Identifying the coaches who need to improve next year to save their jobs
The Champions of Life jokes still hadn't stopped Sunday afternoon, but the primary group telling them had shifted. Immediately after Saturday night's 45–34 loss at Vanderbilt, rivals aimed Butch Jones's words from the previous Monday squarely at Tennessee's fans. By Sunday, those fans had taken back the phrase. They used it as gallows humor to help them cope with the fact that their team couldn't call itself the SEC East champion or a Sugar Bowl participant.
Jones gave an earnest answer to explain what his seniors had accomplished while helping lift Tennessee out of a Derek Dooley-induced Dumpster fire, but the sound byte that escaped his lips sounded far too much like "everyone gets a trophy."
It was ripe for mockery before the Vols allowed Vanderbilt—which hadn't scored so many points against an SEC opponent since 1971—to roll up 608 yards and win a track meet. Afterward, it became a rallying cry for an increasing portion of the Tennessee fan base that believes Jones has worn out his welcome in Knoxville. Has he? Not yet. First, Jones has improved the Vols since he arrived. They went from five wins in 2013 to seven in 2014 to nine in 2015. If Tennessee wins its bowl game, it'll win nine this year. Unlike most recent years, NFL teams will actually be interested in some of Tennessee's departing players. Tennessee also snapped an 11-game losing streak to Florida in September. Change now also is unlikely because Tennessee just named a new chancellor—Beverly Davenport doesn't start until March—and the Vols have yet to hire an athletic director to replace the departing Dave Hart. So Jones is safe for now. But he'll start next year on a warm seat.
He's not alone, either. Even though two huge jobs (LSU and Texas) have opened and been filled and one more big one (Oregon) seems likely to open, this could be a relatively calm silly season. Few Power Five jobs below the big three seem likely to open. Purdue remains open, but little else seems imminent. Instead, a host of coaches find themselves sitting where LSU's Les Miles and Colorado's Mike MacIntyre did at this time last year. They were coming back for another year, but they needed to show improvement. We all know how that worked out. Miles refused to evolve his offense and got fired after week four. MacIntyre stayed the course and went from winning two conference games the previous three seasons to going 8–1 in the league and winning the Pac-12 South in 2016.
The following coaches will have to decide this offseason whether they want to wind up like Miles or like MacIntyre.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
The Vols missed a golden opportunity to win a down SEC East, and the job could get more difficult if Florida ever figures out its quarterback situation or Georgia upgrades its offensive line. Jarett Guarantano, who redshirted this season, is the likely replacement for Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Guarantano has a big arm and should allow the Vols to stretch the field more. On defense, they'll likely have to replace defensive end Derek Barnett—a junior who can leave for the NFL this offseason.
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Kelly released a statement refuting a Yahoo! Sports report that his representatives have been shopping for other jobs on his behalf. This came hours after Notre Dame lost 45–27 at USC to finish the season 4–8.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has backed Kelly throughout the season, and that isn't going to change following the loss or last week's announcement of NCAA sanctions related to a Notre Dame trainer who did schoolwork for several Notre Dame players in 2012 and 2013. (Notre Dame officials have been dealing with that situation for two years.) So what's different between Kelly and Charlie Weis, who went 6–6 in his final season at Notre Dame? Kelly bought himself some patience by going 12–1 in 2012—the NCAA now says the Fighting Irish went 0–1—and by having the Irish in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season in 2015. That patience probably doesn't extend past this season, so it would make sense if Kelly was looking for the football equivalent of the Minnesota job Tubby Smith landed when he left the Kentucky basketball program in 2007. But Kelly says he wasn't. That either means he actually wasn't or no one was interested. Either way, expect Kelly—just as Swarbrick said earlier—to lead the Irish out of the tunnel for their season opener in 2017. Anything beyond that depends on what happens next. Kelly's next task is to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Brian VanGorder.
Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
It seemed as if Sumlin had finally worked his way off a seemingly perpetual hot seat when the bottom fell out on this season. The Aggies lost the entire back half of their SEC schedule, and while some blame can go to the shoulder injury quarterback Trevor Knight suffered at Mississippi State on Nov. 5., some needs to go to a defense that allowed 4.8 yards a play in September, 5.6 yards a play in October and 6.1 yards a play in November.
After going 11–2 overall and 6–2 in the SEC during the its first season in the SEC in 2012—also known as Johnny Manziel's Heisman year—Texas A&M is now 15–17 in SEC play since 2013. That has to get better at some point. The Knight injury provides an excuse this season. Sumlin's $15 million buyout and the lack of an obvious replacement once Texas hired Tom Herman also have helped maintain the status quo. Now it's up to Sumlin to take advantage of his opportunity. Once again, the Aggies need a quarterback. Will they hit the transfer market and try to grab former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham? Or will they go with a quarterback on the roster? Junior Jake Hubenak has started games in each of the past two seasons. Nick Starkel redshirted this season.
