2021 College Football: Midseason Coaches On The Hot Seat
Adam Rittenberg
Posted: 2021-10-12

After a surprisingly active 2020 college football coaching cycle amid the coronavirus pandemic, industry sources pointed to three jobs that could send the 2021 carousel spinning: USC, LSU and Michigan.

USC gave the carousel its first push on Sept. 13, dumping Clay Helton after only two games and jump-starting its search. While Jim Harbaugh and Michigan are off to a 6-0 start and ranked No. 8, LSU could soon be joining USC in the deep waters of the coaching market. On Saturday night, Ed Orgeron's team trailed 21-0 and 35-7 in a noncompetitive 42-21 loss at Kentucky. The game felt like a breaking point in the Coach O era.

The national championship glow from 2019 has worn off Orgeron, whose team is 8-8 since hoisting a trophy in New Orleans 19 months ago. The pressure is mounting, especially since LSU next faces four top-20 opponents (Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas).

Money usually factors into whether coaching changes are made, but another M-word carries greater significance: Motivation. USC clearly was motivated to move on from Helton. LSU seemingly is motivated to move on from Orgeron. There likely is more motivation at Texas Tech, Virginia Tech and even Miami than places like Nebraska, which sees improvement under Scott Frost despite continued heartbreak in Year 4, and wants to give its celebrated alum every chance to succeed. Florida State also isn't going to oust its second consecutive coach after two years, as Mike Norvell has plenty of internal support.

Pinpointing motivation level is the biggest key to forecasting how the carousel will play out.

With the season about halfway through, it's time to look at LSU, USC and the other carousel hot spots, as the cycle of coaching changes gets closer.

LSU Tigers

Coach: Ed Orgeron

Record: 3-3 in 2021; 48-17 overall, sixth season

Orgeron's downfall has been swift but not completely surprising. Even during LSU's national championship season, the two Joes -- quarterback Joe Burrow and offensive playcaller Joe Brady -- received more praise than the head man. When Burrow and Brady both left for the NFL, and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda bolted for Baylor, questions immediately surfaced about Orgeron's ability to keep the program at an elite level. Coach O still needed to prove something -- to the fans and to a boss (athletic director Scott Woodward) who didn't hire him.

Now he's running out of time, especially with a punishing stretch of games ahead. And in June, Orgeron was also added as a defendant in the Title IX lawsuit against LSU. He is accused of knowing about but failing to report the alleged rape of a student by former LSU running back Derrius Guice.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, LSU is one of only three teams in the AP Poll era (1936 to present) to go 9-7 or worse in the 16 games following a national title. TCU went 6-10 after winning the 1938 title, Auburn went 9-7 after the 2010 title and Minnesota went 9-7 after winning the 1941 title.

Many compare Orgeron to Gene Chizik, Auburn's former coach. Chizik also had a transcendent quarterback (Cam Newton) and an innovative offensive coordinator (Gus Malzahn) when he led Auburn to a national title in 2010. By 2012, both were gone. Auburn went 3-9 that fall and fired Chizik. This season, LSU is not only shockingly average with its record, but its scoring average (31.1 points per game) and points-allowed average (31.6) are nearly identical.

LSU's erratic play the past 16 games provides the evidence Woodward needs to consider replacing a national championship-winning coach so soon. The Tigers' defense struggled mightily last year under coordinator Bo Pelini, and hasn't looked much better this fall under Daronte Jones, a first-time FBS coordinator who wasn't Orgeron's first or second choice. Orgeron brought in two young coaches connected to Brady -- Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas -- to boost the offense, but things aren't clicking. There has been significant roster turnover and other factors working against the Tigers, but the coaching assistance Orgeron needs to succeed clearly isn't there.

"I just don't see it getting better," a Power 5 administrator said. "Offensively, that was not a great hire. Defensively, that was not a great hire. I don't have trust in the coordinators to get better, and I certainly don't have trust in Ed Orgeron to lead and manage in crisis situations."

Orgeron is signed through the 2025 season, but his biggest problem could be Woodward, who has built his reputation as a top administrator on hiring big-name football coaches. Woodward pried Chris Petersen away from Boise State to coach Washington. He then lured Jimbo Fisher, another national championship-winning coach, from Florida State to Texas A&M.

Power 5 administrators, coaches and other industry sources all expect Woodward to be bold and aggressive if and when LSU makes a coaching change. With respect to quality candidates like Louisiana's Billy Napier, Woodward is expected to swing bigger.

"It's got to pop for him," an FBS assistant coach in Louisiana told me.

Who would be the home runs for LSU?

