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Forde-Yard Dash: Can These Coaches Get Back in Good Graces?

The bloom is off the rose for these 10 program heads, but will it be temporary or permanent?
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (couches that can be used for kindling sold separately in Lexington):

MORE DASH: Playoff Debates | Road Risks | Gridiron Disrespect

SECOND QUARTER: LOVE ON THE ROCKS

At one point in the not-too-distant past, these 10 coaches were the most popular men on campus—if not the whole town, or even the state. They’re not going to get fired—well, maybe not—but the romance is gone. What will it take to bring it back?

First category: the homeboys who have gone from beloved to besieged.

Paul Chryst (11), Wisconsin. The good old days: Hometown kid who came back as head coach and won 52 of his first 66 games leading the Badgers. That included three Big Ten West championships. Chryst’s no-frills aura, both personally and the way his teams played, was ultra-Wisconsin.

Now: Chryst is 5–8 in his last 13 games, including a 1–3 start to this season.

The big problem: Chryst’s offense has disintegrated. The Badgers are 117th nationally in scoring and 123rd in pass efficiency, while lacking the customary sledgehammer running game to rely upon. There has been brutal quarterback play, and the fabled Wisconsin offensive line is a shell of its former self. And the mistakes keep multiplying: Chryst’s team is last nationally in turnover margin.

What will bring back the love: Honestly, playing a bunch of Big Ten West opponents may work wonders. The three Power 5 opponents Wisconsin has played thus far were all undefeated at the time, and two of them still are (Michigan and Penn State). Shaky as they have been, Chryst’s team could be favored in every remaining game except Iowa.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron

Ed Orgeron (12), LSU. The good old days: Native Cajun gets his dream job in 2016, wins national title in 2019 with one of the most impressive seasons in college football history. Along the way he beats Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa and drops a “Roll Tide what? F--- you!” in the postgame locker room. Instant legend status is decreed by the LSU faithful.

Now: Orgeron is 8–7 since winning that natty, with home losses to Mississippi State and Auburn in that span—and a 38-point beatdown from Saban in Tiger Stadium as well. LSU is actually an underdog at Kentucky Saturday.

The big problem: Orgeron was always a CEO type, which meant he was only as good as his coordinators when it comes to coaching up the perennial LSU talent. With Joe Brady and Dave Aranda, life was good. Without them, life is about .500. Offensively, here are LSU’s yards per play in the last four seasons: 5.50 in 2018; 7.89 in ’19; 5.52 in ’20; 5.63 in ’21. Guess which year featured Brady and Joe Burrow? Defensively, LSU has improved since the Bo Pelini debacle of last year but still ranks 11th out of 14 in the SEC in yards allowed per game.

What will bring back the love: Anything less than a 5–2 record the rest of the way, finishing 8–4, likely will not be well received. Even that won’t thrill anyone. Five of the remaining games look like toss-ups, with only Louisiana-Monroe in the sure-win category and Alabama looming as a potential beatdown loss. The Dash has been comparing Orgeron to Gene Chizik since the opening loss to Mississippi State last year, and Chizik was canned at Auburn two years after his one miracle season as a head coach.

Tom Allen (13), Indiana. The good old days: Indiana native and longtime former high school coach in the Hoosier State was elevated from assistant to head coach in late 2016. Allen leads Indiana to an 8–5 season in ’19, its best record in 25 years, then follows it up with a 6–2 mark last year and a No. 12 final ranking, its highest since 1967.

Now: With a load of veteran talent and high expectations, Indiana is 2–3, with a close win over Western Kentucky and losses by a combined 66 points to Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State. Granted, all three of those opponents are unbeaten and ranked in the top five nationally, but the Hoosiers have backslid since last season.

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The big problem: Much like Orgeron, Allen has benefited from excellent assistant coaches but is now feeling the effects of staff brain drain. Former offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer is doing good work as the head coach at Fresno State; former defensive coordinator Kane Wommack is doing the same as head coach at South Alabama; and the move by former assistant head coach Mike Hart back to his alma mater, Michigan, has been felt as well. Also, quarterback Michael Penix is not the same player as he was last year before his season-ending knee injury.

