fair to Willie Taggart, who has a buyout of nearly $18 million and inherited a scarecrow offensive line and plenty of academic issues. It’s more of a nod to the administrative muddle at FSU, which has an interim athletic director and would want a permanent one before any change was made.
Do we believe that the FSU officials who’ve spent the offseason saying they understand what a mess Taggart inherited have enough juice to see him through a season of struggle? At FSU, the significant presidential and booster influence carry more sway more than jargon from the athletic department. The fact that former AD Stan Wilcox, who hired Taggart, left FSU for the NCAA should make Taggart uneasy if the tenor of the losses are the same this season. A key metric for FSU this year will be penalties, as Taggart’s team was dead last year in all college football with 9.17 per game. FSU’s significant financial issues still make any move unlikely.
VIRGINIA TECH – This job is much like FSU – likely a year away from any significant heat. The buyout of $15 million assures that Justin Fuente is safe, but there are serious questions about the long-term viability of his staff. With the dips from 10 wins to 9 to 6, another mediocre season will lead Fuente and Tech administrators to some soul searching. And if there’s no uptick this season, replacing retiring DC Bud Foster with a high-end candidate – Fuente’s immediate priority – could be tricky sledding. Tech’s got an easy schedule and plays on the right side of the ACC. There’s no danger here, but there are a lot of eyes on how this season will play out, especially after a rash of transfers. The whole league is curious what we’ll see from Tech when they open at Boston College.
None. After Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia all flipped last year, everyone is safe.
There’s a good chance there will be some upward mobility openings in the Big 12 in the near future. Baylor’s Matt Rhule has been deep at NFL openings the past two years. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell should be on USC’s short list if they finally break away from the coaches with ties to the program. The NFL will have its eyes on Lincoln Riley, especially if the Cowboys job opens. If Kliff Kingsbury can become an NFL head coach with a 19-35 Big 12 record, more hires from the league may follow.
The jobs expected to open are, as usual, the jobs that are hardest to win at.
ILLINOIS – Lovie Smith’s tenure has unfolded precisely how everyone expected. He’s 4-23 in the Big Ten and gave up 63 points three different times in league losses last year. His buyout drops to about $4 million from $12 million, which makes this move easier to stomach. Not much analysis needed here, as the obvious will unfold as expected. AD Josh Whitman can’t get things this drastically wrong again, or he’ll be following Smith out the door. Wisely, he’s improved facilities to make the job more attractive.
RUTGERS – Chris Ash showed some promise in 2017 when Rutgers went to 4-8. But the Scarlet Knights slipped to 1-11 last season, and his tenure is in serious peril. AD Pat Hobbs stuck with him through the ugly results, but it’s fairly obvious that significant improvement is needed to save Ash’s job this season. Ash would get nearly $7.5 million if he’s fired, which is significant because Rutgers is broke and a long way from receiving full Big Ten money. Ash is a respected tactician who thrived as a defensive coordinator at Ohio State, but he’s been a fish out of water in New Jersey. Hard to imagine Rutgers turning the battleship, as the tenor of games with UMass, at Iowa, Boston College and at Michigan in a brutal September will tell us all we need to know.
INDIANA – An uninspired hire by AD Fred Glass has yielded predictable results. With Indiana steeped in mediocrity, it raises a long-standing institutional question as to how much Indiana really values football. Allen has been decent at IU, going 10-14 in two full seasons. The basic question here is simple: Do they care enough to fire him and try to hire a difference-maker coach? Allen has been fine, but there have been few tangible signs that Indiana football will emerge from its coma of irrelevancy. Buyout is minimal and wouldn’t be a factor, but a bowl game and some progress could save him.
MICHIGAN STATE – Mark Dantonio has gone 20-18 over the past three years, but any departure would be by choice as opposed to being fired. Dantonio is 63 and should become the school’s all-time winningest coach this season. He’s also due a retention bonus of $4.3 million on Jan. 15. Hard to imagine Dantonio leaving before collecting that. The only tricky issue here was Dantonio’s rearranging of his offensive staff after MSU finished No. 125 – fifth-worst nationally – in scoring offense last season. Still, retirement would be the only departure impetus.
The lone Pac-12 job expected to open this year will be the focus of this season’s carousel.
USC – This column sums it up. The hottest seat, starting with AD Lynn Swann and then Helton.
So many Pac-12 jobs have flipped recently – Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and California – that there’s no one else in any significant danger. Could the league’s financial peril lead to one of the coaches chasing riches in the SEC or Big Ten? Standout Pac-12 assistants are becoming increasingly vulnerable to be poached by schools with more cash.
This year’s carousel doesn’t project seismic change in the SEC, but there’s some familiar faces on hot seats.
