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College football coaching hot seat: A conference-by-conference breakdown

The college football coaching hot seat for 2021 was supposed to be crowded.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, sources widely expected schools to be hesitant to make coaching changes, mindful of the cost for already-crunched athletic department budgets. Just wait for 2021, they said. It will be wild.

Then, South Carolina fired Will Muschamp, and Vanderbilt soon followed in jettisoning Derek Mason. Illinois (Lovie Smith) and Arizona (Kevin Sumlin) were next. Then a big, somewhat unexpected domino at Auburn, which dumped longtime hot-seat resident Gus Malzahn. In January, two other major jobs opened up at Texas and Tennessee. Virginia Tech and Texas Tech opted to retain their embattled coaches and Michigan restructured Jim Harbaugh’s contract, but the carousel claimed more coaches (and payout money) than expected.

The run on firings despite the pandemic likely makes the hot seat a bit lighter for 2021. There are some big names below, but if certain jobs don’t open, this could be a fairly light year for dismissals. Then again, the carousel always contains a few surprises.

I’m keeping the league-by-league format I used before the 2019 season, which lists coaches who are squarely on the hot seat and those who could start feeling pressure if things go poorly this fall. After talking to several industry sources, this breakdown provides a realistic view of the jobs that could open sometime before the 2022 season. A reminder that coaches who might retire soon (i.e. Duke‘s David Cutcliffe) and those likely to move onto other jobs aren’t included here.

Let’s get started with the Power 5 and then move on to the Group of 5.

Pac-12

Hot seat: Clay Helton, USC; Chip Kelly, UCLA
Keep an eye on: Herm Edwards, Arizona State

The Pac-12 could become the epicenter for this year’s coaching carousel. Helton is a familiar name on this list and will be until he delivers USC’s first College Football Playoff appearance and the school’s first conference title since 2017. Helton guided the Trojans to a South Division championship in 2020, but his team was far from dominant and prone to mistakes and sloppy play. USC seemingly has turned a corner in recruiting and has made overdue enhancements in key areas of its program. As a USC source recently told me, “We’re definitely better, but how much?” The affable Helton has helped his cause by creating no drama for his bosses, especially while the university addresses scandals in other areas. But he needs to show championship results this year to win over an extremely skeptical fan base.

Kelly’s UCLA tenure has fallen far short of expectations as he enters Year 4 at 10-21 (10-15 in Pac-12 play). Another bowl-less season could prompt athletic director Martin Jarmond, who didn’t hire Kelly, to take action, especially with some intriguing candidates available. Kelly’s buyout remains $9 million until Jan. 15, 2022, which is less-than ideal timing and could impact how the school proceeds.

Arizona State remains under the cloud of a major NCAA investigation, which has resulted in three coaches being placed on administrative leave. The probe could take time to complete and ASU should field a very good team this fall. But early indications do not look good for Edwards and his staff, and a housecleaning after the season is possible. Arizona State could attract a strong candidate pool, including Louisiana coach Billy Napier, a former Sun Devils offensive coordinator.

Oregon State‘s Jonathan Smith (9-22) needs to deliver soon and Washington State‘s Nick Rolovich generated some negative headlines with his decision not to get vaccinated, but I don’t hear either coach is under significant job pressure this year.

Big Ten

Hot seat: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan; Scott Frost, Nebraska
Keep an eye on: None

Even as Michigan floundered in 2020, unable to win any home games, I heard the same message out of Ann Arbor: Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t be fired. I still hear some of the same things, as Harbaugh’s status as a former star player and a successful coach elsewhere doesn’t make him an obvious hot-seat candidate. There’s nothing typical about Harbaugh, who had only one year left on his initial contract before reaching a new, team-friendly agreement in January. Michigan not only is paying Harbaugh much less annually but would only owe him $4 million if it makes a change in 2021. If the Wolverines can’t navigate a schedule that includes Wisconsin (road) and Northwestern (home) in the West Division and trips to Penn State and Michigan State — plus Ohio State at home — athletic director Warde Manuel might have no choice.

Frost has delivered even less at his alma mater, going 12-20 (9-17 Big Ten) in his first three seasons. I initially put Frost in the “keep an eye on” category, as Nebraska wants to give him every opportunity to succeed and has been through too much leadership transition during a rocky first decade in the Big Ten. But last week’s news of an NCAA investigation into potential violations involving Frost adds a layer of pressure in Lincoln, especially if it opens up a potential dismissal for cause. New athletic director Trev Alberts will lean toward continuity if at all possible, but another poor season and looming NCAA issues could force his hand.

I considered Purdue‘s Jeff Brohm for “keep an eye on” as well, as he’s only 6-12 since agreeing to a seven-year, $36.8 million contract in April 2019. But Purdue still owes Brohm so much money that there’s virtually no chance the school cuts ties in 2021.

