College football’s hot seat coaching rankings got shaken up over the weekend, where something that has long been expected finally became official: Butch Jones was fired as Tennessee’s head coach.
Ultimately Jones’ inevitable departure was something that I’ve written about extensively over the course of the season, but to see it finally happen on Sunday morning was still a bit surprising. The simple truth is that there were about 10 different points in the season that Tennessee probably should have moved on from Jones (a historic, 41-0 loss to Georgia, a loss to Kentucky) but didn’t, and because of it everyone just assumed that he’d survive until the end of the season. However, a 50-17 defeat against Missouri appeared to have sealed his fate, as Tennessee fell to 4-6 and 0-6 in SEC play with games remaining against LSU and Vanderbilt.
With Jones gone, let’s get you an updated look at where the hot seat currently stands:
Coaches who’ve been already been let go (5): Butch Jones (Tennessee), Jim McElwain (Florida), Gary Andersen (Oregon State), Sean Kugler (UTEP) and Tyson Sumers (Georgia Southern)
Coaches who started the year on the hot seat but coached themselves off of it (4): Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Todd Graham (Arizona State)
Guy who isn’t technically on the “hot seat” but won’t be back next year: Matt Luke, Ole Miss
We put Luke in his own category last week, and it felt right to do the same thing again this Tuesday. By technicality, Luke isn’t on the “hot seat” since, to be blunt, he isn’t really on any seat. Luke was simply hired as a stop-gap after the school fired Hugh Freeze in July, and it seemed understood from that point on they’d almost certainly bring in someone else long-term after that. The ironic part is that Luke has done about as well as anyone could have expected in his interim role this season, leading the Rebels to a 5-5 record heading into their final two games.
Still, once the season ends it seems almost certain Luke will be out as the team’s head coach. The whole school will want to move past the Freeze era (especially with an ongoing NCAA investigation) and you’ve got to think that the Rebels will clean house. Maybe Luke can latch on as an assistant with the new staff. But barring something shocking, he won’t be the head coach (at least not in Oxford) next season.
Now, let’s get to our official list, which has been shaken up this week with Jones’ firing.
5) Jim Mora, UCLA
For months I’ve argued that because UCLA has a notoriously cheap athletic department (even with a rich new Under Armour apparel deal) and because Mora has a $12 million buyout, it would take something truly catastrophic for him to lose his job. UCLA just isn’t the kind of school that’s going to spend $20 million on a coaching transaction to pay Mora a buyout, plus hire a new coach and pay for his staff. That might fly in Knoxville or College Station, but not Westwood.
Therefore, my hunch is that Mora will still be back next season, and he certainly helped his cause with a win over Arizona State on Saturday night. The Bruins now sit at 5-5 on the season, and it feels like 6-6 would be enough to get him another year. Even if UCLA lost its final two to finish 5-7 it might not be enough for the Bruins’ administration to pull the trigger.
Obviously, you can “never say never.” But it feels like Mora will survive in Westwood, and likely be coaching for his job in 2018.
4) Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
Kingsbury and Texas Tech are in a similar situation to Mora and UCLA. When you consider that Red Raiders AD Kirby Hocutt is the head of the playoff selection committee, you’ve got to think that the last thing he wants to do in early December is search for a new head coach. Therefore, all season long it has felt like a 6-6 record and bowl appearance might be enough to get Kingsbury another season.
And like Mora, Kingsbury also helped his cause on Saturday. The Red Raiders broke a four-game losing streak with a win against Baylor and have now improved to 5-5 on the season. They close with TCU and Texas, and it feels like a win against either would keep Kingsbury around for another season.
Now, what would happen if Kingsbury loses both games? In that scenario he’d finish the year at 5-7 and 2-7 in the Big 12, not to mention miss a bowl game for the third time in four years. At that point, Hocutt might have no choice but to move on from him.
3) Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Sumlin is in a wildly precarious situation. On the surface, it feels like there’s no way he’s coming back. Prior to Saturday’s beat down against overmatched New Mexico, the Aggies sat at just 5-4 overall and Sumlin was in the midst of another late-season swoon with ugly back-to-back losses to Mississippi State and Auburn. And even though Texas A&M dominated New Mexico 55-14, it’s hard to imagine that really made much of a difference in AD Scott Woodward’s eyes.
At the same time, there is one thing to consider about that win for Texas A&M on Saturday: It also marked the full-time return of Nick Starkel. Starkel was the team’s starter at quarterback to open the season, but was then injured in the opener to UCLA and lost for seven weeks during the season. He returned a few weeks back, but didn’t start until Saturday where he was phenomenal. There, the redshirt freshman tossed for 416 yards and four touchdowns.
And ultimately that’s where Sumlin’s situation gets interesting. Woodward said in the off-season that even an 8-4 season wasn’t good enough for Sumlin, but what if the Aggies win the next two games and finish right on the dot at 8-4? At that point, couldn’t Sumlin make a pretty compelling case that if he had Starkel for the full season they would have had a better record? And couldn’t he also argue that with the return of Starkel and several other key players that the Aggies could be primed for a breakthrough in 2018?
Admittedly, the first step for Sumlin is to just win those two games, which won’t be easy since they’re both on the road at Ole Miss and LSU. But if he does, it will set up for an interesting first week of December in Aggieland.
2) Mike Riley, Nebraska
As we mentioned last week, it seems unfair to evaluate a head coach like Riley who hasn’t even completed three full seasons at a new head coach stop. At the same time, new AD Bill Moos wasn’t hired last month to maintain the status quo. Therefore, it was hard to imagine just about any scenario where Riley was back in Lincoln next season.
However, if there was ever any doubt, Saturday should have sealed Riley’s fate. In that game, Nebraska not only lost to Minnesota, but was embarrassed 54-21. Understand that it’s one thing for the Cornhuskers to lose to Ohio State or Michigan, but quite another to lose to the Golden Gophers. It’s significantly worse when the Gophers put up 54 points, just the second time since 2006 they’ve broken the 50-point barrier in Big Ten play.
Therefore, you can just go ahead and add Saturday to Riley’s already impressive resume of futility in Lincoln. With games left against Penn State and Iowa the Cornhuskers could very realistically finish at 4-8 this season. Even if they don’t, Riley is as good as gone.
1) Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Speaking of “as good as gone” meet Bret Bielema, who now tops our hot seat list after Jones was fired early Sunday morning. Understand that Bielema was once considered to be a savior in Fayetteville but unfortunately has seen the program regress in every way imaginable in 2017. The team is just 4-5 overall and 1-5 in SEC play, and if that wasn’t bad enough, those four wins are over Florida A&M, New Mexico State, with a pair of victories over Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina by one-point each. Add in the fact that he lost three of four to close last year, we now have about a year-and-a-half sample size of major regression for Bielema.
Therefore, Bielema seems like he’s essentially a dead man walking in Fayetteville. It seems unlikely Arkansas will win either of its last two (Mississippi State, at a suddenly hot Missouri team) but even a split probably isn’t enough for him to keep his job.