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Forde-Yard Dash: Coaches Facing Critical Week 1 Tests

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the movie reviews are brutal in Lincoln: 

MORE DASH: Coordinator Changes  | Backlash Predictions | Herbstreit

FIRST QUARTER: BEST OPENING WEEK EVER … IF YOU WIN

We’ve made it to another season, and another year of The Dash. And what a start we get, with 14 games matching Power 5 teams against each other (13 this week, plus Nebraska-Illinois in Week 0). That’s the most since the Power 5 conferences largely coalesced into their current shape in 2012. The average number of P5 vs. P5 openers from 2012-19 was 10.

The winners are the fans who want a heavier slate of interesting matchups to start the year, as opposed to the usual Power 5 openers against Cadaver State. But you know who likes those soft-launch openers? Coaches, especially the ones who enter the season feeling some heat. There isn’t much worse than watching an entire offseason of optimism disintegrate right away by losing the first game.

Ask Scott Frost (1), whose Nebraska status was abruptly downgraded from disappointing to nearly untenable after the opening flop as a seven-point favorite at Illinois. Frosty undoubtedly would have rather played this week’s opponent, Fordham, as its opener. But the Big Ten has served the fans by scheduling a bunch of conference games to start the year, which The Dash endorses.

Scott Frost is already feeling the heat this season in Lincoln.

Scott Frost is already feeling the heat this season in Lincoln.

Week 1 doesn’t always tell the truth—if it did, UCLA with Josh Rosen would have gone to multiple Rose Bowls—but sometimes a loss sets a negative tone that is hard to dispel. Among the recent examples:

2012: Gene Chizik’s Auburn team opens with a loss to Clemson, which was just beginning its ascent under Dabo Swinney. Chizik’s Tigers were outgained by Swinney’’s Tigers by more than 150 yards. Auburn spiraled out of that game into a dismal, 28-10 loss to Mississippi State the following week, on their way to a 3-9 disaster that ended with Chizik’s firing just two years after winning the national championship.

Also on Week 1 that year: the Brady Hoke Bloom Is Off the Rose Game. After an 11-2 debut season, Hoke’s Michigan squad got housed by Alabama to start his second season. He’d hang around through 2014, but the belief that Hoke was the answer at Michigan began to disappear after Nick Saban gave him a beating.

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2014: Al Golden’s 9-4 high-water mark at Miami the previous year started to resemble fool’s gold on Labor Day, when Bobby Petrino and Louisville rolled to a 31-13 victory over the Hurricanes. That was the second straight loss to the Cardinals, coming off a bowl thumping the previous season. Miami went 6-7 in 2014, kept Golden around through seven games in 2015, then fired him after a 58-0 loss to Clemson.

2015: Carnage in the commonwealth of Virginia. Rosen lit up Virginia in his first college game, the beginning of a 4-8 season that marked the end for Mike London in Charlottesville; and Ohio State pounced on Virginia Tech on Labor Day, starting a season that would end with the retirement of the beloved Frank Beamer.

2017: The Labor Day weekend that spawned dismay across the South. Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M blew a massive lead to UCLA and Rosen, starting his march toward a pink slip. (Jim Mora, on the winning side of that game, also was fired after the season.)

Michigan thumped Florida 33-17, marking the beginning of the end for Jim McElwain in Gainesville.

And Butch Jones eked out a 42-41 win over Georgia Tech that was the shaky start to a 4-8 season that got him fired. That cleared the way for the immortal Jeremy Pruitt, so be careful what you wish for, fans.

2018: In one of the worst debut performances in recent memory, Willie Taggart’s first game at Florida State was a 24-3 home debacle against Virginia Tech. It really never got any better for Taggart, who was dismissed after the ’19 season.

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So, who is trying to avoid a Beginning of the End game this week?

UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly reacts in the first half against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Rose Bowl.

Chip Kelly and UCLA won their opener against Hawaii, but a critical contest against LSU awaits.

Ed Orgeron AND Chip Kelly (2), LSU and UCLA, respectively. The opponents: each other. The Dash isn’t going to declare Orgeron in serious danger of being fired, but the Chizik parallel remains in play until Coach O does something to dismiss it. Orgeron is heading into his second season after a national title and coming off a bust of a 5–5 year. If things fall apart badly enough this year, a costly divorce is not out of the question at a place like LSU. As for Kelly: his team gave a pretty strong hint Saturday that it is ready for a breakthrough season after three years of losing records—but that was against Hawaii. The Bruins now must stand up and be measured against a P5 opponent.

