Way-Too-Early College Football Head Coach Hot-Seat Predictions
Thirteen college football programs so far will have new head coaches next season following a 2020 campaign that was in question until the 11th hour because of COVID-19.
Nobody is ever safe when you're trying to build a winner.
Three SEC programs (Auburn, South Carolina and Vanderbilt) made (or, in some cases, were forced to make) changes, as did Texas, Illinois, Boise State, Arizona, Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State, South Alabama, Utah State and Southern Mississippi. Marshall fired Doc Holliday but has yet to insert a replacement.
Coaches are on the hot seat every year, though, so get ready. A contract extension means little if the on-field product is not up to snuff.
Here are some candidates who could be filling out applications if their programs don't take a dramatic turn in 2021.
Dino Babers, Syracuse Orange
There are a few long shots on the list, and one of those is Syracuse head coach Dino Babers. Still, don't write his name down in Sharpie for '22.
Yes, athletic director John Wildhack said Babers' job was safe.
"I hope he's our coach for a long time. He knows that. I want him to be, the university does," Wildhack said in mid-December, per Cuse Nation's Stephen Bailey.
But the Orange have a long way to go.
Babers signed an extension following a 10-3 season in 2018, but the bottom line is the Orange have four losing seasons in his five years, including an awful 1-10 mark in 2020 as the team was decimated by injuries and COVID-19 opt-outs.
The Orange need to find some dependable playmakers on both sides of the ball, and they don't have a lot of exciting incoming prospects. What if they follow up last season with a similarly ugly record? The guess is that Wildhack will change his tune.
Dana Dimel, UTEP Miners
In the late 1990s, Dana Dimel turned the Wyoming Cowboys into a respectable program before heading to Houston and sending his head coaching career into oblivion with three miserable years with the Cougars.
After stints as an assistant, he resurfaced at UTEP in 2018, and things haven't been any better his second time around as a head coach in the Lone Star State.
Following back-to-back 1-11 seasons, the Miners went 3-5 in 2020, and a look closer says that "improvement" was measured in numbers alone.
The wins came over Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and an awful Louisiana-Monroe team. They were throttled 59-3 by Texas.
They finished the season against Louisiana Tech, Charlotte, UTSA and North Texas. While they were competitive against the Bulldogs and 49ers and in a 45-43 loss to the Mean Green to close the season against another coach who had to be feeling some heat in Seth Littrell, they still got beat.
It's good the school decided to stick by Dimel in a season with four COVID-19-related game cancellations, but he needs to win now. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't have the roster for a major turnaround in 2021.
Scott Frost, Nebraska Cornhuskers
How many years does being the "hot name" get a college coach?
It didn't buy Tom Herman any time at Texas, but the expectations aren't quite as high for a once-proud Nebraska program that had to rebuild under Scott Frost.
Still, Frost had better start showing some returns between the lines.
The Cornhuskers started the 2019 season ranked and fell flat on their faces, and a pandemic-shortened '20 season wasn't much better, though quarterback Luke McCaffrey is a star they can build around.
Frost started his tenure in Lincoln with a 4-8 record in '18. He's 12-20 in three years, but he is recruiting at a high level, pulling in top-20 recruiting classes in each of his first full hauls as Nebraska's head coach.
But that record is ugly. As a matter of fact, he now has more losses than Mike Riley (19-19), the coach he replaced. Another bad season, and you have to believe there will be some difficult decisions.
As the Omaha Herald-World's Tom Shatel wrote: "Nebraska doesn't need another reset anytime soon. It doesn't need to tear down a program. It needs to build. And keep building. It needs stability. It needs consistency."
He later adds: "In return, Nebraska needs one thing out of its coach. It needs him to start winning."
If that doesn't start happening soon, back up the moving van.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock didn't guarantee anything for Hokies head coach Justin Fuente.
"I understand the hot-seat talk, and the best way to get off that is to win some games and do it right, so that's what we're planning on doing," Babcock said, according to CBS19 Charlottesville's Preston Willett.
After the Hokies finished 5-6 (following a 6-7 campaign in 2018 and a pedestrian 8-5 season in 2019) and opted out of participating in a bowl game, ending the nation's longest bowl streak at 27 consecutive years.
