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Seven-Step Drop: 2021 College Football Coaching Carousel as Intriguing as Ever

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State Bulldogs, and Ed Orgeron, LSU Tigers in 2017

The lack of sustained success for high-profile head coaches like Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron has initiated another offseason of dominoes falling across the FBS

Even prior to officially taking over, new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has earned plaudits for his ability to speak plainly without the usual platitudes surrounding college athletics and his pointed honesty that the league has to re-double its efforts in key revenue sports like football. It’s been a refreshing contrast to his predecessor for many of the conference’s fans and a notable disparity to some of his peers that enjoy the sound of their own voice while giving nothing away in soundbites short and long.

After spending the past several months getting the lay of the land out West however, Kliavkoff now finds himself and his new league at a critical inflection point. Following Utah’s win over previous No. 3 Oregon on Saturday night, the College Football Playoff will almost assuredly be without a Pac-12 program for the sixth time in eight cycles — including five consecutive seasons.

Related: Updated College Football Bowl Projections for 2021-22

Upon the conclusion of this campaign in January, the Pac-12 will own just one CFP win among the 24 total semifinal/championship games. Worse, the league has only been involved in three such opportunities on the national stage: a .125 batting average that doesn’t even broach the Mendoza line. Nick Saban has as many title rings in the playoff era as the league does appearances and we’re soon about to hit Year No. 18 without a national championship residing within the footprint. Worse, one would have to stretch back to 1972 if you don’t include titles that were either vacated or split — a remarkable five decades without the Pac-8/10/12 producing a team universally recognized as the undisputed national champion of college football.

There are a multitude of reasons for this malaise. Non-conference slates are rarely three cupcakes in the Pac-12 and long, difficult road trips to a variety of locales in a full nine-game conference schedule are as tricky as they come. As the Utes have underscored when it comes to playoff hopefuls, the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions has often been the Conference of Cannibals in knocking each other out when least expected.

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Media exposure has trailed peers for ages. Investment in the 12 football programs has generally been behind others on the balance sheet but the gap has only widened as conference distributions start to get lapped by those in the SEC and Big Ten. Talent that was once kept at home has started to flock elsewhere, something glaringly obvious as Southern California natives C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young and Matt Corral were trumpeted as the top Heisman contenders all weekend for schools more than 1,500 miles away from home.

Kliavkoff has been up and down the coast much of the past five months garnering feedback from a variety of stakeholders to form a clearer long-term vision for the conference while dealing with pressing needs like CFP expansion. While the commissioner has the leeway to address such strategic matters, he also is counting on some help from his athletic directors and school presidents. Their task is simple and direct: hire better coaches and do it now.

Playoff expansion is still two seasons away at a minimum and the product on the field has to improve or else that five-year streak will stretch on doing further harm to the Pac-12’s reputation. Media rights negotiations are just around the corner and Kliavkoff would rather be holding a few aces with big national draws rather than hoping someone wants to pay a premium for a smattering of football games on after dark.

The through-line is obvious: better coaches will bring in better talent, leading to better games and eventually a better media deal. That will bring in more money that can be reinvested into the football product and help the cycle continue expanding beyond the normal cost of doing business. Such rising tides will lift all the boats along the Pacific too. The SEC has a cutthroat understanding of this and administrators across the Pac-12 have to realize the same or else their new leader will find a landing spot elsewhere with far less stress on the weekends.

In so many ways this is one of the most intriguing coaching carousels nationally in recent memory given the jobs already on the market or those that soon will be. The significance it carries in the Pac-12 however, cannot be overstated. It is not hyperbole to think it’s actually the most important cycle in conference history given the milestones ahead and the deafening narrative that surfaces about this time on the calendar with regularity.

Three of the eight Power 5 openings so far this coaching carousel are out West — including a big-ticket item in historical conference standard-barer USC and the program to most recently grace the playoff with its presence in Washington. As much as the Trojans badly need athletic director Mike Bohn to land a big fish and restore the luster to Heritage Hall, Kliavkoff needs SC to be the SC of old almost as bad. The Huskies might have a greater upside than anybody in the North division (including their rivals in Eugene) but have squandered the bulk of their opportunities since Don James left Montlake.

At Washington State, the Cougars need somebody who can bring the focus back to wins on the field as opposed to everything under the sun off it. Critical thinking has to occur at underachievers like Arizona State and UCLA sooner rather than later. Changes have to be afoot on the Farm at some level and the Utes and Ducks will have to hope their own head coaches are not tempted by the promise of an even brighter tomorrow elsewhere.

Can one trust that the league can pull this all off and embark on a badly needed reformation to achieve even greater success down the road? The track record says it’s unlikely. Recent changes at Arizona and Colorado resulted in some of the most underwhelming hires of the past several years. It’s just one metric but recently fired TCU head coach Gary Patterson alone has more AP National Coach of the Year awards on his Fort Worth mantle than the entire Pac-12 combined does since the BCS started (the answer, by the way, is two each).

