I’ve been covering college football for close to a decade now, and mannnnnnnn, there really is nothing better than the coaching carousel. Take the day-to-day intensity of the sport, add in the constant arms race that leaves every fan terrified of falling behind their rival, and throw in the unrealistic belief that every program is just one or two tiny tweaks from competing for national titles, and it leads to one of the truly great spectacles anywhere in sports.
And with the expanded coverage of college football across the web, it has made the coaching carousel, and in turn “hot seat” coaching lists, something that is covered from before the first game of the season to well after the last game goes final in January.
So with that, we reveal our first “Hot Seat” coaching rankings of 2017. Understand that 2017 is a bit different than in previous years, with fewer coaches than usual sitting on truly “hot seats.” Sure, unlike last year, when Charlie Strong, Les Miles and Gus Malzahn needed great seasons to keep their jobs, most of these guys just need to make sure not to fall below .500 to keep their jobs. Some can probably even get away with that.
Regardless, below are all the coaches from the major conferences, who could — in theory — lose their jobs this season, as well as a description of how realistic it is that they might be fired. We’ll continue to update this throughout the season.
9. Jim Mora, UCLA
It seems like just yesterday when Mora was the toast of Westwood, the hard-nosed former NFL head coach who inherited one of college football’s most underachieving programs and completely flipped it on its head. The Bruins won nine games and a Pac-12 South title in Mora’s first year, and followed it up with back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. Even more impressive, he took control of the college football scene in Los Angeles, winning three straight against hated rival USC.
For a time, Mora could do no wrong — but that’s definitely no longer the case at UCLA. Following those back-to-back 10-win seasons, UCLA went 8-5 in 2015 before a catastrophic fall to 4-8 a season ago. Add in the fact that this is most likely Mora’s last season with super-QB Josh Rosen, and this feels like one of those “if it doesn’t happen this year, it never will” deals in Westwood.
Still, while some websites have Mora sitting on a scorching hot seat, I’m more dubious than most. For one, Mora is owed a ridiculous buyout (upwards of $12 million, according to Yahoo Sports). And as someone who lives in Los Angeles and has spent a lot of time around the UCLA athletic department, I promise you, they’re not the kind of school that is willing to spend money like that — even if Mora were a sunk cost as a coach. A $20 million coaching transaction ($12 million to buy out Mora, plus another $8 million to $10 million to bring in a new coach and his staff) just isn’t something UCLA is interested in doing. Even if the athletic department is flush in cash thanks to a new apparel deal with Under Armour.
Therefore, unlike most, I think it would actually take a pretty bad year for UCLA to even think about moving Mora, and a flat-out disastrous one to actually do it. Get to a bowl and Mora will be fine. Even 5-7 could be enough to get Mora another year.
8. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
When Bobby Petrino wrecked his motorcycle with a mistress on his backseat back in 2012, he basically wrecked the Arkansas football program. And to Bielema’s credit, he’s done an awesome job cleaning it up since arriving in 2013, going from three wins to seven to eight in his first three seasons at the school.
But all the optimism that run created was squashed a season ago, with a disappointing 7-6 campaign and some especially troubling performances down the stretch. Arkansas blew a 24-7 lead in a loss to Missouri and followed it up by blowing a 24-0 lead to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Add it up, and it has left Arkansas fans less comfortable with the state of the program than they were at any time since Bielema arrived.
Still, there’s a difference between “being uncomfortable with the direction of the program” and being flat-out “on the hot seat,” and Bielema’s status still skews much more toward the first than the second. Like Mora, he has a massive buyout ($11 million if he’s fired this year), and for all the disappointment that the end of the season brought last year, the program is still in wayyyyyyy better position today than it was when Bielema arrived.
It would take something disastrous (like a 3-9 mark) for athletic director Jeff Long to even consider a move. Even then, Bielema would probably get at least one more year to figure things out.