What will bring back the love: Allen built up an enormous amount of goodwill before this season, so he’s fine long term. But this season is brutal—the next four opponents have a combined record of 18–2. If the Hoosiers can get through that gantlet 2–2 or 1–3, they still have a shot at a bowl game. Simply put, Indiana has the toughest schedule in the country and may not be able to finish .500 or better.

Pat Fitzgerald (14), Northwestern. The good old days: South Sider and former Northwestern hero linebacker becomes the winningest coach in school history, capturing the Big Ten West twice, most recently last year.

Now: Northwestern is 2–3, winless against Power 5 opponents, and coming off a 56–7 loss to Nebraska. The Wildcats surrendered 657 yards and 8.88 yards per play against the Cornhuskers, both of which appear to be Fitzgerald Era defensive lows.

The big problem: Two seasons after fielding the worst offense of his tenure, Fitz might now have his worst defense. Longtime coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired after the 2020 season, and replacement Jim O’Neil came in after spending the last 11 years in the NFL. He’s working with an inexperienced group that lost most of its mainstays from last year’s elite unit, and the defensive rebuild is not on schedule.

What will bring back the love: Fitz has justifiably earned Coach for Life status at Northwestern. But part of elevating the product is also elevating expectations, and with the opulent new facilities at his disposal, Northwestern has made a commitment to being annually competitive in the Big Ten. “This type of record will never happen again,” Fitzgerald said after the 3–9 bust of 2019. While this season likely will not spiral to that point, getting to .500 won’t be easy.

Mike Neu (15), Ball State. The good old days: Former Ball State quarterback led a breakthrough season in 2020, with the Cardinals going 7–1. They won the MAC championship game in an upset over Buffalo, then routed San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl in another upset. Neu was rewarded this summer with a contract extension through ’25, and a $15 million indoor practice facility was opened in the spring.

Now: Ball State (2–3) stopped the bleeding with an impressive 28–16 win over Army on Saturday. That ended a three-game losing streak, a disappointing turn of events for a program that brought back a ton of super seniors.

The big problem: The Ball State offense, which had scored 30 or more points in 11 of its last 12 games, has not reached that mark against FBS competition this season. Fifth-year senior quarterback Drew Plitt had his most productive game of the season against Army, but before that had been struggling to produce big plays and finish drives.

What will bring back the love: Success is fickle in the MAC, but Ball State still has everything in front of it with seven league games remaining. The Army game might have marked a turning point.

Second category: The offensive genius import who is taking his SEC lumps.

Jimbo Fisher (16), Texas A&M. The good old days: Last year Fisher led the Aggies to a 9–1 record, losing to only national champion Alabama and narrowly missing the College Football Playoff. They finished the season ranked fifth in America, leading to an overly exuberant and fiscally heedless pay raise for Fisher, now signed on to make more than $90 million over 10 years. As recently as two weeks ago, A&M was ranked seventh in the AP poll.

Now: A&M is unranked after consecutive losses to the two teams many expected to be fighting for the SEC West cellar, Arkansas and Mississippi State. Now the Aggies are last in the division, with Alabama up next. Playoff hopes have been flushed.

The big problem: A&M has scored a total of 42 points in three games against Power 5 competition. Starting quarterback Haynes King was injured Sept. 11, and backup Zach Calzada has not been a dynamic replacement for an offense that ranks near the bottom in the SEC in explosive plays. The defense isn’t helping much in terms of producing short fields; A&M has not recovered an opposing fumble yet this season and has not forced a turnover the past two games.

What will bring back the love: Showing up in a big away against the Crimson Tide on Saturday would certainly help. After that the schedule gets easier, providing an opportunity to pile up wins.

Dan Mullen (17), Florida. The good old days: After a two-point loss to Alabama Sept. 18, Mullen was being lauded for his ability to keep the Gators at the forefront of the SEC after major personnel losses from 2020. He was 31–10 at Florida, and some believed Mullen’s team could beat Georgia and retain the SEC East title.

