College football has a uniqueness about it that isn’t found in other sports. The same teams are usually among the best, the same coaches usually win the most, and the same dysfunctional programs do dysfunctional things. But there is also a long list of subplots that lie beneath of surface of each season. Sometimes even the subplots have subplots. And almost always, those subplots don’t involve the actual players playing the games.
Instead, the one thing that separates college football from any other sport is the amount of power held by the coaches. Coaches run the programs and they’re the face of the program. That’s certainly not the case in professional sports where we associate teams with the athletes. It doesn’t work that way in college football, and the coaches know they have power.
The NBA, NFL and MLB have a free agency period where a team can sign stars and completely change their franchise in one offseason. Players don’t really have that power in college football, but the coaches do. So, when the regular season comes to an end, the free agency period of college football begins, and the best coaches can decide whether they want to take a new job, or if they want to pretend they’re interesting in taking a new job so they have leverage to earn more money at their current school.
The 2017 coaching carousel began a little early at a few major programs. Florida, Tennessee and UCLA all fired their coaches before the season ended, and schools like Texas A&M, Nebraska and Arkansas made it known they were making a change a few weeks ago. Some of those vacancies have already been filled, and but the fun part has been following the rumors circulating each coaching vacancy.
It will probably be a couple of weeks before all of these spots are filled, so I wanted to do a brief overview of where each of these major programs stand, what they can and should expect, and candidates they should consider. First, let’s start with the schools that have already filled their vacancies.
The Gators fired Jim McElwain during the season, and this was a marriage that didn’t make much sense to me from the start. Sure, he won back-to-back SEC East titles, but he did so with Will Muschamp’s defense, and they were clobbered by Alabama in both championship games. The offense was never good and only got worse, and then McElwain mysteriously lied about receiving death threats. He wasn’t a good fit in Gainesville, and former AD Jeremy Foley missed on his last two coaching hires.
New AD Scott Stricklin was tasked with making the new hire, and he eventually landed on the candidate the Gators should’ve hired years ago. Stricklin, who previously worked at Mississippi State, hired Dan Mullen away from Starkville, despite reportedly considering a handful of other candidates first.
Some have deemed Mullen as the “safe hire,” and Mullen has been considered as Option C or D. They missed out on Chip Kelly and Scott Frost, and even Mike Gundy reportedly said no. Now, Florida has Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer before taking over at Mississippi State.
Mullen is the perfect fit for Florida. He turned Mississippi State — one of the three or four toughest jobs in the SEC — into a consistent winner, and he established himself as one of the best developers of talent in the country. Sure, his record in big games isn’t great, but his teams were almost always less talented than the competition. Recruiting will be easier in Gainesville, and he’s proven he can develop a quarterback and field a productive offense, which are two things Florida hasn’t had in nearly a decade.
Mullen is the second or third best coach in the SEC, and both he and Florida upgraded this offseason. This might be more of a rebuilding job than Florida fans want to admit, so it might require 2-3 years before the Gators resemble a contender again.
Chip Kelly’s stint in the NFL didn’t work out, so now he’s back in college after a highly successful run at Oregon. Kelly decided between UCLA and Florida, and he opted to replace Jim Mora with the Bruins in a decision that was best for all parties involved.
Many Florida fans wanted Kelly and his explosive offense, but he wouldn’t have been a good fit in Gainesville. At Florida, Kelly would have been the big man on campus. At UCLA, Kelly is just another guy who happens to be a really good football coach. People in LA care about seeing Ryan Gosling, not Chip Kelly. There’s less pressure in Westwood, he knows how to recruit the area, and he has the chance to build the Bruins into a contender the same way he did at Oregon.
It might take UCLA a couple of years to turn things around, but they made a huge upgrade at coach after suffering under the mediocrity of Jim Mora.
The Bulldogs were challenged with replacing the best coach in school history, and they found Mullen’s replacement in only two days. Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was hired to take over in Starkville, and Moorhead is considered to be one of the top offensive minds in the country.
Moorhead, 44, was at Penn State for only two seasons, but he turned the Nittany Lions into one of the best offenses in college football over the last two years. He had a successful stint as the head coach of Fordham in the FCS, and he’ll inherit Nick Fitzgerald next season.
Many college football writers and analysts have praised the hire, though it will take time to tell whether Moorhead can transition into a great head coach in the SEC. Recruiting will be a challenge, and he will need to surround himself with great recruiters, but the Bulldogs hired the top young assistant coach in the country.
The Rebels fired Hugh Freeze before the season, and offensive line coach Matt Luke was promoted to interim head coach. Luke guided the Rebels to a 6-6 season despite losing quarterback Shea Patterson halfway through the year, and Luke was awarded the full-time position after defeating Mississippi State.
Hiring Luke full-time tells me the NCAA sanctions are probably going to be pretty bad because it doesn’t seem like they even considered anyone else. Luke did a solid job, and now he’ll likely be tasked with navigating the Rebels through some rough years if the sanctions are bad.
If Luke can keep things from getting too bad on the field and beat the Bulldogs a couple of times, Ole Miss fans will likely be pleased with the hire.
Now, to the schools that still have openings. I’m only covering the major programs, so I apologize to all the Rice and South Alabama fans.