ACC

Hot seat: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Keep an eye on: Scott Satterfield, Louisville; Dino Babers, Syracuse

There were rumblings about Fuente’s job status before the Commonwealth Cup last year, and a second consecutive loss to Virginia might have pushed Virginia Tech to act. A 33-15 Hokies win ensured Fuente would be back in 2021. Virginia Tech also has been more direct about its financial situation, and in announcing Fuente would return, athletic director Whit Babcock said in December, “We are in a bind financially and yes, there’s buyouts, but we were determined to make the right decision either way.” Finances won’t stop Virginia Tech from making a move this year if Fuente doesn’t deliver better results. He’s just 19-18 the past three seasons (14-12 in ACC play), and the team’s Coastal Division title in 2016 feels like a long time ago. Fuente also flirted with the Baylor job after the 2019 season, and Virginia Tech would have a strong candidate pool (Napier, Coastal Carolina‘s Jamey Chadwell, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott) if the job opens. We should find out a lot early on as Virginia Tech faces North Carolina, West Virginia and Notre Dame all before mid-October.

Babers led Syracuse to 10 wins and a No. 15 final finish in 2018, but he’s just 14-33 in his other four seasons, going 1-10 last fall. Syracuse is a tough job and Babers has brought some energy to the program, but he needs to produce a more competitive team this fall. Athletic director John Wildhack did not hire Babers but has been supportive of the coach, who has three years left on his contract and would be owed a substantial guarantee if fired this season.

Satterfield is only here mainly because of last year’s dalliance with South Carolina, which didn’t sit well with athletic director Vince Tyra and others at Louisville. If Satterfield recaptures the magic of 2019, he’ll be fine, especially with a contract through 2024. But a repeat of last season (4-7) could turn up the heat a bit.

Big 12

Hot seat: Matt Wells, Texas Tech
Keep an eye on: None

Athletic director Kirby Hocutt and university president Lawrence Schovanec addressed Wells’ status immediately after the 2020 season, saying the coach would return for a third season despite consecutive four-win campaigns. Wells hopes it will be the last such news conference from his bosses. He needs to win this fall, or Texas Tech likely will move on with three years left on the coach’s $18.8 million deal. Texas Tech fired Kliff Kingsbury for not winning more and competing in the Big 12, but Kingsbury went to three bowl games in six seasons and amazingly went from fired college coach to hired NFL coach in the same offseason. Wells isn’t nearly as tied into Texas Tech as his predecessor, and with in-state options such as UTSA‘s Jeff Traylor and SMU‘s Sonny Dykes — son of former Red Raiders coach Spike Dykes — the school likely won’t hesitate to make a chance if better results don’t come this fall.

SEC

Hot seat: None
Keep an eye on: Ed Orgeron, LSU

A virtually empty SEC hot seat is a bit jarring, given how much movement the league typically features. After seven coaching changes the past two seasons, the league should be calm this fall and winter. Orgeron led LSU to a national title in 2019, coaching one of the best teams in recent college football history. His overall record (45-14, 28-12 in SEC play) and success against top-10 and top 25 opponents certainly bolsters his profile. Add in a hefty contract extension through 2026, and Orgeron should be safe. The main concern for Orgeron is the ongoing Title IX investigation and lawsuit, which added the coach as a defendant in June. He also comes off of a 5-5 season that included four losses by double digits. LSU still has one of the nation’s most talented rosters, so Orgeron needs to show some improvement this season. Industry sources also often bring up athletic director Scott Woodward, who inherited Orgeron and has a history of splashy hires (Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, Chris Petersen at Washington). So Coach O is worth monitoring, especially early in the season.

The Group of 5 hot seat will likely be more active in 2021, so let’s take a look.

Conference USA

Hot seat: Seth Littrell, North Texas; Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee; Dana Dimel, UTEP
Keep an eye on: Butch Davis, Florida International

Conference USA could become the most active league in the coaching carousel, especially if downward trends continue at certain programs. Littrell seemed poised to jump to the Power 5 after recording consecutive nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. But he has followed with consecutive four-win seasons, and needs a turnaround in Year 6 in Denton. North Texas has the most resources in the league and a great location near Dallas-Fort Worth. Athletic director Wren Baker would have a strong candidate pool if UNT chooses to make a change.

Stockstill has led MTSU since 2006 and produced a consistent winner — seven bowl appearances between 2009 and 2018 — despite financial limitations at the program. But the Blue Raiders have had consecutive losing seasons, and a third could put pressure to act. Dimel has two years left on his contract at UTEP, where he’s just 5-27 but showed some improvement last year.

Davis, 69, is entering the final year of his contract and could be more of a retirement candidate, but the Panthers went winless last fall and need a boost.

