Pros and Cons of the Top Candidates for Tennessee's New Head Football Coach

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 27, 2021

Former Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt
Former Tennessee head coach Jeremy PruittVasha Hunt/Associated Press

College football's coaching carousel never seems to stop, but it is in a brief holding pattern as we all wait to find out who Tennessee will hire to fill its head coach vacancy.

First, the Volunteers needed to hire a new athletic director to replace Phillip Fulmer, and by all accounts, they got a good one in former UCF athletic director Danny White. A year before taking the UCF job in November 2015, he hired Lance Leipold at Buffalo, and he's still there. At UCF, White hired Scott Frost and then Josh Heupel. Both decisions worked out quite well.

Can he work similar magic in Knoxville?

Per, the three coaches who have been vetted for the Tennessee opening are Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

Is it a guarantee that one of those three men will get the job? Nope. Not in the slightest.

But those are the top three candidates as things currently stand, so let's consider the pros and cons before closing with a few other nominations.

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P.J. Fleck, Minnesota HC

Pro: Fleck has the best track record of the bunch, by far.

In his second season at Western Michigan, he had the Broncos in a bowl game. By Year 4, they were in a New Year's Six bowl with 13 winsthe only double-digit-wins season in almost six decades of program history. From there, he went to Minnesota, took over a Power Five program in the middle of a scandal and had the Golden Gophers in the AP Top 10 within three yearstheir first time in the Top 10 since 1962.

You just know he's going to win over the team and the fans in a hurry. Whether it's "Row the Boat," "Ski-U-Mah" or his constant intensity on the sideline, he's easy to root for and motivates his guys to want to run through a brick wall.

And while Fleck has never signed a recruit rated in the top 200 overall, he has recruited quite well compared to the norms at Western Michigan and Minnesota. The Golden Gophers' classes ranked outside the top 45 in the nation every year from 2010-17, but they have now put together four straight classes in the top 45. It's reasonable to assume he'd thrive in the SEC.

Con: He's arguably the best candidate, but he's also probably the costliest.

Fleck is signed through the 2026 season at Minnesota and had a $4.6 million salary in 2020. Not only would it take a $4.5 million buyout to get him, but they would also need to offer both a raise and a lengthy deal just to get him to the bargaining table. Jeremy Pruitt wasn't even making $4 million per year, but it would probably take something like a five-year, $30 million deal (plus the buyout) to get Fleck.

That's a lot of cheddar to invest in a guy who doesn't have any head coaching experience at a place where the pressure to succeed is this high.


Tony Elliott, Clemson OC

Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony ElliottDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

Pro: Elliott is a great offensive mind and a mighty fine recruiter. The running backs coach and offensive coordinator has been calling plays for Clemson since 2015, which means he has been instrumental in the Tigers' six consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff.

Sure, he had either Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence as the quarterback for five of those six teams. That makes it a little easier to call plays. But he also had guys like Wayne Gallman, Travis Etienne and Deon Cain, each of whom he was at least partially responsible for recruiting to Clemson.

Luring talent like that to Tennesseepreferably without the use of McDonald's bagswould be huge for the Volunteers. And it's unclear whether Fleck or Dykes can land that type of talent. 

Con: Elliott has undoubtedly learned a lot in his decade with Clemson, but he's never had a head coaching job. Given how poorly things just went for the Vols with a first-time head coach, they might be a little reluctant to dive right back into a similar situation.


Sonny Dykes, SMU HC

Pro: If Tennessee wants to compete for an SEC title, it needs to join the literal "arms" race and improve its passing game. The Volunteers have averaged fewer than 205 passing yards per game in four of the past six seasons, and that's not nearly enough to keep pace with the offenses of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.

Dykes can turn that around.

The former Mike Leach protege (Dykes was Leach's wide receivers coach for seven years at Texas Tech) still has quite a bit of Air Raid offense in his blood. In his third (and final) year with Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs ranked third in the nation in passing yards per game. The same goes for his third season at California, and SMU eclipsed 300 passing yards per game with room to spare in each of the past two seasons.

In returning freshman Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, the Vols have two rock-solid options at quarterback. And in addition to Velus Jones Jr. returning for a sixth year of eligibility, there's a lot of young talent in that receiving corps. Dykes could make this offense potent in short order.

Con: Dykes fared well at Louisiana Tech and has done a remarkable job over the past three years at SMU. But in his only previous head coaching gig at a Power Five school, he went 19-30 at California and was fired after four years.

The bigger concern, though, is that his teams have been awful on defense. The last time a Dykes-led team held the opposition below 30 points per game was in 2011, and Tennessee needs someone who can repair its defense even more than it needs someone to breathe life into the offense.


This coming list is not intended to be comprehensive. These are just the five other candidates I like the most.

So as far as other possible candidates go... 

Tom Herman, Former Texas HC

Former Texas head coach Tom Herman
Former Texas head coach Tom HermanEric Gay/Associated Press

It would be pretty unusual for a coach to get fired from one marquee Power Five job and then get hired at another one less than a month later, but why not Tom Herman?

In six years as a head coach, the man has never had a losing record. And when he took the Texas job four years ago, he was the hottest commodity in the sport. It's hard to comprehend how a .640 winning percentage over the past four seasons and a great deal of success on the recruiting trail would have made him an undesirable option for any team.


Gus Malzahn, Former Auburn HC

See: Herman, Tom.

Gus Malzahn went to the national championship in his first year with Auburn and never had a losing record in eight seasons. He always put together a top-10 (or darn close to it) recruiting class and managed to defeat Nick Saban not once, not twice, but three times in the Iron Bowl.

His former defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, is Tennessee's current interim head coach, which is arguably the biggest reason this is unlikely to happen. Aside from that bit of drama, though, it would make sense.


Hugh Freeze, Liberty HC

The guy can clearly coach, and we already know he can do it in the SEC.

Sure, his time at Ole Miss ended with his resignation after "a pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team," per school chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. But he inherited a 2-10 mess after the 2011 season and had the Rebels at No. 3 in the AP Top 25 for multiple weeks in both his third and fourth years with the program.

It also only took him two seasons to turn new-to-the-FBS Liberty into a Top 25 team.


Billy Napier, Louisiana HC

Billy Napier is 28-11 in three years as the head coach of the Ragin' Cajuns, and he previously spent five years as an assistant on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama. The 41-year-old has been linked to basically every opening and rumored opening for the past few months, but maybe this is the one that gets him to take the plunge into a higher-paying, higher-stress gig?

Save for one year as an associate head coach at Colorado State and one year as an offensive coordinator at Arizona State, Napier, who was born in Tennessee, has spent his entire life in the Southeastern United States. We've got to believe he'd at least make for a good culture fit at Rocky Top.


Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss HC

I mean, we're obligated to put Lane Kiffin on the list, right?

The man is an offensive guru and a human lightning rod for content who has some unfinished business with Tennessee after using the Volunteers as a one-year stopgap between his stints with the Oakland Raiders and the USC Trojans.

Kiffin just re-upped with the Rebels earlier this month on an extension through the 2024 season, so it's unlikely he's going anywhere. The exact buyout figure on his deal is unknown, but it is reportedly "healthy."

There's no question it would be fun, though, and it would give Kiffin a better chance to actually compete for an SEC title in the less-loaded of the two divisions. But I can't see it happening.