Who will end up where and who will be gone? The biggest coaching questions after a dizzying Thanksgiving of rumors
Starting around sundown on Thanksgiving and throughout the chaotic 24 hours that followed, college football found itself in an inverted universe. The games unfolding on the field were trumped by the news surrounding them, a bizarre existence where the soap opera of the coaching carousel overshadowed the reason why we care about the games in the first place.
A year from now, the images from this dizzying Thanksgiving weekend will not come from between the hashes. There's an intrepid ESPN sideline reporter doing an awkward hit from near the rafters of Kyle Field to deliver a no comment from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva. There was Charlie Strong's final game as Texas's coach, as the fourth quarter of the 31–9 loss to TCU amounted to a lengthy broadcast eulogy. The topper came from Tom Herman's pre-game interview at Memphis, which was more awkward than a chess club member putting on his prom date's corsage. "Don't believe anything that you read," Herman said.
That doubles as a valid set of instructions for much of the information and misinformation floating around this time of year. Despite Herman's warning, let's dive into the biggest off-field coaching questions dominating college football as we head into what's traditionally known as Black Saturday.
1.) What's next at Texas?
Update: Texas will hire Herman, Sports Illustrated confirmed Saturday.
Multiple sources told Sports Illustrated late Friday night that Texas will dismiss Charlie Strong on Saturday morning. That move appears to expedite Texas's pursuit of Herman, as the Longhorns need to quickly decide whether they want to pursue some unicorn candidate—Nick Saban, Jon Gruden, etc.—or take the best coach on the board who is certain to say yes. To put it politely, Texas doesn't have the timeframe to lure a unicorn nor does it have a stable enough administration to be appetizing to one.
The best guess here is that Herman ends up at Texas, for the simple reason that it's what he truly wanted all along. The brazen bluff from Herman's camp was the buzz of college football on Friday, as word chugged across ESPN's Bottom Line all night Thursday that both Herman was close to taking the LSU job but also open to an offer from Texas.
But a majority of Herman's coaching career has woven through Texas, including his two-year stint as a graduate assistant coach with the Longhorns. That's where his recruiting connections are, from stops at Sam Houston, Texas State, Rice and his stint going 22–4 at Houston.
Things can certainly change quickly, as we've seen over the past 24 hours. The reality is that the favored destination for Herman is Austin. As it always has been.
2.) What's up at LSU?
Update: Interim coach Ed Orgeron will be named the permanent head coach at LSU, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate reported Saturday morning.
For embattled Tigers athletic director Joe Alleva, the prevailing thought around the industry is that he pursued Herman with vigor because he didn't think he could get Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. ESPN incorrectly reported early Thursday that Fisher turned down LSU—a source said it never even got to that point because of LSU's fear that it couldn't land Fisher.
But Fisher turning down LSU last year, along with the potential cost of a long-term deal this time around, led Alleva to go hard after Herman. And 24 hours after the story broke of LSU's dogged pursuit of Herman, Alleva and LSU suits are sweating out the same scenario they feared with Fisher. They may get left at the altar again, just like Fisher did to them last season.
Alleva is in survival mode at LSU after a brutal year that included the basketball team becoming a punch line under Johnny Jones, the failed firing of Les Miles and the ham-handed handling of the rescheduling of the Tigers' game against Florida. Alleva ended up with enough egg on his face to make omelets for the entire LSU defensive line.
Essentially, Alleva can't survive whiffing on Herman and then running an entire search. The consistent theme for months surrounding this job has been that there's no obvious candidate if both Fisher and Herman pass. No one knows that better than Alleva, which is why reports emerged in multiple outlets Friday that interim coach Ed Orgeron would get the job if Herman ended up at Texas. Orgeron is a safe hire to placate the local LSU influencers, as they want one of their own in charge in Baton Rouge. They may just get one, as this looks like the obvious play.
3.) Can Mark Helfrich save his job on Saturday?
There's been a sense in the industry for weeks that the fate of Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has been sealed. The counter to that is there's still no obvious replacement on the board. Oregon quietly pursued Herman in the same way that LSU did, but that move didn't make enough sense for him to start over in another region of the country. A report from 247 Sports indicated that TCU's Gary Patterson also passed.
If the Ducks do end up keeping Helfrich – and the feeling here is that won't happen, because too many Duck influencers want change– the main reason will be that they couldn't immediately find an adequate replacement to justify the more than $11 million.
A decision to keep Helfrich would be surprising. The Ducks have slipped light years behind Washington in the Pac-12 North. They are also a solid distance behind Stanford and Washington State. They are 4–7 right now, and even improving to 5–7 with a win over Oregon State on Saturday doesn't seem like it would deliver enough optimism to justify this free fall to mediocrity.
But there are no obvious replacements, as the Ducks will seek the type of innovation and energy that Chip Kelly delivered with his tempo and schemes. Oregon was a step ahead of everyone for a few years, but now the college football world has raced past it.
The obvious name is Boise's Bryan Harsin, who has been prolific out west but will not win the conference for the second consecutive year. The biggest fish they could land on the West Coast is Utah's Kyle Whittingham, who has been consistently great at Utah but lacks any real sizzle. The Ducks are also intrigued by Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck, as his bounce house energy and undefeated record (12-0) fit with Oregon's florescent ethos. Or could Navy's Ken Niumatalolo deliver the schematic difference the Ducks are seeking?
