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Heat Check: Where Does Every Coach Under Fire Stand at Midseason?

In this week's Punt, Pass & Pork, we take the temperature of every Power 5 coaching hot seat, envision an SEC-controlled playoff and eat tikka masala poutine fries in Palo Alto.

The coaching carousel started spinning last week when Oregon State’s Gary Andersen quit and released the school from all contractual obligations, but so far no coach has left a job unwillingly. That likely will change soon, though. Two games this past weekend all but sealed the fate of two hot-seat coaches. Meanwhile, three others notched wins that might help them avoid that buyout life.

Today, we’ll conduct a Hot Seat Heat Check to determine exactly where each of the Power Five’s on-the-bubble coaches stand at midseason.

This Is Fine

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These coaches probably aren’t coming back at their current schools, and the last game made the situation even worse.

Mike Riley, Nebraska

The Cornhuskers looked listless and unprepared in their 56–14 loss to Ohio State. If Riley and his assistants can’t motivate their team to at least make an effort, Nebraska needs to move on. Riley’s firing wasn’t a fait accompli when athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired last month, but it sure feels like one now. Riley probably could have bought himself another year with competitive performances against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but the Huskers got clobbered in the second half by the Badgers and blown off the field by the Buckeyes.

Now that Washington State’s Bill Moos has been hired to replace Eichorst, the talk around Nebraska has shifted to Riley’s replacement. Former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost looks to be the most prized mid-major coach this offseason after turning around Central Florida quickly. Frost seems like an obvious choice for Nebraska, but he’s likely to get interest from multiple schools. Wouldn’t Frost jump at the chance to return to his alma mater? Maybe. Maybe not. As Oregon’s offensive coordinator, Frost turned down head coaching jobs and waited until he could find one at a good program in a recruit-rich area. Nebraska is not a recruit-rich area. Still, Big Red has big pull for alums. The other name bound to pop up is Mike Leach, the coach Moos hired at Washington State. Moos, chancellor Ronnie Green and president Hank Bounds first have to decide if they want to fire Riley, though.

The huge swaths of empty seats during Saturday’s second half suggest the fans have already made that decision for the trio. Once they officially do the deed, expect Moos to go after what Nebraska needs—a superior talent evaluator and recruiter with an offensive system that can make Nebraska different and less reliant on raw talent. As different as Frost and Leach are, each fits that profile. But expect Moos to also look beyond the obvious names.

Butch Jones, Tennessee

A 41–0 home loss to Georgia in a must-win game was bad enough. A 15–9 home loss to South Carolina in a must-win game—coming off a bye week, no less, is unforgivable. The Volunteers don’t need to make a change this week with a trip to Alabama on the schedule, but this team’s offensive struggles suggest more losses besides the obvious one on Saturday are forthcoming. It feels like it’s only a matter of time.

Not quite there, but headed that way

These coaches haven’t passed the point of no return, but they need to turn things around soon.

Jim Mora, UCLA

The Bruins’ defense got shredded by Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate on Saturday to the tune of 230 rushing yards and 148 passing yards. What is likely quarterback Josh Rosen’s final season at UCLA is being wasted. Bruins AD Dan Guerrero does not like to spend money, and Mora’s buyout is $11 million. But Guerrero will have to consider possible lost donations if the football product remains bad, and this job could draw some attractive candidates. If UCLA doesn’t improve, Guerrero might decide to open his wallet.

Bret Bielema, Arkansas

A reporter in Arkansas actually read Bielema’s contract last week and discovered that Bielema’s buyout is far less—$10.2 million less, to be exact—than previously believed. This changes the math considerably for a program that has lost seven of its last 10 games. Razorbacks AD Jeff Long loves Bielema and will support him for as long as he can, but Arkansas has to win a few down the stretch.

Steve Addazio, Boston College

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Another win like the Eagles’ 45–42 win at Louisville on Saturday, and Addazio might move to the section below this one.

Playing their way into staying

These coaches seemed like locks to get fired when the season began. Now, they’re making a case to get another year.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

Sumlin’s AD went on national television in May and basically said the coach would be fired if he didn’t improve the Aggies’ record. After a season-opening collapse at UCLA, that seemed impossible. But Texas A&M has improved as freshman quarterback Kellen Mond has grown more comfortable. Giving Alabama the toughest challenge it has faced all season didn’t result in a win, but it did boost a young team’s confidence. A road win this past Saturday at Florida wasn’t perfect, but the defense stuffed the Gators when it had to and Mond got the Aggies close enough for three Daniel LaCamera field goals in the fourth quarter. Because of the history here, an 8–4 record might still get Sumlin fired. But 9–3 looks quite realistic, and that might keep Sumlin in College Station.

Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

As Sumlin will attest, the right quarterback can make all the difference. Rodriguez didn’t start Khalil Tate out of preseason camp, and then a shoulder injury further delayed Tate’s ascension. But once the Wildcats unleashed Tate against Colorado after an injury to Brandon Dawkins, they looked like a completely different team. Tate has rushed for 557 yards in his past two games. He also has completed 21 of 26 passes for 302 yards because defenses are too terrified of what he’ll do on the ground to adequately cover receivers. If this keeps up, Rodriguez will be safe.

Todd Graham, Arizona State

The first sign that the Sun Devils hadn’t completely given up on Graham was a win against Oregon on Sept. 23. But the real eye-opener came Saturday when Arizona State beat Washington 13–7 after giving up at least 30 points in 11 consecutive games. If the defense is truly better, Graham has a chance. If the Washington win was an anomaly, Graham still might not return.

It’s still early, but yikes

These coaches are both in year two at schools that don’t expect to be football powerhouses, but their performances have been abysmal. Still, it’s unclear whether their schools would pull the plug so soon.

Lovie Smith, Illinois

Hiring a fired NFL head coach always was a 50-50 proposition. Either the coach would embrace the challenge, recruit hard and use an Xs-and-Os acumen honed at the highest level to upset teams with more talent, or the coach would realize how difficult this job is and decide to simply draw a paycheck and put an uninspiring team on the field each week. Judging by the results, Smith has chosen the latter. He is 5–13 since taking over the Illini last year. Saturday, Illinois played Big Ten East doormat Rutgers in a game that might have been the only chance at a conference win for either program. Rutgers won, 35–24.

Barry Odom, Missouri

After getting crushed by Auburn on Sept. 23, Odom ranted about a turnaround that has yet to materialize. Missouri kept it close in a loss at Kentucky, but so had Eastern Michigan a week earlier. The Tigers put up a fight for a quarter and a half at Georgia on Saturday before getting blown off the field. Missouri should beat Idaho on Saturday. After that, the Tigers will continue seeking their first SEC win.

We hear what you want, but you may not get it

These coaches have lost healthy chunks of their fan bases, but previous accomplishments plus the price of changing coaches should give them another chance unless their teams completely collapse down the stretch.

Jim McElwain, Florida

The rank-and-file section of the Florida fan base has completely checked out on McElwain after realizing this is basically the same team as the post-Will Grier suspension 2015 squad and last year’s team—only without the good luck those teams had. This staff’s inability to select or develop quarterbacks has turned each game into an episode of Groundhog Day, but McElwain’s two SEC East titles combined with the cost of his buyout ($12.5 million) should get him another year as long as the Gators don’t lose every remaining game.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

No Auburn coach is truly safe unless he’s holding the national title trophy as confetti falls. Malzahn, who was an offensive coordinator at Auburn before he was the Tigers’ head coach, knew that when he took the job. Malzahn’s problem now is that he’s an offensive genius who keeps getting encouraged to do less with the offense. Auburn’s offensive predictability probably cost the Tigers a win Saturday, when they shot to a 20–0 lead and then collapsed in a 27–23 loss at LSU. During that game, Auburn ran on 17 consecutive first downs and refused to adjust after LSU began bringing a safety into the box to combat tailback Kerryon Johnson in the Wildcat formation. Malzahn is not as safe as McElwain for a few reasons. First, he works at Auburn. Second, the future employment of the AD who hired him is in doubt. Still, he should be able to hang on by winning the games he’s supposed to win and putting up a fight against Alabama. Failing that, things could get interesting on the Plains.

Bruce Feldman's top 10 teams | Heisman Watch: Who's chasing Barkley?

A Random Ranking

On a day that I’m glad I don’t have to produce a college football top 25 anymore, I’ve decided on a much easier ranking: seasons of The Wire.

1. Season Three (Hamsterdam forever!)
2. Season Four
3. Season One
4. Season Five
5. Season Two

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

Crimson Tide players ignored all the rat poison arrayed before them and annihilated Arkansas 41–9. Now they’ll face a Tennessee team that’s just waiting for the inevitable after losing to South Carolina despite coming off a bye week (again). 

2. Georgia

I realize the odds of this exact order happening are small, but given the results so far, the Bulldogs deserve this spot at the moment. But allow me to spin a scenario—which almost certainly won’t happen—that might make it possible: Alabama beats previously undefeated Georgia by a field goal in triple overtime in the SEC title game. Penn State and TCU go undefeated. Notre Dame, a team Georgia beat in South Bend, goes 11–1 and barely misses the playoff.

