One Game Every Hot Seat Coach Must Win in 2014
It takes more than one game for a coach to stave off the hot seat; in most cases, after all, only long-term disappointment can land a coach there in the first place, so why should one minuscule victory set him free?
Having said that, one ill-timed loss can turn a hot-seat coach into a dead man walking or—if the situation calls for it—a now-former coach right there on the spot. (For more information, see: Kiffin, Lane.)
No job is ever "safe" in college football, but of the 65 head coaches in major conferences (plus Brian Kelly at Notre Dame), 10 stick out with hotter seats than others. That doesn't mean they are the only ones who can be forced out—Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, for example, might suffer the same fate as Mack Brown after another bad season—but they are the ones who must tread the most carefully and whose teams must make the most improvement.
And in each case, there is a game (or games) they can't afford to lose.
Let's take a closer look.
Note: For the sake of being germane to the highest number of readers, only coaches from the five power conferences were included. I haven't forgotten about you, Ron Turner and Norm Chow.
Tim Beckman, Illinois
Must Win: vs. Purdue (Oct. 4)
In truth, Tim Beckman needs more than just one Big Ten victory (which would match his total from the past two years combined) to keep his job. Almost every home game on the Illini schedule is, in some ways, a game he has to win.
The Purdue game is the biggest one, however, because if Beckman loses the Big Ten home opener against a team that went 1-11 last season, he might not still have a job the following week. And few would be able to argue against that course of action.
Beckman should be able to find an offense, despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The defense is the keystone question. Eight starters return from one of the worst units in college football, and if their improvement means, say, a 3-5 Big Ten season, Beckman might be able to keep his job next winter.
Unless, of course, he's gone by mid-October.
Randy Edsall, Maryland
Must Win: vs. Iowa (Oct. 18)
You could argue Randy Edsall doesn't deserve to be on the hot seat. In fact, I actually would. He has been dealt a difficult hand since replacing Ralph Friedgen, one that has included some unprecedented strings of injuries. All things considered, he has done alright.
Alas, Edsall is still just 13-24 since joining the Terps three seasons ago, and with a new era starting in the Big Ten, he is skating on thin ice. If UMD gets off on the wrong foot in its new conference (and stacked division), Edsall may not be given time to watch the other foot land.
In addition to playing well in the non-conference schedule (at South Florida, vs. West Virginia, at Syracuse), the Terps must beat at least one bowl-type team from the Big Ten.
It's unfair to demand road wins at Wisconsin, Penn State or Michigan or home wins over Ohio State or Michigan State, however, which leaves Iowa in Byrd Stadium as the most reasonable option.
That's the game that Edsall needs to win.
Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Must Win: vs. Penn State (Sept. 13) or vs. Michigan (Oct. 4)
A lot must go right for Kyle Flood to keep his job. The university made that clear this offseason when it purged a good part of his staff. The first year of this Big Ten transition will decide his future at Rutgers, and he currently checks in as a heavy betting underdog.
To stay, among other things, I sincerely think Flood must beat a heavyweight. Not an Ohio State-type heavyweight—i.e., not a team that will contend for the College Football Playoff—but a name and logo most people recognize.
Especially people in Big Ten country.
The Scarlet Knights will get a couple of early shots at such teams: they host Penn State in the Big Ten opener and Michigan three weeks after that. Both games will take place in prime-time, which should rally the students back to Greg Schiano levels of impact, and both come against blue-blood programs with exploitable holes on their roster.
Flood must be able to take advantage.
Brady Hoke, Michigan
Must Win: vs. Utah (Sept. 20)
The season opener against Appalachian State is a must-win for obvious reasons. If Brady Hoke loses to the same Podunk school that drove Lloyd Carr to retirement, the city of Ann Arbor might burn.
Of the more realistic losses, though, Michigan's non-conference finale against Utah, in the Big House, sticks out as one that Hoke needs to win. Especially if the Wolverines lose at Notre Dame (which is not ideal but forgivable), a loss here might put Hoke in a Mack Brown circa 2013 situation.
Utah is pretty good, too. Don't think the Utes can't win this game. They did, after all, upset Stanford and nearly beat UCLA and Arizona State last season, and even though those games were all at home, there's enough talent on that roster—plus a very good quarterback in Travis Wilson—to beat a Michigan team that hasn't made marked improvements.
Ipso facto, this will be a good early chance to see if Michigan has made those marked improvements. And only if the answer is "yes" will Hoke be able to keep his job.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
Must Win: at Maryland (Sept. 13)
The most important game on Dana Holgorsen's schedule is not necessarily a must-win. It's a "must keep the opponent under 70 points" against Baylor, which has scored 70 and 73 in two meetings since West Virginia joined the conference.