The future of the Pac-12 in 2031 resting on decisions made in 2021 is simply the situation Kliavkoff and others find themselves mired in right now. Now it’s up to them to make these next few weeks count and help turn the tide or risk falling further and further behind.

So hey, no pressure.

Six other key questions on the coaching carousel:

2. Are early hires a new trend or a blip?
It used to be that the bulk of the properly constructed coaching carousel would boil down largely to a 10-14-day period in early December, with most of the actual legwork and interviews being conducted in and around the annual awards circuit and National Football Foundation dinner in New York. It was a simpler time to be sure.

Now? Now the market has thrown not just one curveball at ADs but multiple. There’s the early signing period that has applied far more pressure than anybody could have imagined on the very coaches it was installed to protect. There’s the transfer portal and the addition of the one-time transfer waiver causing stress internally. There are ticket sales, TV ratings and boosters suddenly a bit more flush with cash than most expected at the onset of a global pandemic too.

The end result is a carousel that has produced some unique results before it’s truly even kicked into high gear. Clay Helton was dispatched after just two games on Sept. 13. Georgia Southern fired Chad Lunsford four games in on Sept. 26. The Eagles turned around and officially named Helton their new head coach a little over a month later on Nov. 2.

UConn pulled off the same trick, canning Randy Edsall after an 0-2 start and shocking everybody by nabbing Jim Mora Jr. to fill his spot. The new guy is not actually occupying the role of head coach for the 2021 team just yet but is officially on the Huskies staff so he can be around players to evaluate them during practice and go on the road as what amounts to a full-time recruiter.

Texas Tech let go of Matt Wells before he could get the team bowl eligible for the first time in years and managed to hire Joey McGuire from a conference rival’s staff they still have to play.

There has often been a thought that ADs can simply make it up as they go along in various gigs. Now they’re living up to that motto and then some. It’s going to take some time to really see macro trends emerge but many believe this accelerated cycle — while not for everyone — is here to stay in some form.

3. How do coaches, agents and ADs react to conference realignment?
It feels like 15 years ago, but it was actually just early August when shockwaves were sent throughout the country upon the report in the Houston Chronicle detailing that Texas and Oklahoma would eventually decamp for the SEC. In addition to catching nearly everyone off guard and derailing CFP expansion for the most part, the twin moves also brought about another massive wave of conference realignment. While those such as the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 were left untouched, the bulk of FBS saw their conference affiliation tweaked and nearly 13 percent of teams eventually make a permanent change in the near future. Heck, even the FBS ranks were altered as a result of all this and will soon swell from 130 to 133 and counting in the coming years.

The result of all these moves will alter the trajectory of several programs and make some gigs more attractive and others less so. If Rice decides to make a move on Mike Bloomgren or North Texas with Seth Littrell for example, does that make the Owls or Mean Green more interesting for coaches with the transition to the AAC or less as a result of the step up in competition? TCU has a lot going for it in terms of facilities, recruiting base, et. al. but is this a better job or worse off in the reconstructed Big 12? Losing Texas/Oklahoma makes the league more winnable for a team like the Horned Frogs but they’re also looking at a likely decrease in media rights fees and more down the road. New Mexico State is one of the real winners on the market, as Doug Martin’s successor can look forward to more consistency on the schedule and more on-field peers with the journey to Conference USA instead of the nomad independent life.

Repeat the process for just about every opening or soon-to-come-opening. The changing landscape for many programs is going to result in some surprising candidates involved in some searches and a few others that get a less desirable set of names attached to them.

4. Where does Florida go after Dan Mullen and can Manny Diaz keep his job?
Imagine telling somebody back when Florida State lost to Jacksonville State on a terribly defended Hail Mary that Mike Norvell would probably be the second safest coach in the Sunshine state after UCF’s Gus Malzahn. Wild times, yet here we are.

Obviously Florida did not wait around to make a decision after playing the Seminoles post-Thanksgiving by parting ways with Mullen on Sunday. It remains remarkable that a coach which had taken the program to three New Year’s Six bowls and had pushed Alabama to the brink in back-to-back years was so swiftly shown the door. More than that, it’s the speed at which the situation in an obvious rebuilding campaign deteriorated to the point where the school would make a move. A disappointing and penalty-filled loss to Kentucky started the background chatter that then snowballed into losing four of their next five SEC games and Mullen’s seat growing from warm to on fire.

Something to note is that while UF boosters are much more in the background compared to others (especially in the SEC), those actually making the hire are dealing with plenty of outside issues beyond this more public-facing search. The school president is embroiled in a political/academic scandal and AD Scott Stricklin continues to deal with an investigation into the women’s basketball program.

That said, this may be a welcome distraction from such negative headlines as attention turns to the next guy (who can benefit from a new football facility). You’ll hear the usual big names already attached to USC/LSU but this just might be the one that could be a match for somebody like Louisiana’s Billy Napier or Kentucky’s Mark Stoops.

