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Seven-Step Drop: Coaching Carousel May Hinge on Blue-Blood Aspirations as Much as Buyouts

Will Muschamp's dismissal by South Carolina signals that even in a season as unique and unusual as this, teams aren't afraid to make a change at the top

We've been conditioned these last few months to expect a muted coaching carousel in college football. No matter who you wind up talking to, be it school administrators, boosters or agents, all have publicly and privately stated expectations of a quiet front in Buyoutsville amid a global pandemic and the associated financial strain with it.

 

On the surface, that makes plenty of sense. Accounting in college athletics is normally a bit of a shell game but it's safe to assume that nearly every program in the country will be losing money in 2020 given the lack of ticket revenue and decreased conference payouts. Boosters may not be as willing to write big checks given the uncertainty of both the virus and larger political changes in Washington.

 

But when has college football behaved entirely rationally? This is a sport that gives out contract extensions like candy despite no recruit ever citing a coach's four-year deal as a reason for picking the school who has their guy under wraps for five. The largest stadiums — in normal years — bring together 100,000-plus fans for three and a half hours only after they've spent five more imbibing and gorging in the parking lot. There is not one but two major websites devoted to watching incoming recruits' every move.

 

Heck, there is a lucrative cottage industry focused just on helping athletic directors hire coaches without getting caught by people on message boards tracking private planes.

 

Rational and college football are simply not mutually exclusive.

 

So maybe this year's coaching carousel will actually be much more active than at first glance. We've already had one opening at Southern Miss (which is on their second interim head coach!) and another at Utah State, the latter carrying a $2-plus million parachute at a school strapped for cash in a good year. On Sunday we learned South Carolina was axing Will Muschamp in the highest profile opening to date as part of a move that is surprising only in its timing.

 

But what will be the market drivers? The blue bloods of course. More to the point: the blue bloods who decide the status quo simply isn't good enough for what they want to be... and what they once were.

 

Primarily this will coalesce into two unique circumstances at Michigan and USC. Both aspire to be regular College Football Playoff contenders, with New Year's Six bowls seen as a solid fallback option. A simple stroll through Heritage or Schembechler Halls will tell you all about the standard expected by those inside and outside the two storied programs.

 

Yet each is stuck in a malaise that best resembles quicksand and not the hard concrete floor they wish to elevate themselves into the elite of college football alongside the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world.

 

Things are far more pressing in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines sit at 1-3 on the season and leaving many to ponder if they should be favored at all against Rutgers (Rutgers!) next week. It's not just that the team has nothing to play for at the moment (COVID-19 or not), but rather that this is the state of affairs in Year Six of Jim Harbaugh's tenure.

 

The former UM quarterback was hailed as a savior and all-around great hire back in 2015 but the ceiling remains a glass one under his watch. Stripping away the fluff of non-conference filler against MAC teams and the middle class of the Big Ten, Harbaugh has done fine but never great. Nobody has lauded his abilities these past few years the way they did when turning around Stanford a decade ago. He's been given every advantage (he took the team to meet the Pope for goodness sake!) possible but has just a pair of top-10 wins to his name and just a single win at the Big House against his two biggest rivals.

 

The celebration of his hire as a coup, has in short, given way to outright hostility.

 

 

Which brings us to the latest line in the sand moment for the program in the wake of a 49-11 loss to Wisconsin that was far more brutal between the lines and on the stat sheet than even that score would indicate. We're at the point where the question at hand to those with a say in such a decision don't just need to figure out what to do with Harbaugh but also speak to the larger issue at hand over what Michigan is to be in the 2020s. Is it a program that is firmly in that nebulous of good but not great where the floor is high but the ceiling is too low to satisfy the masses? Or is it fine on this current trajectory while deceiving itself into thinking minor tweaks are needed to reach the promised land?

