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

Another disappointing road loss against a ranked team has Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines headed in the wrong direction

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.

 

"When it comes down to it, this team is stacked," Fink said. "You have the best players in the nation here. Why would I go somewhere else and play with lesser athletes? ... SC is on the rise. We have guys who are going to push us to the top here."

 

Fink certainly isn't wrong. There are still issues with the roster but the talent has always been there for the Trojans and that's one reason why Helton's seat, when it eventually comes open, will be coveted by many this December.

 

The team may very well be in for a rude awakening up in Seattle against Washington next weekend but those are thoughts for another time after one of the wildest days the Coliseum has seen in years.

 

3. Pac-12 After Dark delights again

Maybe we should have known something was up this week in Los Angeles after Friday's performance given that USC's crosstown rival (and their own embattled head coach) saved literally the best for last on Saturday night in what can only be described as a brain-melting comeback on the Palouse.

 

The Bruins simply weren't dead, they were written off by nearly everybody involved in both the game and college football as the lifeless program looked like they were headed for another lopsided loss after trailing by 32 in the second half.

 

 

But seemingly out of nowhere, things just started happening for the Bruins. Fumbles were recovered at an unfathomable pace. Special teams contributed score after score. A once broken offense rose from the dead — seriously they were DEAD LAST in FBS in yards per play coming into the game.

 

The end result: UCLA 67, Washington State 63.

 

"It's just a Pac-12 After Dark kind of win," Chip Kelly said afterward, barely processing all that had happened.

 

It was the third-largest FBS comeback and was the highest-scoring Pac-12 game ever. The Bruins exceeded the amount of points they had scored in their three previous games combined and young QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson went from being thrown under the bus by many in his fan base to throwing for 507 yards and five touchdowns.

 

Of course, it wouldn't have been possible had Wazzu not, sadly, Coug'd it throughout the second half after playing nearly flawlessly in the first. QB Anthony Gordon is on pace to shatter the FBS record for touchdown passes after throwing for a school- and conference-record nine against UCLA. Still, defensive lapses and turnovers continued to gift the visitors points and yards to the point where that was all not enough in the end.

 

It was yet another bitter loss for Mike Leach, who for all the good he's done with the program has still lost games in which his quarterback has thrown either 89 times, thrown for 734 yards or nine touchdowns passes.

 

It was all incredible to watch and a great reminder to never go to bed early when there's still college football going on out West.

 

4. Narduzzi's revenge, UCF's new reality

A week after he was trudged through the media for his puzzling decisions down the stretch against Penn State, Pat Narduzzi got his revenge.

 

Pitt, perhaps the most perplexing program in the ACC for most of his tenure, stunned visiting UCF by jumping out to an early lead and simply finding enough left in the tank to finish off yet another seismic upset of a team contending for national glory. So go ahead and add Pitt 35, UCF 34 to the list of results that include takedowns of former No. 2 Clemson and No. 2 Miami over the years.

 

"You talk about adversity, everything that our kids went through in that game, the ups and downs.... and you know it was a virtual lock that they were going to beat us today," Narduzzi joked afterward. "But our kids hung together. We talked about one of the keys was sticking together as a team and our kids, I mean you talk about sticking together, there was every phase... and our kids played incredible and I'm proud of them."

 

It seems a week of being bashed for being too conservative had the intended effect on Narduzzi, who pushed all the right buttons even as the Knights made their own impressive comeback. This included an indelible trick play for the winner — labeled Pitt Special postgame — that drew inspiration from a certain Super Bowl winner on the other side of the state and is something the Panthers said they had practiced quite a bit for just this situation.

 

It will be interesting to see just where Pitt goes from here and if the victory changes the trajectory of the team after a 2-2 start. While they have to hope that Virginia loses twice, a return to the ACC title game can't be ruled out now given the pretty weak slate coming up for a team that might be eyeing a banner season a week after questions were raised about their head coach from coast to coast.

 

Speaking of the team they beat, the Knights last regular-season loss? You'll have to stretch back 1,029 days, four quarterbacks, three seasons, two head coaches and one president ago. That is an absolutely incredible run for the program and needs to be celebrated. UCF fans will no longer be able to take to social media to argue for their team's inclusion in the College Football Playoff — a good thing for all involved — but the loss did very much open the door for a really fascinating Group of 5 bid pursuit for the rest of 2019 that might have more drama than the race for the final four does.

 

At this point, Boise State is likely in the driver's seat with their win at Florida State and top 20 ranking but the Mountain West — owners of eight Power 5 victories through four weeks — is a meat-grinder they are unlikely to emerge from unscathed. The Broncos still travel to BYU in non-conference play plus travel to pesky Utah State among others.

 

Meanwhile, the Knights will have to contend in an AAC that might be better top-to-bottom than it has been ever. Memphis which already beat an SEC team, remains undefeated and receiving votes while SMU is fresh off an upset of a ranked TCU squad. Navy is undefeated and Cincinnati still has the bulk of the team back from last year's 10-3 run. Run the table and the committee will have a tough decision between the two conference champions.

