Mid-Season Heat Check

College Football's Coaching Hot Seat

We’ve reached the point of this rather disjointed, stop and start college football season where we can draw some real conclusions about a lot of the teams in the sport…but not all of them. The PAC-12 just began play this week, the Mountain West, MAC and Big 10 only two, three and three weeks ago respectively. However, while I may not want to make definitive statements on teams yet, it’s never too early to speculate about the coaching carousel that could commence at the conclusion of the season.

At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom among many college football writers and observers felt that there would not be many changes at the top of programs. COVID-19 and the alterations it has caused, including the loss of revenue making coaching buyouts harder to achieve. The limited practice time and the social distancing and protocols and the built-in excuse for poor performance due to the havoc that limited practices and missing players mean that a rash or quick firing of a coach – particularly one with a big buyout (which is most of them in Power 5) would be unlikely.

However, there are clearly some folks who’ve worked themselves into trouble after mediocre prior years and real difficulties in competition during this season. Conversely, some coaches seem to have worked themselves from a hot seat to cool and coaches who are not only cool as a cucumber but possibly set to make themselves some money in the offseason. We’ll discuss both below!

Fired:

Will Muschamp – South Carolina: Most people coming into the season thought Muschamp could be in danger but that even a mediocre to average performance by his team would by him another year for financial reasons alone. The Gamecocks were competitive early in the season and even had a big win over Auburn, but have been blown out in games against a below-average LSU and then Texas A&M 48-3. I would think they have their eye on two guys in one of my other lists here – Hugh Freeze of Liberty and Jamey Chadwell of Coastal Carolina.

(Resigned – Jay Hopson of Southern Miss after just one game. Southern is now on their third coach after their interim coach left to take an FCS job…it’s been an even weirder year for the Golden Eagles than the rest of college football).

Toasty:

Derek Mason – Vanderbilt: If Mason could manage even a couple of wins, the pandemic dynamics and the fact that Vandy has undergone a number of changes in its athletic department in the last year might have been enough to save him. Unfortunately, its looking more and more like Mason just can’t reach any kind of consistent level in Nashville and is 0-6 to start the year. I’d expect a change here.

Jeremy Pruitt – Tennessee: The postponement of the Volunteers game this past weekend with Texas A&M likely helped them avoid a 2-5 record. Maybe with some time off, Tennessee can right the ship. The big issue here, despite a somewhat mirage-like 8 win season last year (beating no one with a winning record except Indiana in the Gator Bowl), is that Pruitt has built no consistency other than occasionally good defense. The team seems to play hard but offensively it’s been an adventure at quarterback…actually adventure sounds fun and the Volunteers have been anything but fun there. Pruitt, with some wins to close the year, may very well survive but if he loses out other than Vanderbilt (or worse) there may be a big decision coming for athletic director Phil Fulmer.

Jim Harbaugh – Michigan: I wouldn’t have had him this high until Wisconsin, playing their first game in three weeks in a must-win for Michigan, absolutely smoked the Wolverines 49-11 on Saturday night. Harbaugh has just one year left on his deal which is a rarity in college football where recruits need to see stability and the team just keeps getting worse. It’s likely that a divorce is coming here, perhaps somewhat amiably so that Harbaugh can return to the NFL…but we’ll see.

Warming Up under Heat Lamp:

Pat Narduzzi – Pitt: Before their win this week, I might have had Narduzzi in the section above but there’s no question that a 3-0 start followed by a four game losing streak really made already somewhat bored/disillusioned Pitt fans more sour. The 45-3 loss to Notre Dame really capped off a tough month plus. Can Pitt get some forward momentum to close the year? Can they afford to fire Narduzzi and go hire a new staff if things end up 4-7/5-6? All fair questions. Pitt craved stability before Narduzzi got there having gone through a bunch of coaches for a variety of reasons from the late 2000’s on but the upside on this program seems to be missing. Next year may be the do or die for Pat.

Dino Babers – Syracuse: From a somewhat magical 10 win season in 2018, to a losing record last year and now a dreadful 1-7, Babers has run the gamut in his time in admittedly tough to win/recruit to upstate New York. Because of a large and expensive extension signed after that 2018 season, Dino Babers is not going anywhere…and it’s possible patience is warranted here. The Orangemen haven’t been able to get the QB position right since Eric Dungey graduated. However, it’s also likely that that 10 win season in ’18 was a mirage caused by a even-worse-than-usual ACC. To Babers’ credit he’s well-liked and respected but next year is probably put up or shut up time.

