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Seven-Step Drop: Biggest College Football Drama Left is on the Coaching Carousel

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It was a pretty sleep-inducing week in college football and that’s not exactly a surprise considering what the slate was coming in, with only one game between top 25 teams and just a handful of ranked squads that had to go on the road (none of which faced a team with a winning record).

Sure the mid-week games had some fun thrillers — and others like Notre Dame, USC and Mississippi State were threatened at times — but the end result was that only two ranked teams suffered a loss in Oklahoma State and NC. State. Mix in the SEC and ACC’s annual week full of scheduling lower-level opponents and everything went pretty much as expected on Saturday with few exceptions.

The end result though, is that our pseudo eight-team playoff is still on. The winner of the SEC Championship Game is in. The winner of the ACC title is in. The same can be said for the Big Ten and Big 12 Championships Games. The only wrench in the whole plan might be if Michigan can capture an elusive victory over a ranked team by upsetting Ohio State on Saturday. Otherwise it’s a pretty clean picture to look at for the postseason before we carve up the turkey for Thanksgiving.

There is still some drama left in college football though, except it’s not on the field. It’s in the hotel suites, school conference rooms and over bottles of expensive wine at dinners between boosters. With the clock ticking down to a new wrinkle — an early signing period — and the pressure on to land big-name candidates, the coaching carousel is where most of the sport will focus its attention on in the coming days and weeks.

The latest of the big dominoes on that front fell on Sunday afternoon, as UCLA made the surprise announcement that Jim Mora (above, right) had been fired (on his birthday no less). Despite a win over Arizona State at the Rose Bowl and a surprisingly hard-fought effort against USC, the school did what few expected given the $12 million buyout and injected even more life into what promises to be a turbulent cycle of openings and closings.

So let’s address things school-by-school, starting in Westwood.


Who’s out: Jim Mora (46-30, six seasons)

Best choice: Chip Kelly

Best backup: Kevin Sumlin

Don’t discount: Scott Frost, Bryan Harsin, Mike Norvell

One of the biggest issues a lot of folks in the coaching community have in ranking the UCLA job as a top tier one has been the school’s commitment to football. Between a sparkling new football facility and paying out a $12 million in order to move on to a better head coach though, perhaps that is changing. It was very notable that the release announcing Mora’s hiring specifically named booster Casey Wasserman as part of the search committee — a clear sign that Chip Kelly will be the school’s primary target. If both sides decide it isn’t a fit with the former Oregon coach, Kevin Sumlin is a name that would be a natural fit in West LA. He’s a proven recruiter of talent, a personality fit at the school and would probably have the best track record of any possibility despite those late season slides with the Aggies.

Related: 8 Coaching Candidates to Replace Jim Mora at UCLA


Who’s out: Jim McElwain (22-12, three seasons)

Best choice: Dan Mullen

Best backup: Scott Frost

Don’t discount: Chip Kelly, Willie Taggart, Rich Rodriguez

The Gators have been connected to Kelly heavily over the past week and they could unquestionably land the biggest fish in the coaching world. But there would be some concerns about how he would build out his staff and recruit in the ultra-competitive state of Florida after several years in the NFL. Still, he’d be the name and would instantly inject a lot of life into the program that would be among the most fascinating experiments in the sport. The standard in the conference is still Nick Saban and if anybody outside the box has a chance at topping the giant in Tuscaloosa, it stands to reason that Kelly could be the one give his track record. Mullen and Frost both fit the bill pretty well too, having had success on the offensive end and a pretty good eye for talent (especially at quarterback). Whatever direction AD Scott Stricklin decides to go, UF will be in better hands going forward as this is the best job open and a short list to match it.

Related: 12 Coaching Candidates to Replace Jim McElwain at Florida


Who’s out: Butch Jones (34-27, five seasons)

Best choice: Dan Mullen

Best backup: Dana Holgorsen

Don’t discount: Rich Rodriguez, Brent Venables, Jeff Brohm, Greg Schiano

Volunteers fans are convinced that Jon Gruden is the answer to their struggles but it’s still a long shot that Tennessee brings him out of his comfort zone of the NFL and the “Monday Night Football” booth. On a more realistic level, Mullen has developed a program with far fewer resources into a reliable winner and his consistent approach on offense would be appreciated given what has happened in Knoxville over the past few years. Holgorsen hasn’t been mentioned much this cycle but he’d be an intriguing candidate to bring his version of the Air Raid to the SEC. He’s gone 53-35 in Morgantown but has had to find ways around obstacles instead of being put in the position to not worry about them. He’d be open to such a move but it remains to see if they get down this far on their list. Also don’t discount a pair of former defensive coordinators. Schiano could help the Buckeyes return to the playoff and has connections to recruit Florida and the East Coast while Venables has already been vetted by AD John Currie.

