6 College Football Stars Who Hold Their Coaches' Careers in Their Hands
Life on the hot seat as a college football coach isn’t easy.
You’re feeling pressure from boosters. Your fans. Your athletic director.
You need wins, and you need them now, or else there is an excellent chance you’ll be on your way out, albeit with a healthy buyout, at season’s end to chase another job and move your family to another campus.
Your margin for error is thin, potentially eroded by several years of disappointing results. You need success.
Many coaches with warm seats have talented players, but can’t afford to lose them. That’s why they’re on the hot seat to begin with: their lack of depth means going without a prodigious talent could be the difference between a contract extension and a firing.
Here are six players who hold their head coach’s fate in their hands as we prepare for the 2014 season.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska Tailback
Bo Pelini attracted plenty of attention in 2013. Most of it negative. Following an early-season loss to UCLA, a two-year-old tape of him criticizing Nebraska fans was leaked. And during a season-ending home loss to Iowa, he drew attention for a sideline tirade that drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Afterward, he told reporters of Nebraska’s administration, “If they want to fire me, go ahead.”
Although Pelini is 57-24 and ended the season with a Gator Bowl win over Georgia, Pelini is under considerable pressure to win. The Cornhuskers have not won a league championship in 14 years, which doesn’t sit well in football-mad Lincoln.
To succeed this fall, Pelini will need a strong offense and a strong senior season from tailback Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah stands just 5’9”, 190 pounds, but plays much bigger.
He rushed for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns last fall and is the nation’s leading returning rusher. He gained 100-plus yards in all but two games last fall.
The Huskers’ No. 2 rusher, rising junior Imani Cross, had 447 yards and 10 touchdowns, so he is capable, but while breaking in a new quarterback to replace graduated Taylor Martinez, Nebraska’s offense will again lean heavily on the run.
If Abdullah doesn’t produce a big year, the pressure will increase exponentially on the volatile Pelini. And that’s not good for anyone involved.
Jeff Driskel, Florida Quarterback
Jeff Driskel is a talented quarterback who has the ability to pass and run. As a sophomore, he led an offense that helped Florida to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl berth. He passed for 1,646 yards with 12 touchdowns against five interceptions, completing 63.7 percent of his passes. He also contributed 413 rushing yards with four touchdowns, including a 177-yard effort at Vanderbilt that was the best ever by a Gator quarterback.
Last fall, he was ready to build on those numbers as the unquestioned starter. He threw for a career-high 291 yards in a Week 2 loss to Miami, but a week later against Tennessee, disaster struck.
Driskel broke a bone in his right leg, ending his 2013 season basically before it began.
Florida’s offense sunk into a morass behind inexperienced backups like junior Tyler Murphy and freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. The Gators finished 113th nationally in total offense (316.7 yards per game), 112th nationally in scoring offense (18.8 points per game) and 107th in passing offense (170.9 ypg).
The Gators slipped to 4-8 with a home loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, putting pressure squarely on coach Will Muschamp. He fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease, replacing him with Duke’s Kurt Roper.
Roper runs a high-tempo, wide-open offense that operates out of the shotgun and also gives quarterbacks the opportunity to run. Driskel seems to be an excellent fit for this system.
He’ll need to pick it up very quickly, as big improvement is expected if Muschamp is to keep his job.
If Driskel regresses and trouble mounts, moving companies will have a field day in Gainesville in December.
Devin Gardner, Michigan Quarterback
Devin Gardner is a multi-talented quarterback, capable of moving the ball through the air or on the ground. Last season, his first as a starter, his stats were more than capable while replacing departed star Denard Robinson.
He threw for 2,964 yards and 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, adding 483 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, averaging 40.3 rushing yards per game. His toughness is unquestioned. Against Ohio State, Gardner played much of the game on a broken foot, completing 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards and adding a rushing touchdown in a 42-41 defeat.
He missed the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State, and backup Shane Morris completed 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Last fall, Michigan had serious issues moving the ball. The Wolverines were 102nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 125.7 yards per game.
Coach Brady Hoke fired offensive coordinator Al Borges, replacing him with Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who is expected to run a pro-style offense predicated on play action. It needs a mobile quarterback, and Gardner is an excellent fit.
While Morris could fill in if something happens to Gardner, the senior has the talent to take the Wolverines’ offense to a new level.