Tom Herman – Texas: The furor has died down a bit because of a three game winning streak for Texas since the Red River Shootout loss to Oklahoma but even at 5-2, Texas just doesn’t feel like…Texas. At least not what was promised by Herman and those that hired him four years ago. Frankly they should probably be 4-3 with a loss to Texas Tech earlier in year. There’s a lot of smoke about Herman. Obviously if he wins out or wins all but one, he’s likely back, but the bloom is off the rose, can Herman get it back?

Chip Kelly – UCLA: Another bad start to the season – a loss to seemingly destined-to-be-bad Colorado (which we may need to revisit), had people continuing to question what exactly Chip is doing in Westwood. However, the team did rebound to win their second game against California on…Sunday morning…(what a weird year we’re having). If UCLA can have a season where they win 3-4 out of 7 games, would that show progress? It’s a bit mediocre and what we’ve seen from the Kelly-led Bruins is not what we would have expected three seasons in. Recruiting lags, defense isn’t good, offense isn’t explosive enough. UCLA is pretty cash-strapped right now so it’s unlikely they’d make a move after this pandemic season

Cooled Off:

Dave Doeren – N.C. State: A lot of grumbling in Raleigh about Doeren stemmed from last year’s dumpster fire which followed a couple of bowl seasons that were still seen as underachieving…for N.C. State, a program that has usually fancied itself as having a higher ceiling than it probably does, Wolfpack faithful were pretty perturbed about opening the season losing in a blowout to a dramatically under-manned Virginia Tech squad. But since that time, the Pack has gone 5-2. Barring a total collapse, Doeren should go into next year with, if not tailwinds, at least renewed patience.

Clay Helton – USC: Much-maligned by USC fans and considered highly likely to be fired if the season didn’t go well (back when the season was expected to be normal), Helton got a huge come-from-behind win over Arizona State in Week 1 and a too close for comfort win at Arizona this week. That’s not the main reason I have him cooling off however. Assuming USC wins 5 games or more out of their 8, which seems very possible considering the state of the PAC-12, I don’t see a currently cash-strapped USC Athletic Department firing him, particularly considering his recruiting has showed real signs of life in the last couple of classes after real struggles. He probably gets another year at this point unless the season goes pretty far south.

Philip Montgomery – Tulsa: At the start of the year, Montgomery (who began his head coaching tenure five years ago as potentially the “next big mid-major coach”) was on a lot of “first coach fired” lists. Since then all he’s done is scare Oklahoma State to death in the opener, and probably would have won if their kicker had made a couple of field goals, and won the rest of their games including at UCF and a come-from-behind win at SMU. It’s rare to see this kind of turnaround at tough places to win consistently like Tulsa but Montgomery seems to be in good shape now.

Cold, Hard Cash (in their future):

Hugh Freeze – Liberty: 8-0 start with wins over ACC foes Syracuse and Virginia Tech – will have a big matchup later this season with Coastal Carolina.

Jamey Chadwell – Coastal Carolina: 7-0 start, top 20 ranking, recruits Carolinas really well and runs a fun offense.

Billy Napier – Louisiana: Another Sun Belt star, has built a consistent winner and has possibly the best non-conference win in the country this year (since there wasn’t as much non-conference play) by beating full strength Iowa State on the road to start the year.

Luke Fickell – Cincinnati: He’s a step above these others as he’s in line for a high Power 5 gig if he wants it like Michigan or Penn State if they were to come open. His former athletic director is now at USC which leads to rumors. He’s a lifetime Ohio guy so SEC/PAC12/Big 12 jobs perhaps not as likely. He turned down Michigan State last offseason.

This coming weekend, there’s some great matchups that hopefully will happen this coming week across college football including Ohio State vs. undefeated, top 10 Indiana (wouldn’t have expected that at the start of the year), Bedlam between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, Northwestern/Wisconsin and a sneaky good one between undefeated Coastal Carolina and one loss Appalachian State. College football was made for enjoyment and indulgence, like a really high-end buffet…pre-COVID anyway. Next week we will take a closer look at playoff contenders and scenarios.