Forde-Yard Dash: Which Struggling College Football Coaches Deserve a COVID Reprieve?

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (welcome back gift baskets for California, last team in the 2020 season, sold separately):

FIRST QUARTER: WHICH COACHES GET A COVID MULLIGAN, AND WHICH DON'T?

Your team is having a lousy season. You want to fire your coach. But times are tough in college football, with the money spigot not producing the usual gushing revenue stream. So who gets a pandemic reprieve, and who is leaving?

Will Muschamp went 28-30 as head coach at South Carolina.

Will Muschamp (1) received no mulligan at South Carolina. After surrendering a school-record 159 points in the last three games, the school trap-doored Muschamp Sunday with three games left in his fourth season. He was an unimaginative hire that turned out about like everyone imagined, and this will be a costly severance—reportedly to the tune of more than $13 million. Non-revenue sports at the school better duck, because hiring malpractice and irresponsible contracts could be taken out of their thinly stretched hide. Muschamp departs with a 28-30 record and the unique privilege of being allowed to fail twice at Power 5 jobs (Florida was the first one).

The replacement here will be fascinating. Does South Carolina dare to dance with Hugh Freeze (2)? He’s a winner and a sinner, both in the Biblical and NCAA rules manual sense. In terms of his public life, the worst of his transgressions was lying to recruits about the severity of the NCAA violations that occurred on his watch at Mississippi, a deceit that came back to bite Ole Miss as many top players were granted immediate eligibility upon transferring.

In the SEC, that’s not terribly likely to outweigh the fact that Freeze is currently undefeated at Liberty. Or that he had a 39-25 record in one of the hardest jobs in the league, including two upset wins over Alabama. Or that he’s one of the sharpest offensive minds in the sport. Except for this: conference commissioner Greg Sankey is no fan of Freeze's, having actively discouraged some schools from hiring him as an offensive coordinator on the rebound after the Ole Miss scandals. If South Carolina wanted to hire him, it would have to take it directly to Sankey for consultation, where it could be met with some resistance.

If South Carolina decides it can’t go down that oily road, there are some compelling Sun Belt options. Start with Louisiana’s Billy Napier, who comes with a 25-11 record and four other nice words to have on the resume: Nick Saban coaching tree. Then there is the only coach to beat Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns this season, right there in the Palmetto State. It would be a quantum leap up the ladder, but Coastal Carolina is a miraculous 7-0 in its third season under Jamey Chadwell. He’s had previous success in the state at lower levels (Charleston Southern and North Greenville). Napier has the more established FBS track record but someone is going to come after Chadwell after this season as well.

Jim Harbaugh (3), Michigan: No mulligan. The Harbaugh Era is disintegrating, and there is little reason to believe either he or the school administration want to extend a contract that expires after the 2021 season. The Wolverines have lost three in a row by escalating margins, giving up an escalating number of points in each game, while showing a declining level of confidence and resolve. If this 1-3 start were a blip, instead of a continuation of an unfulfilling tenure, that would be one thing. It’s not. This is the next step in a program going from underachiever to flat-out dog.

Next up in Ann Arbor? On the podcast Sunday we discussed a laundry list of potential successors. The way to approach this, if you’re Michigan: make Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell (4) say no; if he does, then weigh the merits of Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck.

The Dash would lean toward P.J. Fleck (5) there, even if it would mean hiring the guy your colossally disappointing team pounded by 25 points to open this season. The Gophers have actually been even more disappointing than Michigan, but Fleck has proven he can hit the high notes (11-2 last year at Minny, 13-1 in 2016 at Western Michigan). He’s also proven he can recruit the Midwest. Of course, hiring Fleck means hiring the Fleck Experience, which means the jargonized remodeling of the program in his image—it’s his show.

Matt Campbell (6) would be much more likely to harmoniously blend into the Michigan Way Of Doing Things, and he’s been very successful at a tough place to win. But he’s also never done better than 8-5 at Iowa State, and his teams have tended to perform better when expectations were lower than higher. At Michigan, expectations are to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten—in other words, permanently high.

James Franklin (7), Penn State: Mulligan. While the Nittany Lions are a massive bust at 0-4, and committed serial Red Zone coaching malpractice with the game on the line against Nebraska, Franklin restored the program’s relevance and has plenty of credit in the bank to withstand one terrible year amidst a pandemic. The personnel losses this season have been major and Franklin has won 42 games in the previous four seasons. Plus his very lucrative contract is recently agreed upon and would cost a fortune to break. Franklin wouldn't last long on the open job market, and Penn State would be hard-pressed to find a better replacement. But both the head coach and the school will have to reassess whether the hire of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca is working out.

Ed Orgeron (8), LSU: Mulligan. Defensive coordinator Bo Pelini might not be so lucky, but Orgeron obviously isn’t being pushed out a year after going 15-0 and winning the national title. Orgeron was spared an almost certain blowout at the hands of Alabama due to COVID issues, but games against Texas A&M and Florida loom as likely defeats that would assure a losing record. LSU’s best player, Ja'Marr Chase, opted out before the season and the Tigers now are starting a true freshman backup quarterback, so there are some legit excuses cooked into this bitter 2020 gumbo.

Southern California Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts in the second quarter Arizona State Sun Devils at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Clay Helton (9), USC: No mulligan—unless of course the Trojans keep pulling games out of … somewhere. USC should probably be 0-2 at this point, or no better than 1-1. In both games, opponents had the game literally in their hands, but deflected passes instead fell in the laps of Trojans receivers at crucial times to aid comebacks. USC overcame some dreadful goal-line execution earlier in the second half against Arizona Saturday, wherein a third-and-goal at the 1 was followed by a false start and a delay of game—the latter of which falls squarely on the coaches. From there USC missed a field goal, which helped put it in the late-game predicament from which it escaped with the win.

Looking at the schedule, a 6-0 regular-season record and Pac-12 South Division championship certainly seems possible (if the Trojans can get all six games in, of course). Pulling that off would be a classic Helton survival from the hot seat—his third such escape in the last three seasons, in fact.

If USC’s underachieving actually translates to enough losses that a change is made, the school will have no shortage of options—including, perhaps, a couple of other coaches on this list. You can start the wish list with Urban Meyer (10), but last year he didn’t seem overly enthused about working for Mike Bohn after he was hired as athletic director and the 2019 Fire Helton dance was underway. Maybe another season on the sideline has changed Meyer’s outlook, maybe he’s enjoying doing TV work too much.

But the retired coach rolodex doesn’t stop with Urb. USC should check in with Chris Petersen, who left Washington last winter. And there is the annual Bob Stoops vigil.

Among active coaches, Franklin and Fleck have the sort of personalities that would play in L.A., although it would be unusual recruiting territory. Out West, someone should throw money at San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, who is doing what seemed impossible by leading the school’s first 4-0 start since 1955. BYU’s Kalani Sitake is having a breakthrough season, but the previous four were pretty mediocre.