Now: In 2018, Mullen became the first Florida coach since the mid-1980s to lose to Kentucky, and then he did it again Saturday. While the Wildcats are 5–0, that didn’t sit well with Gators fans accustomed to having their way with Big Blue. Chances of repeating as SEC East champion all but disappeared with that loss.

The big problem: Mullen has gotten conservative offensively with this team, running the ball 59% of the time and not trusting his quarterbacks in the passing game. When he ate all three of his timeouts on a timid offensive possession to end the first half against Kentucky clinging to a 10–7 lead, Florida fans who remember Steve Spurrier were apoplectic. Fifteen penalties and a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown were not well received, either.

What will bring back the love: Putting up 50 on Vanderbilt on Saturday will help. Then comes crucial games at LSU and in Jacksonville against Georgia, followed by what should be four more wins. Mullen will be fine once the Kentucky-related outrage wears off.

Eli Drinkwitz (18), Missouri. The good old days: He started his Missouri tenure 5–3 and earned a bowl bid in his first season. Combine that with offensive fireworks, a glib tongue and some notable successes on the recruiting trail, and Drink was the straw that stirred Columbia.

Now: Mizzou has lost five straight to Power 5 competition, bottoming out in a tire fire of a home blowout against Tennessee on Saturday. The Tigers surrendered 62 to the Volunteers, their most points allowed at home since 1932.

The big problem: Drinkwitz is presiding over a disastrous defense. Line coach Jethro Franklin was fired after the Tennessee debacle, and first-year coordinator Steve Wilks is on thin ice if this season continues in the direction it’s going. Missouri is dead-last nationally in run defense, and it’s hard to fix that without new linemen.

What will bring back the love: Drinkwitz has bought himself time with his recruiting, and Missouri is not an impatient place to begin with (though new athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois brings a more competitive edge to the job). To gain bowl eligibility, Mizzou needs to beat North Texas, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and … someone else, among Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas.

Third category: the Pac-12 guy whose team cannot score.

Justin Wilcox (19), California. The good old days: He was 7–6 and 8–5 in 2018 and ’19, Cal’s first consecutive winning seasons since ’08–09. The latter season was capped by a Redbox Bowl victory over Illinois, the Golden Bears’ first bowl win over a Power 5 opponent since ’08.

Now: Cal has lost seven of its last nine, going 1–3 last year and starting this one 1–4. After three close losses this season, the Golden Bears bottomed out in a 21–6 home defeat against not-very-good Washington State on Saturday.

The big problem: Cal’s offenses have never been very potent under Wilcox, and there is no sign of that changing here in Year 5. After scoring on their first drive against Wazzu, the Bears had 11 straight empty possessions. Chase Garbers has played a lot of football in four seasons at Cal without developing into a high-efficiency quarterback, but he’s not getting a lot of help from the running game, either.

What will bring back the love: Wilcox upset Oregon last year for Cal’s only win. Doing it again in Eugene on Oct. 15 would certainly help.

Karl Dorrell (20), Colorado. The good old days: Dorrell began his tenure in Boulder with four straight victories last season, including upsets of UCLA and Stanford.

Now: Colorado hasn’t beaten an FBS opponent since that 2020 start. The Buffaloes are 1–4 this season, scoring a total of 34 points in four straight defeats.

The big problem: The quarterback position has fallen apart under Dorrell. Last year he made do with converted safety Sam Noyer at that position, but he transferred to Oregon State (one of many QB transfers out of the program in recent years). This year’s starter, J.T. Shrout, injured a knee in August and was lost for the season. That left the position in the hands of freshman Brendon Lewis, and it hasn’t been pretty. Colorado is 126th nationally in pass efficiency and 127th in passing yards per game.

What will bring back the love: After an open date, Colorado hosts winless Arizona. If the Buffs don’t win that one, the only answer is ski season.

MORE DASH: Playoff Debates | Road Risks | Gridiron Disrespect