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Seven-Step Drop: Several Coaches Rapidly Reaching Point of No Return

Seven-Step Drop: Several Coaches Rapidly Reaching Point of No Return

Seven-Step Drop: Several Coaches Rapidly Reaching Point of No Return

It can be easy to let the emotions get the best of oneself during (or after) a college football game when it takes a split second to fire off a tweet or post a video sure to go viral in some circles. That's why it isn't at all surprising seeing a number of fan bases in open revolt following Week 4's action.

Head coaches need to be fired. Players need to transfer. Assistants' heads have to roll. Buyout figures need to turn from numbers on a page to money in escrow.

While things are undoubtedly dicey for a handful of programs, the season isn't completely lost for many others. The best-case scenario for some is certainly the path paved by Clay Helton in 2016 as his USC squad rebounded from a 1-3 start to eventually win the Rose Bowl. The fact is though, that for every magical turnaround like there was in Los Angeles, there are a dozen cases like Derek Dooley, Larry Fedora or Jim McElwain to name a few.

At some point the end is coming for everybody. But for more than a handful of coaches, the point of no return is nearing a lot quicker than many would have hoped for. After a number of critical, tenure-shaping results for several head coaches over the weekend, it's time to check in and see who might be past the point of no return and who can still salvage things at their current school and stick around a few more years.

The coach: Jim Harbaugh

The result: Wisconsin 35, Michigan 14

The prognosis: Approaching the event horizon but still can turn back.

Harbaugh has done everything that was asked of him when he was hired sans one rather important thing: win the big games to bring titles back to Ann Arbor. That is a rather large caveat for a fan base like Michigan and the program's place among the bluest of blue bloods but even amid the stupid antics earlier in his tenure or the disappointing rivalry game outcomes, at least the floor for the Wolverines every season was back to the level many were accustomed to at the school.

But at some point that isn't enough. Not at a place like this nor with a head coach who never misses the opportunity to give his two cents.

The question is now, how does Michigan navigate their current nexus of being good... but not good enough to live up to expectations with a guy the school has invested a ton in? The administration isn't going to waiver on their support of Harbaugh and his operation but at some point, all the talk in the media, by fans on message boards and in the living rooms across the state will simply be too much.

We're not there just yet but this boulder is building up steamrolling down the hill fast. UM has consistently been held back by offensive coaching (their head man's specialty) and it's rapidly become apparent that the caliber of players is not at the standard many thought it was. Losing to a team like Wisconsin isn't the end of the world but it is the way the Wolverines did so — after a week off following a manhandling by Army — that is worth the alarm bells ringing.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Harbaugh for Michigan is there's no Harbaugh-equivalent out there. He had the resume (at Stanford and in the NFL) and pedigree (as an alum, player and even ball boy in Ann Arbor) of a slam dunk when hired. Who's version 2.0 of that for the Wolverines?

Names like Iowa State's Matt Campbell will surely be thrown around by the maize and blue faithful as realistic candidates but for as good as coaches like Campbell have been, they're even less of a sure thing than Harbaugh was as the time of his hiring.

In fact, the way things are trending, swapping out Harbaugh with someone else has a 50/50 chance of trending toward Brady Hoke and not Urban Meyer. That, as much as the current predicament the school finds itself, has to be the most troubling aspect of Saturday's game and whatever looming future there is in Ann Arbor for the current staff.

The coach: Jeremy Pruitt

The result: Florida 34, Tennessee 3

The prognosis: Phillip Fulmer Watch is on.

The Volunteers were yet again uncompetitive in SEC play, losing for the 14th time in 15 years to their rivals with a backup QB (while Steve Spurrier watched on from Gainesville with a grin that was hard to miss). The fan base has already been through the ringer already in 2019 given the losses to Georgia State and BYU but at this point, it's going to be downright surprising if the team isn't 1-7 going into their early November game against UAB in what is likely to be a half-filled Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee does have a few talented players but nowhere near enough. Add to that issues with alignment, execution plus keeping focused and you have this hodgepodge of hogwash. They try to do too much on offense and too little on defense. Add in a lack of development of players on campus dating back to the time Lane Kiffin left town and you can see how this once bumpy ride is mostly pointed down at the ground lately.