AUBURN – The old joke in the SEC is that Auburn is always a three-game losing streak away from a coach being in trouble. A loss to Oregon in the opener would ratchet up the temperature on Gus Malzahn’s seat, as the Tigers opened last season in the top 10 and finished unranked. Malzahn is back calling plays, which helped in the bowl blowout of Purdue and could carry over. Auburn is still shivering in the shadow of Saban’s Alabama empire. Winning the West two years ago seems like eons ago, as Malzahn attempts to navigate one of the nation’s hardest schedules. (Road trips includes Florida, Texas A&M and LSU.) Auburn closes with Georgia on Nov. 16 and Alabama on Nov. 30, both at home. Expect Malzahn’s fate to be a hot topic all November, especially because the president who protected him and gave him his huge contract is gone. If fired, Malzahn will be owed nearly $27 million, with about $13.5 million due in 30 days. The remaining comes over a four-year period. That’s a lot of Waffle House.
OLE MISS – Matt Luke has filled his role as loyal alum, leading his school through the dark labyrinth of the NCAA sanctions from Hugh Freeze’s era there. Ole Miss’ bowl ban is lifted and Luke added Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre as coordinators. This will be the year for Luke to prove he’s more than a caretaker, as he’s 11-13 headed into his third season. There’s no full-time athletic director right now at Ole Miss, nor is there a president. The president hire is reportedly going to happen at some point this fall. The AD hire will follow. Could an AD come in quick enough to execute a search? Luke should be nervous if it does.
UConn – The Randy Edsall sequel has been a 4-20 trainwreck this time around. The decision to sell out football for the school’s Big East basketball roots makes this one of the country’s least attractive jobs. (It wouldn’t cost the school anything to fire him after Dec. 1.)
Tulsa – Philip Montgomery is 5-19 the last two seasons and opens this season at Michigan State and then home against Oklahoma State. Can Baylor transfer QB Zach Smith resuscitate the offense? Financial issues in both the university and the athletic department will make it tricky to attract a top candidate.
The typical upward mobility expected from the AAC, with Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell among the country’s hottest coaches.
OLD DOMINION – Beating Virginia Tech saved an otherwise dismal 2018 season, which ODU ended at 4-8. Bobby Wilder has admirably raised ODU from FCS power to the FBS, including a 10-win season in 2016. Since then, he’s gone 9-15.
SOUTHERN MISS – Jay Hopson (21-16) missed a bowl game last season and then made a clunky attempt to hire Art Briles as his offensive coordinator. That included criticizing his bosses for not letting him. It’s worth noting that Larry Fedora is back on the market and is remembered fondly in Hattiesburg after going 34-19 over four seasons.
UTSA – Frank Wilson went 3-9 last season, and the new AD at UTSA, Lisa Campos, released the type of meandering statement that can be simply translated as – you better be better this season.
UTSA finished second-to-last nationally in scoring offense and dead last in total offense.
BALL STATE – Mike Neu was an obscure hire three seasons ago when he came from the Saints. And after going to 10-26, he’s needs to show drastic improvement or his alma mater is expected to move on.
MIAMI (OHIO) – Chuck Martin has seemingly been doing just enough to save himself. He’s got no winning seasons in six years at Miami – he’s 22-39 – but has managed to show a knack for closing seasons strong enough to stick around. He closed last year with a three-game win streak and won six straight to end the regular season in 2016.
OHIO – Frank Solich will turn 75 this season. He’s won a remarkable 106 games in 15 seasons in Athens. He’s coming off a nine-win season and bowl shutout of San Diego State. His time is coming, as is a new athletic director. But no one is sure how soon he decides to retire.
The league has flipped over so fast that there’s not much speculation here. Georgia State is the only moderate concern, as Shawn Elliott slipped to 2-10 last year.
COLORADO STATE – This is the best Group of Five job expected to open, as Mike Bobo slipped to 3-9 after three consecutive 7-6 seasons. Colorado State has bigger aspirations, and Bobo needs to establish quickly he’s the guy to help them reach those. The $5.5 million buyout is steep for any MWC school.
NEW MEXICO – After back-to-back 3-9 seasons and plenty of controversy, Bob Davie is a prime candidate to be fired early this season. Can the cash-strapped school come up with enough money for a decent replacement?
UNLV – This and New Mexico are two of the most obvious jobs to pop in this carousel. This job has some national interest, especially with the Raiders building a new home and upgraded facilities. Tony Sanchez is 16-32 though four seasons and needs at least a bowl bid to save his job.
SAN JOSE STATE – Brent Brennan is 3-22 after two seasons. This is one of the harder jobs in the MWC, but Brennan needs to give his tenure an adrenaline shot soon. Finances will come into play here, as SJSU is broke.
SAN DIEGO STATE – Rocky Long turns 70 in January, which means the industry is watching closely when he could step down. SDSU went 7-6 last season, which heated up the talk of his retirement.
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