Kevin Sumlin never had a bad team at Texas A&M, but the Aggies have been stuck around the 7-8 win mark for the last few seasons. Sumlin was let go, and now the school has its sights set on Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
If the Aggies can lure Fisher away from Tallahassee, it’s a home run hire. Fisher is one of the best coaches in the sport despite having a down year at Florida State, and he would inherit a talented roster capable of making some noise next year in the SEC.
Texas A&M has great facilities and has plenty of talent in its backyard, but it wouldn’t make sense to me for Fisher to take this job. FSU is a better job than TAMU, and to me it isn’t even close. Sure, Florida State has to compete against Clemson in its own division, but Texas A&M has Alabama, Auburn and LSU on its schedule every year. My guess is that Jimbo stays, and the Aggies have to turn to Plan B.
The fallback plan is likely Chad Morris, who has revived SMU over the last few years. The argument for Morris is that he is a great offensive coach who can recruit Texas very well. Which… sounds a lot like Kevin Sumlin. I’m not saying Morris is a bad coach or anything, but I’m not sure I would’ve fired Sumlin to bring in a less accomplished coach in Morris.
I think Morris will end up being the guy, and I don’t think it would be an upgrade over Sumlin. Beyond those two candidates, I’m not sure where the Aggies would look.
Mike Riley was a bad hire from the start, and this coaching search is pretty simple: it’s Scott Frost or bust in Lincoln. Frost inherited an 0-12 UCF team and has them at 11-0 only two years later, and he’s the top young coach on the market. He played quarterback at Nebraska under Tom Osborne, and he’s a Nebraska guy all the way.
The only I could see Frost turning this down is if Fisher leaves for Texas A&M and Florida State becomes available. FSU is a much better job than Nebraska, but I would still be shocked if Frost doesn’t end up back home in Lincoln.
In case Frost shocks the world and doesn’t take the Nebraska job, Bret Bielema would probably be the next best option.
Speaking of Bielema, the way he was fired by Arkansas was embarrassing for the school. Everyone knew he was probably done after finished 4-8 this year, but they didn’t even let him get off the field after the loss to Missouri before firing him. It’s a terrible look for the school, and the owed Bielema better than that.
The Razorbacks also fired AD Jeff Long, which complicates this hire. There have been rumors circulating for weeks that the boosters want to hire Gus Malzahn away from Auburn, but Malzahn’s Tigers have caught fire in recent weeks and are playing for the SEC title on Saturday. If Auburn loses to Georgia, expect the Hogs to go after Malzahn next week. But if Auburn wins and makes the playoffs, the Razorbacks will be forced to move on to another candidate.
Next up on the list would likely be current Memphis coach Mike Norvell. Norvell went to Central Arkansas, and he has Memphis at 10-1 and playing for the AAC Championship. His offenses have been prolific, and he can recruit the Memphis area well. It’s a bit alarming that his defenses have been so terrible, so it would be imperative that he hire a great defensive staff.
If they decide Norvell isn’t the guy, I’d personally like to see them give Mike Leach a chance. Leach has won at two of the toughest places in all of college football at Texas Tech and Washington State, and I’m confident he’d win at Arkansas. Plus, we need his hilarious quotes at SEC Media Days since Steve Spurrier and Les Miles are no longer around. Leach has even complimented how loud it gets at Arkansas home games.
If all else fails, just call Bobby Petrino again. That was a fun ride.
This is one of the more intriguing openings because I think this is a better job than some may realize. Todd Graham didn’t win enough here, and he was let go after a 7-5 season. The right coach can compete for conference titles at Arizona State, and there are a handful of coaches who could win in Tempe.
One coach they’re for sure interviewing is former NFL coach Herm Edwards. I love Edwards as an analyst, but this doesn’t make much sense. He hasn’t coached in nearly a decade, and he’s never been a head coach in college. I think he’d be great recruiter, but I think the Sun Devils can do better.
Kevin Sumlin would be a great fit here, and I’d expect him to at least get an interview. His offenses would thrive in the Pac-12, and he’s a great recruiter.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually think this might be a good spot for Lane Kiffin. It would be ironic considering he was fired by USC after losing to Arizona State, but if Lane was ever going to get another chance at a Power 5 school, I think he could win with the Sun Devils. And there’s… um… a lot of local talent for Joey Freshwater.
I can’t believe Tennessee fans would actually want Kiffin back after the way things ended, but that’s how desperate Vols fans are right now. The Greg Schiano situation has been embarrassing for the school and for the fans who falsely accused Schiano of being involved in the Penn State scandal when they have no idea if what they said was even true.
Schiano isn’t the best coach available, but he wouldn’t have been a disastrous hire for Tennessee. The man won at Rutgers. That’s not an easy thing to do. But the way they handled the news of AD John Currie hiring Schiano makes the job less attractive.
David Cutcliffe said no thanks. Mike Gundy passed. Some Tennessee fans want Tee Martin, who’s the offensive coordinator at USC, and that might be the best they can do. It’s not really a great job, and there are several better openings at the moment. I would call Leach, Petrino and Jeff Brohm to gauge their level of interest, and any of those three would be great hires. But I don’t really know where the Vols go from here.
Kiffin’s name has been floated around, and at first I thought people were joking. He and his family had to be escorted by police out of town because so many fans were threatening him for leaving after one year for USC. I also wouldn’t trust Kiffin to run a major program regardless of how well he’s done at Florida Atlantic this year. He still has a long way to go to prove he can handle coaching at a major program again.
This opening could go a number of different directions, but Tennessee fans have made this position a lot less attractive by how they reacted to the Schiano news.