Seven-Step Drop: College Football Coaches Didn't Get Any (Pandemic) Benefit of the Doubt in 2020

Even COVID-19 hasn't stopped the coaching carousel from spinning

It has been repeated enough in college football circles either the past few months that due to the massive financial losses suffered by schools and the resulting bad optics, that it was simply accepted as fact that we would have a slower than normal coaching carousel.

 

Fewer firings. Fewer buyouts. Fewer moves as programs bided their time and stayed home from the market.

 

What has transpired, following a fascinating Week 15 of this slog to the finish line in 2020, is actually not that at all. Schools perceived to not have the funds have been ponying up. Those 10-figure buyouts have in fact gotten paid out. Even at the Group of 5 level, the carousel has spun fairly close to normal. We're sitting at eight changes at least and potentially half a dozen more to come in the next 10 days.

 

It's all a good reminder that no matter what teams and programs have gone through in these COVID-19-influenced times, you still are what your record is at the end of the day. The wins, no matter how you came about them, still count. Those losses, more importantly, count double.

 

Down to your third-string QB? Missed half your linebacking corps for a three-game stretch? Contract tracing? Positive tests? That won't be reflected in the record column on the Wikipedia page or those angry message board posts from the deranged faithful.

 

Some will understand but the fact is, most won't. College football coaches thought they were going to receive a "get out of jail free" card for however this 2020 season unfurled. Reality, however, has played out quite differently as pretty much no one has gotten any sort of a benefit of the doubt.

 

Again, those losses count double among the fan base and the administration — with no external factors to what goes on between the lines seem to really affect that as we slowly transition from regular season to postseason.

 

This weekend offered a number of insights into this phenomenon.

 

Arizona pulled the plug on Kevin Sumlin's tenure after just three years. He was 9-20 overall and riding an 11-game losing streak even before the Wildcats looked lifeless and limp in a 70-7 beatdown at the hands of rival Arizona State on Friday. Pandemic or not, nothing was going to change the direction of the program nor any excuse that could be made for the results in Tucson on the field.

 

All that will largely be left of Sumlin's time in the desert is just that final number next to his name. Injuries and a long list of transfers and opt-outs won't be remembered regarding this year's squad as much, well, as the dreadful product they put on the field.

 

The excuses, some of which are perfectly valid for a number of coaches, simply won't be heard by the masses at home or in the suite boxes.

 

 

Ask Will Muschamp, who was the first high-profile coach jettisoned at South Carolina. That likely will wind up with a $25-plus million price tag when assistants and a new set of staff salaries under Shane Beamer are factored in. Muschamp was trending in the wrong direction even before 2020 came around, this was just the extra shove off a cliff the Gamecocks needed no matter who was in or out of the lineup on a weekly basis.

 

At Vanderbilt, the team was so thin due to the coronavirus and injuries that they had to turn to a goalkeeper on the women's soccer team. That birthed one of the great feel-good stories of the year in Sarah Fuller becoming the first woman to play and score in a major college football game. It meant exactly zero for head coach Derek Mason, who was dismissed the day after Fuller's debut as the team sunk to 0-8 and a level of bad that was unwelcome even at a place where success has been fleeting historically.

 

 

Auburn has oscillated between loving Gus Malzahn and putting him in the middle of the fire the moment he loses a game. Despite owning more head-to-head wins over Nick Saban than anybody, Malzahn was ushered out the door just two seasons into a seven-year, $49 million extension. The lack of development for Bo Nix was apparently just as frustrating as going 6-4 and losing to three top-10 teams.

 

Illinois has far different expectations than their peers in the Big Ten yet terminated, as the school’s release coldly remarked, Lovie Smith on Sunday. The former NFL coach was an outsider from the beginning and known far more for his beard than his team’s play on the field. That did start to change last season in upsetting Wisconsin and staging a remarkable comeback against Michigan State to help make a bowl for the first time in half a decade. 

 

Yet 2-5 was 2-5, a mark good enough to wipe out any amount of progress in Champaign.

 

Southern Miss played in a bowl game in January — as in 11 months ago — yet came open after just one game. ULM and South Alabama also hit the reset buttons among others and it won't be long before the already large number of openings this cycle comes close to doubling.

 

Even those returning for 2021 won't be getting a pass for what transpired on the field this year. Texas' athletic director issued a statement on Saturday confirming Tom Herman would be coaching the team going forward while leaving unsaid that his seat was as warm as they come and he was only in it because Urban Meyer said no. In Lubbock, Matt Wells' 4-6 mark gave way to stories of boosters hiring law firms to conduct reports on Art Briles in hopes of making a change.

 

Few pushed for a return to the field more than Scott Frost. While his gig is safe, the questions about his tenure beyond 2021 (not to mention his own capacity as a head coach) grow louder with each passing loss. It was particularly galling for Nebraska amid a loss to a Minnesota team this week that was down 33 players and hadn't played in 22 days. No matter it seemed as the Cornhuskers backed into their 12th loss in a one-score game since Frost took over in 2018, the second-most among Power 5 schools.

 

Over in Knoxville, Jeremy Pruitt went from turning the corner and riding a long winning streak to Tennessee fans pondering making a move for Hugh Freeze before others could do the same. Justin Fuente may have bought himself some extra time by thumping rival Virginia but things still seem touch and go in Blacksburg as the Hokies have slipped to 5-6 on the year.

 

Though an unlikely upset over Florida thanks to a shoe on a foggy night in the Swamp may have shifted the narrative some, even Ed Orgeron has not been, well, immune to this line of thinking.