7. Todd Graham, Arizona State
Now this is where it starts to get interesting. That’s because for all the disappointment that last year brought for both Mora and Bielema, there is at least reason for optimism at UCLA and Arkansas. But at Arizona State, there is little reason for excitement even after back-to-back sub-.500 seasons.
That’s right, it feels like it’s been a lifetime since Graham won 10 games in both 2013 and 2014, with a 6-7 mark in 2015 followed by a 5-7 clunker a season ago. The disappointment led to the replacement of both coordinators, with Billy Napier trying to improve an offense that ranked 81st nationally and Phil Bennett coming from Baylor to improve a defense that allowed at least 34 points to every Pac-12 opponent last season. Entering 2017, the situation in Tempe doesn’t seem to be significantly better. Arizona State still has one of the least talented rosters in the Pac-12 and it’s also probably not a good sign that Alabama transfer Blake Barnett (who many viewed as a potential savior this season) is failing to beat out incumbent Manny Wilkins at quarterback.
Graham’s one saving grace may be — like the guys above — his buyout. It was at a staggering $14 million last year, and even though it dipped this season, if this azcentral.com article is correct, it’s still around 10 figures if Graham is fired after this season. Could an athletic department that has never exactly printed money really afford to pay that kind of cash to let go of a coach? Especially when — unlike so many others on this — the Sun Devils aren’t exactly the type of school that will likely attract a top-flight replacement?
6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
You can basically take the same top two paragraphs for Graham and apply them to his cross-state rival Rodriguez here. Rich Rod came out of the gates firing early on in his time in Tucson, capped by a Pac-12 South title and Fiesta Bowl berth in 2014, but it’s been all downhill since. Last year, the Wildcats went just 3-9 and things fell apart on both sides of the ball, where a man once hailed as an “offensive genius” led a team that averaged just 24.8 points per game last year (100th nationally) and where the defense ranked 118th nationally in points allowed. In recruiting, Arizona lost a bunch of players late, including one star receiver to Colorado State. Ouch.
So Rodriguez is in quite a pickle entering this season, and keep in mind that Greg Byrne, the AD who hired him, is now at Alabama. How much patience will new AD Dave Heeke have with the sixth-year coach?
Because of Rodriguez’s early success in Tucson, and the fact that Arizona is a tough place to win, it feels like Rodriguez will get another season if he can even moderately improve last year’s 3-9 mark. But with so many questions on both sides of the ball, is there any reason to believe they actually can improve?
5. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Like Mora above, I’m more dubious than most about how “hot” Kelly’s hot seat is. For starters, he’s the best coach Notre Dame has had since Lou Holtz and — as disappointing as last year’s 4-8 campaign was — Kelly also had the Irish within a play or two of making the College Football Playoff just two seasons ago. He also has a solid relationship with AD Kevin White and reportedly has an astronomical buyout (because Notre Dame is a private school, it’s tough to get an accurate gauge on the number, but The Associated Press put it at around $15 million). Money isn’t necessarily an issue at Notre Dame. But still, does a school that just finished paying off Charlie Weis’ buyout in December really want to spend another couple of years paying a guy to not coach there?
But while there is reason to believe Kelly could coach his way off the hot seat, there is still good reason why he’s on this list in the first place. That 4-8 season was disastrous in more ways than just the record on the field, as Kelly ended up replacing both coordinators and had a very public battle with DeShone Kizer when the QB decided to go pro last season. For lack of a better term, it seems like Kelly and the Irish fan base are sick of each other, and a divorce might not be the worst thing for either side. Anything less than an 8-4 season feels like it might cause it.
Of course, one other thing to consider is this: Could Kelly use a strong season to potentially springboard to another job? Given his relationship with the fan base, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing, meaning this is a coaching carousel story that’s worth watching whether Notre Dame is really bad or really good this season.
4. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
There’s an old saying that “it just means more” in the Southeastern Conference. But even as ravenous as the folks are in the South about college football, Auburn fans are an extra breed of crazy. The Tigers might have the only fan base in America that wants its coach fired and also believes it has a team good enough to win a national championship. Welcome to life on the Plains!
