A few years back on my old show, “Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody,” I floated the term “Anxiety Bowl,” which is any game in which both coaching staffs are more or less in a must-win situation to save their jobs. Scan the next month’s worth of ACC games, and there’s an alarming amount of matchups that fit this descriptor.
This weekend’s Louisville vs. Florida State game is a great example, even with the insane amount of money it would require to fire Mike Norvell.
We’ve already mentioned the growing impasse between the Cardinals and third-year head Scott Satterfield. Both parties gained a reprieve from the situation on Friday night when UCF’s Dillon Gabriel threw a game-losing pick-six to hand U of L a huge non-conference win.
For as lackluster as Satterfield’s time with the Cardinals has been, it’s better than their opponent this week: The Seminoles are an absolute mess at 0-3. Last week, we examined the impossible financial picture facing FSU if it were to fire Norvell in his second year, yet there’s a real possibility that this program will start the 2021 season 0-4. Whereas the Cardinals and Satterfield could potentially annul their marriage, something catastrophic (basically “off-field”) would have to happen in Tallahassee for Norvell to get the boot.
Life in the ACC is a mess: You’re either national power Clemson or a quiet, ignored success story like Dave Clawson’s Wake Forest. Boston College has been a surprise under second-year head coach Jeff Hafley, but pretty much everyone else has some level of fireable angst with their staff entering league play (David Cutcliffe is likely immune to a firing, but Duke might also be 3-1 after this weekend’s game vs. Kansas).
Here’s a look around the mess:
Miami: Manny Diaz has, amazingly, jumped both Mike Norvell (too big a buyout) and Justin Fuente (who has a win over a ranked conference opponent) to earn the hottest seat in this league through three games. The Canes are 1-2 (and almost winless if not for a close win vs. an Appalachian State team that had its chances) and look generally disorganized. Michigan State beat the Canes 38-17 Saturday in a game in which the Miami offense was plagued with turnovers and Diaz’s defense gave up chunk plays.
Diaz signed a five-year deal that started at $3.1 million annually, a lower number than most deals at similar programs in part because Miami had to pay a $4 million buyout to Temple, where Diaz was the head coach for less than a month after leaving Mark Richt’s staff in Coral Gables. Thus far, the Diaz era (14-12 overall) has been yet another failure to recapture the national relevance of the Miami program, with a heavy emphasis on the transfer portal instead of recruiting and developing superstar Floridian talent. This might be the next ACC opening.
Virginia Tech: Fuente’s win over North Carolina cooled what was the league’s hottest seat entering 2021, but Saturday’s offensive malaise vs. West Virginia (the Hokies failed to turn an interception into a touchdown with goal-to-go in the fourth quarter) reminded Virginia Tech fans about the lingering problems with their program.
The Hokies have a gimme game vs. FCS Richmond, a bye, and then Notre Dame — nothing in that stretch would create a referendum on Fuente (save for loss to Richmond), but Pitt will be a huge swing game for both programs. The Hokies are far from their 1990s and ’00s mystique, and with Fuente’s botched attempt to flee to Baylor, this marriage has grown very strained.
Much like Louisville, Tech is a job with many interested parties waiting in the wings. The value above replacement between Fuente and potentially available candidates seems to favor Tech if it makes a change.
Pitt: Just a week after a road win at Tennessee, Pat Narduzzi took an ugly home loss to Western Michigan on Saturday. Compounding the loss was WMU head coach Tim Lester, who told the media afterward that he was able to predict most of what Pitt would do based on his time as an assistant at Syracuse scheming against Narduzzi. For his part, Narduzzi complained about MAC refs. It wasn’t a good look.
The Panthers are 2-1, and Narduzzi is an acceptable 44-35, but Pitt has never won more than eight games in a season since his arrival, and the Panthers’ sole division title came in a wonky 7-7 season in 2018. Things aren’t bad at Pitt, but they’re wholly unremarkable. Inside the industry, speculation reigns that Pitt is settling: They’re a beat-on program that lost promising coaches quickly (Todd Graham and Paul Chryst) and suffered an embarrassing scandal (Mike Haywood) before Narduzzi brought consistency.
It’s entirely possible Pitt can manage another 7-8 win season, but at $4 million a year through ‘24, Narduzzi seems overpriced for the results he’s delivering.
North Carolina: To be perfectly, totally clear: Mack Brown is NOT getting fired anytime soon. The Tar Heels took an ugly opening week loss at Virginia Tech, losing control of their destiny in the Coastal Division immediately on the heels of soaring preseason expectations. Brown is 70 years old, and there’s plenty of talk across the industry about when he’ll step aside and hand over a rebuilt, top-20 UNC program with talent to a successor. And who will that successor be? Is that person in the program currently, or will he be an external hire with Mack’s input and/or blessing? In the short term, the Heels need to win out to maintain a shot at Clemson in the league championship, but bigger questions are being asked.
Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech is 7-18 under Geoff Collins in Year Three of a post-triple option rebuild. A 22-21 loss to Northern Illinois to open this season has added stress to the patience necessary for an overhaul of this magnitude, and Tech has to show at least some flashes of competency now. Frankly put, this IS a program in need of a moral victory, and cutting its loss to Clemson from 70-7 in 2020 to 14-8 last week is helpful.
Collins is signed through 2025 and owed 100 percent of his contract if he’s fired in the first four years, putting his buyout at around $13 million this year. It’s highly unlikely Tech would fire Collins this season, but patience among modern fans is shorter than three-plus seasons. He has the support of athletic director Todd Stansbury, who hired him, but even if everything breaks right, a bowl bid this season looks impossible after the NIU game.
NC State: This is maybe the hardest coach/school relationship to measure. NC State is 2-1 with a respectable road loss at Mississippi State, but Dave Doeren is a forgettable 57-47 overall at a program that believes it can be a high-end football power in the league. After some interest from other schools (including interviews at multiple SEC openings), Doeren first signed an extension in 2019 that carries him through ‘23, then another two-year extension last year despite not advancing the Wolfpack in any noticeable way from a national (or even ACC) viewpoint.
NC State could just as easily tear through its remaining (non-Clemson) schedule and beat North Carolina at the end of the year as the Wolfpack could limp along yet again. Doeren’s seat isn’t hot by any reasonable measure (his extension was signed months ago), but he hasn’t changed any of the perceptions of NC State as a perennial underachiever relative to talent and resources.
Syracuse: Dino Babers is 26-37 with the Orange, and save for a breakout 10-3 run in 2018, he hasn’t built a winner. But one hot run is often all a coach needs to gain that second contract, and Babers hit at just the right time. Syracuse is a private school, so the particulars of the contract extension he received in ‘18 most likely run through 2024, per multiple reports.
Since that 10-3 campaign, Babers is 7-18 with only three league wins, and there’s growing skepticism among rival coaches in the league that his style of Briles-tree Air Raid is 1) as effective as it was 10 years ago and 2) sustainable to recruit to in Western New York. Because the particulars — and the total buyout — on Babers aren’t public, this is a harder situation to forecast.
This week, the Orange will host Hugh Freeze’s Liberty, possibly the most talented FBS independent not named Notre Dame. Freeze is perpetually active behind the scenes in the coaching market, as he’s determined to create a second act at a Power 5 program after his fall from grace at Ole Miss. If any of these ACC jobs open, expect his name to magically emerge, and quickly.
– Steven Godfrey is a senior writer for Vox Media's Secret Base, and co-host of The Split Zone Duo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey
Podcast: Week 3 Recap + Numbers to Know