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Seven-Step Drop: After Chaos Reigned Early, Coaching Hot Seat Poised to Overshadow College Football Playoff

Ed Orgeron, LSU Football

Even though LSU won a thriller over Florida on Saturday, the focus quickly shifted to the Tigers and Ed Orgeron agreeing to part ways at the end of the season

It’s a truism in college football that when the slate of games doesn’t look super appealing, there’s bound to be a flurry of fantastic finishes, shocking upsets, and general chaos from coast to coast. Week 7 presented as just that, featuring only two games involving ranked teams and a host of other matchups that carried much intrigue.

Then No. 2 Iowa got trounced at home, Indiana threatened No. 10 Michigan State for four quarters, Oklahoma State stormed back in Austin, LSU pulled a rabbit out of their hat and double-digit favorites failed to take care of business en masse.

Related: College Football Top 25 (After Week 7)

The thing is though, a weekend like this has been pretty par for the course in this 2021 college football season, which has cruised past the halfway mark rather chaotically. The week prior Goliath looked mortal as top-ranked Alabama not only lost for the first time in two years but did so to an unranked foe for the first time in 100 tries. Keep turning back the calendar and you’d see Notre Dame fell at home to a Group of 5 challenger, Clemson knocked off their ACC perch, Chip Kelly go from conquering hero to flat on his face, and folks around the country getting familiar to calling the Hogs.

While this 2021 campaign’s return to normalcy after all the pandemic restrictions from last year has been welcomed with open arms, it’s doubly notable for the way the College Football Playoff chase has largely faded from the only storyline discussed into a somewhat background topic. Part of this is by design on behalf of rights-holder ESPN and part of it is just what’s happening between the lines has been so compelling.

The thing is though, even the return of weekly CFP rankings and the inevitable gaze toward the postseason could well be a secondary storyline the rest of the year. Part of it is because of the incredible slate of games still to come and what they represent on the field. The other half is what’s been happening in athletic department conference rooms, hushed conversations with boosters, and on the sidelines with a coaching carousel poised to be as hot and interesting as it ever has been.

Sunday after Week 7 was proof positive as reports confirmed what many suspected: Ed Orgeron was out at LSU just 22 months after assembling perhaps the greatest team of all time and winning the national title in the school’s backyard. The opening in Baton Rouge adds to the other marquee name circling in the same waters in USC after the Trojans were even quicker with the hook on Clay Helton.

Related: 11 Coaching Candidates to Replace Ed Orgeron at LSU

Each is universally considered among the five best jobs in the sport. No matter who either school hires, there are bound to be further dominoes that happen in other gigs as others change locales.

Add to it the heat being felt in once-proud powerhouses like Miami (Manny Diaz) and Nebraska (with Scott Frost), tricky situations at Washington State or Texas Tech plus a host of Group of 5 programs bound to turnover and, well, it’s going to be a busy time for ADs, agents, message board regulars and pretty much everybody else connected to the industry.

To the point where every minute of breathless playoff talk might just be matched with an equal amount — or more — of air time devoted to which coach is going where and just how many millions are set to change hands. That will be a departure compared to the recent past but also one that seems apt for the way this wild 2021 season has transpired so far.

Seven Up This Week

— Coach O off the mat as Dan Mullen starts to feel extra heat
Even before Sunday’s news provided added context, it felt like LSU’s season was going to result in a make-or-break game against Florida — a series that has had its share of out-of-nowhere results and incredulous moments. It felt like a real Coach O special in a damn the torpedoes way by trying to establish the run after entering the week dead last in the SEC in rushing at just 2.91 yards per carry. Tyrion Davis-Price was fantastic in posting a school-record 287 rushing yards and it seemed like the Tigers just ran counter over and over and Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham never adjusted. While the euphoria was tempered somewhat in Baton Rouge, the score did seemingly turn up the heat on the other sideline. Already a fickle personality who hasn’t quite meshed with his fan base like many expected in a return to Gainesville, Mullen's reluctance to play quarterback Anthony Richardson remains downright puzzling. It’s clear that incumbent starter Emory Jones had his chances, but Florida is Richardson’s show now even after both threw a pair of interceptions against a secondary missing their stars. Mullen demurring and trying to keep both players happy will only serve to infuriate UF fans more and cost the team on the field too, a combination that makes for a hotter seat than most think even after an SEC East title in 2020.

