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2021 college football coaching carousel: Prepare for whirlwind of movement with LSU, USC leading the way

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The only official coaching carousel statistics are kept in NCAA record books. Within its sober pages is an annual accounting of the number of college coaching jobs that have turned over each year.

The record for jobs that opened in a single season came in 1973, when NCAA records show 36 changes. Back then, the only transfer portal was Tupperware and five-stars were reserved for astrological observations.

As we enter the closing kick of the 2021 season there are already nine open jobs in college football, so it’s unlikely that we'll reach the all-time high from 1973. But this year the college coaching space is poised to be the most chaotic the sport has seen and certainly will reverberate as transformational for how the so-called coaching carousel works for years to come.

Among the open jobs are marquee gigs at USC (Sept. 13) and LSU (Oct. 17) early in the season. Perhaps the most important development this cycle is that jobs at Georgia Southern (Clay Helton), Texas Tech (Joey McGuire) and UConn (Jim Mora) have already been filled in early November. The allure of getting a coach in place to accommodate the Dec. 15 early Signing Day has officially turned into a trend. These coaches have a chance to build rapport with current players and build a staff.

“I think in our industry, as things continue to evolve and change every day, I think there’s a chance this becomes more of a trend and more common,” Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko told Yahoo Sports. He stressed the “several weeks head start” on staffing, recruiting and bonding with the current roster as advantages.

As for this carousel, there’s an expectation there will be a big flurry of jobs open. Will there be a record? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that there will be enough high-profile jobs open that administrators are concerned whether there'll be enough established candidates to fill them.

“The supply and demand market for coaches right now is bad for business for athletic departments,” said an administrator monitoring the coaching carousel. “There are fewer, more easily identifiable candidates relative to how many jobs are about to be available.”

That notion may have entered Nebraska’s mind after it brought back Scott Frost for the fifth year of the same movie, just at a matinee price. Who would the Huskers end up with if a half-dozen better jobs opened up?

How fast will the carousel spin? It’s safe to say there will be more openings than the average of the past 10 years, which is 22.9. Here’s a look at what’s open, what could open and where we could end up.

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher walks the sidelines during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Columbia, Mo. Texas A&M won 35-14. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Would Jimbo Fisher leave Texas A&M for LSU? (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Open Power Five jobs

LSU

The LSU job is the most attractive on the market. And that’s not expected to change, regardless of any other movement. Until another coach is walked to the podium at the news conference by athletic director Scott Woodward, it’s safe to project Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher as the target here. That’s always been Woodward’s dream candidate, and his history of paying historic amounts for Fisher is the best empirical evidence of that desire. Who from there? The names are all familiar – James Franklin, Luke Fickell, Dave Aranda, Lane Kiffin and Mel Tucker. If it’s not Fisher, the name will be big and the price tag expensive. Expect the LSU-Texas A&M game to end the season in Baton Rouge to be a quintessential SEC spectacle.

USC

Much in the same way that Woodward covets Fisher, it’s safe to project that USC AD Mike Bohn would like to lure Luke Fickell to Los Angeles. Bohn hired Fickell at Cincinnati, and along with the hottest coach in the market, there’s some important familiarity. (Bohn hired Jon Embree at Colorado and he went 4-21, which will make a leader risk-averse.) The issues with Fickell’s courtship are Cincinnati’s chances to make the College Football Playoff, which would make a hire virtually untenable, and Fickell’s deep Midwest roots. Any courtship of Fickell would involve a plan for his family, as he and his wife, Amy, and six kids are grounded in Cincinnati. Regardless, USC will aim high with established boldfaced names like Matt Campbell, James Franklin and Dave Aranda as potential targets.

TCU

The overwhelming favorite here is Sonny Dykes, the SMU coach who was Texas Tech’s top target. Once that became apparent, TCU moved on from legendary coach Gary Patterson and it would be stunning if Dykes didn’t end up taking the job. There’s familiarity with both parties, as Dykes served one season as an analyst at TCU prior to taking the SMU job. One compelling idea here is that there’s no obvious candidate if the Texas A&M job opens, with Dykes the most logical candidate with Texas ties. (TCU has kicked the tires a few other places, but there’s little ambiguity of where this will land.)

Washington State

This could be a big week for interim head coach Jake Dickert, who has provided an energy jolt and some stability in Pullman. The Cougars travel to Oregon this weekend, and a win would tie them for first place in the Pac-12 North and give them the tiebreaker. From there, there’s a winnable game against Arizona and then at Washington. (Who’d have thought that Washington State would have the more stable coaching staff in the state in November?) Never underestimate the power of the interim coach, as he’s a known commodity to the brass, athletic department and players who’ve endured constant change. The other names here worth monitoring are Nevada’s Jay Norvell, San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, BYU's Kalani Sitake and Kent State’s Sean Lewis. Washington State’s best years historically have been with offensive-minded coaches like Mike Leach, Mike Price and Dennis Erickson.