 

We'll find out in six weeks or so. Harbaugh's buyout isn't grand in the scheme of things for a school like Michigan but kicking a noted alum out of a town he's built so many roots into remains to be seen.

 

 

While that will marinate the rest of November, things are a little more muddied out West with another blue blood in USC. Clay Helton has topped every major hot seat ranking for three-plus years running and yet has been given a reprieve at each turn. And thanks to the final four minutes of the Trojans' first two games, he's 2-0 and not 0-2.

 

Yet anybody who tracks the program closely knows this isn't a well-coached outfit despite a wealth of talent on the roster. USC established a standard as the school of Student Body Right yet remains one of the worst in the country in short yardage situations this year. They took a third-and-goal from the one-yard line against Arizona on Saturday and turned it into exactly zero points. Fourth down in the red zone a few minutes later resulted in the same thing.

 

Penalties and special teams play have long been a sore subject in Los Angeles too. Even the desert mecca four hours up the road has made a killing on this phenomenon, as the Trojans hover in the bottom third since 2015 against the spread and not too far off the likes of Kansas and, well, UCLA. Helton has delivered a conference title and Rose Bowl trophy but upon closer examination is just the type of questionable hire most expected when his interim tag was unnecessarily stripped off.

 

Unlike Michigan at least, there is no sentimental attachment to their head coach. This is about dollars and cents (likely starting tag $20 million and up) far more than it is about keeping a head coach who is among the nicest in the game yet has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt is not capable of elevating the program past its current standing. Helton isn't even in Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal's orbit at the moment, much less the Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney territory those in cardinal and gold view USC in after years of flashbacks to John McKay and Pete Carroll.

 

So regardless whether the 2020 edition of the Trojans go 7-0 or 6-1 or 5-2, the standard isn't being met on the field. The same can be said in Ann Arbor.

 

The two blue bloods are not alone. Fresh off fourth-quarter losses to Liberty and Miami, Virginia Tech is asking themselves just what they want to be. The Gamecocks are in the couch cushions already as part of their search to replace Muschamp in Columbia. The predicament is repeated elsewhere over and over.

 

So yes, all factors point toward a down cycle this offseason before activity picks back up on the coaching carousel. That all could change however, depending on just how some big-name programs view their current state of affairs and how that matches up with what they want to be.

 

South Carolina has said enough is enough, who will be next?

 

Here are six other thoughts from the weekend in college football:

 

2. Boom out, Group of 5 replacement in?

The departure of Will Muschamp on Sunday put to rest one of the hottest seats in the country and allowed for another sort of kickoff to what will be some intense speculation about a job that has aspirations of competing in the SEC (despite a rather limited history of doing so).

 

Still, a well-resourced school in prime recruiting territory will still be viewed as a prime opportunity for some (especially at the Group of 5 level) and an even bigger spot for agents to leverage in this kind of market. Muschamp's buyout figure of $13 million gets tossed around quite a bit but the total number is a tad higher when factoring in assistant deals. Luckily for the Gamecocks though, it is subject to both mitigation and paid out in installments. As such, even for a school facing $40-plus million in revenue losses, things aren't as bad on the balance sheet as that big bad number suggests — especially given lucrative new SEC TV deals kicking in down the road.

 

Facilities are in place already, the game-day atmosphere is good and the fan base is a quality one. Athletic director Ray Tanner, who presumably will be sticking around to make this hire (though not guaranteed), is a former coach himself at the school and that can make a difference to some in having a kindred spirit to work with in the big chair. A new president is in place too.

 

That said, for such positives, there are some negatives. Naturally the in-state pressure of Clemson being an elite national title contender (and on the schedule every year) is not ideal, nor is being in a division with Georgia and a rising Florida. Muschamp was able to find some success in Columbia but sustaining has proved difficult for pretty much everybody in the program's history and that will weigh on potential hot names giving it a look.