— Georgia takes care of business
At this point, what else needs to be said about the one team everybody sees as a cut above the rest? Georgia’s smothering of No. 11 Kentucky was perhaps only notable for Mark Stoops ensuring he would make Scott Van Pelt’s "Bad Beats" segment on by taking timeouts in the final seconds. The Bulldogs are not invincible by any stretch but it sure feels like their biggest remaining opponent isn’t Florida or Alabama in Atlanta but history. Maybe more interesting to those inside and outside Athens is that the grown men on UGA’s defense know it too.

— ACC may be on collision course for… Pitt and NC State/Wake Forest?
While we’ve seen surprises across college football this year but maybe the most unpredictable set of events that nobody saw coming is what has happened in the ACC. Clemson’s offense looks stuck in 1955 if it works at all and the league standard-bearer continues to look like a shell of the program we’re used to seeing after escaping the Carrier Dome with a three-point win against Syracuse on Friday night. Thanks to injuries and bad play, Miami is below .500 and talk in Blacksburg has once again turned to hot seats and coaching changes. Add it all up and we’re left with a potential title game between… Pitt and the winner of NC State/Wake Forest? Sure seems like it. Throw in the way Virginia can throw it around and their trip to Pittsburgh also looms as one of the biggest left on the slate — something unthinkable back in August.

— Funroe!
Hats off to Terry Bowden and company at ULM for putting together one of the more remarkable second-half performances of the season, posting a 28-point outburst in the third quarter and calmly nailing a 53-yard game-winner in the final two minutes to knock off Liberty in Monroe. This is one of the hardest jobs in all of FBS and somehow the Warhawks are sitting at 3-3 after their second 20-plus-point upset of the year to put the fun in Funroe.

Kudos to UConn for also posting a monumental win of their own in ending an 11-game losing streak thanks to defending not one but two Hail Marys.

— Bowl eligible after seven weeks
Quite the eclectic list of teams ticketed toward the postseason so far: Cincinnati, SMU, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, UTSA, UTEP, Air Force, San Diego State, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Coastal Carolina.

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— Midseason awards

  • Bednarik Award (best defensive player): Jordan Davis (Georgia)
  • Biletnikoff Award (best WR): Drake London (USC)
  • Davey O’Brien (best QB): Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)
  • Doak Walker (best RB): Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State)
  • Broyles Award (best assistant): Iowa DC Phil Parker
  • Coaches of the Year: Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest), Dave Aranda (Baylor), Mel Tucker (Michigan State), Jeff Traylor (UTSA), Thomas Hammock (Northern Illinois), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Jonathan Smith (Oregon State), Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Terry Bowden (ULM)
  • Coaches on the Hottest Seats: Scott Frost (Nebraska), Seth Littrell (North Texas), Manny Diaz (Miami), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech), David Cutcliffe (Duke), Philip Montgomery (Tulsa), Tom Arth (Akron), Herm Edwards (Arizona State), Mike Bloomgren (Rice), Matt Wells (Texas Tech), Marcus Arroyo (UNLV)
  • Group of 5 Coaches You Should Hire: Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), Jay Norvell (Nevada), Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina), Bill Napier (Louisiana), Will Healy (Charlotte), Jeff Traylor (UTSA), Jeff Monken (Army), Tim Lester (Western Michigan)
  • Defensive Coordinator You Should Hire: Alex Grinch, Oklahoma
  • Offensive Coordinator You Should Hire: Joe Moorhead, Oregon

Seven Down This Week

— Iowa finally gets exposed
Living on the knife’s edge has its drawbacks in college football: sometimes you get stabbed. In the case of Iowa, that came at the hands of Purdue wide receiver David Bell and an ineffective offense that seemed to be allergic to the goal line whenever the Hawkeyes approached. It was just the kind of letdown that seemed destined to happen at some point after climbing as high as No. 2 in the polls despite pretty much nobody really believing the Hawkeyes to be the second-best team on the actual field of play. The Boilermakers most tellingly put a dent into the aura that had been building around Kirk Ferentz’ defense too, which perhaps was as damaging to the team’s reputation as anything after what had previously been a magical start to the year in Iowa City. The team still looks like the class of the Big Ten West despite their first double-digit defeat in 36 games (going back to 2018) but thankfully we won’t have to tell anybody’s children about an undefeated Iowa anymore.