Justin Fuente (3), Virginia Tech. The opponent: North Carolina. The Hokies are not favored, but the line for the Friday night tussle in Blacksburg (Tar Heels by 5 1/2) suggests that Las Vegas expects a competitive game. Fuente’s record the past three seasons is 19-18, with losses to East Carolina, Old Dominion and Liberty. The fans have been on him throughout that time. This is the kind of game that could win back some enthusiasm—or see it disappear altogether.

Scott Satterfield (4), Louisville. The opponent: Mississippi. His clumsy flirtation with South Carolina on the back end of a disappointing second season created some hurt feelings within the fan base. This is an opportunity to put that to bed, or to make it worse. The Cardinals are a big underdog for this neutral-site game in Atlanta (9 1/2 points) but there is a quiet optimism surrounding Louisville’s team.

Jeff Brohm (5), Purdue. The opponent: Oregon State. Brohm has definitely improved the product in West Lafayette, but the Boilermakers have stalled a bit in their progress. He’s being paid $5 million per year and has a 19–25 record at Purdue. As a touchdown favorite playing at home, this is a game the Boilers should win.

THE FIVE STAGES OF FAN GRIEF AFTER AN OPENING LOSS

Quality openers means a higher likelihood of opening the season with a defeat, which means more fans will encounter the cold slap of disappointment earlier. The Dash has identified the stages of grief that lie ahead for fans when all those off-season hopes and dreams come crashing down in the week ahead.

Shock (6). It will be difficult to believe that months of sunny rhetoric wasn’t all true. Our guys aren’t more unified than ever; they didn’t have their best summer yet in the weight room; the player leadership of this team isn’t rock solid; the new scheme isn’t as aggressive or efficient as advertised; the touted freshman who got the fat NIL deal isn’t ready; the hero of the spring game isn’t very good in the fall; the transfer portal didn’t fix everything; the coach still can’t manage the clock; the play calling remains suspect. It’s a lot to deal with. Be gentle with yourself.

Anger (7). This stage follows quickly on the heels of shock. Because someone has to pay for your hurt feelings. The coordinators absolutely need to go, and the head coach is on notice. And if the athletic director doesn’t see the mess he has on his hands, he needs to go as well. Oh, and it goes without saying that it’s time to change starting quarterbacks and play all the true freshmen.

Conspiracy (8). The reservoir of anger is deep enough to direct the excess toward the officials and, by extension, the conference office. They are out to get us, and always have been, and everyone knows it or is living in denial. This is the time to pore over your DVR of the game to locate, freeze and photograph the myriad uncalled holding penalties on the opponent, then triumphantly post them on message boards as clear evidence that the fix was in. If you can dig up the names and home towns of everyone on the officiating crew, all the better. And by all means, post the email addresses of every conference administrator for the complaints to roll in.

Magical thinking (9). After the anger dissipates and it becomes clear that the conference office isn’t going to overturn the game result based on your blistering email listing every blown call, it’s time to find another solution. And that solution is to hire the next savior. Shoot high (of course Nick Saban would like to author his final coaching chapter at our school). Indulge nostalgia (if we hire our all-time great quarterback from the ‘90s, who has never coached, and surround him with good coordinators and recruiters, we’ll be back in no time). Think package deal (the hot-shot high school coach down the road would bring his five-star QB with him). If all else fails, start a Jon Gruden rumor.

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Feigned numbness (10). This is the last resort, a defense mechanism to guard against further hurt. Declare that you’re over it. The disappointments don’t even bother you anymore. You just laugh at the three-and-outs and the busted coverages and the turnovers and the penalties. You no longer read the stories from the know-nothing media. In fact, you may not even watch the next game.

Except you will, with a slightly healed psyche and your outlook rising cautiously out of the opening-loss ashes. Because maybe the next game will be better than the last. Hope is what we bring to the stadium every Saturday, sometimes in spite of our own better judgment.

MORE DASH: Coordinator Changes | Backlash Predictions | Herbstreit

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