Related: 15 Coaching Candidates to Replace Butch Jones at Tennessee

Ole Miss

Who’s out: Hugh Freeze (39-25, five seasons) and Matt Luke (interim coach)

Best choice: Frank Wilson

Best backup: Neal Brown

Don’t discount: Mike Norvell, Charlie Strong, Blake Anderson, Mike Bobo

The Rebels are battling several factors in their pursuit of a new coach. First is the looming NCAA decision coming on the program, which could be quite serious in terms of potential sanctions. The second is the inability to offer long-term contracts to match some of their regional brethren and the fact that you’re in the SEC West. Still, they’ll overpay for a coach as a result and it’s proven that you can get players to Oxford over the years. Wilson, an ex-assistant at the school, has come down from some early buzz with UTSA but would bring a steady hand and the reputation as one of the best recruiters in the South. Taking a shot on somebody like that while waiting out what comes down the pipe from the NCAA could be an appealing option. Brown, who beat LSU this year, has done a good job turning around Troy while any number of AAC coaches could land here if they’re hoping for a Power 5 gig and all that comes with it.

Oregon State

Who’s out: Gary Andersen (7-23, three seasons)

Best choice: Ken Niumatalolo

Best backup: Jonathan Smith

Don’t discount: Beau Baldwin, Jim McElwain, Butch Jones, Dave Aranda

This is one of the four or five hardest jobs to win at in the country but it can be done with the right coaching staff in place that find and develop overlooked talent. AD Scott Barnes will need to decide if switching to an option-based offense could be an advantageous change of pace in the wide open Pac-12, to say nothing of better fitting the kind of players you get in the region. If so, Niumatalolo would be a terrific fit should he decide to give it a go at a Power 5 job. If he didn’t leave Navy for BYU, it seems like he’s staying put in Annapolis for a long time but you at least have to inquire about the possibility. Smith, a former successful Beavers QB and current offensive coordinator at Washington, might be the most realistic and easy-to-get option. He’d bring experience learning from Chris Petersen and knows the conference well enough to make the transition easy. Baldwin is another conference assistant (OC, Cal) who would have the benefit of bringing head coaching experience. McElwain and Jones have experience in similar situations and could be bigger names that make a lot of sense.

Related: 5 Coaching Candidates to Replace Gary Andersen at Oregon State

Georgia Southern

Who’s out: Tyson Summers (5-13, two seasons)

Best choice: Brent Davis

Best backup: Ashley Ingram

Don’t discount: Brian Bohannon, Doug Ruse

It would be a surprise if current Army OC and former Eagles assistant Davis isn’t the pick at this point, as he’s done a terrific job with the Black Knights and runs the preferred triple-option scheme. Ingram, from the Naval academy, and current Tulane assistant Ruse fit similar molds.


Who’s out: Sean Kugler (18-36, five seasons)

Best choice: K.C. Keeler

Best backup: Phil Longo

Don’t discount: Guy Holliday, Graham Harrell, Curtis Luper

Not an easy job by any stretch but the Miners should be much better than this current iteration. Keeler has had loads of success at the FCS level and given his age could be ready for a shot at moving up in the ranks. He’s 44-11 in the region at Sam Houston State and has the team as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs this year. Longo made his mark with the Bearkats as OC and has brought his explosive offense to Ole Miss where it’s put up points and yards despite the loss of some key players.

2. Jobs expected to come open

Texas A&M

Given the leaks coming out of College Station, a divorce between the Aggies and Kevin Sumlin is likely to conclude at some point in the hours after the regular season finale. The school is prepared to do what it takes to land a big name and AD Scott Woodward did hit a home run in his biggest coaching hire to date at Washington by luring Chris Petersen from Boise. This is a pretty attractive job after a heavy hitter like Florida and it’s possible a big name winds up putting the thumbs up in a surprise move (talk has already surfaced of Jimbo Fisher). Still, alum Chad Morris out of SMU feels like the realistic fallback option if folks like Mike Gundy, if he wants to try something different, and Justin Fuente also take a pass.