 

Who will get involved over the coming weeks? The top names mentioned are all likely to actually have some ties to the rival Tigers. Louisiana coach Billy Napier is going to get one of the first calls based on the work he's done in Lafayette with a top-25 team and the fact that he's gotten experience under both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban. He passed on programs like Mississippi State before but could being in the easier of the two divisions with better access to the Atlanta metro area plus Charlotte make Columbia a realistic destination? It's possible.

 

Up the road, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott (who coached at other in-state schools like Furman too) will be brought up, as will DC Brent Venables. Both are among the highest-paid assistants in the game and have been picky about their next moves. Each also has enough ties that could keep them in orange and purple for a few more years too knowing they've got a cushy gig with a title contender (Elliott may even get some NFL looks).

 

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze's name will come up the most on message boards and talk radio but realistically his candidacy is a stretch unless boosters get too involved. The SEC office in Birmingham is not warm to the idea of the former Ole Miss coach returning to the league even if he has a resume that would fit well at SC. Fellow Group of 5 names in the Top 25 like Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell will be solid fall-back options while Army's Jeff Monken is a bit of a dark horse to land in Columbia given his connections to president Robert Caslen.

 

Outside of Venables though, there will be a clear offensive focus with this hire given that was Muschamp's glaring weakness. Assistants like Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian will try to get involved and a few more NFL vets could surface too. While Carolina Panthers OC Joe Brady will be checked on, he may get a pro gig first. Baltimore Ravens OC Greg Roman is a name to keep an eye on though.

 

3. In-person CFP Committee makes no sense

Part of the College Football Playoff discussion last week was focused on the merits of whether it would be smart to bubble the four teams involved in this year's national title chase. On Saturday that was made moot by news out of Irving, Texas, that the CFP Selection Committee wouldn't even bubble itself up — skipping Zoom and actually meet in person later this month to go over their rankings.

 

To state the obvious, this is a truly meaningless exercise that is simply red meat for ESPN programmers. Not even the most die-hard observers of the postseason system can understand such reasoning as a global pandemic reaches unfortunate heights in terms of daily case numbers, hospitalizations, and other concerning benchmarks. States are re-implementing travel restrictions with a vengeance and many localities are implementing additional restrictions in order to put a clamp on a virus that is spreading almost unchecked.

 

Yet we're supposed to believe the members of the selection committee need to travel amid all that just to spend two or three hours in a small indoor room discussing whether BYU or Cincinnati needs to be ranked higher? To say such a move would be tone-deaf would be an understatement as it's borderline reckless given the ages of some of those involved (six of whom are in the high-risk group of over 60 years old). Take all the precautions you want but it makes no sense in any world.

 

Perhaps the CFP will come to their senses and go virtual. It's not too late. To do otherwise flies in the face of not just current wisdom, but makes one question a lot more about the same people pulling off college football's marquee event in a few months too.

 

4. Tulsa, San Jose State (and... Colorado?) stories keep getting better

Tulsa stormed back from down 21-0 to SMU to remain unbeaten in AAC play and notch a second top-25 win (they would be ranked themselves on Sunday for the first time in a decade). While the resurgence of Philip Montgomery's offense with QB Zach Smith is notable, it's LB Zaven Collins who has really blossomed and should be in the running for All-American status.

 

It's quite clear in retrospect that nearly upsetting Oklahoma State at the beginning of the year was no fluke and that Tulsa doubles as one of Cincinnati's biggest threats to running the table in league play.

 

Equally impressive was San Jose State continuing their winning ways against UNLV, moving to 4-0 for the first time since 1955 (!!!). Wideout Bailey Gaither has gone from unheralded to one of the best in the Mountain West the last few weeks, notching two TDs among his six catches and 94 yards against the Rebels.

 

Perhaps a better indicator of just how far the program has come is their resolve when things got tight. While they led against UNLV all night, things got a little tighter after a Rebels touchdown in the third quarter made it a one-score game. Yet the Spartans didn't blink, pitching a fourth-quarter shutout after that and notching the final 10 points of the game to put it away convincingly.

