HOUSTON—The coach was asked in Thursday's postgame press conference about his decision-making near the goal line. This line of questioning did not go nearly as poorly for him as a similar line of questioning would for another coach a few minutes later halfway across the country.
Tom Herman's Houston team had gotten the ball back following an SMU fumble that should have been soundtracked by Yakety Sax. The Cougars took over on their own 43-yard line with 44 seconds remaining in the first half. The score was tied, but if Houston hadn't been so good at forcing fumbles, it would have been trailing. First-year SMU coach Chad Morris didn't inherit much from predecessor June Jones, but Morris has maximized his talent with some brilliant play-calling. Herman knew his team would need to punch in a score in that situation to wrestle some momentum away from the Mustangs heading into halftime.
Houston junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. ran for six yards, then hit sophomore Steven Dunbar for a 28-yard gain, then ran for another eight yards. At this point, Herman called his final timeout. There were 16 seconds left. On the Cougars' next play, Ward hit junior Chance Allen for a 13-yard gain to the two-yard line. The clock stopped to move the chains. When the chains were set, 10 seconds remained. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Certainly Herman would have Ward spike the ball. That would set up two pass attempts into the end zone.
"We talked about [clocking] it quite a bit," Herman said. "We'd been running Greg on the perimeter so well that I made that call and told [offensive coordinator] Major [Applewhite] to call that play." At the time, Ward's four non-sack rushes had gained a total of 34 yards. Houston's receivers were also blocking exceptionally well on the perimeter. So, Herman risked looking like a fool. He felt like the Cougars had a play that had been working well to use against a defense on its heels after allowing 55 yards in 34 seconds. Houston's players blocked it perfectly, and Ward cruised into the end zone. The score broke the tie and gave the Cougars momentum they would never relinquish in a 49–28 win.
Afterward, Herman explained that he avoided the safe call because all of those factors conspired to make the Ward run the obvious choice, even though its failure would have resulted in zero points heading into the half. "In hindsight, probably the smart thing to do is clock it and try a couple shots into the end zone," Herman said. "It worked out for us. We're an aggressive outfit on offense."
Herman knows what his team is and what it can do. Minutes later in Los Angeles, a sullen Steve Sarkisian tried to explain why he went for a field goal down five points with 3:15 remaining. The down-and-distance (fourth-and-nine from the Washington 28-yard line) was horrible, but three points do not help many teams down by five in that situation. More troubling is the fact that the Trojans threw on first and third down even though tailbacks Tre Madden and Ronald Jones II combined to average 7.4 yards a carry on the night. It was as if Sarkisian had not watched the same game as everyone else. (Not surprisingly, Jones did gain four yards on second-and-10. Just imagine what might have happened after three such gains.) "If we kick it, we make it and we're down two and we get a stop, defense was playing well, we get a stop," Sarkisian told reporters when asked about the choice to kick. "It was a natural decision especially after the sack." Sarkisian sounded like a man who didn't properly harness the capabilities of his team.
What does a struggling Sarkisian have to do with a triumphant Herman, whose first foray as a head coach has started out 5–0? Nothing and everything. This is not to suggest that USC should fire Sarkisian and replace him with Herman, who nine months ago was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach prepping an erstwhile third-teamer to lead Ohio State to a national title. But it is a suggestion that Herman and other good mid-major coaches like Justin Fuente at Memphis and Matt Rhule at Temple should be prepared to strike, because it's possible more good jobs than usual will open.
Sarkisian's antics at the Salute to Troy event in August continue to magnify each of his failures. Losses at home to Stanford (41–31) and Washington (17–12), combined with a look at USC's remaining schedule, do not paint a rosy picture. Meanwhile, Jeff Ermann of InsideMDSports.com reported Thursday that Maryland plans to part ways with Randy Edsall during the bye week following Saturday's Ohio State game. Maryland, which sits in a rich recruiting area, has the potential to become Under Armour's version of Oregon with the correct coach. Meanwhile, Miami's Al Golden might be on the second hottest seat behind Edsall.
Frank Beamer has earned the right to go out on his own terms at Virginia Tech, but the Hokies can't keep drifting toward the bottom of the ACC or new athletic director Whit Babcock will have to do something. While Butch Jones's staff at Tennessee likely needs another year because of the severe talent deficit it inherited, unrest in Knoxville could blossom into full-scale revolt depending on what happens over these next two months. Texas is in a similar situation. Charlie Strong is safe now, but the Longhorns need to show fight they lacked in a 50–7 loss at TCU last week. And though it seems insane, Georgia's Mark Richt cannot afford too many more losses like Saturday's 38–10 blowout defeat to Alabama. Meanwhile, what happens if an NFL team offers Notre Dame's Brian Kelly a job?
If USC, Maryland and Miami open, and if one or two of the jobs mentioned in the paragraph above open, this could quickly turn into a wild year for the college coaching carousel. The white whale is Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach whose NCAA show-cause penalty for paying a recruit's handler for a bogus recruiting service with a check expires in December. An AD would fire his coach sooner than expected if Kelly is a possibility, but that assumes Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles will part ways. The Eagles are 1–3, and while their offense has not been sharp, two of those losses came by a total of five points. It's just as likely that the Eagles rally and win the lackluster NFC East as it is things go sideways and Kelly returns to college.
So, someone is going to have to take these jobs if they open. While a job on USC's level might go to an accomplished sitting Power Five coach, the domino effect could open a job that would be attractive to the best coaches in the American Athletic Conference—which is loaded with coaching talent at the moment. Fuente and Rhule appear ready to make the leap, and even if he wasn't planning to make it, Herman might find himself compelled to consider the possibilities.
Herman can't get too wrapped up in that sort of thinking, though. He has to get ready for back-to-back games against Cincinnati and Memphis in November that will likely decide where Houston finishes in The American. On Thursday he lost starting left tackle Zach Johnson and starting right guard Josh Thomas to injuries. The Cougars, who were already down a guard, may have to shift players over from the defensive line or rip a redshirt off a junior college transfer to add depth. Still, if anyone knows how to handle season-ending injuries, it's Herman. He is, after all, the guy who lost both Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett and then turned Cardale Jones into a world-beater. Herman also isn't recruiting like a guy who plans to leave. His "H-Town Takeover" campaign has nabbed commitments from local high school stars such as Westfield High's 290-pound defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who could have his pick of Big 12 and SEC offers.
But this uncertainty is the reality of the business. The hot coordinator tries to take the right mid-major head coaching job, which he then tries to parlay into a great Power Five head coaching job. The only way to do that is to jump through the window when it opens. If Herman's Cougars keep winning, that window could open now. He or Fuente or Rhule—or all three—could be the hot mid-major coaches when a host of attractive power-conference jobs open. The opportunities may simply be too good to pass up, no matter what those coaches originally planned.
Sometimes, on the goal line with the clock ticking, you've got to call the play you know is going to work instead of the safe option. If Herman's Cougars keep winning and the guys in the higher tax bracket keep losing, it will be fascinating to see what call Herman ultimately makes.