The Cornhuskers will play their traditional game on Black Friday and then an announcement will likely be made the following day thanking Mike Riley for his service and sending him off to retire in Texas. AD Bill Moos plays things close to the vest but it’s an open secret that a big deal will be in place to lure Scott Frost home if he wants it. Should the UCF coach turn them down, everybody from Mike Leach to Kevin Sumlin to Dan Mullen could be in play.

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Forcing out Jeff Long was the first big move in reimagining the program but without a new athletic director in place, this search could go all over the place. Mike Norvell’s name will get brought up quite a bit as the top Group of 5 candidate to take over but former assistant Charlie Strong figures to get some play as well. Don’t discount Chad Morris either, as he’d bring a top-notch offense to go along with vital recruiting connections to Texas and Georgia. Gus Malzahn’s name is going to be the one this search hinges on though, and if he’s interested in returning home things could look very interesting in the SEC going forward.

Mississippi State

If Mullen leaves as many in Starkville eventually expect him to, this will actually be one of the more attractive jobs for the non-Chip Kellys of the coaching world. The roster is well stocked for 2018, the job pays well and the facilities picture is better than most realize. Mike Norvell making the trip down the road is of interest but the lack of experience running a search by AD John Cohen makes this a bit of a wild card.


This could be the most attractive Group of 5 job in the country and might be a better opening than others like Oregon State. The Knights will do their best to keep Scott Frost around but it seems like there are just too many good opportunities for him to pass up this cycle. DC Erik Chinander probably would be the in-house name that gets surfaced but you can expect to hear Miami DC Manny Diaz and former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal’s name mentioned quite a bit. South Carolina’s Bryan McClendon and Clemson’s Jeff Scott also could make a lot of sense.

Kent State

Haynes is just 14-44 at the school over five years and the team has showed little improvement in trying to get out of the basement of a bad MAC East division. His contract expires next year and he recently took a leave to undergo treatment for prostate cancer, a battle alone that could play a factor in the Golden Flashes’ job coming open. As usual, Big Ten assistants figure to be in the mix for this one such as Minnesota’s Kenni Burns and Northwestern’s Matt MacPherson, as well as somebody like Syracuse’s Sean Lewis.

South Alabama

Joey Jones is 52-49 with the Jaguars but hasn’t been able to get over the hump and play consistently in recent years as the team settles in around .500 on a regular basis. Getting run out of the building by a winless Georgia Southern a week after beating Arkansas State is emblematic of the issue and one reason the school will likely be parting ways with the only head coach in school history as his contract expires after the season. Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt could be an option.


David Bailiff has been with the Owls for more than a decade and the previous highs he took the program too probably allowed him to keep the job again this season. The results on the field continue to spiral downward however and it’s apparent change will come shortly. Offensive-minded assistants like Phil Longo at Ole Miss, Oklahoma State’s Mike Yurcich and USF’s Sterlin Gilbert could get looks.

3. Dominoes that could fall

AAC: SMU, Memphis, USF, Navy, East Carolina

The American has basically turned into the “it” league when it comes to Power 5 schools looking to grab a head coach and the first four schools on this list could all have their head coach poached. Navy would have an easy replacement on staff in OC Ivin Jasper but the others would likely aim for up-and-coming coordinators looking to run their own ship for the first time. Scottie Montgomery should get some more time but the amount of unrest in Greenville combined with a second 3-9 effort could result in a full reset from AD on down.

ACC: Louisville

Bobby Petrino seems quite content in his second stint with the Cardinals but there are so many potential openings that he might decide to at least look elsewhere after scandal-tainted AD Tom Jurich was shown the door. He’s been mentioned at Auburn numerous times in the past and the possibility of others like Tennessee are out there too. It still seems unlikely but you can’t discount him jumping given his past history and all of the upheaval in Louisville. Jeff Brohm would at least make for an easy and orderly transition at head coach if he does.

Louisville Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino

Big 12: Kansas State, Texas Tech, West Virginia

The annual game of will Bill Snyder retire should go on again after the Wildcats go bowling and the only person who knows when the Wizard will finally call it quits is the man himself. He’s made no secret that he’d like son Sean to take over but it remains a tricky situation that could play out half a dozen different ways. Kliff Kingsbury’s buyout will probably give him another year at his alma mater but at some point the results have to come through on the field. Dana Holgorsen won’t get the axe after the year but him getting swept up in the coaching cycle wouldn’t be the worst thing for some in Morgantown.

