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Forde-Yard Dash: Volatility, Meet the State of Texas

The Lone Star State’s college football teams have had it all in 2021: realignment, firings, absurd contracts and more.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (instructional tackling videos sold separately in Charlottesville):

MORE DASH: Playoff Race | Fourth-Down Attempts | .500 Blues

THE LONE STAR STATE OF FLUX

If it feels a bit like the sport is coming off the rails this year in terms of common sense and collegiality, it’s not hard to identify where it jumped the track: the state of Texas. Starting with the capital city, and the flagship university there.

What began shortly after New Year’s Day in Austin keeps rippling, to the point that every FBS school in Texas—all 12 of them—could be impacted in a major way. Conferences realigned, coaches fired, coaches poached, tens of millions of dollars in overpayments—it’s all happening in Texas. From El Paso to Houston and all points in between, major change has come to the Lone Star State.

A flag at the Cotton Bowl reads "Texas"

Let’s trace the train’s departure from the tracks:

Jan. 2: Texas (11) fires Tom Herman, paying him and his staff in the neighborhood of $24 million in buyouts to go away. This came four months after the athletic department made the pandemic-spurred move to lay off 35 people, leave 35 other jobs unfilled, put workers on furlough and ask nearly 300 other employees to take a pay cut. Added context for the firing wouldn’t come until July.

Texas then gave Steve Sarkisian a six-year, $34.2 million contract, plus $21 million in guaranteed deals for staff. What had Sark done to deserve $5.7 million a year? Went 46–35 as the coach at Washington and USC, never winning more than nine games in a season, getting fired from the latter job, then repurposing himself as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. There, he had the good sense to call functional plays for an offense flush with players currently performing extremely well in the NFL.

How’s the coaching change working out? Texas is 4–4 under Sark and has blown double-digit, second-half leads in three straight games.

July 21: News breaks that Texas and Oklahoma are on the verge of leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The reason is revenue, but a Longhorns program mired in more than a decade of failing to compete nationally just made that job much harder. This massive move threatens to tear apart the entire national landscape, and within a few weeks that starts to play out. But first …

Sept. 1: Texas A&M (12) extends coach Jimbo Fisher’s contract from the original 10-year, $75 million—with zero buyout on the coach’s end—to 10 years and $90 million-plus … still without a buyout. The most one-sided contract in the sport got even more one-sided, because Fisher nearly got the Aggies to the College Football Playoff in 2020, LSU might come a-courtin’ and—do not underestimate this—Texas just made its own power flex. There is nothing Texas A&M is more willing to do than answer a burnt orange football flex with one of its own.

How’s the new contract working out? Fisher did beat Alabama, which is no small feat, but he also lost to current SEC West cellar dwellers Arkansas and Mississippi State. The Aggies are farther away from the playoff this year than they were last year.

Sept. 10: The Big 12 raids the American Athletic Conference for BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston (13). Both the Big 12 and AAC have their league offices in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, which could make a chance meeting of commissioners Bob Bowlsby and Mike Aresco at Whataburger rather awkward. While the moves are all no-brainers for those schools, they will join a conference that is badly diminished without Texas and Oklahoma. It’s a step up, but ultimately might not be a quantum leap.

Notably left out of the AAC evacuation, and trying desperately to catch the next plane out of mid-majordom (if there is one): SMU (14). Many expect a second round of Big 12 expansion, and the Mustangs badly want to be part of it, but may have more opponents than allies within that league.

Oct. 22: The AAC raids Conference USA for a whopping six schools, adding Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas (15), Rice (16), UAB and UTSA (17). The move absolutely guts C-USA, which also has its offices in the DFW Metroplex. If commissioner Judy MacLeod sees Aresco at Taco Cabana, look out.

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Fleeing the burning building that is C-USA for the stability of the AAC is a great move for all six—particularly the Texas trio—but the trickle-down effect once again is a predatory act by a diminished conference trying to recoup. The AAC’s “Power 6” mantra will be more hollow going forward than it ever was before.

Of those three schools, two could be coach shopping soon. Barring a miracle month, North Texas is going to fire Seth Littrell. UTSA, meanwhile, will be tasked with trying to keep Jeff Traylor from jumping to another job.

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Oct. 25: Texas Tech (18) joins the tumult and gets its freak on by firing Matt Wells 30 games into his tenure, with a 5–3 record this season. Wells’s buyout is $7.4 million, which would buy a lot of tortillas in Lubbock. Part of the presumptive reasoning for firing Wells while his team has a winning record is that the school had already given up on him and didn’t want him to have a chance to rally support by beating the good teams left on the schedule. Certainly, one would never want to see a coach win big games and give himself a chance to win more big games in the future.

How’s that abrupt firing working out? Under an interim coach, the Red Raiders surrendered a season-high 9.84 yards per play in a 31-point loss to Oklahoma.

Oct. 31: TCU (19) dives into the panic pool with a “mutual agreement” to “part ways” with the coach who built the program into something worthy of Big 12 membership, Gary Patterson. (The fireable offense for both Wells and Patterson: losing to Kansas State. In the end, they got Klieman’d.) The winningest coach in school history by a wide margin, who led the Horned Frogs to seven top-10 finishes and a Rose Bowl victory, is gone, effective immediately.

Now, the timing of the exit was Patterson’s choice, according to school officials. He had the opportunity to finish the season and said forget it—which, frankly, is very much the expected answer from a prideful and stubborn man. Why TCU chose to force the issue in late October with its legend-in-residence is the question.

The answer could be that the school was trying to avoid being Auburn—which is to say, negotiating with the next coach behind the current head coach’s back—because Texas Tech might actually have forced the Horned Frogs’ hand. If both schools have interest in SMU coach Sonny Dykes, it may be time to get in line.

Still: It feels especially cold-blooded to give the October bum’s rush to a guy who has a statue on campus. This is not a scandal-related ouster; it’s a wins-and-losses decision. Gary Patterson deserves a better send-off than he’s getting. Far better.

The one school in the state that is happily just chillin’ is Baylor (20), enjoying its surprising 7–1 season, feeling great about things. But keep your head on a swivel, Bears, because LSU could well have interest in second-year coach Dave Aranda. He was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator from 2016 to ’19, part of the 15–0 national championship team his last year there, and his star is rising fast. Given the diminished stature of the Big 12 and the long green likely to be available in Baton Rouge, Aranda would seem highly likely to make that move if offered.

What about the other two FBS schools in the state? Expect more instability there. Texas State may well fire coach Jake Spavital (7–25 in three seasons, including 2–6 this year). And poor UTEP, having its best season in years at 6–2, may be a conference orphan if C-USA dissolves. No other leagues are lining up to bring in a remote school out on the border with Mexico and New Mexico.

So here is your Lone Star State 2021 scorecard: Five schools realigning. Three Texas-based conferences in turmoil. Three coach firings. Three more schools likely to fire. Two schools in danger of having their coaches poached. One hysterical contract made even more hysterical. One potential conference orphan.

Makes the Dallas Cowboys seem dull.

MORE DASH: Playoff Race | Fourth-Down Attempts | .500 Blues

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