Fuente hasn't lived up to the program's expectations following legendary Frank Beamer, and there have been spurts of flat-out awful football on offense and defense.
Most importantly, the Hokies aren't competing for championships.
Fuente is barely making ripples in recruiting, with the 43rd-ranked class in 2021 following a No. 76 finish in 2020, and if Virginia Tech isn't going to become a program of the past like Tennessee, Nebraska, Florida State and, to an extent, Michigan and Penn State, it needs positive change.
There are too many resources and too much history at Tech to let the program take a fall so quickly. It's now or never for Fuente.
Mike Leach, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mike Leach's Air Raid offense instead looked like a bunch of paper airplanes in his first season at Mississippi State.
The Pirate had a new ship to captain in 2020, but the SEC West has not been friendly waters. The Bulldogs had a season-opening win over LSU that looked meh as the year went on, and Stanford transfer quarterback K.J. Costello fell flat. Will Rogers wasn't a whole lot better.
A No. 34-rated recruiting class would have been a lot better if not for some late defections, but quarterback Sawyer Robertson looks like he'll be able to thrive once he learns the system. In fairness to Leach, it's difficult to come into a conference as tough as the SEC and implement an offense like his.
But fans will begin to grumble if there are no bright spots. It had to be frustrating to see zone defenses shut down the Air Raid down so often during a 3-7 season (excluding the Armed Forces Bowl victory). Leach desperately needs to keep defensive coordinator Zach Arnett around too.
With all the buzz surrounding Lane Kiffin's first year in Oxford with Ole Miss, MSU needs some good things to happen, or it's not out of the question for Leach to be canned.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines
There is a big conundrum for Big Blue.
Jim Harbaugh recently signed a contract extension, unprecedentedly taking a pay cut to stay in Ann Arbor. He was paid around $8 million this year, but according to ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg, the new deal will pay him $4 million next season.
"I continue to believe that Jim is the right man to lead our program in pursuit of Big Ten and CFP championships," athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. At one time, Harbaugh's name was one of the biggest in all of football. Now his stock is at an all-time low. Ohio State football's Twitter account even "liked" a tweet about a report that Harbaugh was signing the extension.
Harbaugh is 49-22 in six seasons at Michigan and 34-16 in Big Ten play, but he has struggled mightily in big games and especially against the Buckeyes. The good news is that Harbaugh still connects with prospects, routinely signing highly ranked classes.
After Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Don Brown and replaced him with Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald, there will be some newness at the program in '21.
But there's the same ol' coach. He'd better start winning like expected, or money won't matter in replacing him.
Clay Helton, USC Trojans
There is a lot of excitement around USC right now. Unfortunately for the Trojans, not a lot of it centers on wins.
Clay Helton's team had a spotless 5-0 record heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game, but they laid an egg against Oregon and then opted out of playing in a bowl game. So that loss is the last bitter taste for fans who weren't happy with Helton in the first place.
Fortunately for the Trojans, it hasn't hurt them on the recruiting trail. The nation's top-ranked player (Korey Foreman) announced he's heading to USC, and the Trojans have a top-10 class after the 64th-ranked group a year ago.
Winning over the prospects helps immensely, but it doesn't equal wins on the field.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis is returning in 2021 to run coordinator Graham Harrell's offense, and though the Trojans have to replace Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, they are loaded with young talent at receiver.
The defense also got a major boost in 2020 under new coordinator Todd Orlando.
But a repeat season like 2019 (8-5) or especially 2018 (5-7) would likely mean Helton is looking for a new job. Probably three or more losses and he'd be on shaky ground again, despite an OK 45-23 record.
Dana Holgorsen, Houston Cougars
Dana Holgorsen's head coaching career has been bizarre, to say the least.
After eight seasons as West Virginia's head coach, he became one of the most respected offensive minds in the game. But he never seemed very content in Morgantown.
Still, it was odd for him to take a job at Houston. It's not every day you see the coach of a Power Five program jump ship for a Group of Five team, but he probably saw the hotbed of talent in the Lone Star State, the success Tom Herman had there and wanted to return to his roots in the Southwest.
