Given that the vast majority of the country was forced to deal with a time change on Sunday, maybe that’s an appropriate reason to turn back the clocks even further and take a trip to the offseason between the 2017 and '18 college football campaigns.
Since this is pre-pandemic, it may not take much for folks to wistfully make such a jog down memory lane. Alabama sat atop the polls after their walk-off title win and launched endless debates over Tua (Tagovailoa) or Jalen (Hurts), Heisman winner Baker Mayfield was on his way to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the spring and the college football universe was already tired of hearing about UCF’s dubious claim to a national championship.
Yet that time period was very much on the minds of many this past week in college football as the head coaches hired back then took center stage (again) in the present day — in both good ways and bad — and dominated the discourse.
You can probably start with the central cast of characters that were all uniquely linked in their own way. Florida memorably parted ways with Jim McElwain just before Halloween, allowing the school to do the necessary background on the two hottest names of the coaching carousel in Scott Frost and Chip Kelly. The former was on everybody’s radar after taking the previously winless Knights to the brink of the College Football Playoff amid a Cinderella undefeated run. Kelly, though washed out of the NFL, was still in demand after the incredible tenure he had at Oregon. Neither wound up in Gainesville, paving the way for Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin to eventually hire Dan Mullen.
Frost then landed at his alma mater Nebraska while Kelly returned to the Pac-12 at UCLA. The trio was in various ways described as home-run hires at the time. Coaching grades in the moment lauded all three schools for landing such big names. A common talking point on the message boards and talk radio was not whether they would turn things around in their respective situations but just how long before they returned the three programs to national relevance.
Four years later, they are indeed all in the national spotlight. Only this time around it’s all in the context of each’s job security.
Frost finds himself un-ironically in the hottest water. The Cornhuskers played much the same song they have each of the past four seasons by threatening to win a game against a big-name opponent but somehow making just enough mistakes in the second half to go home on the losing end. A program that was as proud as ever to find itself in the postseason year after year instead is now on the outside looking in for the fifth time in a row following Saturday’s loss to Ohio State. Despite a hefty buyout, a fan base that has desperately hoped for the native son to get over the hump now finds themselves wondering if new AD Trev Alberts can end this nightmare movie sooner rather than later.
Heck, Nebraska fans may actually have it easy compared to others following Saturday given how clear-cut the situation seems in Lincoln. Things are much different down at Florida, where Mullen doubled down on angering his own fan base with his comments on recruiting. The disbelief out of Gators fans on Monday was really just setting them up for an even more disastrous Saturday however. While there may have been some extenuating circumstances with regards to the roster, there is no excuse on the planet that can cover for getting run out of the building 40-17 by a South Carolina team featuring a third-string QB from FCS St. Francis (in Pennsylvania) and completely new staff.
Now those slow, percolating questions about Mullen being the right fit for a program that aspires to win championships are even more front and center from the Sunshine State and beyond. Sure UF won the SEC East last year and has pushed Alabama as close as anybody not named Texas A&M, but it’s the results elsewhere that forced deeper introspection. Mullen started the process on Sunday by letting go of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (as many expected) and OL coach John Hevesy, a nearly two-decade companion through the coaching ranks that signals further, seismic changes ahead if the head coach remains in the top chair.
Kelly, well he didn’t even play so our lasting image was of his team getting housed by Utah 44-24 last week to make his situation just as intriguing. It’s been a far slower rebuild than anybody could have imagined in Westwood but one wonders how a new AD will view spending that kind of cash for a coach that still hasn’t qualified for a bowl game and recruits at a level that would be generous in most of the Mountain West.
All three of their hot seats will be a constant refrain over the final weeks of the season, along with 2017-18 compatriots Herm Edwards (with an NCAA investigation thrown on top of the losing) at Arizona State and Rice’s Mike Bloomgren.
The flip side is also true of their coaching peers too.
Mario Cristobal not only has Oregon firmly in the mix for a CFP berth but is seemingly must-watch on a weekly basis for the way his teams continually fail to put away opponents. Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead also was hired that cycle at Mississippi State but is now in Eugene calling plays in a way that could return the Pac-12 to the national conversation come late December and get him a second look as an FBS head coach.
Jimbo Fisher has Texas A&M in line for another New Year’s Six berth, if not more despite a QB going down pretty much every game. Though he’s already received a massive new contract extension, his name will keep floating in the ether until the door is firmly shut with that opening in Baton Rouge too.
The coaching carousel also will keep SMU’s Sonny Dykes and Louisiana’s Billy Napier atop the news cycle on a weekly basis. Dana Dimel will find a spot on most coaching award shortlists after getting UTEP bowl eligible while Jonathan Smith is hoping to do the same at some point this month. Sean Lewis has Kent State sitting atop the division standings and will be a fixture on midweek MACtion the rest of the way as well. Jamey Chadwell continues to keep Coastal Carolina humming and is on the verge of a big move of his own.