Jim Mora, UCLA
Mora also has the built-in excuse of a quarterback injury, but Josh Rosen's injury still doesn't adequately explain how the season of one of the most physically gifted teams in the Pac-12 went off the rails so badly. Mora fired offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu on Sunday, so the Bruins will seek new leadership on that side of the ball for the second consecutive season. Mora's $14.8 million buyout has kept him fairly safe. His status might scare some offensive coordinator candidates away, but plenty of good ones should be willing to roll the dice on coaching one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Mora will have to make a good hire and dramatically improve the Bruins, because if he squanders Rosen's entire time at UCLA, the choice will be obvious.
Dave Doeren, NC State
Wolfpack administrators didn't want to fire Doeren this season, and he gave them a reason to keep him by coaching his team to a win against North Carolina on Saturday to make NC State bowl eligible. Now it's time for the Wolfpack to start getting better. It's too much to ask for division titles in a division that includes Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, but it isn't too much too ask the Wolfpack to be the best program in the state in most years.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
We know Kingsbury can select and/or develop quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield are proof of that. Offense isn't the problem at all. The Red Raiders need to figure out how to play defense. David Gibbs is Kingsbury's third defensive coordinator in Lubbock, but no one seems to know how to teach the Red Raiders to stop anyone. This season, they ranked No. 126 in the nation in yards per play allowed (7.05). That must get better, because it doesn't matter how many touchdown passes Kingsbury's quarterback throws for if the Red Raiders give up more on the other side of the ball.
A Random Ranking
I realize these things keep trending hard toward the 1990s—i.e. when my future nostalgia receptors were at their most active—but I can't help it. I ask the people what they want, and I give the people what they want. (As long as I also want it.)
So without further ado, here are the top 10 Sega Genesis games.
1. NHL '95
2. Golden Axe
3. Sonic the Hedgehog
4. Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs*
5. Madden NFL '95
6. NBA Jam
7. Mortal Kombat
8. Altered Beast
9. Toejam and Earl
*Tom Chambers could successfully perform a double-pump dunk from anywhere inside the three-point line on the far end of the court. Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson had nothing on LVC&NBAP Tom Chambers.
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
Remember, this is a projection of what the committee's ranking will be on Dec. 4, not what it will be on Tuesday.
The two interceptions Jalen Hurts threw in the first half of the Iron Bowl may offer some hope to those who will face Alabama in the future. Here's the problem. Even if you take the ball from the Crimson Tide and start a drive in their territory, you still have to get past the Tide defense to get in the end zone. Only a few teams have the pass rush to force Hurts into a mistake and the offense to make Alabama pay on the other side, and there is no guarantee anyone can do both consistently.
2. Penn State
I don't think the committee will rank an Ohio State team that lost to Penn State ahead of the Nittany Lions if said Nittany Lions win the Big Ten. That would still require a Penn State win against Wisconsin, but that's entirely possible.
3. Ohio State
That doesn't mean I think the committee would pull a TCU on Ohio State. They can both get into the playoff. No matter what happens, the committee will stiff at least one power conference champion because there are only four spots and five power conferences. The question is whether it will stiff two or more to keep the Buckeyes in. If Wisconsin beats Penn State, it makes it easier for the committee to leave out the Big Ten champ because the Buckeyes beat the Badgers in Madison. If the Nittany Lions win and so do Washington and Clemson, the committee would face a more difficult decision. Some group is going to be unhappy.
This is the last team Alabama wants to see in the Peach Bowl, because if the Tigers put everything together, they might be the only team that can beat Alabama if Alabama is playing well. Of course, Clemson could also lose the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. It has been that kind of season for the Tigers. I'm keeping Clemson here because the committee has kept the Tigers above Washington, but a decisive Washington win against Colorado and a shaky Clemson win against Virginia Tech could change that.
Big Ugly of the Week
I've honored Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen already this season, but the truth is that I probably could have honored him every week of this season. And if the Heisman Trophy truly is the award for the nation's most outstanding player, then Allen should absolutely be in New York if not holding the trophy. There are years where the Heisman goes to the best player on the best team. This season, that's Allen. Also, he may affect the game just as much as a great dual threat quarterback. He can rush the passer. He can set the edge. He can stuff the run. He can sniff the ball when he's getting read on a read option play and obliterate a ballcarrier.