3. Penn State

The Nittany Lions will rise or fall on this list at some point in the next three weeks. They face Michigan on Saturday in State College. Then they’re at Ohio State and at Michigan State. Get through that and there’s a case to be made for No. 1. A loss would knock the Nittany Lions out, but possibly only temporarily if they can play their way back into the Big Ten title race.

4. TCU

The Horned Frogs rolled along with a 26–6 win at Kansas State that was delayed and then later interrupted by nasty storms. They face Kansas on Saturday in a game that will run on Fox opposite the USC–Notre Dame game on NBC and the Michigan–Penn State game on ABC. Why? Recent history. They have won the past three meetings, but the margins of victory have been slim. In 2014, TCU won 34–30. In 2015, TCU won 23–17. Last year, TCU won 24–23. If lowly Kansas is within a possession of knocking off one of college football’s few remaining undefeated teams, the thinking goes, the viewers will flock to Fox.

Big Ugly of the Week

Junior defensive tackle Renell Wren didn’t start Saturday for Arizona State, but he made a huge impact on the Sun Devils’ 13–7 upset of Washington as his role in the rotation increased. In the first half, he trucked an offensive lineman and sacked Jake Browning, forcing a fumble. In the second half, Wren drew a holding penalty that wiped a Washington touchdown off the board. (Wren would have blown up the play in the backfield if he hadn’t been held.) He’s misidentified in the video below, but that is Wren on the aforementioned strip-sack.

Three And Out

1. Stanford tailback Bryce Love is even faster than we realized. Check out this footage from the Cardinal’s 49–7 win against Oregon. In this game, Love carried 17 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns before going out early in the third quarter with an ankle injury. (It isn’t likely to cause him to miss much time.)

Oh, wait. That’s not him. He’s faster.

2. Of course I’m going to show you the speech Syracuse coach Dino Babers gave his players after they shocked Clemson on Friday night.

3. Les Miles returned to LSU’s Tiger Stadium on Saturday to be honored alongside his 2007 national title team. CBS reporter Allie LaForce brought snacks.

For Your Ears

Co-host Patrick Meagher and I discuss all the upsets on a weekend that didn’t look nearly as interesting on paper. We also examine which hot-seat coaches might yet save their jobs.

What’s Eating Andy?

Remind me to never, ever give Boston College tailback A.J. Dillon a reason to stiffarm me.

What’s Andy Eating?

Other than John Candy, poutine might be Canada’s finest export. We cover our fries in melted cheese and think we’re decadent. Our neighbors to the north cover them in brown gravy and cheese curds. Among shareable appetizers, poutine’s only real competition is queso fundido.

Fortunately for our taste buds and unfortunately for our arteries, we’ve finally embraced poutine stateside. It’s available in its classic form at restaurants across the country. Meanwhile, some places have offered their own twist. When I went to Louisville last season to write aboot—sorry, that’s the poutine talking—Lamar Jackson, I stumbled upon a place called Four Pegs that used sausage milk gravy instead of brown gravy in its poutine. The result was sublime.

The folks at Four Pegs weren’t alone. On the other side of the country, the cooks at Curry Up Now decided to use another beloved regional sauce as the dressing for their poutine. As the name—if you read this space often, you know I’m a sucker for restaurant puns—suggests, Curry Up Now serves Indian food. The twist is the Indian food comes in a North American package. This Bay Area mini-chain made its bones stuffing chicken tikka masala into burritos. Though its origins are disputed, chicken tikka masala as we know it was developed by cooks of Indian and Bangladeshi origin in the United Kingdom. Chicken tikka is a popular Indian dish; the masala sauce was added to satisfy palates in the British Isles. In the Curry Up Now burrito, the curry-heavy sauce adds a kick and a touch of sweetness, making an otherwise ubiquitous dish something special.

Sexy Fries from Curry Up Now in Palo Alto.

Sexy Fries from Curry Up Now in Palo Alto.

As good as the tikka masala is in the burrito, it’s even better atop Curry Up Now’s Sexy Fries. They begin with a base of sweet potato waffle fries. Chick-fil-A, the nation’s leading purveyor of waffle fries, tested a sweet potato version in some markets but opted against taking them nationwide. After tasting the sweet potato waffle fries at Curry Up Now’s Palo Alto location, I am certain this was a massive failure on Chick-fil-A’s part. Curry Up Now’s sweet potato waffle fries are better than Chick-fil-A’s regular waffle fries, and Chick-fil-A’s waffles are my favorite fast food french fries. Now imagine these wide, substantial, crisp-but-not-too-crispy fries carrying chunks of chicken or lamb covered in spicy, sweet masala sauce and cheese. I ordered the lamb version, and the richer meat provided added more heft to an already decadent dish.

The burrito was excellent, but I probably didn’t need to order it. The Sexy Fries were all I could think about for days.