  • Oregon's Mario Cristobal would be one. Cristobal is one of the nation's best and most relentless recruiters, and has built a top-10 program aiming for its third consecutive Pac-12 title and its first College Football Playoff appearance since 2014. Although the Ducks should be even better next year, Cristobal could be intrigued by the SEC, where he coached under Saban at Alabama, and a Tier 1 job with no recruiting limitations such as LSU. He wouldn't be cheap, and his buyout to leave Oregon is $9 million until Jan. 14, 2022. But money isn't going to stop Woodward and LSU, as any coaching transaction will total in the tens of millions.
  • Penn State coach James Franklin has long been mentioned as a top target for USC, but could also have LSU after his services. He has a Big Ten title and three top-10 finishes at Penn State, but the next step to a CFP appearance has been tricky and frustrating. PSU's loss Saturday to Iowa was a good thing for Franklin's suitors, as it moves him a step closer to being outside of the playoff race, which could trigger a job move. Franklin has a $4 million buyout, which shouldn't stop LSU if it wanted to bring him back to the SEC; he went 24-15 at Vanderbilt.
  • Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley might be an unrealistic target, but Woodward could still gauge his interest. The Sooners are SEC-bound and could face a rocky transition. Riley is considered the nation's premier quarterback developer and offensive playcaller, two areas in which LSU has been lacking except in 2019. While Riley is extremely loyal to OU, he also might have a ceiling when it comes to winning national championships, which wouldn't be there in Baton Rouge.
  • Texas A&M's Fisher has a strong connection to Woodward and an affinity for LSU. He also has no buyout in the massive contract Woodward helped orchestrate at Texas A&M. Fisher is coming off of his biggest win with the Aggies, as he became the first Nick Saban assistant to take down Saban and Alabama in 25 tries. Texas A&M isn't going to the playoff this year, but has things set up well for future runs with strong recruiting classes. Would Fisher spurn Texas A&M, which has given him everything he wanted (perhaps even some things he didn't really deserve) for LSU and a Woodward reunion? "He loves Baton Rouge, but he would have a hard time leaving those players," an industry source said.
  • Kentucky's Mark Stoops might not be viewed as a home run because he has won more than seven games just twice in eight previous seasons. But Stoops' work as a recruiter, developer of talent and program overseer is respected throughout the SEC. He has Kentucky at 6-0 for the first time since 1950, when Bear Bryant coached the Wildcats. LSU might shy away from coaches with backgrounds on defense, given its offensive struggles other than the Burrow-Brady year, but Stoops could be exactly what the program needs.
  • Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin could be exactly what LSU needs, too, at least on offense. Kiffin would provide the quarterback development and offensive fireworks LSU experienced in 2019 and yearns for again. Kiffin also could compete with Saban on the recruiting trail and troll his old boss. But could he consistently beat Saban, Fisher or Georgia's Kirby Smart? Kiffin is endlessly entertaining, but whether he's a championship-level head coach at college football's top rung remains to be seen. Ole Miss' noncompetitive loss to Alabama didn't help his stock, even though he's doing good work in Oxford so far.
  • Mike Gundy's name has been connected to the LSU job before. Gundy has Oklahoma State at 5-0 and ranked No. 12, thanks to a surging defense, of all things. But Gundy also has only one Big 12 title which came in 2011, also the last year the Pokes truly contended nationally. There would be some concern, too, about how he would handle the pressure of the LSU job and the SEC recruiting scene.

Miami Hurricanes

Coach: Manny Diaz

Record: 2-3 in 2021; 16-13 overall, third season

Diaz entered the season with no significant job pressure, other than to build on an encouraging 2020 season spent almost entirely in the top 20 and often hovering around the top 10. Miami brought back quarterback D'Eriq King and a promising roster of holdovers and transfers. The Hurricanes were labeled as a team that could challenge Clemson in the ACC. Diaz, a Miamian to the core, looked like the long-awaited answer to restore the U.

Instead, Miami sits at 2-3, and Diaz's future is a popular topic in South Florida. Concerns about Diaz surfaced after a Week 3 home loss to Michigan State, and increased with a home loss to Virginia on Oct. 1. Coaches who have faced the Hurricanes have described them as a bunch of talented parts without much cohesion or development. Diaz announced Monday that King will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Tyler Van Dyke, who started the last two games, moves into the permanent role.

How realistic is a coaching change at Miami? It's not as likely as some Miami fans would hope. The noise around Miami doesn't always match up with the financial reality or the desire to go through a coaching transition.

"I think they'd like to move on if they can," an industry source said. "But money's always a concern there."