 

And that's to say nothing of a 3-0 Appalachian State squad that is fresh off their first Power 5 win since beating Michigan in 2007 and the class of a Sun Belt that has their own share of big-time wins over major conference opponents.

 

So while Pitt's win put a nail in that playoff talk coming out of Orlando, it also opened the door to a much more interesting debate over the coming months for that opening in the Cotton Bowl.

 

5. Appalachian State slays another

Scott Satterfield's name was connected with a number of openings last offseason and rightfully so given the job he did in Boone in leading the Mountaineers to the top of the Sun Belt and developing one of the most consistent teams at the Group of 5 level. His eventual departure to Louisville also set up a fascinating coaching search for the relatively insular program, which went outside the Jerry Moore coaching tree to pluck up-and-comer Eli Drinkwitz as Satterfield's replacement.

 

While there was rightfully some skepticism over the first time head coach being the choice, the young 36-year-old didn't take long to win over the fan base and deliver his first signature victory on Saturday night by beating in-state rival North Carolina 34-31. Appropriately enough for the program's first win over a Power 5 foe since the infamous 2007 Michigan game, the end result was sealed on a blocked field goal attempt.

 

To be fair, Satterfield left behind a ton of talent in guys like quarterback Zach Thomas and terrific tailback Darrynton Evans. But Drinkwitz has certainly left his mark already, not only in getting over the hump that the team couldn't in recent years against Penn State and Tennessee but in elevating the offense to an even higher level while keeping things humming along on the other side of the ball as well.

 

It goes without saying that this is a team that might just be Top-25-caliber in 2019 and easily look like the class of a Sun Belt conference that has taken a small step back from a season ago at the top. Nobody is saying quite that a Group of 5 bid run to the Cotton Bowl is something to keep an eye out for but it's certainly so far, so good for the creative head coach doing more than following in some very big shoes.

 

6. SMU captures the Skillet

Sonny Dykes' tenure as a fish out of water at Cal didn't end well but the veteran coach has found a perfect fit on the Hilltop after delivering a signature victory of his own by upsetting TCU (and his recent boss) over in Fort Worth. The Air Raid disciple has found an impressive leader on offense in Texas transfer QB Shane Buechele, but he really has done a fantastic job on and off the field of embracing Dallas in leading the Mustangs to their first 4-0 start since 1984.

 

 

While Houston has slumped to start the season, it looks increasingly likely that SMU is the Texas-based team that might prove to be Memphis' biggest threat in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) West Division now and it wouldn't be shocking to see a program that was searching for an identity just two years ago to return to the Top 25 in just a few weeks if they keep this up.

 

7. Bay Area rises up

Just like we all thought, the most surprising center of the college football world over the weekend was none other than that hot bed of the Bay Area.

 

San Jose State, as mentioned above, shocked the world by going into an SEC stadium and pulling out a win while the Cal Golden Bears suddenly are the last undefeated team left standing in the Pac-12 after escaping Oxford with a victory against Ole Miss.

 

 

Just don't ask about the football this weekend that was actually played in the Bay Area as Oregon's 21-6 win over Stanford was the least watchable game on the entire West Coast.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play(s) of the Week

 

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

Per FOX, Wisconsin is the only FBS team in the last 15 years to start the season with 10 shutout quarters. The Badgers were on a 145-0 run to open the season before Michigan scored in the third quarter on Saturday.

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Team of the Week: UCLA

Best Player: Evan Weaver, LB, Cal

Goat(s) of the Week: Jim Harbaugh and Mike Leach

Heisman Five: 1. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Johnathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 4. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 5. Joe Burrow (LSU)

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

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Wisconsin vs. Oregon, Sugar Bowl — Georgia vs. Texas, Orange Bowl — LSU vs. Wake Forest, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. Boise State

 

Super 16

 

Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

 

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. LSU

4. Ohio State

5. Georgia

6. Oklahoma

7. Wisconsin

8. Auburn

9. Notre Dame

10. Texas

11. Oregon

12. Penn State

13. Boise State

14. Cal

15. Washington

16. Iowa

 

Best of the rest: Florida, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Utah, UCF, Tulane, SMU, USC

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

USC at Washington

The Trojans' roller-coaster of a season flips back into the down position in this one as the Huskies come out and make a statement. They have one of the few defenses that can matchup with USC and I'm not sure Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has any sort of answer for what Chris Petersen and Jacob Eason can do on the offensive end. The Clay Helton hot seat talk ramps up again as UW covers the -8 in Seattle.

 

Ohio State at Nebraska

This one could get very, very ugly given the state of the Blackshirt defense and a Nebraska squad as a whole coming off a near loss to Illinois. The Buckeyes will be looking for style points in their first road game of the season for Justin Fields and company and probably put this to bed early during a pretty weak prime-time slate of games. Buckeyes roll so lay the points (-15) in this one.

 

Washington State at Utah

Both teams are coming off inexplicable losses and facing a number of issues on both sides of the ball. Then you can add in the Pac-12 After Dark element and anything could happen down in Salt Lake City. The Washington State (+8) line seems like an overreaction to the outcome of the UCLA game so we'll go with the Pirate to cover in an eventual narrow Utah win.

 

— 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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