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College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2021

USC's Clay Helton leads the hot seat rankings for 2021
USC Football: The Clay Helton Question Looms Ahead of Notre Dame Matchup

USC coach Clay Helton is on the hot seat once again.

After an unusual 2020, normalcy will return for college football’s 2021 season. Despite concerns over revenue throughout the abbreviated '20 campaign, the coaching carousel was still active with 17 changes. But with things back to normal, the carousel could be even more noisy this fall. As usual, plenty of coaches are feeling pressure for the '21 season. USC's Clay Helton takes the top spot, but Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente and Texas Tech's Matt Wells aren't far behind. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is also under pressure to get the program pointed in the right direction after a 2-4 record last season.

Who are the coaches sitting on the hot seat as the 2021 season approaches? Athlon ranks the coaches sitting on the hottest seat for the upcoming year:

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2021

1. Clay Helton, USC
Helton’s seat is toasty once again despite USC winning the Pac-12 South in the abbreviated 2020 season and despite his overall record of 45–23. The division title was the third for Helton since taking over as the full-time coach in ’15, but the Trojans have often underachieved. After an 11–3 record in ’17, USC posted a 5–7 mark in ’18 — the program’s first losing mark since 2000 — followed by an 8–5 record in ’19.

2. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Fuente was regarded as a home-run hire to replace Frank Beamer and certainly delivered on that label in his first two years with the program. However, after a 19–8 start, the Hokies are just 19–18 over the last three years. Additionally, the program has had two losing seasons under Fuente’s watch after having none from 1993-2017. Virginia Tech’s recruiting has also regressed. After reeling in consecutive classes ranked in the top 30 nationally in 2017-18, the Hokies finished No. 76 in ’20 and No. 45 in ’21.

3. Matt Wells, Texas Tech
It’s never a good sign when an athletic director has to confirm that a coach will keep his job only two years in. However, that’s exactly what transpired in Lubbock last year, as athletic director Kirby Hocutt ended speculation about Wells’ future by indicating in mid-December that the coach would return in 2021. Texas Tech is just 8–14 overall and 5–13 in Big 12 play under Wells. The defense — a long-running issue for the program — has continued to struggle, while the offense took a step back last year. 

4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
While the Wolverines have been solid (49–22), Harbaugh doesn’t have a division title and has yet to beat Ohio State. Making matters worse: The gap between the Buckeyes and Wolverines has increased. Harbaugh received an extension following the ’20 season but also took a significant ($4 million) annual pay cut. The Wolverines have won at least nine games in four out of the five full seasons under Harbaugh. However, he has yet to prove that he can get Michigan to the next level.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

5. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Stockstill is the second-longest-tenured head coach among Group of 5 programs, but things seem to be getting stale. While Stockstill has navigated plenty of ups and downs since taking over in ’06, he’s 94–92 and has only one trip to the Conference USA title game since the program joined the league in ’13. The Blue Raiders are 7–14 overall in the last two years and have not won more than eight games since ’09.

6. Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Martin guided the Aggies to a 7–6 finish in 2017 with the program’s first bowl victory since 1960 but has failed to win more than three games in the other six full-time years as head coach. Counting the two-game stint this spring, Martin is just 23–64 since taking over in 2013 in Las Cruces. New Mexico State is one of the toughest jobs in college football. Adding to the institutional challenges Martin must overcome is a tough schedule and a roster that features few proven players for 2021.

7. Chip Lindsey, Troy
Lindsey inherited a solid foundation at a program that won 31 games from 2016-18 under Neal Brown. The Trojans regressed to 5–7 in his debut, followed by a 5–6 mark last fall. Lindsey’s team was at least more competitive, losing four of its games by seven points or fewer.

8. Dana Dimel, UTEP
UTEP is a challenging job, but Dimel was an uninspiring hire in 2018 and is just 5–27 through three years. The Miners went 2–22 in his first two seasons but showed some progress by winning three games in ’20. However, two victories came against FCS teams, and the other came at the expense of winless ULM. Dimel’s program is 1–19 in Conference USA games over the last three years.

9. Dino Babers, Syracuse
Babers’ stock was on the rise after he guided Syracuse to a 10–3 record — the program’s first 10-win season since 2001 — in ’18. But the Orange have trended down in the last two years. After regressing to 5–7 in ’19, the program bottomed out with a 1–10 finish last season. Injuries and the pandemic played a role, but Syracuse was largely non-competitive, with eight of the 10 losses coming by 10 or more points.

10. Chip Kelly, UCLA
UCLA’s hire of Kelly was widely regarded as one of the top coaching moves in the 2017-18 carousel. However, progress has been slow in Westwood. The Bruins went 3–9 in Kelly’s debut and improved slightly to 4–8 in ’19. UCLA finished 3–4 last season, but all four defeats came by six points or fewer, suggesting that the program is slowly trending in the right direction. Kelly is 10–21 overall and has yet to win a non-conference game or consistently display the high-powered offense that he developed at Oregon.

Getting Warm

Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Randy Edsall, UConn
Scott Frost, Nebraska
Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Seth Littrell, North Texas
Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green
Ed Orgeron, LSU

Wait and See

Herm Edwards, Arizona State
Outcome of ongoing NCAA investigation could impact Edwards’ job status in 2021.

Podcast: What Do Coaches Really Think About Your Team in 2021?