Conference USA: North Texas, FAU, UTSA

College football’s favorite character, Lane Kiffin, has done a really remarkable job getting FAU in position to win the league but the consensus in the industry is he will remain in Boca until he shows he can keep things going over more than one season. Lane being Lane though, you never know. Peers like Seth Littrell and Frank Wilson will have their names come up quite a bit though.

MAC: Toledo

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Jason Candle might be the most under-the-radar name on the carousel but he’s primed to follow in the footsteps of his old boss Matt Campbell and land a Power 5 gig after another terrific year with the Rockets, as they are the potential conference champ this season. The former Mount Union product could fit in just about anywhere as a head coach but might be limited by the number of bigger gigs that come open in the Big Ten and could wait a year.

Mountain West: San Diego State, Fresno State, Colorado State

Rocky Long will turn 68 about a month after the Aztecs play their bowl game and may decide three straight years of double-digit wins is a good way to head off into retirement. He looks pretty rejuvenated by SDSU’s recent campaigns though and has the program in good shape so it could still be a while before he calls it quits. Jeff Tedford does not want to be a one-and-done at his alma mater but a new AD coming in and the possibility of several Pac-12 openings could make for an early exit. Mike Bobo’s name should come up quite a bit in December but don’t expect Jim McElwain to return to the Rams to take his place after burning a few bridges in Fort Collins.

Pac-12: Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon

UCLA’s decision to pay a big buyout could put a little more heat on Todd Graham at Arizona State despite the Sun Devils turning things around a bit in 2017. Beating rival Arizona would help a lot. Speaking of the Wildcats, RichRod could finally use this year’s resurgence to land a job back in the Eastern Time Zone while Mike Leach may also be primed for one last move after guiding Wazzu to the doorstep of a Pac-12 title. Mike MacIntyre isn’t going to be let go but could be in play at a place like Ole Miss and Willie Taggart could be one-and-done in Eugene if the right SEC program came calling.

SEC: Auburn

The Iron Bowl will play a huge role in Gus Malzahn’s future on the Plains and his situation is interesting on a number of different levels, from an administration in upheaval to a fickle fan base to the allure of returning back to the natural state with the Razorbacks. Malzahn knows he’s got an all-around great job at a program capable of beating Nick Saban across the state lines but enough drama might result in a fresh start for everybody elsewhere.

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn

Sun Belt: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Troy, Idaho

Scott Satterfield, Blake Anderson and Neal Brown are all poised to take a step up after building some really quality programs that you’ll find atop the conference standings. Most will likely be back in their same role but they will likely interview at a number of different places. With the Vandals set to make a return back to the FCS ranks and in the middle of a 3-7 final season in FBS, Paul Petrino might find being an assistant at a Power 5 school is a little more appealing in a good break for everybody.

4. Don’t forget about NFL moves

The addition of the early signing period complicates this year’s coaching carousel but as one coach’s agent mentioned to me, don’t forget about NFL moves when factoring in all of the movement bound to come to the college ranks.

That could include a very active cycle in pro football at both the head coach spot and in terms of coordinators, to say nothing of the usual assistant moves we normally see in the middle of February. Be prepared to hear quite a bit about Jim Harbaugh being connected to the Indianapolis Colts eventual opening even if that’s more about NFL reporters drumming up interest in the Michigan Man who is quite content in Ann Arbor right now and seems a few years away from entertaining another shot at the pros.

Outside of that though, one could monitor the potential for the New York Giants and Chicago Bears jobs becoming available and the possible interest Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly could have in both. He was once in the mix for the latter a few years ago and this season’s resurgence in South Bend combined with the demands of leading the program for nearly a decade might be enough for him to actively make a run at the NFL. The Giants’ opening in particular would seem to suit his style even if he’s got a New England background. If he does wind up leaving, an opening at Notre Dame would set off another dozen dominoes in the coaching world.

Another name to keep in mind with all this? None other than Bob Stoops. While the former Oklahoma coach has really taken to his retirement this year and seems truthfully committed to sitting the next several years out of coaching, the allure of running teams not far from his hometown like the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals could pique his interest.

Also, if Bill O’Brien were to get canned down in Houston, he’d probably hear from a number of schools very quickly given the work he did early on at Penn State.

5. On (undefeated) Wisconsin!

Told you last week that the Badgers are a good team and they went out and proved it by suffocating Michigan up in Camp Randall to pass their biggest test of the year. The Wolverines’ lackluster offense played right into their hands but this remains one of the most dangerous teams in the second half that has a bona fide Heisman candidate in Jonathan Taylor running the ball.

