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Five things to watch heading into a chaotic college football coaching carousel

By Pete Thamel
November 23, 2015

One week ago, the idea that Les Miles could lose his job at LSU this year would have seemed unlikely at best. The Tigers were 7–2, spent about half of the season in the national title race and featured a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. Miles also won 78% of his games in 11 years as head coach of the program, including capturing a national championship in 2007 and SEC titles in '07 and '11. In play was also an ostensibly untenable buyout of nearly $17 million—$15 million for Miles and another $2 million for his staff.

But after news leaked out to The Advocate last week that Miles's departure was being discussed, his future quickly became unsettled. No LSU officials came out and spoke on his behalf, and silence often says a lot more than a "vote of confidence."

After 13 penalties, an on-field fracas and another day full of unimaginative offense plagued LSU's 38–17 blowout loss at Ole Miss on Saturday, Miles's future at the school looks almost certain to be doomed. Rarely has an established coach's fate spiraled so quickly. Until any LSU official comes out and speaks on Miles's behalf, it's a safe bet to say the LSU job will open after this season. He has been given less support than a century-old wooden bleacher.

The looming decision at LSU has somehow managed to overshadow the decision at Georgia, where the Bulldogs' administration will have to figure out whether Mark Richt's underwhelming 8–4 or 9–3 regular season will be enough to secure his return to Athens. Richt has won nearly 74% of his games in 15 seasons with the school, and his fate is not as certain as Miles. But in this climate, it's safer to bet on irrationality than on pragmatism. And the Bulldogs' flaccid performance in a 23–17 overtime victory against Georgia Southern over the weekend did little to cool Richt's hot seat.

There's a good chance that three high-profile jobs that weren't expected to open before the season could become available in a job market destined to be the most volatile in college football history. USC opened unexpectedly in early October after Steve Sarkisian was ousted. If LSU and Georgia both open, that will mean three top 10 jobs will dictate an already chaotic marketplace. With that in mind, here are five things to watch heading into the regular season's final week as Black Sunday approaches.

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1. There is no bigger enigma on the coaching carousel than USC, where the only insight has been that athletic director Pat Haden is hoping interim coach Clay Helton wins the job. Some would argue that promoting Helton to the full-time gig would translate to simply pushing the program's issues down the road for three years. So far, however, it's the only consistent read on what Haden might do.

What's known about USC is this: There isn't expected to be a search firm involved to help Haden, who has endured poor physical health for much of the last year. (There may be one brought in for background.)

It's hard to blame USC fans for being nervous. The Sarkisian hire was an unmitigated disaster, a medley of administrative nostalgia, naiveté and lack of research that has made the Trojans an industry laughing stock. (Haden's hiring of former Florida Gulf Coast men's basketball coach Andy Enfield is also trending toward implosion, as Enfield is 5–31 in Pac-12 play over his first two seasons. Haden projects to be 0–2 in sports coaching hires that truly matter.)

Making a list of qualified and realistic USC candidates is tricky. Could the school lure an established coach like Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson, Pat Fitzgerald or Dan Mullen? (Or maybe take a flyer on a rising star like Pittsburgh's Pat Narduzzi or Houston's Tom Herman?) USC failed to lure Kevin Sumlin the last time it was vacant, so his name isn't expected to emerge. There is no logical geographical name to consider other than Utah's Kyle Whittingham, and he is considered a bit of a reach and a questionable fit. USC is the central mystery in the coaching market. If Helton can't hold on to the job by beating UCLA this week and potentially winning the Pac-12 title game against Stanford, there is little indication of where the school could turn.

2. Can a sitting NFL coach become a factor at a high-end job like USC or potentially Georgia or LSU? Perhaps Haden will surprise us all and lure a huge name like Chip Kelly or Bill O'Brien. While not impossible, this would go against historic coaching trends, as only one sitting NFL head coach has been hired in college since Bobby Petrino infamously bailed on the Atlanta Falcons in December of 2007. (The other coach was Jim Harbaugh, who worked for a San Francisco 49ers organization uniquely beset by dysfunction and oddly eager to get rid of him before he landed at Michigan. The circumstances are very different with Kelly and O'Brien.) Let's remember that the only pro coaches with total roster control are Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles and Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, so it's hard to imagine Kelly leaving what many would consider an ideal NFL set-up. The Eagles are 4–6 after laying an egg against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, but they're not out of the playoff race in the downtrodden NFC East.

O'Brien made his name in coaching for the integrity and class he showed in guiding Penn State through the darkest time in its football history. It's difficult to envision him bailing on an NFL franchise at midseason, especially since the Houston Texans (5–5) are tied for first place in the AFC South. They'll likely remain in playoff contention until their regular season finishes on Jan. 3, which makes the timing borderline untenable. Could USC or another established school wait that long? Or will a bowl game give them a convenient excuse to hold out and gauge O'Brien's interest after the season?