I make my Heisman vote by imagining there is a college football draft and I have the first pick. The only information I use is what happened this season. At this point, this imaginary college GM is having a tough time choosing between Allen and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
1. SI's Pete Thamel is reporting that new Texas coach Tom Herman will bring a healthy chuck of his on- and off-field staff from Houston. Still up in the air is whether coordinators Todd Orlando and Major Applewhite will come. Both are candidates for the head coaching job at Houston. Applewhite is an interesting case because the former Texas quarterback was the Longhorns' offensive coordinator under Mack Brown. Should Orlando get the Houston job, Texas could wind up in a bidding war with LSU for the services of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda was once Herman's roommate at Division III Cal Lutheran, and the two have stayed in touch while rising through the coaching ranks. Ed Orgeron, who was named LSU's permanent head coach on Saturday, made a point to mention in his introductory press conference that he plans to keep Aranda.
2. Oregon hasn't fired a head football coach since 1976, which might help explain why Ducks' officials seem to be having such a difficult time breaking the bad news to Mark Helfrich. None of them have ever fired a football coach before, so perhaps they don't understand that it makes the administration look inept when it allows what appears to be a lame-duck coach (pun not intended) to appear at a press conference the day after the loss that apparently sealed the deal. And at that press conference Sunday morning, Helfrich said he called athletic director Rob Mullens to request a meeting only to learn that Mullens didn't have time for one.
If you're keeping Helfrich, you tell him that. If you're firing Helfrich, tell him that. That the Ducks are bad right now wasn't something officials learned during Saturday's loss at Oregon State. They should have known by Sunday morning what they planned to do. This is not a junior high romance. Ghosting Helfrich won't make him stop showing up to work. In the highly unlikely event that Oregon plans to keep Helfrich, the administration isn't helping by leaving him hanging. He is supposed leave Sunday night to visit recruits. Guess how many will pay attention to Oregon's message if they don't know whether Helfrich will be there next year? Zero. The longer the Ducks let Helfrich twist, the more they hurt Helfrich and the cause of the coach they would hire to replace him if they do fire him.
3. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson probably will still win the Heisman Trophy, but he opened the door a little more for other challengers on Saturday in the Cardinals' 41–38 loss to Kentucky on Saturday. Jackson posted some eye-popping numbers, throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns and running for 171 yards and two touchdowns. But Jackson also threw three interceptions and lost the fumble that gave Kentucky the ball back for the eventual game-winning drive.
So what happens now? You've already seen a case for Allen in the Big Ugly of the Week section. Washington quarterback Jake Browning completed 21 of 29 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns in last Friday's win at Washington State, and Browning will get another chance to impress voters Friday in the Pac-12 title game against Colorado. Michigan's Jabrill Peppers intercepted a pass but didn't have much success as a tailback or punt returner against Ohio State, but he was the nation's most versatile player on one of its best teams. The Oklahoma tandem of quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook have a chance to bolster their cases against Oklahoma State in a Bedlam matchup that will decide the Big 12 title. USC's Adoree Jackson flashed a Heisman pose Saturday, and his season isn't all that different from the one that won Charles Woodson the Heisman in 1997. Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook finished his regular season with 1,620 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns and 426 receiving yards and a touchdown. Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey fought through injuries and still wound up with 2,327 all-purpose yards. That's well below the 3,864 he piled up last year, but he was banged up at times and teams were terrified to kick to him. Texas tailback D'Onta Foreman rushed for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns in 11 games, but his team went 5–7. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has run hot and cold and will get one more chance to impress voters when the Tigers face Virginia Tech in the ACC title game on Saturday in Orlando.
That's a long list. Chances are Jackson will be on nearly every ballot and the rest of that group will get split across the ballots. That's why Jackson remains a prohibitive favorite.
4.Urban Meyer got a call from wife Shelley during his press conference after Ohio State's double overtime win against Michigan. When the better half calls, you answer.
The milk reference was a jab at Jim Harbaugh, who has an endorsement deal with a milk company. To learn more about Shelley Meyer, including how Urban made his introduction at a fraternity party while the two were students at Cincinnati, listen to last week's edition of the Campus Rush podcast.
5. Jones may be under fire at Tennessee, but Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason was dancing after getting the Commodores bowl eligible.
6. Nick Saban said after Saturday's 30–12 win against Auburn that this moment from Alabama's Senior Day festivities nearly made him cry. Watch, and you'll probably feel the same way.
The player is walk-on tailback Lawrence Erekosima. His mother, Army staff Sgt. Jacqueline Page, has been deployed overseas five times. She had been in Kuwait since February, and the Army gave her permission to come home early to see Erekosima at Senior Day. Alabama staffers kept Page's visit a secret so she could surprise Erekosima on the field.
" I almost cried," Erekosima said. "I had to hold it in. It was one tear, like Denzel."
7. Florida coach Jim McElwain got testy Saturday night with a reporter who asked if the Gators could come back from a 31-13 loss at Florida State and be ready for the SEC title game against No. 1 Alabama.
