Forde-Yard Dash: 6 second-act job updates, 4 picks for the playoff

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (dental charts sold separately at Liberty):

[More Dash: Best QBs | Where to next? | Lynn Swann/USC]

FIRST QUARTER

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ACT II STATUS REPORTS

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would have made a great sportswriter, once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” This is not true when it comes to college football coaches. Sometimes, the industry will offer a second chance to a coach it had previously chewed up and spit out.

There are several compelling second acts underway in 2019, with a wide spectrum of results to date. The Dash takes a look at a half-dozen men who were fired from their last head-coaching gig and reinvented themselves elsewhere:

Ed Orgeron (1), LSU. Has there been a more interesting and unexpected career metamorphosis than that of Coach O? He’s no longer just a Cajun Fred Flintstone caricature of a football coach, progressing from lampooned to celebrated. He is, dare we say it, advancing to the cutting edge (or at least his staff is).

You could actually call this act 2.5 or even 3.5 for Orgeron. The first: Overwhelmed and underprepared head coach at Mississippi. The second: Interim Guy, first at USC after Lane Kiffin was fired and then at LSU after Les Miles was trap-doored. The third: Head coach and leader of a Cro-Magnon offense for nearly three seasons at LSU. And now 3.5: Coach of the wide-open New LSU.

From 2005-07, Orgeron’s Ole Miss teams scored the fewest points in the Southeastern Conference every season while going 10-25. In his first three seasons at LSU, the Tigers showed incremental progress from awful to mediocre in the passing game — improving from 101st in 2016 in passing yards per game to 84th in 2017 to 67th last year.

Now, glory be, what have we here: After blitzing Texas through the air Saturday night, an Ed Orgeron team is fifth in America in passing yards at 410.5. An LSU quarterback is in the early Heisman discussion. And the Tigers are actually fun to watch with the football.

A lot of credit has gone, deservedly, to 29-year-old passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who imported some great ideas from the New Orleans Saints. But also credit Orgeron for loosening the reins enough to embrace change and exploit the talents of QB Joe Burrow.

The next step, of course, is winning something tangible, like the SEC West. And the road to doing that still runs through Tuscaloosa. Coach O vs. Nick Saban the past three years: 0-3, with a total of 10 points scored.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron yells out instruction during game against the Texas Longhorns on Saturday. (USAT)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron yells out instruction during game against the Texas Longhorns on Saturday. (USAT)

Mike Locksley (2), Maryland. Act one: New Mexico head coach from 2009-11, a doomed marriage from the start. Locksley was a bad fit in a region where he had never lived or coached, and things went from bad to worse very quickly. He was fired after 2½ seasons with a 2-26 record, and things were not smooth off the field either. There also was a 1-5 interim stint at Maryland in 2015, leaving his career record at an inglorious 3-31.

The path to act two began with his stint as an assistant at Alabama, where Saban has resuscitated several coaching careers. Locksley was co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach in 2017, then promoted to OC and play caller last year. When the Alabama offense blew up into the best in school history, so did Locksley’s job prospects.

“I honestly took the Alabama job because I wanted to see why that place was so successful,” Locksley said Sunday. “I thought in the back of my mind, ‘I hope I get another shot,’ but very few times do you get a chance to be recycled as a head coach.”

That chance came with an opening on his home turf at Maryland. The Terrapins weren’t scared by the New Mexico stint and brought Locksley home, where he has compiled an offensive staff of second-act guys (former East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery and former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips) and took in Virginia Tech graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson.

The result: Maryland has exploded out of the gates, 2-0 and averaging a preposterous 71 points per game. Scoring 79 on FCS Howard didn’t move the needle, but following that up with 63 in a blowout of a ranked Syracuse team was a startling statement. But like a true Saban assistant, Locksley is only thinking about Saturday opponent Temple now.

“Making a prediction about how good we can be is tough for me,” he said. “All I want to do is be really good this week.”

Mack Brown (3), North Carolina. Act one: He rose quickly at North Carolina in the 1990s and then hit the top of the profession at Texas, winning the national title in 2005 and playing for a second title in 2009. Then the bottom fell out and Brown was fired in 2013.

For years, it appeared there would be no act two, as Brown settled into the broadcast booth. But Brown became an attractive choice for Tar Heels athletic director Bubba Cunningham to inject some enthusiasm into the fan base, despite being 67 at the time he was hired and 68 by the season opener.

Two games in, Cunningham looks smart and Brown looks rejuvenated. North Carolina is 2-0, 1-0 in league play, having matched last year’s win total and both the 2017 and ’18 ACC win totals. The margin for error is slim — the Heels beat South Carolina by four and Miami by three — but UNC will take its first 2-0 start in five years.