In three years under Hoke’s watch, Michigan has slipped from 11-2 to 8-5 and 7-6. This is a critical season for Hoke, and the offense must improve. To do so, it will need an engaged and healthy Gardner.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State Quarterback
Has Dan Mullen plateaued at Mississippi State? Following a 9-4 2010 season that ended with a Gator Bowl win over Michigan, the Bulldogs have gone 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6.
Last fall, MSU needed an overtime win over Ole Miss just to gain postseason eligibility. MSU ended strong with a 44-7 Liberty Bowl rout of Rice and Mullen did receive a one-year contract extension that pushed his deal through the end of the 2017 season.
But in the SEC West, perhaps the toughest division in college football, seven-win seasons don’t cut it. To improve this fall, Mullen will need a big season from rising junior quarterback Dak Prescott.
Prescott replaced injured starter Tyler Russell in the 2013 season opener and made the job his own. He is a dual-threat quarterback and showed promise in both areas, throwing for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions while adding 829 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
In the Liberty Bowl, Prescott accounted for 361 total yards and five total touchdowns, ending 2013 on a major high.
With Russell graduated, Prescott is the clear, unquestioned starter. He’ll need to progress this fall if the Bulldogs are to build on 2013’s solid finish.
If Prescott is injured or regresses, Mississippi State could find itself in trouble with a schedule that includes visits to LSU and Alabama and visits from Auburn and Texas A&M. In the SEC West, wins are very difficult to come by. If Prescott and Mullen don’t pile up enough of them, the Bulldogs could find themselves looking for a new leader.
Rushel Shell, West Virginia Tailback
Two-plus years ago, West Virginia had one of the hottest brands in football. The Mountaineers gave Clemson the worst beating in BCS bowl history, whipping the Tigers in a 70-33 Orange Bowl win that capped a 10-3 season.
Since entering the Big 12, however, Dana Holgorsen’s program has struggled. Over the last two years, West Virginia is 11-14, 6-12 in Big 12 play. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck was forced to issue a statement supporting Holgorsen, a sure sign that a coach is on the hot seat.
The Mountaineers’ Air Raid offense needs balance. Last fall, leading returning rusher Dreamius Smith rushed for only 494 yards and five touchdowns.
Enter tailback Rushel Shell, who sat out last fall after transferring from Pitt. The former 5-star recruit was rated as the nation's No. 3 tailback by 247Sports in 2012. He rushed for 9,078 yards in his high-school career and had a solid freshman season at Pitt, rushing for 641 yards and four touchdowns while splitting time with Ray Graham.
Shell is a physical, talented back who is capable of carrying the backfield load on his own, although he won’t necessarily have to.
West Virginia returns 14 starters from 2013’s 4-8 team and if Shell can provide ground game stability, the Mountaineers should be a much-improved team. They’ll need to be to save Holgorsen’s job.
If Shell fails to live up to the hype, it’ll put more pressure on quarterback Clint Trickett and a defense that struggled a year ago, allowing 455 yards per game, ranking 101st nationally in total defense.
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech Quarterback
Five years ago, Paul Johnson proved that the flexbone option can be successful. In his second season at Georgia Tech, Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to a 10-3 record and an ACC title before losing to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
Since then, however, Tech has fallen into mediocrity. The Jackets are 28-25 over the last four seasons, winning as many as eight games only once. Following 2013’s 7-6 season, starting quarterback Vad Lee transferred unexpectedly.
The quarterback is the most crucial part of the flexbone: on any play, he can run, pass or hand off. The best option-quarterbacks are mobile and leave defenses consistently confused while grinding out the clock and keeping the opposing offense off the field.
Enter Thomas, who chose Tech over Alabama three years ago.
He stands 5’11” and is an excellent athlete who could have played quarterback, wide receiver or cornerback in college. He has great speed with a 4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash, according to Scout.com.
Thomas also has a solid arm and is capable of beating teams through the air. He served as the Jackets’ backup quarterback last fall, passing for 131 yards and rushing for 234 yards and two touchdowns.
He is the most likely candidate to replace Lee as Tech’s starter. And in a crucial season, Johnson will need solid quarterback play.
If Thomas wilts under the pressure, Johnson could find himself exiled from Atlanta.
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