McElwain may have misunderstood the question and defaulted toward defending his players, but it is a legitimate question. The Gators didn't convert a single third down against the Seminoles
on Saturday night. The last time they scored an offensive touchdown against Florida State, Will Muschamp was their coach. So, yes, it's a perfectly legitimate question to wonder if the Gators will be prepared to face the best defense they'll play all season.
McElwain has done a fine job managing a banged-up team and two SEC East titles in two seasons is excellent, but getting dominated by Florida State for a second consecutive season is extremely unhelpful in the long term. There is no school the Gators go head-to-head against more in recruiting, and all Jimbo Fisher needs to do is show prospects the past few games to convince them to choose the Seminoles. Perhaps that's why McElwain was on edge Saturday. He probably knew that loss will resonate for a long time.
8. Meanwhile, Jimbo Fisher is now 6-1 against the Gators as Florida State's head coach. It remains to be seen what he's getting from the Seminoles for turning down LSU, but since it goes against human nature to ignore leverage when one has it, he'll probably get something. Maybe it's a raise for himself, a bigger salary pool for his assistants or a promise of some infrastructure upgrade, but Saturday's result offered the best reason why Fisher is wise to stay in Tallahassee. He owns the recruiting scene in the state that produces the second-most Power Five players. He's now 13–1 combined against Miami and Florida, so he isn't loosening his grip anytime soon.
9. Pittsburgh beat Syracuse 76–61 on Saturday. When you can work the ball inside and a shoot a high percentage from three-point range, you can score on Jim Boeheim's zone. Wait. That score was from a football game?
10. We know Phil Knight wasn't in Corvallis to watch his Ducks lose. He was in Columbus, where he was going to congratulate whichever valuable Nike partner won the game.
So the Buckeyes wound up getting a visit from Knight.
What's Eating Andy
Texas president Greg Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin declined to reveal the location where they met Tom Herman late Friday. This is silly. The world wants to know. Was it a Buc-ee's or was it a Whataburger?
What's Andy Eating
Those who have read this space for a while know that in spite of last week's ode to the Big Fat Yeast roll and its descendants, my favorite bread remains the biscuit. In the Bread Power Rankings, the biscuit is Bama. Everyone else is fighting for a distant second. I frequently eat biscuits for breakfast. I wish it were easier to eat them for lunch, dinner and dessert as well. Saturday morning, I found a place that allowed me to do two out of three.
If you just want to gobble something resembling the recipe on the Bisquick box, you're not going to like Birmingham's Alabama Biscuit Company. Grab some fast food biscuits or head to Cracker Barrel and stuff yourself. It'll be cheaper, and you'll be happy. (I say this not to denigrate those places; this is how I feel some days.) But if, on occasion, you feel a little fancy and want a biscuit concoction that matches that attitude, then Alabama Biscuit Company will satisfy your craving. The place looks like the After version of a house on HGTV's Fixer Upper. You're going to want a new backsplash when you leave. You're also going to wonder how they made the humble biscuit so versatile.
Want breakfast? Order The Standard, which is a biscuit with housemade jelly (Saturday's selection was blueberry), sorghum syrup or honey.
The biscuit is simultaneously light and dense thanks to flaky layers stacked tight and tall. This allows it to work as an ordinary breakfast bread or as the foundation for ABC's more ambitious creations. Those who still only want their biscuits to be biscuits but want some protein added to the mix can order the bacon, egg and cheese or ham and cheese. These may share names with diner menu items, but the ingredients are the difference between ordering a steak at Waffle House and a steak at Ruth's Chris. You're going to pay for the difference—the price delta is much smaller in this case—but you'll notice it.
After my Standard, I felt like stretching the capabilities of my next biscuit. So I ordered Saturday's Bacon Du Jour. On this particular day, the biscuit packed in fennel-encrusted pork belly, candied pear, Manchego cheese, whole grain mustard, pickled red onions and cilantro. The pork belly had a crisp crust and a savory finish, and the mustard offered a spicy kick that isn't what I'd normally expect to eat on a biscuit. After the first bite, I thought about this. This is precisely the type of sandwich I'd order at a high-end deli. That I could eat it on my favorite bread—a bread most delis and sandwich shops don't make—made it that much better.
I couldn't leave without dessert, so I also ordered the persimmon-pear bis-cake. This dish took advantage of the ABC biscuit's sturdiness. An average biscuit either would have been overwhelmed by the persimmon sauce or too hard to enjoy, but the ABC biscuit retained its shape while still staying light and flaky. The chai pear butter and vanilla Mascarpone provide the sweet. The biscuit provides the salty. The combination provided a satisfying end to a delicious meal to start the day. And if I hadn't had to cover a football game, I would have headed straight to Lowe's to buy those tiles for that new backsplash.