Josh Heupel replaced Frost in Orlando and is now earning plenty of kudos for getting Tennessee close to a bowl after beating Kentucky. The Volunteers had a ton of roster attrition this past year but they’re fighting each week and, maybe just as important to a fan base that’s been through the ringer, they’re entertaining while doing so.
So as this chaotic weekend in college football made abundantly clear, no matter what you are focusing on in 2021 — from the CFP to the hottest of the hot seats — you’ll have to go a bit out of the way to avoid a discussion that doesn’t involve one of the head coaches or programs from that fateful 2017-18 offseason. A lot has happened in the interim since those coaches inked their contracts but time is sometimes a flat circle and boy does this sport seem to be reinforcing it right now with one cohort in particular.
Seven Other Thoughts This Week
— Struggle bus for CFP contenders
Outside of a romp by an increasingly terrifying Georgia and Michigan breezing past Indiana, the bulk of the College Football Playoff contenders struggled in Week 10, to say the least. While it felt like Alabama controlled the contest throughout in their last meeting with Coach O in charge of LSU, it’s not like the Crimson Tide were world-beaters coming out of their off week and very much could have taken the loss. Bryce Young did throw more than 300 yards but the offensive line’s play was subpar to the point where you wonder if Nick Saban won’t hint that Doug Marrone needs to head back to the NFL come January. Given all the talent they had to replace, it’s not shocking Bama would look a bit mortal this season as the latest crop of five-stars acclimated to their starting roles but we’re into November now and those cracks in the typical houndstooth armor still keep popping up. Perhaps that says a lot about where our collective expectations for the program lie but just as likely indicate that Alabama is at the front of a flawed but good group of national title contenders and lack that extra edge they had during last year’s run.
Elsewhere around the country, Michigan State saw their trap game trap them just as fellow unbeaten Wake Forest was done in by a collapse in the fourth quarter against an in-state rival. Oregon and Ohio State each scored 26 points and struggled in their own way against teams they should have put away far sooner than the final few minutes. Much of the national attention was on Cincinnati for their treatment by the selection committee on Tuesday plus ESPN's "College GameDay" coming to town and the Bearcats did not take to their moment in the spotlight. The ending against Tulsa was beyond bizarre but it’s time to say that simply surviving and winning isn’t enough right now if this wants to be that Group of Five team that shatters the glass ceiling. Cite injuries if you want but the fact remains that Luke Fickell’s group played a lot better in the first half of the year than they have in the second by a wide margin.
— 1-0 on the week
There were a handful of field stormings on Saturday but perhaps the most joyful one came in Tucson as Arizona beat a COVID-ravaged Cal squad 10-3 to end their 20-game losing streak that was the longest in FBS. Head coach Jedd Fisch looked equally relieved and thrilled at earning his first win with the program but outside observers will be keen to forget such a dreadful and sloppy football game from start to finish even if the Wildcats were savoring every moment. The second-longest losing streak in the country was also brought to a close as UNLV ran right over New Mexico 31-17. The Rebels had come close the past several weeks to getting the deed done but finally stepped up with a second-half shutout to find the win column.
Thankfully we don’t have any more winless teams in FBS as a result but the longest active losing streak now falls to the motley group of Kansas, Arkansas State and FIU at eight in a row.
— Purdue keeps slaying giants
Is there a team that plays up/down to their competition more this season than Purdue? The Boilermakers, who have lost to Minnesota and barely beat Illinois and Nebraska, continued to be the real giant killers of the Big Ten. Weeks after knocking off No. 2 Iowa, they turned around and took it right to No. 3 Michigan State (watch out, likely CFP No. 4 Ohio State). The Boilermakers didn’t just hit on all cylinders Saturday, but they were pulling out reverse flea-flicker screen passes for touchdowns and became the first squad since 2007 Illinois (Ron Zook Rose Bowl!) to knock off two top-five teams while being unranked. It wasn’t that long ago that head coach Jeff Brohm was questioned for where he had positioned the program given his massive salary but such talk appears to have faded completely now. Wide receiver David Bell remains completely unstoppable and with the injury to USC’s Drake London, may well have taken over as the front-runner for the Biletnikoff Award too. If only they could bottle how they play against the big dogs when their regular Big Ten West competition comes to town, Purdue might have been one of the favorites to make it to Indianapolis.