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente walks off the field after losing to Boston College during an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Justin Fuente's days at Virginia Tech appear to be numbered. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

ACC

Potential openings

Virginia Tech

The latest listless Hokies effort at Boston College on Friday entrenches Justin Fuente’s status as one of the coaches most unlikely to return for 2022. Fuente took over a slumping annual conference contender and oversaw the backslide into an ACC afterthought. It’ll cost $10 million before Dec. 15 (or $7.5 million after), but nothing has discernibly improved since AD Whit Babcock’s news conference announcing Fuente’s return last December.

Duke

David Cutcliffe did so much to pull the Duke program out of decades of irrelevance. And now the program is slipping back, as the Blue Devils (3-6) have a 10-game conference losing streak and face a likely three-year streak without a bowl appearance. New athletic director Nina King already has found a successor for Mike Krzyzewski and faces another potential opening in her first year on the job. Cutcliffe, 67, is beloved and did great work rejuvenating Duke. But retirement looms as a possibility here, as there’s no resounding argument to keep him outside of sentimentality. 

Worth monitoring

Georgia Tech

The sizzle from the early part of Geoff Collins’ tenure has faded. He’s 9-22 in his third season, and all those Tech superiors who preached patience to him after he took over an option program that had forgotten to recruit are going to see if they keep their word. (The roster reportedly had 16 running backs and no tight ends when he took over.) Collins signed a seven-year deal, and is well protected with more than $13 million coming his way if he gets fired this season. It’s unlikely Georgia Tech will fire him and pay that. His contract is fully guaranteed through the first four years, with the buyout dropping on Jan. 1 of 2023. If he’s fired in December of 2022, he’d be owed more than $10 million. After Jan. 1 of 2023, it’d be $7.2 million. Whether Tech AD Todd Stansbury is around to make that decision will loom over this offseason and next year. Never underestimate Georgia’s success in the decision-making at Georgia Tech.

Miami

Manny Diaz appears on the cusp of saving his job, as the Hurricanes have battled back to 5-4 with three straight wins after a slog of a start. (That Michigan State loss looks a lot better in retrospect.) Miami has been in perpetual flux since the end of the Larry Coker era in 2006, as the school’s poor leadership, lack of investment and NCAA issues have allowed a generation of players to grow up with Miami’s relevance being only nostalgia. If Diaz gets fired this year or soon, some reflection needs to take place on the leadership, plan and vision of a place that squandered the momentum of generational greatness.

Big 12

(We covered TCU above and Texas Tech is already filled with Joey McGuire. The other potential opening is Matt Campbell leaving Iowa State for greener pastures.)

Big Ten

(With Nebraska’s status quo, the Big Ten won’t see any firings.)

SALT LAKE CITY, UT -  OCTOBER 16: Head coach Herm Edwards of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts after the loss to the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
Will Herm Edwards leave Arizona State before or after an NCAA reckoning? (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Pac-12

Arizona State

The Sun Devils are under NCAA investigation and amid a season of promise that quickly fizzled. Industry expectation is that Herm Edwards won’t return as coach next season. The unwinding is never simple, as the NCAA findings in the case that alleges ASU blatantly broke COVID-19 protocols for a recruiting advantage won’t come anytime soon. That would mean if Edwards digs in, it could be tricky to fire him for cause. (Considering ASU hasn’t already.) There’s a thicket of close relationships here – president Michael Crow has stuck with AD Ray Anderson through limited results and significant controversy. Anderson hired Edwards when no one wanted him to coach at any level, and Edwards’ tenure has careened to the lows many initially predicted. Any hopes of Edwards handing the program off to defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce are dashed. Would Edwards just retire?

Washington

Few coaches have spiraled quicker than Jimmy Lake, who is 4-5 in Year 2, suspended from coaching this week after making contact with a player and has the Washington brass wondering if it’s worth investing in a new offensive coordinator and other staff changes to help save him next year. Since Chris Petersen appointed Lake, he has done little to recreate the aura of his former boss. Firing Lake would cost as much as $10 million, but there’s offset that would take that number down considerably. UW AD Jen Cohen needs to be convinced there’s a path for Lake to transform himself and the program.

Worth monitoring

UCLA

The Bruins are 5-4 and it's Chip Kelly’s best season in Westwood. They have an easy finishing stretch with Colorado, at USC and Cal remaining, and 8-4 would be viewed as a strong improvement after 10 wins in Kelly’s first three years. Kelly would be owed $9 million if fired before Jan. 15 and nothing after, a bizarre contractual quirk. (UCLA is still paying Jim Mora, so don’t think the Bruins are anxious to continue the buyout train.) It’s expected Kelly will be offered some sort of extension with a strong finish. Kelly is fiercely loyal to staff, so it’ll be interesting to see if the fate of embattled defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro factors into the calculus.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen leads his team onto the field before an NCAA college football game against South Carolina Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 40-17. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Several of Florida's assistants were fired this week after an ugly loss to South Carolina. Will Dan Mullen survive the purge? (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

SEC

(We covered LSU up top.)