Down south, the situation remains unresolved with Diaz. The school has already dismissed AD Blake James in a move that had been in the works for a while before the announcement but it remains to be seen if the search for his replacement can move quick enough to make a decision on Diaz at the end of the season. There has been increased chatter about additional investment around the program and lots of alumni making their thoughts public about the near and long-term future, but it wouldn’t be shocking if Diaz gets one more shot in 2022 with a talented young core of playmakers on the roster already.

Still, that hasn’t stopped people from already connecting Lane Kiffin to a return to South Florida with the Hurricanes so who knows how many twists and turns are left down in Coral Gables.

5. Does anybody else get the Harbaugh/Frost treatment? What retirements are on deck?
The Big Ten seems to have recently pioneered the usage of keeping a guy on the hot seat around and instead giving them an incentive-laden one-year prove-it deal. Obviously in the case of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan last year and Scott Frost at Nebraska this year, there’s the native son component that had to be factored in, but this might be something to catch on for others.

Stanford, for example, is not going to get rid of David Shaw even after the program has slipped considerably in recent years. But changes are likely to be made on staff going forward. Is there anybody else that might pull a similar move as a fan base grows restless for a change?

Also keep in mind that the past two seasons have been among the hardest some of the coaches have dealt with in their careers between things like Zoom recruiting and testing in the middle of a pandemic. David Cutcliffe is the most obvious retirement candidate given his age and the team’s performance. The Duke administration, having already started the transition on the basketball side and featuring a new AD running the show, would love for the coach to make things easy after their final game and not force a decision to be made on their part. It also is worth watching the situation at Navy with Ken Niumatalolo regardless if BYU coming open presents an avenue for an exit. And who knows what will even become of pretty much everybody at Arizona State.

6. Will this be the year former Baylor assistants get a bigger gig? Who else is in line for a big chair from the assistant ranks?
With pretty much any opening tangentially connected to the state of Texas, one name has popped up among certain sections of any fan base in clamoring for disgraced ex-Baylor head coach Art Briles. While it remains a good bet that Briles himself will never coach again at the college level given everything that happened in Waco under his watch, that may not be the case with others from the program. Son Kendal Briles has played a big role in turnarounds at Arkansas and Florida Atlantic and could be a fit at certain Group of 5 gigs away from the spotlight (Tulsa, which already runs a version of his offensive system, comes to mind). Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby has been vetted a few times already in searches and came extremely close to getting a head coaching position in last year’s cycle. He does not have the added weight of the last name and could be in play in Oxford if Kiffin lands elsewhere.

One thing is sure, the ADs hiring anybody connected with that time period at Baylor will have to have sign-off from their president and a hefty amount of background material ready to cite when asked by the media about the process.

Aside from those two however, it could be a decent year for up-and-coming Power 5 coordinators looking to fill a big chair given the dearth of candidates at the top and the sheer amount of openings set to be looking. Those coordinators also have the benefit of deep pockets for their current OC/DC gigs, which means they can be choosy as well. Georgia’s Dan Lanning could be in play at a number of spots and Texas A&M’s Mike Elko increasingly looks ready to jump too. Alabama OC Bill O’Brien has successfully gone through rehab and if he doesn’t try another run at the NFL, could get any number of spots based on his work developing talent, calling plays, being a head coach before and successfully completing the Nick Saban Fired Coach Rehab program.

Toss in a growing number of schools looking for nine-figure coordinators of their own and active is a good way to describe things right now.

7. Just how many dominoes will USC, LSU, Florida and the NFL set off?
As of Sunday night, 14 jobs have come open in the FBS ranks and three have already been filled. What is the ultimate ceiling on the former number? Industry sources have suggested close to double that given the three marquee opportunities set to create even greater churn. Sonny Dykes does have a quality offer on the table to remain at SMU but has been strongly connected to the TCU vacancy for several weeks. The question with Napier is more the where than if, resulting in a quality Louisiana opening. Baylor will fight to keep Dave Aranda in Waco but may simply have to realize they will be going through some turnover if one of the blue bloods does settle on the cerebral rising star. Arizona State and Cal each may be jumping on the carousel at various points in the next few weeks to say nothing of the cascading effect rippling across the landscape with warp speed after Thanksgiving.

All told, it will be quite an active next few weeks.

And regardless of who USC/LSU/Florida end up hiring, there’s also the looming specter of the NFL coming along early next year to set off a second wave. Chicago is widely expected to move on from Matt Nagy and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is already feeling quite the amount of heat from above in South Beach. Could Bruce Arians call it quits after making another Lombardi run? Las Vegas is already looking, and Joe Judge may be facing a regime change in the Big Apple.

Heck, what if Urban Meyer realizes the pro game just isn’t for him after this slog of a season in Duval but he still has the itch to coach back in his college roots? Just go ahead and fire up your favorite local messages boards and enjoy the commentary if that happens.

The point is, even when things might start to settle down on the college front, the NFL could easily come in and lure a Matt Campbell or Lincoln Riley away and set off more mad dashes for a head coach.