— The Texas Cadillac just keeps breaking down
How many times must this column address the inability of the Texas football team to emerge from the locker room at halftime ready to play the final two quarters? On Saturday night, the Longhorns dropped their fourth straight game for the first time since 2010 after Iowa State simply beat them up and bullied them, turning a close 7-3 UT lead at the break into a 30-7 rout. The Cyclones needed just nine plays across three drives in the third quarter to build a commanding lead and in the process restored some luster to Matt Campbell’s resume by notching their third series win in a row after a grand total of just two in all the years prior. Toss in Bijan Robinson getting shut down and then injured in the second half and Steve Sarkisian may need a quick turnaround just to live up to his seven-win moniker.
Big 12 rivals will certainly relish in the fact that Texas made a $37 million coaching change in the offseason and then made an $80ish million change to another, harder conference all to sit at 4-5 with far more lingering questions than answers.
— Louisville falls short against Clemson
The Cardinals have an interesting fan base given the high expectations around town and singular focus on the school. They also have a rather unique relationship with their head coach after Scott Satterfield did a terrific job turning the team around in Year 1 but also have seen him flirt with other gigs and not show any additional progress on the field. Saturday at home in prime time against Clemson offered an opportunity to not only slay one of the conference’s banner carriers but set the tone for the next few months — and the team came up short yet again. In addition to allowing 13 points in the fourth quarter and failing to find the game-winner just yards away from the goal line in the final seconds, this was a program that could not find that extra bit of grit to grind out a win when things got tight late. Remarkably, the AP noted it was also the ninth loss in Louisville’s last 14 games where they outgained an opponent and wound up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. It’s one thing to lose, it’s another to keep losing close ones by making the same mistakes. Satterfield’s postgame comments are not too different from those of Frost’s right now in noting the team is close to turning the corner but the problem for many in various shades of red is that sometimes you never make it to the apex of said corner and just slowly lose ground instead. The Cardinals are maybe finding that out firsthand as they keep failing to get over the hump against teams they’ve had a chance to beat.
— Mountain West gets wilder
Fascinating week in the MWC, which had some head-turning results left and right. While not in conference play, Air Force saw their shot at the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy slip through their hands in OT against Army in Arlington, Texas, and aforementioned UNLV finally got off the board in New Mexico. The late-night action was where things seemed really fun. Boise State broke out of its shell and laid it on Fresno State 40-14 with both sides of the ball playing well in unison seemingly for the first time all year. The Broncos hadn’t won in Fresno since 2011 and threw a wrench into the West Division standings ahead of a big stretch of games. Nevada-San Jose State was a delight as well, with four fourth-quarter scores adding to the drama before Carson Strong delivered on fourth down to set up an eventual game-winning field goal from 45 yards out with three ticks left on the clock. Out on the islands, San Diego State pulled off one of the best fake field goals you’ll see for a score that wound up being the difference in a game that seemed more notable for when the Aztecs’ terrific punter ran on the field to boot the ball away. The Rainbow Warriors had a chance to make things interesting in the end but inexplicably couldn’t get a play off as time expired in a manner that was almost as bad as what Colorado State did a few weeks ago vs. Utah State. There are now three teams in each division with a shot at making it to the conference championship game and the league seems to have a stranglehold on being the best Group of Five league this season no matter who ultimately earns that CFP bid.
— Stanford faces big questions ahead while Jimmy Lake and UW hit a low point
Amid Utah’s 52-7 destruction of Stanford deep into Friday night, one had to ponder what David Shaw will do this offseason as the heat finally starts to reach the Cardinal head coach. Yes, the team basically had no shot against the Utes once QB Tanner McKee was ruled out but that one player isn’t that big of a difference-maker when the defense could not stop the run to save their life. Given the heights Shaw took the team to and the fact that he’s a well-respected alum, the chance the school actually eats a ton of money and shows him the door remains low. But insisting on staff changes isn’t out of line after the program is headed toward a third campaign in a row of five or fewer wins. Stanford is 11-16 since unceremoniously firing strength coach Shannon Turley and Shaw’s uninspiring assistant coach hires have proven to be a real Achilles heel given how they absolutely need some new blood on the Farm.
Pac-12 North rival Jimmy Lake seems to be at a similar crossroads at Washington. It goes without saying that a change at offensive coordinator was in the works but losing to Oregon on Saturday may well be the least of the team’s worries as they sit a disappointing 4-5. Lake not only took a self-inflicted loss of his own with comments about recruiting earlier in the week — to the point it drew the ire of an opposing university president — but then had his own AD issue a sternly worded statement after video surfaced of him striking LB Ruperake Fuavai. That’s going from bad to worse if you’re the man in charge and only adds to those questioning if Lake really is the guy long-term in Montlake. The administration really wanted this hire to work out in the wake of Chris Petersen leaving but it just hasn’t so far. It’s hard to reach a new low in a season in which you’ve already lost to an FCS foe but here the Huskies are.
Tweet of the Week
Image of the Week
Play of the Week
Punt of the Week
Matt Araiza kicked over two would-be returners. That deserves its own shout-out.