As a result, it's time for Tennessee to realize they have to do something different if they want to get out of this hole. That may take some swallowing of pride in Knoxville but simply trying to replicate Nick Saban's Process with inferior talent isn't going to work. If you want to stand out in the SEC East against the Georgia's and Florida's — to say nothing of getting back to beating the Vanderbilt's and South Carolina's with more regularity — it's time for something new.

That means a head coach who isn't learning on the job like their current one. That means running an offense that is designed to get talented players the ball in space instead of spacing out their talented players. Somebody can win in Knoxville yet after the past few weeks, it's glaringly obvious that probably won't be the current staff.

Given how apathetic a truly great fan base already is at the moment, there's not a lot to believe in when it comes to the Power T anymore. Fulmer moving down from the AD booth to the sidelines, as nearly everybody is anticipating at some point, would only exacerbate things. But going with the flow and getting nowhere has at least been the one area Tennessee has some practice with.

The coach: Chad Morris

The result: San Jose State 31, Arkansas 24

The prognosis: Past the point of no return.

The Razorbacks have largely been in a tailspin ever since Bobby Petrino's motorcycle wound up in a ditch and the program's trajectory changed in a blink. After guiding the Razorbacks to double-digit wins and building the program to a point where they began the year in the top 10 following Petrino's firing, the team has won four, three, seven, eight, seven, four and two games in the years since with three different head coaches.

There was hope that with his Texas ties, Morris could be the one to turn things around after the end of the Bret Bielema era and at least become competitive with the top dogs in the SEC West like they were nearly a decade ago. While the Razorback faithful knew better than most this was a huge rebuilding job given the state of the roster, there was a lot of energy coming into 2019 between transfers, a highly regarded recruiting class and the general belief that it couldn't get any worse than going winless in conference play by a wide margin.

But things did get worse on Saturday night as the Spartans — last Power 5 victory in 2006, with a third-year head coach who has two FBS wins total — controlled the game nearly throughout in shocking the Hogs. It was the third time in just two years the team had fallen to a Group of 5 team and it was much more of the same show: turnovers on offense and the inability to stop much of anything on defense.

The shocking thing is that in Morris' previous stop of SMU, he had the Mustangs playing significantly better on the field even if the wins didn't follow. That hasn't been the case in Fayetteville and improvement will be difficult given the upcoming stretch on the horizon.

Arkansas has proven they can swallow large buyouts over the years but even paying $20 million in just four years to two head coaches has to make the new administration wince. At the same time, that day might be here sooner rather than later given the state of things.

The coach: Willie Taggart

The result: Florida State 35, Louisville 24

The prognosis: Teetering.

The Seminoles needed yet another late rally to stave off yet another second-half collapse against Louisville on Saturday as they seem lucky to be sitting at 2-2. While a very loud portion of the fan base would still like the guy who is 6-9 at the school to be run off just as they wanted at the end of last year, there are at least some signs of progress being laid by the noted program builder in Taggart.

This season FSU has lost to a pair of top 25 teams and had leads in both games, some positives were it not for the way things unfolded against both Boise State and Virginia. They've had more than a few chances to put the wins away in more comfortable fashion too, such as missing three field goals against the Cardinals that would have given more breathing room. Sure the offensive line is still a mess but there's also both top-end talent (hello Cam Akers) and depth in surprising spots too (see graduate transfer QB Alex Hornibrook taking over for James Blackman).

Taggart likely didn't quite know what he was getting into when he rushed to take the job but few could blame him at jumping to return to his home state to take over a program that had won a national title that recruits still had plenty of memories of. But there was clearly work to be done at the underpinnings of the Noles locker room and the need for a new culture to take root. The jury is still out on whether or not he can get it done at the moment and return the program to glory in the ACC and on the national stage but the next month of the season could help define if the arrow is pointing up or down in Tallahassee.

