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The defining trend of this 2021 coaching carousel is easy to identify. It began with the early firings of coaches, as Georgia Southern and USC dismissed their coaches in September and the floodgates opened from there.
What has happened since shouldn’t be surprising. The economic stimulus portion of the carousel is upon us. Raises and extensions have been given – mostly defensively – to a bevy of coaches at different levels. On Friday, Oregon State announced an extension for Jonathan Smith and Wake Forest agreed to a long-term extension for Dave Clawson. They join the monster deals for Michigan State’s Mel Tucker ($95 million) and Penn State’s James Franklin ($80-plus million), along with lucrative extensions for UTSA’s Jeff Traylor, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Liberty’s Hugh Freeze and the expected upcoming extension for Baylor’s Dave Aranda.
While some of the deals are private and others haven’t been announced, it’s safe to estimate that the flurry of early firings contributed to well over $200 million more in coaching salaries being poured into the college football economy. All before Dec. 1.
The see-saw impact of this will be the leverage coaches have over athletic directors at places like LSU, USC and Florida. Some of the same athletic directors who fired their coach early in order to get together a replacement search couldn’t have seen the pool of capable candidates emptying this quickly. By firing their coach to get a jump on their searches, some schools may end up with diminishing returns by giving other schools ample time to get together and extend their own coaches.
We’re about to enter what could be remembered as the most fascinating coaching carousel in modern college football. The next 72 hours could be spectacularly chaotic. Here’s where things stand on the cusp of the chaos.
This remains the biggest mystery and potential domino. The Tigers' search could be remembered as athletic director Scott Woodward’s back-up-the-Brinks effort to lure back his buddy Jimbo Fisher to Baton Rouge. (This casts an awkward aura over this weekend’s game between LSU and Texas A&M.)
It also could be remembered as Woodward obsessing over Fisher, whiffing on him and watching top targets like Franklin, Tucker and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell (assuming the Bearcats reach the College Football Playoff) slip away. Where LSU goes if it’s not Fisher is the biggest mystery hovering over the carousel.
There’s a chance other potential targets – Louisiana’s Billy Napier and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell – could be gone by Monday morning. If Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is the fallback plan, that’s not a bad plan but also not a Woodward-ian splash. Expect something disruptive here.
It’d be a surprise if the Gators land someone other than Iowa State’s Matt Campbell or Louisiana’s Billy Napier.
Much like at LSU and USC, there’s interest in Fickell but the timing element of Cincinnati potentially reaching the CFP makes that a tricky needle to thread, especially with signing day on Dec. 15 and the CFP semis on Dec. 31. Expect Florida to be aware of the competitive nature of the market and move quickly. Napier is the favorite here.
No open job has had more time than USC, which has long coveted Fickell because AD Mike Bohn hired Fickell at Cincinnati. USC officials also know Fickell is a defiant Midwesterner, and breaking him out of that region was going to take some gymnastics.
Where will USC go? Campbell makes a lot of sense here, as his culture would help revive the program and his energy could give the Pac-12 a much-needed boost. It's hard to come up with a five-name list for USC at this point, as there’s no logical West Coast candidate. Campbell is the favorite, barring a Hail Mary candidate emerging.
The dearth of obvious West Coast names comes up here. Campbell gives off a Chris Petersen vibe, but it’s a distinctly inferior job to USC and Florida. This looks like a job where a Mountain West coach could get tapped, as Nevada’s Jay Norvell, Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer and San Jose State’s Brent Brennan could all get looks. Any Bryan Harsin smoke here is because of his interest, as he's not considered a candidate.
In some years, Virginia Tech would be one of the most coveted jobs on the board. But it is on top of the B-list in 2021, and the extension for Clawson and attention on Napier may leave Tech ready to pivot. Can it afford to lure a sitting ACC coach? Would an established Power 5 coach consider Tech an elite job? This could be headed to elite coordinators – Brent Venables? Tony Elliott? Marcus Freeman? Mike Elko? Bill O’Brien? Dan Lanning? – or a Group of Five coach like Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Marshall’s Charles Huff or UAB's Bill Clark.
There remains a strong chance that interim coach Jake Dickert wins the job. Dickert got elevated after the firing of Nick Rolovich and Washington State has responded by staying in Pac-12 contention with authoritative wins over Arizona State and Arizona. The tenor and result of Friday night’s game with Washington could loom large. If not Dickert, look for the Cougars to dive into the Mountain West pool.