There are no easy answers here, but it's hard to see Oregon keeping Helfrich and risking another year of just blending in.
4. What's happening at Purdue?
Purdue's search began with big names and big hopes. But as we enter the final full weekend of the regular season, there's little clarity or sense of direction here.
The known candidates are Les Miles (former LSU), Brock Spack (Illinois State), Greg Olson (NFL OC), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Fleck and Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech). The bluster out of Purdue all along has been a job that can pay big—$4 million—and the facilities and infrastructure to build a national title contender. Bigger name candidates are leery of the school's commitment to football, especially after it failed to capitalize on the good vibes and winning momentum from the Joe Tiller era.
Fleck hasn't spoken to Purdue officials and doesn't intend to engage with any schools until after the MAC title game. Will the job be filled by then? Nothing indicates imminent action here.
5. Where does Baylor turn?
After opening the season with six consecutive victories and proceeding to lose five straight, Baylor's season has turned into a full-fledged on-field meltdown. The Bears looked listless and hopeless in their 54–35 loss to Texas Tech on Saturday night, which had been enduring its own stretch of listlessness and hopelessness.
Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades worked deliberately in his coaching searches at Houston (Herman) and Missouri (Barry Odom). That's why the reports about a deal being in place to hire SMU's Chad Morris came off as premature.
The reach candidate here is UNC's Larry Fedora, who didn't do much to position himself for a higher-profile gig (LSU, Texas, etc.) by flopping in a rivalry game against North Carolina State, 28–21, on Saturday. The other prime targets are Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, SMU's Morris and former LSU coach Les Miles. MacIntyre is due to cash in one way or another, as the Buffalos' 9–2 season has him in position for a big raise either in Boulder or elsewhere. Arkansas State's Blake Anderson is a safety candidate here, as he has them in position to win the Sun Belt again.
There's a lot of mystery around Baylor. Fedora could do better. MacIntyre could stay home for a raise. Morris could stick around at SMU and wait for a talented young team to grow up. Baylor is still a smoldering dumpster fire off the field, as indicated by this line: "Texas is such a mess this week that Baylor decided to dump all their bad news."
6. What else is happening in the state of Texas?
There's no plan at Texas A&M to fire head coach Kevin Sumlin, and there was never a plan at to make a change there, despite headlines from media outlets that hinted at the contrary. Other staff changes are a possibility, but even those are a ways off from happening. None are obvious and imminent. Sumlin finished the season 8-4, with the aesthetics of a 54-39 loss to LSU a garish way to end the year.
Essentially, Sumlin will begin next season just as he began this one—squarely on the hot seat lists come August. He'll have some in-state company this year, as Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury will join him. Kingsbury finished this year 5–7 and is 24–26 in four years in Lubbock. The persistently poor defensive performances have taken some of the bromance out of Kingsbury's relationship with Tech fans. But a buyout of more than $9 million has scared Tech's conservative administration away from moving on from Kingsbury, just like Sumlin's $15 million buyout is daunting for A&M.
Next season, however, speculation will begin early for both coaches.
7. What's happening in the AAC?
The prevailing industry expectation is that Cincinnati will part ways with coach Tommy Tuberville in the next 48 hours. Cincinnati lost five consecutive games to end the season, including squandering a 17-point lead to lose 40–37 to Tulsa on Friday. Bearcat officials have remained tight-lipped about Tuberville's future in large part because they have a strong affinity toward him. (Cincinnati, if you recall, was also one of the more stealth schools involved in Big 12 realignment). But the results on the field have diminished over the past two seasons to the point where Tuberville's future is untenable.
Some names that will emerge for this job are Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, OSU co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, Western Kentucky's Jeff Brohm, Strong, Toledo's Jason Candle, Appalachian State's Scott Satterfield and Troy's Neal Brown. Athletic directors tend to hire opposites, which could lead to a push for an offensive-minded coach.
It's fair to say that Houston will inevitably open when Herman chooses a destination. The initial inclination of Houston officials will be to fill the job from within. There's so much positive momentum and culture from Herman's two years there. The school would like to capture that, which means turning to offensive coordinator Major Applewhite or defensive coordinator Todd Orlando as the obvious first choice. Houston is an attractive job and could receive strong outside interest. But what this will come down to is how lofty the program's booster types view the job. Will they chase a big name just to say they got a big name and risk interrupting the program's mojo?
8. What are some other jobs to watch in smaller leagues?
There have already been openings at FIU, Fresno State and Georgia State. The FIU and Fresno jobs have been filled by Butch Davis and Jeff Tedford, strong brand names for smaller schools.
In the Mountain West, the pair of jobs to watch are Nevada and San Jose State, as both Brian Polian (22–27) and Ron Caragher (18–30) are considered at highest risk.
The Conference USA jobs being tracked heavily in the industry are UTEP and Rice, both of which are expected to open. There's a chance Florida Atlantic administrators make a move as well.
It could end up being a slower year in the MAC, as both Kent State and Northern Illinois are jobs to watch, though neither are locks to open.
The most interesting job in the Sun Belt is Louisiana Lafayette, as Mark Hudspeth went from dominating the league with four consecutive nine-win seasons to a tailspin over the last two years. The school also just replaced its athletic director this week, creating more uncertainty. It would cost $2 million to buy him out, which is a lot of money for a Sun Belt school.