— The Boat sinks Frost era
At this point, what more needs to be said about the Scott Frost era other than it’s time for new AD Trev Alberts to turn the TV off and start his search? Any step forward the Huskers take, they inevitably take two more back to the point where that 30-23 loss at Minnesota (a team that fell to Bowling Green on the same field) might well and truly be the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Frost can’t beat the big boys (0-fer against ranked teams, 1-10 vs. Michigan/Penn State/Ohio State/Iowa/Wisconsin) and he can barely beat most of his fellow Big Ten foes in one of the weakest divisions in the Power 5 (6-9 vs. Minnesota/Purdue/Northwestern/Illinois). It’s a shame this is the way things transpired for the proud program and the native son coming home but sometimes that’s just the way things fell.

— Runnin’ out of gas in Austin
Steve Sarkisian has largely been the breath of fresh air that most around the UT offices expected when he was hired. The offense is flashy, the recruiting is going as it should, and Longhorns fans are starting to see a future where the self-proclaimed Joneses of college football get back to winning on a stage deserving of that status. The problem is, Texas is still the same old Texas, a program that is far from back and one that keeps carrying the same warts we’ve been seeing for 15 years now when the going starts to get tough. The team blew their second double-digit second-half lead in two weeks to teams from the Sooner state and the 32-24 loss to Oklahoma State all but knocked the 'Horns out of national and conference races. Casey Thompson looked shaky throughout the game and seemed to have little confidence throwing the ball down the field while the defense went from flying around to playing a tad timider down the stretch. The Texas sideline kept getting tighter and tighter as the gap narrowed and eventually got overwhelmed completely in giving up 16 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes. Sark needs to start changing up the halftime speech or something because the team fond of saying "all gas, no brakes" in every social media post sure is running out of everything from momentum to points to answers after a second straight collapse.

— USF rebuild hits another pothole
When USF lured Jeff Scott to Tampa, it was a hire widely celebrated at the time as a bit of a coup for the school. A successful Clemson co-OC with tons of good recruiting connections seemed like just the right kind of hire to help turn things around after backsliding under Charlie Strong. Yet a coaching hire, in theory, is far different from one in reality, as the Bulls have seen firsthand after they blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead against Tulsa and dropped to 2-13 under Scott. While you could certainly label 2020 as a Year Zero given the pandemic, a number of questionable coaching decisions on Saturday down the stretch cost the team their first FBS win and seemed to put this turnaround on even rockier ground. You have to go all the way back to 2007 to find a team that recorded a pick-six, kick return TD, and three turnovers in a game that also somehow blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. Not great.

— Arizona hits new low, ASU collapses in rough weekend on the road
Unless you were an alum of either program, you would be hard-pressed figuring out a reason to seek out the Pac-12 Network for Saturday’s Arizona-Colorado game. Neither team had an FBS win to their name and the level of football each had shown the world so far was subpar, to say the least. Well, two entered and only one could emerge as the Buffaloes ended up blowing out their Pac-12 South rivals 34-0 — their first-ever conference shutout since joining the league. The score tells you everything you need to know about this one as the Wildcats extended their FBS-leading losing streak to 18 in a row. They have a short week against Washington and do host Cal but the opportunities for Jedd Fisch to get win No. 1 might dwindle until the calendar turns 2022. The new staff has injected some energy and been some fresh air early in their tenure but all those positive feelings appear to be gone before Halloween in Tucson.

Things weren’t much better for rival Arizona State in a game that could well have determined the division title when all is said and done. The Sun Devils had a two-score lead in the second half but collapsed in impressive fashion at Utah and wound up losing going away by giving up 28 unanswered. To make matters even more disappointing for the fans, it was the same old story too: penalties, drops, mental mistakes and missed assignments. Herm Edwards is 22-15 at the school and just 14-12 in conference play after that result. The guy he replaced? Todd Graham was 26-11 after 37 games and 18-7 in the Pac-12 — without the accompanying NCAA baggage either. Some looming decisions ahead for Arizona State president Michael Crow on multiple levels of his athletic department after the football season concludes.