But there is no shame in losing to Art Briles' Bears, provided you keep it kind of close. What there is shame in is not avenging last year's 37-0 beatdown at the hands of Randy Edsall's Maryland Terrapins—a team West Virginia likes to fancy itself far better than.
Prior to last season, the Mountaineers had beaten the Terps in seven consecutive meetings dating back to 2004. Typically, those contests weren't even close. And even though UMD has made small progress under Edsall the past couple of years, there is no excuse (at least in the mind of those in Morgantown) to lose for a second straight time.
West Virginia opens the season against Alabama and follows up the Maryland game with Oklahoma. If it loses to the Terps, there's a very realistic chance it starts the season 1-3.
That is not how you want to start a hot-seat year.
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Must Win: vs. Miami (Oct. 4)
In some most minds, the triple-option was outdated decades ago.
Paul Johnson proved early in his tenure that he could win with it at Georgia Tech, but now that the nine- and 10-win season have dissipated—not to mention that it scared away starting quarterback Vad Lee—the system may not be long for this program.
If he wants to keep his job in the spread-offense, uptempo world of 2014, Johnson will need to make a big statement next season. He'll have to prove that this team isn't average.
Realistically, what that really means is winning (or at least competing all season for) the ACC Coastal title. If forced to pick only one game, though, it's hard to imagine that happening if the Jackets can't hold serve at home against Miami coming off a bye week.
That's the game this team must have circled.
Mike London, Virginia
Must Win: vs. North Carolina (Oct. 25)
Mike London has failed at many things since arriving at UVA in 2010. He has failed to win five games in 75 percent of his seasons and he has failed to consistently put a watchable product on the field.
Of all his glaring lacks, however, none stands out so much at London's inability to beat North Carolina. Virginia had won four consecutive and 10 of the last 12 meetings in the "South's Oldest Rivalry" before London's arrival, but it's a flagrant 0-4 since.
London is coming off what's been billed as a program-changing recruiting class, which included two of the top 11 players on the 247Sports Composite in Andrew Brown and Quin Blanding.
That and maybe, say, five or six wins might be enough for him to build on and keep his job. One game is not enough to get him there, and in truth, it will not be one game that defines whether 2014 is a success.
But if London only had to pick one, this would likely be it.
Will Muschamp, Florida
Must Win: at Tennessee (Oct. 4)
Let's walk through the Gators' schedule, shall we?
With even modest improvements from last year's 4-8 outfit, Florida should start the season 3-0 against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. A road trip to Alabama the following week will likely drop that record to 3-1, which leads into a well-timed bye.
But then starts the stretch that should define Florida's season: at Tennessee, vs. LSU, vs. Missouri. And a road trip to play the Vols in Neyland Stadium—a tough road environment against a team that is improved but not nearly as talented as the Gators—is the game that should define that defining stretch.
On the one hand, Will Muschamp's team could ride high into The Swamp against LSU with a 4-1 record, likely ranked inside the top 20. On the other, it could ride deflated into that same venue with a 3-2 record and wins over teams that combined to go 5-31 last season.
Which scenario presents the better opportunity to win?
Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Must Win: vs. Miami (Sept. 20)
Bo Pelini's PR team has done a great job since the end of last season, but the past 12 months haven't been all jokey wrestling matches and kitty cats; there was also the inconsistent team that lost four games by more than 10 points and the NSFW audio file leaked by Deadspin where he cussed out Nebraska fans in 2011.
Pelini is nothing if not consistent, and in a vacuum, there are far worse things to be than someone who wins between nine and 10 games and loses exactly four each season—as he has in each of the past six years since being hired. At a school like Nebraska, however, at some point something bigger is demanded.
In 2014, that "something" will likely include competing for a spot in the Big Ten title game. However, the Huskers get road games against (in my opinion) their three best West Division opponents—Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern—which might make that feat kind of hard.
But Pelini can also earn some slack by beating Miami at home in the nonconference finale, which is imperative after getting smoked by UCLA in the second half of last year's game. It would be deflating to lose the nonconference showcase yet again.
Charlie Weis, Kansas
Must Win: Two Big 12 Games (Sept. 27-Nov. 29)
Is this a copout? Maybe. Definitely. But who cares? It is what it is, and Charlie Weis needs what he needs to stay employed.
It doesn't matter where Kansas' two Big 12 victories come from; they just need to exist.
After finally winning a conference game over West Virginia last season—a victory which snapped a 27-game intra-league losing streak (and 29-game losing streak against current Big 12 members)—a second win would represent tangible improvement for back-to-back seasons.
And that, at Kansas, is nothing to take for granted.
Would going 2-6 in the conference be enough for Weis to keep his job? Good question. But staying stuck on one win or dropping down to zero would definitely not be, which makes this a reasonable goal.
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