Editor's Note: Welcome to the Weekend Read, SI's weekly newsletter. This week we fire up the college football hot seat as the season gets underway. Sign up here to receive pieces like this in your inbox every Friday.
Clay Helton has a joke for you. Well, it’s not really a joke, more of a jest among the hot-seat fumes rising around him. “There are only a couple guys who are really safe in this business,” the fourth-year Southern Cal coach says, “and one of their names is Saban.”
Correct, Clay. Alabama isn’t firing Nick Saban anytime soon. Also, Clemson isn’t canning Dabo Swinney next year, Texas A&M isn’t getting rid of Jimbo Fisher this fall and so on and so on. Plenty of coaches enter 2019 perfectly safe in their seat. Helton is not one of them. He’s on the hottest of hot seats as the college football season kicks off. Many thought he wouldn’t make it this far. After all, the Trojans, in his third full season as coach, finished with their first losing season in 18 years, lost to Cal at home for the first time since 2003 and, with their explosive athletes and offensive-minded head coach, failed to crack the 17-point mark in four games.
Helton spent the offseason overhauling his offense, first hiring Kliff Kingsbury and then, after Kingsbury left for the NFL a month into his tenure, plucking fellow Air Raid disciple Graham Harrell from North Texas. Helton made other changes—he’s cracking the whip more with players, for instance—but the most significant move is installing the pass-centric offense.
Will the Air Raid save Helton’s job? Who knows, but one thing is for sure, Nick Saban is not on our list of Power 5 coaches who we believe enter the year on the hottest of seats. Helton is. And so is Lovie Smith at Illinois, who lands on our hot seat list for a second straight year (keep hangin in there, Lovie!). Lovie is the lucky one of the four on our hot seat list last year. Kingsbury (Texas Tech), David Beaty (Kansas) and Larry Fedora (North Carolina) were not so lucky.
Let’s take a look at our 2019 hot seat group…
Clay Helton, USC
Record (years): 31-17 (4th)
Key game: vs. Stanford, Sept. 7 — This will give us an early gauge if this team is a contender or one that’ll get its coach fired
Hot seat meter: Scorching
Lovie Smith, Illinois
Record (years): 9-27 (4th)
Key game: vs. UConn, Sept. 7 — This is a game between two coaches (Randy Edsall is the other) on the hot seat, so maybe the winner keeps his gig
Hot seat meter: A blaze, a complete blaze
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Record (years): 53-27 (7th)
Key game: vs. Oregon, Aug. 31 — The Tigers really need to sweep their non-conference games because, remember, they play in the SEC West
Hot seat meter: Boiling
Chris Ash, Rutgers
Record (years): 7-29 (4th)
Key game: vs. Maryland, Oct. 5 — Against a rebuilding Maryland team at home? Better win for any shot at a bowl
Hot seat meter: Sweltering
2020 could be hot: Will Taggart (Florida State, 2nd year), Pat Narduzzi (Pitt, 5th year), Tom Allen (Indiana, 4th year), Matt Luke (Ole Miss, 2nd year), Will Muschamp (South Carolina, 4th year)
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Vault Photo of the Week: Hands in the Air Like You Just Don't Care
Jim Harbaugh sure is fired up to avoid the way-too-early hot seat list, isn't he? The Michigan head coach will always find a way to attract attention, and this is nothing new for college football fans. Harbaugh is pictured above on the sideline of a 2009 Stanford-UCLA game when he was the head coach of the Cardinal. Ten years later, hardly anything has changed, from the patented khakis to the playcalls attached at his hip to the red pen draped around his neck. Harbaugh can't quit his antics, and college football can't quit Harbaugh.
Photograph via SI's Bob Rosato.
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