Sun Belt

Hot seat: Chip Lindsey, Troy
Keep an eye on: Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern; Jake Spavital, Texas State

There were some rumblings about Lindsey’s job status late last season, and while they never materialized, the third-year coach needs to win this fall. Troy went 31-8 in coach Neal Brown’s final three seasons, and recorded five consecutive years of eight wins or more under Larry Blakeney from 2006 to 2010. Despite some challenges with location and budget, Troy expects to be a regular contender in the increasingly competitive Sun Belt. Lindsey is just 10-13 so far. I was surprised to hear Lunsford as a potential hot-seat candidate from industry sources, since he’s 25-14 the past three seasons with two bowl wins. Athletic director Jared Benko didn’t hire him, though, and might look to enter the market if the team’s on-field results slip. Spavital is 5-19 at Texas State, which recently made Don Coryell its permanent athletic director. If Spavital’s transfers-only recruiting approach doesn’t yield results, he could be in trouble.

MAC

Hot seat: Tom Arth, Akron; Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green
Keep an eye on: Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois; Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan

Arth nearly left Akron for a position on the staff of new Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley. The former quarterback in the NFL, World League, CFL and Arena League is just 1-17 so far with the Zips, who are picked to finish fifth in the MAC East Division. Akron took a financial hit in firing Terry Bowden and hiring Arth, who still has three years left on his contract. But Arth needs to show he can win at this level, especially since Akron in May hired a new athletic director (Charles Guthrie).

Loeffler has three years left on his contract at Bowling Green, which hasn’t won more than four games since 2016. He should get a third year as long as the team shows minimal progress, but Bowling Green is a football-driven program with some history that can’t afford a sixth consecutive mostly noncompetitive season.

Hammock is just 5-13 at his alma mater, which was the MAC’s signature program from 2010 to 2014 and recorded only one losing regular season between 2008 and 2018. Athletic director Sean Frazier hired Hammock and remains supportive, but NIU should be a bowl contender, at minimum, this fall.

Creighton did an incredible job getting EMU to three bowl appearances in four years before going 2-4 last fall. But athletic director Scott Weatherbee didn’t hire Creighton, who might have hit his peak with 7-win seasons in 2016 and 2018.

AAC

Hot seat: None
Keep an eye on: Dana Holgorsen, Houston; Mike Houston, East Carolina; Rod Carey, Temple

Few would be surprised if the AAC features zero coach firings in 2021. All three coaches listed here are entering only their third seasons, one of which was impacted by COVID-19. Houston made a historic hire in Holgorsen, a sitting Power 5 coach not facing significant job pressure who came to UH and signed a five-year, $20 million agreement. A change would be expensive (and a little embarrassing), but Houston also hasn’t been bashful about its program standards, and Holgorsen is only 7-13.

East Carolina hasn’t recorded a winning season since 2014, and Houston enters Year 3 at just 7-14. The school’s financial issues likely prevent a move, although another poor finish could change the strategy.

Temple eventually will hire a new athletic director, which naturally puts pressure on Carey to succeed. Carey’s overall head-coaching profile (61-41) helps him and Temple really struggled with COVID-19 issues in 2020, but another low-win season could make things interesting in a very competitive league.

Mountain West

Hot seat: None
Keep an eye on: None

The Mountain West is another league that shouldn’t see much, if any, shakeup to its coaching ranks. Colorado State coach Steve Addazio had a rocky summer in 2020, as the university investigated allegations of racial bias and issues around COVID-19 protocols but ultimately found no major issues within the program. The team went 1-3 in a shortened season, and it seems far too soon to make major judgments about the program’s direction. Colorado State already had to pay Addazio’s predecessor Mike Bobo more than $1.8 million, and likely couldn’t afford another sizable guarantee, as Addazio would be owed $5 million if fired before Dec. 1 and $3 million after.

FBS Independents

Hot seat: Randy Edsall, UConn; Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Keep an eye on: Walt Bell, UMass

The seven-team group of FBS independents could become a particularly active spot in the coaching carousel. Edsall is just 6-30 in his second go-round at UConn, which opted out of the 2020 season. UConn’s athletic department has been in a financial mess, football’s independent status doesn’t help and Edsall is signed through the 2023 season. But if the team doesn’t start winning soon, UConn might have to move on from a coach that led the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010.

Martin is entering the final year of his contract at New Mexico State, where he is 23-64 overall with only one season that eclipsed three victories. New Mexico State, which didn’t play in 2020 but split two games earlier this season, is one of the nation’s toughest jobs because of location and budget, and Martin has stuck around for a while. But a poor season could signal it’s time for a split.

Bell has three years left on his contract at UMass, which initially opted out of the 2020 season before reversing course and playing four games, losing them all. The 37-year-old is just 1-15 at UMass, which seemed like an odd fit for a Tennessee native who had not coached in the Northeast before. Minimal improvement should ensure he’s back in 2022.

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