 

Coming off one of the most magical runs to a national title ever, the Tigers dealt with outbreaks, injuries, opt-outs and, of course, losses. Orgeron is perfectly safe for next season but the fact is, those questions about his long-term trajectory in Baton Rouge were already being asked — and will continue to be at 4-5. More than one talking head may well mention Gene Chizik in the same breath if the team spoils their win in Gainesville with another loss (or two) over the next few weeks.

 

Such is just life in a profession where you really are what your record says you are in a press release at the beginning of your tenure and at the end. Not even a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic is going to change any of that in college football.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play(s) of the Week

 

 

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

#MACtion gets it done on the ground too: Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson tied an FBS record by hitting 1,000 rushing yards in just his fifth game of the season.

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Team of the Week: LSU

Goat of the Week: Manny Diaz, Miami

Heisman Five: 1. DeVonta Smith (Alabama), 2. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 3. Zach Wilson (BYU), 4. Mac Jones (Alabama), 5. Zaven Collins (Tulsa)

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

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

 

The 25

 

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

 

1. Alabama

2. Notre Dame

3. Clemson

4. Ohio State

5. Cincinnati

6. Texas A&M

7. Coastal Carolina

8. Iowa State

9. Georgia

10. Indiana

11. BYU

12. Florida

13. Oklahoma

14. Louisiana

15. Northwestern

16. USC

17. Tulsa

18. Iowa

19. North Carolina

20. San Jose State

21. Boise State

22. Buffalo

23. Miami

24. Texas

25. Army

 

Championship Week Pre-Snap Reads

 

AAC Championship Game: Tulsa at Cincinnati

The Bearcats may well have a College Football Playoff bid on the line depending on what happens elsewhere around the country. They're coming off a COVID-19 outbreak so you don't quite know what the roster situation is but they'll be salty on defense no matter who's on the field. UC gets the win but the Golden Hurricane play this one close into the fourth quarter as they have in pretty much every game this year. The Pick: Tulsa +16

 

ACC Championship Game: Clemson vs. Notre Dame (Charlotte, N.C)

How much is Trevor Lawrence really worth to the Tigers? We'll find out in Charlotte on Saturday in what might be the most interesting rematch in ACC history. The Irish are, of course, going for rare history in securing a conference title but Clemson is the double-digit favorites in this one for a reason. Brent Venables' defense plays much better than they did in South Bend as the kings of the league roll to a two-TD win. The Pick: Clemson -11

 

Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma vs. Iowa State (Arlington, Texas)

It's been a Cinderella run for the Cyclones this year but they're facing a Sooners squad that is in much better shape compared to the first meeting. The QB position gets the attention for Lincoln Riley but OU's run game and defensive front in particular have benefitted from better play and some new faces. That can make a difference in keeping things close but ISU ekes a miraculous win out on a late field goal. The Pick: Iowa State +6

 

Big Ten Championship Game: Northwestern vs. Ohio State (Indianapolis)

Ryan Day and his team know well just how thin a margin there is in the race for the final four — the entire reason the Buckeyes pushed so hard to get the season going again. The Wildcats will still show up with that stout defense of theirs but eventually the dam will break and they just don’t have enough weapons to keep pace. OSU rolls to move on to the Sugar Bowl. The Pick: Ohio State -20

 

Conference USA Championship Game: UAB at Marshall

The Blazers' remarkable run to another division title since the program was revived remains an underrated storyline but this isn't quite the same team we're used to seeing. Yes, they're still good on defense but they've been locked into a number of close calls in 2020. The Thundering Herd finish what they started. The Pick: Marshall -7

 

MAC Championship Game: Ball State vs. Buffalo (Detroit, Fri.)

The Jaret Patterson story — and that of the Bulls' offensive line — has been the headlined of the MAC this shortened season. This is a good team ready to tick off the final step of the rebuild under Lance Leipold in Detroit but this being #MACtion, expect some zaniness at Ford Field. Ball State doesn't nab the title, but they do cover late. The Pick: Ball State +14

 

Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game: Boise State vs. San Jose State (Las Vegas)

All things considered, the Broncos are the veteran squad in this situation and have more overall talent. But this isn't a normal season by any stretch and they've played tight in some spots like this before. It will have a bit of a bowl game feel taking place in Las Vegas but the incredible turnaround for the Spartans falls a point short in a MWC classic. The Pick: San Jose State +8

 

Pac-12 Championship Game: Washington at USC (Los Angeles, Fri.)

It says a lot about the state of affairs in the Pac-12 that we don't even know if this will wind up being the actual matchup at the Coliseum given the issues the Huskies have been dealing with. Should they wind up playing, Jimmy Lake's defense will turn a few heads across the country with their play as they harass Kedon Slovis and company for four quarters. However, it's perfectly 2020 for Clay Helton to pull another one out in the final minute to go undefeated after his entire fan base wanted him gone. The Pick: Washington +8

 

SEC Championship Game: Alabama vs. Florida (Atlanta)

You get the feeling that despite the Gators falling flat on their face against LSU, they can keep things interesting given the offensive firepower they have. Even if Kyle Pitts returns, I'm not so sure he'll be enough in the end as the UF defense just isn't made to get enough stops as the Crimson Tide convincingly win yet another title in Atlanta and secure that No. 1 seed in the playoff. The Pick: Alabama -16

 

Sun Belt Championship Game: Louisiana at Coastal Carolina

Each of these two head coaches is hearing their names come up for bigger jobs and while they may be able to focus on the task at hand, that's no sure thing their teams will be. The first edition was a close affair and that's just the kind of game Louisiana has had success in winning. That isn't the case in this one as the teal turfers cap off their undefeated run. The Pick: Coastal -4

 

— 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 goccusports.com)

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