 

Now that trip to Fresno State (off a big win over Utah State) looms as a massive one in the Mountain West standings that continue to bunch in the middle.

 

Oh and then there's Colorado, which has convincingly been the better team in both of the Buffaloes' first two contests this year. Karl Dorrell's hire was widely mocked (including by yours truly) but there's no denying he's the front-runner for Pac-12 Coach of the Year right now. After all, he has more wins than Michigan and Penn State combined.

 

And, heck, who knows, he might even have the best team in the Pac-12 South right now.

 

Certainly some 2007-ish vibes here in the strange, strange world of 2020

 

5. Lane Kiffin still making Oxford fun again

Ole Miss may just be a middling program in the SEC West standings at the moment but it's not hard to deny that the hire of Lane Kiffin has at least made the team interesting week in and week out. That's what he was brought to Oxford for and has so far delivered on in 2020.

 

Case in point came in a 59-42 shootout against South Carolina on Saturday night.

 

 

 

 

Why is Lane a cult figure among many in college football regardless of his affiliation? Look no further than the above few clips.

 

6. Joe Moorhead's impact makes Ducks heavy Pac-12 favorites after two weeks

The general nature of this restricted 2020 season combined with the late start to the Pac-12 slate have resulted in a bit of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of feeling to the hire of Joe Moorhead as Oregon's offensive coordinator. In previous, normal years, there would be a host of features on the East Coaster going to the Deep South to the deeply unique Western outpost in Eugene. But, alas, that was not what transpired.

 

Which is a shame because it's a series of moves that deserve plenty of attention now and in the future because of how the former head coach/OC has supercharged the Ducks attack into something far more potent than even the most fervent green/lightning yellow supporter could have imagined.

 

Oregon this year is dynamic, even with a new signal-caller under center. The playmakers that are lacking in places like State College are found aplenty in Autzen and elsewhere as Mario Cristobal's crew have seized Pac-12 front-runner status in a big way after just two games.

 

That is mostly the result of the Ducks answering the top "what about" question for the program in the absence of Justin Herbert, who has torn things up in the NFL as a top-six pick of the Los Angeles Chargers. HIs stellar debut as an NFL rookie led to parallel thoughts of both A) Oregon is going to miss that kind of QB and B) his skills were somewhat wasted based on the sample size we have in the pros.

 

Moorhead though, has been a great equalizer — inspiring some "what ifs" about if his system had been in place for Herbert but also assuaging fears of a massive drop-off as replacement Tyler Shough has flashed plenty in the fleeting glimpses we've gotten so far. Put on tape of last year's Oregon squad and this one and it's clear the 2020 edition has more nuance, tempo and up-field attacking mentality. Through eight quarters Shough has as many designed runs or RPOs as his predecessor did in seemingly four years as a starter.

 

There's still plenty to unpack in the aftermath of the Ducks' first win in Pullman since 2014 on Saturday night but it's hard to fathom the reigning Pac-12 champs not being the favorites to repeat again. Much of that falls squarely on the shoulders of Moorhead and his system breathing life into a program that hasn't quite seen such creativity since the days where Chip Kelly was far more guru than goat.

 

The Cougars that Oregon defeated can say some of the same things too. Head coach Nick Rolovich has clearly imported a unique brand of fun the Palouse that, even in losses, feels far more encouraging long-term for Wazzu fans than his predecessor. Much of that sentiment comes down to just how fun it is to watch QB Jayden de Laura, the latest in the line of St. Louis (Hawaii) signal-callers who have a nearly unmatched flair with the ball in their hands.

 

In many ways he's got a bit of all of his Hawaiian brethren's traits, from Mililani rival Dillon Gabriel's playmaking to Tua Tagovaila's release to Marcus Mariota's elusiveness, de Laura is a new must-see attraction to the Pacific Northwest this year regardless of how this season turns out for the Cougs.