Added another source: "I don't think they care enough to pay what it's going to cost."

The dream candidate would be Oregon's Cristobal, a former Hurricanes offensive lineman and assistant who grew up in Miami. But Cristobal's buyout likely would prohibit Miami from making a serious run. Even if Cristobal took a hometown discount, the overall cost of the transaction likely would be too much for Miami.

Would Miami look at Group of 5 coaches such as Napier and Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell? Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has lost some luster this season but remains a very strong candidate for Power 5 vacancies. Miami likely would avoid another first-time head coach after Diaz, even though there are some intriguing defensive coordinator candidates such as Georgia's Dan Lanning and Notre Dame's Marcus Freeman.

Ultimately, a lack of motivation to make a move, financial considerations and a top candidate who is likely not attainable means Diaz will be fine for 2022. But he needs to show some progress in the second half, beginning this week against UNC.

Virginia Tech Hokies

Coach: Justin Fuente

Record: 3-2 in 2021; 41-28 overall, sixth season

No set of results this weekend could eventually impact a coach's job status more than the ones that involved Fuente. The most damaging, of course, came in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech had No. 14 Notre Dame on the mat, only to let the Irish up before the 10 count. The Hokies allowed 11 points in the final 2:26 to fall 32-29.

Not only did Virginia Tech fall, but the team it beat to open the season, North Carolina, lost for the third time. The team that first beat the Hokies, West Virginia, fell to 2-4 after getting blown out at Baylor. While Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister has been OK this season, former Hokies signal-caller Hendon Hooker has 13 touchdowns and only one interception for suddenly surging Tennessee.

While Virginia Tech has shown improvement at times, its overall profile took some hits, which doesn't bode well for a coach who barely kept his job in 2020. Virginia Tech had some financial limitations, which likely wouldn't have mattered if Fuente had lost to rival Virginia for the second straight season.

But another middling season after a 5-6 campaign would likely prompt a change. Athletic director Whit Babcock hired Fuente, but has the clout, job security and motivation to look elsewhere. Coaches such as Coastal Carolina's Chadwell and Louisiana's Napier could both be good fits at Virginia Tech.

Fuente can cool things down if Virginia Tech beats surging Pitt this week before a manageable stretch that includes teams such as Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Duke. A win over Pitt would put Virginia Tech in good shape to challenge for the ACC Coastal Division. But the Notre Dame collapse has cranked up the pressure on Fuente and his staff.

"It's going to go down to the wire in terms of wins and losses," an industry source said. "[Babcock] is going to have to let Justin end it himself."

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Coach: Matt Wells

Record: 4-2 in 2021; 12-16 overall, third season

Texas Tech is another situation where the motivation to make a change -- plus an attractive group of candidates -- might trump some improvement on the field. The Red Raiders opened with a nice win over Houston, which hasn't lost since, and also recorded a surprising road win against West Virginia. But they've lost to Texas and TCU by a combined 56 points.

Like Fuente, Wells barely made it through last season with his job. And, like Fuente, Wells has a chance to solidify his future in the coming weeks. Texas Tech faces Kansas (road) and Kansas State (home), before a taxing closing stretch of Oklahoma (road), Iowa State (home), Oklahoma State (home) and Baylor (road). A late slide could prompt a change in Lubbock, so getting bowl-eligible for the first time is critical for Wells.

A good portion of Texas Tech fans are ready for change, and the school would have two excellent candidates and some others if the job came open. UTSA's Jeff Traylor and SMU's Sonny Dykes are both leading undefeated teams. Dykes has deep roots at Texas Tech, where he played baseball and where his father, Spike, led the football program from 1986 to 1999. But there also may be some hesitancy to leave a great situation at SMU. Traylor, a former state championship-winning high school coach, is extremely connected to the Texas prep scene and would be an excellent choice at Tech. "He'd be a great hire over there," a Conference USA assistant told me. The school also might consider Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and others.

USC Trojans

Coach: Donte Williams (interim)

Record: 2-2 in 2021; team is 3-3 overall

After looking at potential openings, let's dive into the one major coaching search that is ongoing.

By firing Helton so early, USC has the luxury of surveying the coaching market without directly engaging candidates. USC likely will remain in this phase for several more weeks, while being mindful of other potential opponents and how they could impact the candidate pool.

Franklin remains the most-discussed candidate for USC, and likely will remain that way until (a) he's hired, (b) he fully commits to staying at Penn State or (c) he takes another job, such as LSU. If Franklin is ready to leave PSU, the move to USC makes so much sense. One potential stumbling block is USC president Carol Folt, who was hired to scrub the university of several damaging and embarrassing scandals. Franklin's handling of the rape case involving Vanderbilt players when he led the program could enter the equation.