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3. If LSU opens as expected, the most logical name to fill the position will be Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. If the school would already pay a $17 million buyout to get rid of its successful coach and his staff, what's another $5 million buyout to lure another successful coach to Baton Rouge? While the move would be expensive, it isn't unrealistic. It would be foolish of LSU to make a move on Miles without having a candidate already wired to take the job.

There are a lot of dangers inherent to firing a coach who has won 78% of his games, but the most obvious one is bringing in a lesser coach. (One of the reasons the LSU job may not open is if decision-makers can't secure a backchannel agreement with a successful replacement.) LSU has long been considered the only college job that could cause Fisher to leave Tallahassee. But LSU is an exponentially harder place to win than Florida State, as the ACC Atlantic Division offers a path of little resistance to the College Football Playoff, especially compared to the vaunted SEC West. Does Fisher want the challenge of the SEC? Or does he simply want a change of scenery from the persistent off-field tumult in Tallahassee? Or is it just smart to leave a high-profile job after six years and seek a fresh start somewhere else?

One thing LSU officials need to keep in mind: It's far more difficult to lure a high-end head coach like Fisher than it was 10 years ago. With coaches making so much money and carrying such big support staffs, hiring a coach at a top 10 school has become as complicated as a corporate merger. In a year filled with compelling and high-stakes decisions, there are none more fascinating than LSU.

4. Syracuse fired Scott Shafer on Monday, meaning there are 13 FBS coaching jobs open, nine of which are in Power Five conferences. (This does not count Minnesota, which hired interim Tracy Claeys.) There should be at least 11 Power Five jobs open within a week, as Rutgers and Virginia are considered near certainties to fire their coaches. (The only way these schools wouldn't is if the administrations are in fear of the competitive job market and choose to wait another season to make a move.)

As for other jobs, the fate of Bill Snyder is in question at Kansas State. Bowl eligibility is still attainable for the Wildcats (4–6, 1–6 Big 12) after a miraculous 38–35 comeback victory over Iowa State on Saturday. But Snyder is 76, an age in which most people consider retirement, not working 16 hours days to compete with the likes of Oklahoma and Baylor. West Virginia is another possibility to come open, although it may be cost prohibitive at nearly $9 million to remove Dana Holgorsen and his staff. For now, with the 6–4 Mountaineers showing the potential to get to 8–4 (they close the season against Iowa State and at Kansas State), we'll consider that a prime job to open in 2016.

And the biggest buzz in this coaching carousel is the secondary market. Schools that lose coaches over the coming weeks will face a market that should be bereft of quality candidates. (And let's not be naïve enough to think that the NFL won't pluck a coach or two from college as well.) For example, think about Florida State, which could lose Fisher after no one thought the job could open when the year began.

There could be three or four other unexpected jobs opening, totally changing the paradigm of the market. That notion has made some athletic directors paranoid about losing their coaches in a few weeks after a fertile field of young candidates has been picked through. Consider the potential contract offers that Houston and Memphis just gave Herman ($3 million) and Justin Fuente ($2.5 million), according to The Commercial Appeal. Those deals seem way more appealing than leaving for a program like Syracuse, Iowa State or Rutgers that has traditionally been known as a loser.

The hot coaches are going to stay and get rich or leave and get richer. So, in a few weeks, athletic directors could be hiring from a limited field. As one industry source put it: "Athletic directors are going to be forced to adjust and not just hire the hot guy. They're going to have to go find a great football coach."

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5. Two names have transformed their realities more than anyone in 2015: North Carolina's Larry Fedora and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo. Since we did our preseason coaching carousel breakdown and our midseason edition, there has been some obvious volatility. But Fedora and Niumatalolo have changed their trajectories the most. Fedora went from the hot seat after Carolina's historically inept defensive effort in 2014 to a coach so hot it may be surprise if he stays at North Carolina. (At the very least, he deserves a raise for coaching the Tar Heels through NCAA limbo to a 10–1 record and an ACC Coastal Division championship.) The market is so robust that Fedora could end up in a variety of places, as he has also had success as the head coach at Southern Miss and an assistant at Oklahoma State and Florida. (If Fedora had this caliber of season last year he'd likely be the head coach at Florida.) Fedora won't be the top target of a school such as Georgia, LSU or USC, but in this chaotic climate he could end up finding an upgrade from North Carolina in a top-tier job in a top-tier conference.

As for Niumatalolo, he has led perhaps the best Navy team of this generation to a 9–1 mark. (Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a competitive game.) The Midshipmen can clinch a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game with a win at Houston on Friday. Navy is the highest-ranked team in college football's Group of Five conferences and could snare an automatic bid to a New Year's Six bowl. In a muddled year for coaching hires, Niumatalolo offers a distinct offense, comfort with academic standards and the capacity to win at a nontraditional power. Don't be surprised to see interest from Virginia, Maryland or Iowa State, as he has won 65% of his games in eight full seasons at Navy. (Oh, and he has never lost to Army.)

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