The crazy thing is, I kind of see both sides of the story.
In defense of Malzahn, he took the Tigers to the 2013 national title game, went to the Sugar Bowl last year and has a 35-18 mark overall since taking over for Gene Chizik. In defense of Tigers fans though, Malzahn was one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in college football last year, a heavy price tag to finish behind your cross-state rivals in the division every year. Plus, it’s not like Auburn’s run to the Sugar Bowl was inspiring, after it needed a miracle to beat LSU (ultimately costing Les Miles his job) and where Georgia beat them despite not scoring an offensive touchdown.
So, yeah, these are fascinating times at Auburn and what’s even more fascinating is that there is no obvious threshold for Malzahn to meet to keep his job. Would 8-4 be good enough if it included losses to Alabama and Georgia again? Would 7-5 be OK if the Tigers split those games?
The good news is that Auburn has enough talent to beat anyone on its schedule. Whether it does or not will be fascinating to watch.
3. Butch Jones, Tennessee
While so much of the focus on the SEC job market centers around Kevin Sumlin and Malzahn, not nearly enough seems to be focused on Jones. He also has arguably the most interesting case entering the season.
In defense of Jones, he has slowly built this Tennessee program (some might say “brick by brick”) from the ashes of the Derek Dooley era, taking the Volunteers to back-to-back nine-win seasons. But if you paid close attention, last year’s nine-win season was “accomplishment” in name only, as the Vols started 5-0, only to finish 3-4 down the stretch, with head-scratching losses to South Carolina (when the Vols were coming off a bye) and Vanderbilt along the way. It also came when the program had by far its most talent in a decade and arguably the most talent in the SEC East.
Therefore, it raises the question: If the Vols couldn’t beat the teams they was supposed to beat with Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Derek Barnett and others, why believe they’ll do it this year? And if they can’t, and with an especially treacherous schedule, could an 8-4 record last year become 5-7 this year?
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
If Jones is the most overlooked name in the SEC portion of the coaching carousel, Kingsbury is unquestionably the most overlooked on the national scale. Am I the only one who realizes how bad this guy has been over the last 4½ years or so?
Understand that on paper Kingsbury’s 24-26 record doesn’t look good, but dig deeper and its way worse than you could ever imagine. Remember that he actually started his career 7-0 at Texas Tech, meaning he’s just 17-26 since then. Keep in mind that seven of those 17 wins were against Big 12 bottom-dwellers Iowa State and Kansas, and another six were against either Group of Five or FCS schools. Add it up and that’s a bunch of losses, and not many wins, against very good teams.
Add in one of the most consistently porous defenses in recent college football history (the Red Raiders ranked 128th out of 128 FBS teams in total defense and scoring defense last season) and a big, but not overwhelming buyout number ($6.7 million), and it feels unquestionable to say that Kingsbury is coaching for his job this season.
1. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Poor Sumlin has the dubious honor of being the only head coach on this list who was actually put on the hot seat … by his own AD! And like so many others on this list, Sumlin’s case to keep his job beyond this year is both fascinating and complicated.
In Sumlin’s defense, he has won at least eight games in each of his five seasons at the school, success that — as he pointed out earlier this week — a lot of schools would love to have. But working against Sumlin is that not all eight-win seasons are created equal, and that’s especially true at Texas A&M, where hot starts have been met by equally ugly finishes late in the year. Dating to Johnny Manziel’s final season at Texas A&M, the Aggies are just 7-9 in November, including last year’s dreadful 1-3 finish.
Therefore, Sumlin enters a unique hot seat season. It isn’t about whether he wins a certain amount of games, but instead how he wins them. If the Aggies go 8-4 with respectable losses sprinkled throughout the season, he probably can keep his job. If they go 8-4 with three of those losses in the final three weeks, he’ll almost certainly be gone.
And the coaching carousel will begin heating up.