Don't be surprised if Iowa State's Matt Campbell emerges in the search, especially if the Cyclones go on a late-season run after a poor start. Campbell is respected around the coaching industry, both at the college and NFL levels, and the timing for a move makes sense as Iowa State will lose a group of All-Big 12 players. Michigan always seemed like the best fit for Campbell in the upcoming cycle, but Harbaugh doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Like Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, Campbell is more suited to the Midwest, but might be more willing to leave for a job with USC's advantages. He would have to hire some new assistants with West Coast ties.

Fickell also is on the radar, as USC athletic director Mike Bohn hired him at UC. But most around Fickell expect him to target jobs in the Midwest or mid-Atlantic, even if he has to wait a while, or remain at Big 12-bound Cincinnati for a few more years. As an industry source noted, Cincinnati will be a top-three job in the Big 12 as soon as it enters the league. Fickell isn't as big of a personality as Franklin, but his combination of recruiting clout and toughness would help USC after the Helton era. Ultimately, his ties to Ohio and comfort there likely will keep him there.

A Pac-12 administrator recently told me that USC should go one of two routes for the hire: A proven college coach who would immediately command respect, or a Pete Carroll-type who spent some time in the NFL. The tricky part is finding the Carroll comps. Would Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley qualify? He has spent time on the West Coast with the Raiders and Chargers but last coached in college with North Dakota State in 2005. Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, the former Houston Texans and Penn State coach, also might be an option.

Baylor's Dave Aranda might be a bit down USC's list but could emerge. Aranda is from Redlands, California, and attended Cal Lutheran. He built his reputation as a top defensive playcaller at Wisconsin and LSU, and has Baylor at 5-1 in his second season. Aranda is more of a calming presence than a bubbly personality, and USC ultimately might seek a more proven head coach. But Aranda shouldn't be discounted in the search.

The Pac-12

The Pac-12 already has one major coaching vacancy in USC, and there could be more shuffling in the league -- for several reasons -- when the carousel really gets going. As noted above, Oregon's Cristobal could be targeted for multiple Power 5 openings, as long as his suitors are willing to pay his hefty buyout.

Washington State is the next spot to watch. Head coach Nick Rolovich has until Oct. 18 to comply with a state mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or receive an exemption. Rolovich has said he will comply with the mandate, but he likely will wait until the result of his exemption request -- reviews are conducted blindly, meaning the applicant's name and position are not revealed -- before taking any action. If Rolovich's request is denied and he refuses to get the vaccine even if given a grace period, Washington State would have to terminate him.

An approval of the request would initiate a process where athletic director Pat Chun and others would determine if and how Rolovich could perform his job safely.

Rolovich has put the school and his bosses in a tough situation. He still has internal support, and was a big hit with WSU fans before the pandemic hit. Washington State also is showing improvement on the field with back-to-back Pac-12 wins. But sources say Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is very unhappy with Rolovich's unwillingness to be vaccinated, especially as the state's highest-paid public employee.

Arizona State looks like one of the Pac-12's top teams, and the clear favorite in the South Division halfway through the season. The Sun Devils are experienced, talented and balanced on offense, and opportunistic on defense (eight interceptions). But the program also has an uncertain future with a looming NCAA investigation, which could lead to a lot of problems. Athletic director Ray Anderson made the surprising move to hire Herm Edwards as coach, and, with things going well, would like to continue on this path.

But the school might not have a choice. Coaches say ASU has backed off on the recruiting trail since the NCAA investigation. This season could have a last-hurrah feel to it for Edwards, 67. Arizona State also would have no shortage of intriguing candidates if it makes a change: Napier, SMU's Sonny Dykes, Nevada's Jay Norvell, BYU's Kalani Sitake, San Jose State's Brent Brennan and coordinators such as Georgia's Lanning, who spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons on Arizona State's staff as a very young assistant.

Washington isn't a hot spot now, but is worth monitoring if things don't start improving. The team is 2-3 and ranks 90th nationally in scoring. Jimmy Lake made sense as Chris Petersen's successor, but the problems on offense are real and Pac-12 coaches see a decline in recruiting and overall roster talent. Washington hasn't really been the same on offense since coordinator Jonathan Smith left for the top job at Oregon State.

Utah also could be an interesting situation if Kyle Whittingham, 61, is getting closer to retirement. The Utes have had a really tough year, as two players (Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe) have died in shooting incidents. Whittingham has led Utah since 2005 and has been on staff since 1994.