— Ugly ending mars Kiffin’s return to Knoxville
Lane Kiffin handled his return to Knoxville remarkably well all week long in the run-up to kickoff between Ole Miss and Tennessee but Vols fans did not return the favor in the final few minutes of the game on Saturday, throwing numerous objects onto the field after a controversial spot just short of the chains. Replay was inconclusive but the drawn-out nature of the way things went down led to mass chaos in Neyland to the point where cheerleaders were running off and Kiffin was getting pelted by golf balls, mustard bottles and items vaguely resembling water and beer bottles. Such behavior is naturally unacceptable and the SEC office and UT administration naturally came down hard and issued strong statements after the fact. That said, your fan base’s perception is reflective of its worst elements and, even if it were only a tiny sliver of fans in orange actually tossing things, it’s another bad mark on a Tennessee fan base that has seen its reputation sullied nationally the past few years. It also ruined the ending to a pretty entertaining game that the Vols had a chance to win pretty much right up to the final play. There were about two dozen bizarre moments from kickoff onwards and just about all anybody will remember will be the memes that were spawned out of a night few will ever forget in the SEC and beyond.

— Boise blues
The best top-to-bottom league in the country may well be the Mountain West, which seems like a gauntlet pretty much every weekend (even UNLV appears to be a tough out now despite being one of two winless teams in FBS). Yet for all the compelling games we’ve seen late at night or at altitude, one team that may have the most curious record at this point in the year is perennial power Boise State. The Broncos fell to 3-4 after nemesis Air Force suffocated them on Saturday night — their third loss on the blue turf for the first time since 1998. Andy Avalos’ squad has found a way to avoid the win column in about six different ways this year but the bottom line is we’re at the halfway mark of the season and the program has four regular-season losses for just the fourth time since moving up to FBS. Not quite the start to the new coach’s tenure that he would have hoped for at his alma mater.

Tweet of the Week

Photo of the Week

Play of the Week

Stat of the Week

Per ESPN, Purdue has nine wins as an unranked team against top-2 opponents — more than twice as many as any other school all-time.

Make It Make Sense Item of the Week

No Really, Make It Make Sense

Superlatives of the Week

  • Best player(s): Tyrion Davis-Price (LSU), David Bell (Purdue)
  • Team of the Week: Purdue
  • Goat of the Week: Tennessee fans
  • Heisman Five: 1. Bijan Robinson (Texas), 2. Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), 3. Matt Corral (Ole Miss), 4. Drake London (USC), T-5. Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)/Kenny Pickett (Pitt)
  • Projected Playoff: 1. Georgia, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Ohio State, 4. Cincinnati
  • Projected New Year’s Six: Orange Bowl — Georgia vs. Cincinnati, Cotton Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Ohio State, Rose Bowl — Oregon vs. Iowa, Sugar Bowl — Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State, Fiesta Bowl — Penn State vs. Notre Dame, Peach Bowl — Michigan vs. NC State

The Super 16

Here’s my ballot in this week’s FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma
4. Cincinnati
5. Ohio State
6. Oklahoma State
7. Kentucky
8. Ole Miss
9. Penn State
10. Michigan
11. Iowa
12. Coastal Carolina
13. Texas A&M
14. Michigan State
15. Baylor
16. Pitt

Pre-Snap Reads

Clemson at Pitt
You have to go all the way back to 2016 to find a time where the Tigers were an underdog against an ACC foe other than Florida State. While Kenny Pickett has played his way into the Heisman conversation, this Clemson defense is at a different level than anybody else. As much as Pat Narduzzi’s side has looked like the better squad, it’s hard to really put your faith in the Panthers completely in a moment like this. The Pick: Clemson +3

Oregon at UCLA
The Ducks have played like a top-10 team for all of two quarters this season. The rest of the time? More like one in the middle of the pack in the league. Chip Kelly’s new team has played somewhat like his old one in that respect but has been a tad more consistent over the course of the year. The Bruins’ defense is suspect enough though that the visitors pull away at the Rose Bowl to win by multiple scores and keep their CFP dreams alive. The Pick: Oregon +1

USC at Notre Dame
Not the best set of games in Week 8 but at least the greatest intersectional rivalry is in store for everybody in primetime. The Irish just took it to the chin at home to a Group of 5 program and have looked nothing more than meddling. The Trojans have an interim head coach and have been run out of the building by three teams that all were more physical than they were. Something says that is a point of emphasis for Brian Kelly in the run-up to this one despite this seeming like it could be closer than Vegas thinks. The Pick: ND -6

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.