Wisconsin Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor

Assuming they breeze past Minnesota and head to the Big Ten title game undefeated, the key for Paul Chryst and his staff between now and Indianapolis is figuring out how to get more of those “wow” throws out of quarterback Alex Hornibrook and how they will be in best position to contain some of Ohio State’s skill position talent. Everybody keeps writing this team off but they keep winning no matter what. That’s hard to do even if you have the most talent and should further underscore what a dream season this is in Madison — that isn’t over yet.

6. Big 12 backups come through

The conference of incredible quarterbacks gave way to the league of backup signal-callers on Saturday:

- TCU’s Shawn Robinson started and won, becoming the first true freshman to do so for Gary Patterson ever.

- Texas Tech’s McLane Carter entered in the second half of the same game.

- West Virginia’s Chris Chugunov appears to be the starter the rest of the year after coming on after Will Grier’s finger injury.

- Texas’ Shane Buechele played in a win.

- Iowa State fourth-stringer Zeb Noland started and won for the Cyclones against Baylor

- The Bears started freshman Charlie Brewer.

- Kyler Murray played in the second half for Oklahoma against Kansas.

- Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson started and beat Oklahoma State. His backup Hunter Hall also came on for several snaps when Thompson was injured.

Amazing given some of the starters to see those names wind up playing at this point in the year but pretty solid efforts all-around for the next man up in the Big 12.

7. Baker Mayfield’s antics

It’s rare to get people talking about a football game involving Kansas but this is 2017 so expecting the unexpected is par for the course. We are of course referring to the Jayhawks initial refusal to shake hands with the Oklahoma quarterback, followed by the latter getting caught by cameras doing a little trash talking and making a crotch grab after tossing a touchdown.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

“I am a competitive player, but what I did was unacceptable,” Mayfield (right) said after the game. “I apologize. It’s disrespectful. It’s not the example I want to set. It’s not the legacy I want to leave at OU.”

It’s good that Mayfield apologized, especially given that this is the third incident in the past year that has drawn his name into negative headlines. His actions were childish, caught up in the moment and lacked any sense of the fact it’s not even worth getting into things with players on a team that will finish the year 1-11.

Any notion that this will cost him the Heisman is ludicrous. While it might cost him a few first-place votes to Bryce Love out West, it likely will be forgotten just as soon as he shows up on ESPN during Selection Sunday after leading the Sooners to another Big 12 title and semifinal berth.

That said, what happened on Saturday afternoon wasn’t terribly surprising. Motivation is always a factor in college football and nobody plays the disrespect/chip on the shoulder card more than the former walk-on. That’s especially been the case against some of the bottom teams in the Big 12 given the jawing Mayfield was doing with Baylor players a few months ago. Kansas just poured a little gasoline onto the fire and the end result wasn’t great for anybody in the Sooners’ 41-3 win.

Stat of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

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Best player:Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Bryce Love (Stanford), 3. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Saquon Barkley (Penn State)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Ohio State

Team of the week: Kansas State

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Quote of the week: “You have one win, go cheer on basketball.” — Baker Mayfield to Kansas fans

Play of the Week

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 13.

1. Alabama

2. Oklahoma

3. Miami (FL)

4. Clemson

5. Georgia

6. Wisconsin

7. Auburn

8. UCF

9. TCU

10. Ohio State

11. Notre Dame

12. USC

13. Washington State

14. Memphis

15. Penn State

16. Iowa State

Best of the rest: Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, LSU, Stanford, Boise State, Washington, Virginia Tech, Northwestern

Pre-snap Reads

Alabama at Auburn

The winner of the Iron Bowl has made it to the national title game every year save one since 2009. There’s no reason to think that won’t be the case once again as these top-10 teams meet on the Plains. Folks are starting to worry about the Crimson Tide’s rush defense and passing game but they will have something save up for this one in a 13-point win over the Tigers.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama


For some reason, the Bulls keep receiving votes in the top 25 despite playing thoroughly mediocre against a lackluster schedule. While USF might have the talent to upset their I-5 rivals, they’ve given no indication they will after sleepwalking through the past month of games. The Knights have come down to earth a little but they win comfortably on Black Friday.

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Notre Dame at Stanford

The injury list will be the biggest factor in this game, because if Bryce Love is going to play and somewhat healthy, the Cardinal have a slim chance at home in this rivalry game. If the terrific tailback can’t go, this feels like the type of game that the Irish jump out to a two-score lead in before coasting to another solid win.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Notre Dame

— 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.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)