Worth monitoring

Florida

There has already been significant staff changes at Florida with the ouster of DC Todd Grantham and OL coach John Hevesy. The future of Dan Mullen could well be tied to how the program responds to those over the next three games – Samford, at Missouri and Florida State. AD Scott Stricklin hired Mullen at Florida and was part of the staff that hired him at Mississippi State, so there’s a lot of sweat equity built up there between the two of them. The tenor of the loss to South Carolina opened up the conversation for firing Mullen. Mullen’s struggles have been uncharacteristic the past year – penalties, punitive turnovers and Florida beating itself at times. Mullen knows these things need to change, as Florida started Mullen’s tenure 29-6 and has been 4-8 since. Reviving the team from the first two-and-a-half years is paramount and showing a plan to get it there will likely give him the opportunity to return.

Group of Five open jobs

Akron

New athletic director Charles Guthrie needs a hire who can help pull the program out of a rut, as the performance hasn’t matched the high-end facilities. Akron has just one winning season since 2005 and has been driven into a ditch of obscurity after going 3-24 since hiring Tom Arth. Look for an established, veteran presence here as this program can’t afford to gamble on upside. Head coaching experience at the FBS level will be a premium. Purdue DC Brad Lambert, Arkansas DC Barry Odom, Ohio State assistant head coach Tony Alford, William & Mary coach Mike London, Ohio State OC Kevin Wilson, Cincinnati DC Mike Tressel and Dolphins assistant Charlie Frye are among the names.

UMass

Look for UMass to seek a different archetype than Walt Bell, the young gunslinger who went 2-23 before being fired this past weekend. AD Ryan Bamford will seek a more experienced and patient coach in this cycle as UMass attempts another rebuild. Holy Cross HC Bob Chesney and Minnesota co-DC Joe Harasymiak are possibilities. Some other names: South Carolina STC Pete Lembo, Princeton coach Bob Surace, Kentucky OC Liam Coen, Air Force OC Mike Thiessen, UCLA OL coach Justin Frye, BC associate HC Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, Duke co-DC Ben Albert and Jacksonville Jaguars DC Joe Cullen. Don’t underestimate interim coach Alex Miller, a former star player who gets to audition against Maine, Army and New Mexico State.

Group of Five to watch

AAC

There’s a trio of schools slumping, and their futures could be linked to finances. 

Temple’s buyout of the flailing Rod Carey is reportedly $6 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. There’s a new athletic director, Arthur Johnson, and president at Temple. That usually doesn’t bode well for a coach who is 4-12 the past two years and got blown out four straight games in league play.

Tulsa reached the AAC title game last year and played Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Cincinnati tough this year. Will that and the school’s cash issues help keep Philip Montgomery afloat? 

USF’s Jeff Scott is only in his second season and deserves another year, but he’s 3-15 with only one FBS win thanks to Temple. USF is also cash-strapped, which leaves the only potential university motivation for a new coach is to be more attractive for the next round of Big 12 expansion.

Conference USA

The end appears imminent for Butch Davis at FIU, who hasn’t won an FBS game since beating Miami in November of 2019. Winless in 2020 season and 1-8 this season, it’s hard to imagine the 69-year-old Davis pushing on. How quickly FIU can replace AD Pete Garcia could dictate how this unfolds.

Seth Littrell remains on the hot seat at North Texas, and this job is one many coaches with Texas ties are eyeing now that the school is headed to the AAC. North Texas is 11-20 in the past three years after back-to-back 9-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. The only FBS wins in the past three years came against Rice, Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Frank Wilson’s final UTSA team in 2019.

Rick Stockstill’s $5 million buyout still looms large at Middle Tennessee, which needs a strong finish at 4-5 to avoid missing a bowl for three consecutive years. With a strong core coming back next season, there’s not a significant chance the school makes a change.

Independent

With an expiring contract, expect New Mexico State to move on from Doug Martin. Since winning seven games and a bowl in 2017, he has won seven games combined in four years.

MAC

With Akron already open, don’t expect any other firings.

Mountain West

The expectation is that this league stays static.

Sun Belt

Troy and Texas State are worth monitoring. 

Troy’s Chip Lindsey has three important games down the stretch, including marquee home games against Sun Belt powers Louisiana and Appalachian State the next two weeks. Being competitive in those games is the most important thing for Lindsey, who is 5-4 this season, 15-17 in Year 3 and on the cusp of his first bowl bid.

There’s a new athletic director at Texas State, Don Coryell, and he has to decide if Jake Spavital’s 8-25 record through three years has shown enough progress to bring him back. Texas State is 3-6 with winnable games remaining against Georgia Southern and at Arkansas State.

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