 

Add in the fact that he also has two younger brothers named Jayson and Jayxen and there's hardly a more perfect CFB player built for a typical Pac-12 After Dark outing.

 

7. Where to go from here after week of cancellation bingo?

It would be a surprise at this point if we don't cross the 70-game (and likely 75-game) mark in terms of postponements and cancellations in college football for the 2020 season. Somehow we do still have another month to go in the sport but it sure seems to be coalescing into a game of schedule Jenga the rest of the way for administrators and coaches alike.

 

Yet for as much talk as there has been about the potential for pushing the College Football Playoff back, why isn't there the same concept being thrown out for the other bowl games themselves? Start the non-New Year's Six bowls in January and let them play out from there. Sure it might be strange to crown a national champion and still play the Independence Bowl on the Wednesday after but... it is 2020 so doesn't anything go now?

 

The conferences would thus be able to play on dates in December so they can get their media rights checks and then everybody gets mid-week college football in January that is capped off by the NFL playoffs on the weekends.

 

All of which can lead into the second national signing day and the spring FCS slate. If we're going to lean into playing football during a pandemic, might as well really jump in with both feet. Players get their games, TV networks get their product and fans get something to pass the time until a vaccine.

 

So yeah, go ahead and keep the semifinals and title game in place if you want but the rest of the enterprise might as well get creative. If we can schedule a game within 43 hours' notice for a Sunday, 9 a.m. local start time (Cal-UCLA), anything is possible.

 

Tweet(s) of the Week

 

 

 

Play of the Week

 

The first pick-six on a kick return?

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

 

Best player: Sam Howell

Team of the Week: Tulsa

Goat of the Week: Take your pick between Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin

Heisman Five: 1. Zach Wilson (BYU), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Kyle Trask (Florida), 4. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 5. Mac Jones (Alabama)

Projected Playoff: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Notre Dame

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Clemson, Sugar Bowl — Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Fiesta Bowl — Texas A&M vs. USC, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Florida, Cotton Bowl — BYU vs. Oklahoma State, Peach Bowl — Cincinnati vs. Indiana

 

The 25

 

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:

 

1. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Notre Dame

4. Clemson

5. Cincinnati

6. BYU

7. Texas A&M

8. Florida

9. Wisconsin

10. Indiana

11. Oregon

12. Miami

13. Northwestern

14. Oklahoma State

15. Coastal Carolina

16. Marshall

17. Tulsa

18. Iowa State

19. Oklahoma

20. USC

21. Liberty

22. Texas

23. Georgia

24. San Jose State

25. Auburn

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Indiana at Ohio State

When was the last time any neutral fans were excited for an Indiana football game? When was the last time anybody in either the Buckeyes or Hoosiers fan bases were excited to watch four full quarters of their teams playing each other? If you can remember such a moment, you're either an octogenarian or lying. OSU wins one of their few big games left on the schedule by a comfortable margin but IU trades scores with them for at least three quarters and stays pesky. The Pick: Ohio State -20

 

Wisconsin at Northwestern

Everybody had this pegged as the game that would decide the Big Ten West, right? Maybe not but it does pit two teams we're reading a lot into despite a limited sample size. Northwestern's defense will pose some problems to a Wisconsin side that has been overwhelming with Graham Mertz running the show. The guess is the Wildcats do make the Badgers a little one-dimensional to keep things close but ultimately a late turnover does them in. The Pick: Wisconsin -7

 

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma

These two have put up points in absolute bunches in past meetings of Bedlam but this year's edition figures to be much lower scoring. Part of that is the Cowboys defense looking like the best in the Big 12 by a country mile and it's also part of the Sooner's propensity for turning the ball over. That combination alone keeps things within one score until the home side pulls a Lucy against their in-state Charlie Brown for a win. The Pick: Oklahoma -9.5

 

— 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.

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