The Heels are two wins away from an unexpected big game: Clemson comes to Chapel Hill on Sept. 28. They may not get there unscathed (playing at Wake Forest Friday won’t be easy and Appalachian State is no slouch), but Brown has created some early buzz where there previously had been none.

Les Miles (4), Kansas. Act one: He was a national championship coach at LSU in 2007 and, like Brown, he got back to the title game four years later and lost to Saban. Also like Brown, Miles was forced out just a few years later amid diminishing returns.

Act two: Miles took the worst Power Five job in America at Kansas, and unlike Brown there has been no immediate uptick. Through two games the Jayhawks are 1-1, eking out a victory in the opener against FCS Indiana State and then losing to FBS bottom-dweller Coastal Carolina.

Some statistics that may produce knowing nods in Baton Rouge: Kansas is 115th nationally in scoring (15.5 points per game), 110th in total offense (312 yards per game) and 106h in passing offense (171 yards per game). And that’s against weak competition.

Hugh Freeze (5), Liberty. Act one: He was the brash and pious rising star who crashed in a fiery heap of personal and NCAA scandal at Mississippi. What has happened since then has been characteristically strange.

Freeze was hired at the evangelical Christian university this past offseason, selected to provide offensive juice and recruiting oomph while citing Bible passages on social media. This was always going to be a big job as Liberty transitions to the FBS level while playing a hodgepodge independent schedule. But then things took another turn in August.

Freeze underwent back surgery, and said he battled a life-threatening staph infection. He’s been laid up ever since, but insists on continuing to coach — or at least attend games, creating a spectacle each of the first two weeks. He was in the press box in a hospital bed for the Liberty opener, then in a medical/dental chair for Liiberty’s first road game Saturday at Louisiana.

The result: Liberty is 0-2, outscored 59-14. But Freeze’s in-game furniture of choice has become a national curiosity and at least has people thinking about the Flames. While snickering.

Chip Kelly (6), UCLA. Act one: Kelly was the guy who took Oregon football from good to great, in the national championship mix from 2009-11 and setting the foundation for a College Football Playoff title game appearance in 2013. Then he left for the NFL, where he was fired twice (Philadelphia and San Francisco).

That set the stage for a return to the college game, which seemed like his natural habitat. UCLA outflanked Florida to land him in late 2017, and the expectation was for an inevitable upgrade of the Bruins program — sooner rather than later.

Fourteen games in, it’s looking like later rather than sooner. If at all. The 2019 Bruins are 127th in yards per game and 128th in yards per play, having lost twice by two scores to a pair of non-Power Five opponents. In 120 minutes of game action this season, UCLA has led for a total of 7:13.

UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly watches game action against the San Diego State Aztecs during the first half at the Rose Bowl. (USAT)
UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly watches game action against the San Diego State Aztecs during the first half at the Rose Bowl. (USAT)

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The Dash’s weekly College Football Playoff bracket — which, as always, is drawn up as if today were Selection Sunday:

Top-seeded LSU (7) vs. fourth-seeded Clemson (8) in the Peach Bowl.

The Bayou Tigers (2-0) own the best win of the season, courtesy of their scintillating performance at Texas on Saturday night. They have had a paradigm-changing offensive facelift (see above) and have enough athletes to compete with anyone. It is a mystery to The Dash why LSU is receiving no first-place votes in either the AP or coaches’ polls. Last week: unranked. Next up: FCS opponent Northwestern State on Saturday in a walkover.

The Upstate Tigers (2-0) crash the bracket despite not playing a game away from home — but beating two Power Five opponents by a combined 52 points covers up that slight blemish. Clemson was tremendous defensively in shutting down No. 12 Texas A&M, allowing only 10 points — seven of which came in the final seconds of a game that was long since over. Last week: unranked. Next up: at Syracuse, the one ACC team that has been a problem the past two years.

Second-seeded Auburn (9) vs. third-seeded Alabama (10) in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Loveliest Little Village on the Plain Tigers (2-0) took care of business in a natural letdown spot against Tulane, winning 24-6 to maintain the momentum from the season-opening triumph over Oregon. Auburn’s nasty defensive line can bottle up the run and make life very difficult for teams that can’t throw it well, and that was Tulane — the Green Wave completed just 10 of 34 passes for 103 yards. Last week: No. 1. Next up: Hosts Kent State, enemy to field hockey teams everywhere.

The Crimson Tide (2-0) perfunctorily obliterated New Mexico State on Saturday, rushing for their most yards in two years (318). Alabama is third nationally in scoring defense (6.5 points per game) despite losing its best defensive player, linebacker Dylan Moses, before the season to a knee injury. They never run out of players in Tuscaloosa. Last week: No. 2. Next up: at South Carolina and its freshman starting quarterback, Ryan Hilinski.

Dropped out: Georgia, Virginia.

Also considered: California, Georgia, Virginia, Boise State, Notre Dame, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma State.

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