Things have not gone as planned.
After going 4-8 in his first year, he followed it up with a 3-5 record in 2020. Few teams were hit as hard by COVID-19 cancellations as the Cougars, though, so Holgorsen will get another opportunity. But he needs to start making friends.
A hot microphone caught some not-so-kind comments from Holgorsen back in 2019 after D'Eriq King decided not to play for Houston and transfer to Miami. When something like that happens, it's can be tough to stick around.
With Clayton Tune back in 2021, big things will be expected from the Houston offense. The Cougars expect to be better than the middle-of-the-pack in the AAC, and if they're not, Holgorsen may be looking for anybody who'll have him in 2022.
Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Doug Martin is in a unique position at New Mexico State.
Unlike most of the other FBS programs, the Aggies elected to sit out the 2020 season. They could've used the break given the way things have gone during Martin's tenure.
Now, he gets to evaluate the past two recruiting classes before they take the practice field, hopefully in the spring. Now, he'll be entering an important year with 35 players who've never played a college snap.
"Not playing [in 2020] gave us time to focus on recruiting as an entire staff," Martin told the Las Cruces Sun-News' Jason Groves. "I think COVID put us on a level playing field for the first time. We don't have the budget or facilities as some of these schools, but all of a sudden recruiting was about how hard you worked and how creative you could be and our staff did a great job."
The question is how many more opportunities is Martin going to get? Entering his eighth year with the program, he's had just one winning season (7-6 in 2017). The other years, the Aggies finished either 3-9 or 2-10. They are perennially one of the worst programs in college football.
You have to think if things don't improve, they'll go a different direction.
Les Miles, Kansas Jayhawks
There is no worse FBS football program than Kansas, which has pieced together an impressive string of futility dating back to the tumultuous (but winning) days of Mark Mangino.
But not even the Jayhawks are OK with going winless.
Les Miles is going to have to get things together in Lawrence in a hurry, or he's going to have to find a new flavor of grass to chew on.
Nobody expected the former head coach of LSU to be able to turn Kansas around quickly, but the Jayhawks went 0-9 in 2020. A season-opening 38-23 loss to Coastal Carolina aged well, but they were not competitive again until a season-ending 16-13 loss to Texas Tech.
In the nine losses, the average margin of defeat was 30.3 points. That's awful, even for the Jayhawks.
While Miles gets a free pass in a forgettable second season (after a 3-9 first year), Kansas is banking on the coach who'd built a 142-55 record with the Bayou Bengals and Oklahoma State to help a woebegone program through a full rebuild.
Like Turner Gill, Charlie Weis and David Beaty before him, though, Miles is running into a wall in the Big 12. He's got to get a quarterback who can open the offense and convince better defenders to play their college football in Lawrence.
The Jayhawks can't buy into Miles' rebuild if they're getting their doors blown off every week.
Ed Orgeron, LSU Tigers
This time a year ago, LSU coach Ed Orgeron was sitting on top of the world. Now, he's trying to find the way back into the good graces of one of the most difficult fanbases to please in college football.
There's perhaps no program other than Auburn that struggles in Nick Saban's long shadow than the Bayou Bengals, who once employed college football's all-time greatest coach.
Even though LSU won last year's national title with one of the best teams in college football history, it had to rebuild the 2020 roster, and, boy, did it show. Not only that, but Saban won another title, so the grumbles were even louder after a 5-5 season that ended with a self-imposed 2020 bowl ban.
For Orgeron to be considered on the hot seat is a bit ridiculous, but he is. Another subpar season in '21, and the Tigers will be clamoring for dismissal.
Orgeron's Bo Pelini experiment ended with the firing of the defensive coordinator after just one season. Orgeron is looking for play-callers on both sides of the ball, and while there's no more tireless recruiter, the defections in the past year have been alarming.
Not only did LSU have a bunch of COVID-19 opt-outs (some during the season), but the Tigers also saw elite freshman Arik Gilbert enter the transfer portal.
People need to remember the Tigers are only a year removed from the title and have a bunch of good, young talent. But Coach O must better develop it quickly, or he may not get the chance to watch the team be great again.