It's not like Taggart doesn't know that either. He sat at a similar point during his USF tenure at 1-3 in Year 3. Eventually, things got back on track and the Bulls won 18 of their next 22. A slow start at the gig prior turned into a surprising run at Western Kentucky. Despite several key injuries, he still nearly doubled Oregon's win total during his lone season in Eugene too.

All of which is to say that Taggart knows better than most when those inflection points are and has typically made sure things fall in his favor at the right time. We'll see if that's the case once again at FSU despite more than a few missteps so far on his watch. Given that a buyout would top $20 million, he may well be given the time no matter what to get FSU out of this rut but the pressure to do so increases seemingly every week.

Who knows, maybe Taggart is just following the Bobby Bowden plan to a T. Losing big last year and losing close this year. Maybe winning close is right around the corner even if the Seminoles fans out there have every right to remain a little skeptical.

2. Friday Night Lights in LA

Pomp and circumstance at USC is nothing new but the atmosphere in Los Angeles on Friday night when the Trojans took on No. 10 Utah was one of the most unique at the school in years.

To start with, you had a campus that was spruced up extra nice for the inauguration of a new university president earlier in the day. There were more than a few powerful boosters and deep-pocketed billionaires mulling around in cardinal and gold on another 75-and-sunny afternoon as a result, but even their presence was nothing in comparison to that of Student-Athlete No. 1's return to the Coliseum.

For those not familiar with perhaps the most impactful NCAA infractions case of the past 20 years, that would be Reggie Bush — who traded his banished No. 5 for a suit and a spot on the FOX broadcast set. While it wasn't his first time at the Coliseum since being formally disassociated by the school, it was his first time at a USC game since he was zigging and zagging all over the field in 2005.

The still beloved quasi Heisman Trophy winner didn't miss a beat as big man on campus and his mere appearance was enough to prompt numerous "Reggie! Reggie!" chants during the festivities before and after the game. No. 5 jerseys were everywhere on kids and adults while even the players seemed a bit awestruck as they walked by to catch a glimpse at an athlete who is spoken in hushed tones about around the program.

Then there was Urban Meyer, who largely flanked Bush all evening long on and off the set. The former Ohio State head coach has settled in comfortably into his role on FOX's pregame show but many at the stadium are hoping that is only a temporary stop for the real reason he came to Los Angeles — to coach the Trojans in 2020.

Whether that winds up being the case remains to be seen in one of the bigger storylines in the sport but Friday served as a reminder that no matter what some USC fans might want to happen, the upcoming path for the program is bound to throw out a few moves just like the ones Bush used to make on the field.

After all it would have been totally understandable had the Trojans folded when starting quarterback Kedon Slovis was knocked out of the game on the first series against one of the Pac-12's best defenses. It would have been expected, even, had the team ranked in the top 10 simply brushed aside the one who had let another game slip away in the second half last week to an inferior opponent.

Yet that wasn't what transpired at all. Rather fittingly, the team who makes it a point to remind you their motto is "Fight On" did, well, just that as USC stunned the Utes 30-23 behind the unheralded third-string quarterback Matt Fink. It is cliche around town to say that such a story would have been tossed out of the boardrooms that make up Hollywood had it been pitched but for one night at least there was a very real Friday Night Lights storyline that was almost too good to be true.

"This is a mentally tough bunch," embattled head coach Clay Helton said afterward. "I know some folks have made fun of me for 'So what, now what?' But that's our motto. Stuff is bad sometimes but it is, so what are you going to do? Are you going to make an excuse or are you going to find a way to get the job done?"

Fink, who nearly transferred to Illinois in the offseason, certainly did. Looking nothing like a career backup with little game action under his belt, the junior could not have been more of somebody who lived by the YOLO code in throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns (and one truly awful pick). Michael Pittman Jr. hauled in most of those for an FBS high this season of 232 yards and a score in the game as USC overcame just about everything thrown their way by a Utah squad that never smelled blood in the water like they should have with control of the South on the line.