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Spring Football 2020: Ten Coaches on the Hottest Seats

Clay Helton, USC
Although the status of the 2020 college football season is unclear roughly five months away from the start of the regular season, coaches across the college football landscape must prepare all the same. Coaching the sport in the modern age has certainly changed in terms of recruiting, compensation and much more, but the reality of the job is that if you don't produce, you're not going to stick around long. Never has that been more true than following a 2019 campaign where three different coaches were fired after just two seasons or less: Chad Morris at Arkansas, Willie Taggart at Florida State, and Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. As we look ahead to the (hopefully!) 2020 season, there are a number of coaches in precarious positions with their respective schools. Landing on this list isn't a death sentence, as we've seen a host of coaches work their way off the "hot seat." With that being said, these guys are going to have to show some level of progress this fall, whatever that may be.

Hot Seat Level: Flaming Hot

Clay Helton, USC Trojans 2019 Record: 8-5 (7-2 Pac-12) Career at USC: 40-22 (31-12 Pac-12)
One of the most surprising developments of the coaching carousel this past fall was the one job that didn't open: USC. Clay Helton entered 2019 on an incredibly hot seat, with the Trojans openly courting one Urban Meyer but at the end of the day, new athletic director Mike Bohn opted to stick with Helton for one more season. Sure, he was coming off a solid season where USC showed incredible progress on the offensive side of the ball under OC Graham Harrell and young QB Kedon Slovis. However, the defense continued to be a particular sore spot for the Trojans and Helton's lack-luster recruiting class, which was near the bottom of the Pac-12, led many around the program to call for his removal. Helton held on to the job, but he'll enter his fifth full year at the helm with no room for error. This is a team with the talent to win Pac-12 Titles, particularly when you consider just how wide open the South Division is currently.
How He'll Save His Job: I don't think anything less than a division title will save Helton, and this football team doesn't have to be perfect to achieve that. Slovis has legit Heisman talent, and new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is well-regarded, even after his firing at Texas. There are no scholarship limitations or other excuses to be made here; Helton has to win.

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona Wildcats 2019 Record: 4-8 (2-7 Pac-12) Career at Arizona: 9-15 (6-12 Pac-12)
Kevin Sumlin was a popular hire at Arizona, even coming off a Texas A&M tenure that really slogged along in the final few seasons. He seemed like he would be a natural fit with the Wildcats' returning star QB, Khalil Tate, and 'Zona fans were hopeful he'd be able to continue to recruit the talent-rich Southwest. Tate and Sumlin never seemed on the same page, with Tate benched late in 2019 in favor of young gunslinger Grant Gunnell. The wins also have not materialized, with Arizona limping to a 4-8 record and 2-7 mark in the league. That would be bad enough, if you don't consider the fact Arizona sat 4-1 in early October before dropping their final seven games, with just 27 points scored in the final three.
How He'll Save His Job: Unlike USC and Texas, Arizona doesn't have the sky-high expectations that make working your way off the hot seat incredibly difficult. That isn't to say that Wildcat fans are going to be satisfied with the continued losing and drama that has hung around Sumlin since his days in College Station. Making a bowl is a clear goal for Sumlin as he enters Year 3, and it seems pretty attainable. Arizona has a non-conference schedule that includes Hawaii, Portland State and Texas Tech, which could all be victories. If that holds, the Wildcats will have to go just 3-6 inside the conference to navigate there way back to the postseason. A win over rival Arizona State would help Sumlin's job security further, but it doesn't seem required. At the very least, you'd like to see the Wildcat offense finally show signs of life. At previous stops Houston and A&M, Sumlin was known as an offensive guru, but that simply has not been the case in Tucson.

Hot Seat Level: Getting Hot

Manny Diaz, Miami (FL) Hurricanes 2019 Record: 6-7 (4-4 ACC) Career at Miami: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)
Following the sudden retirement of Mark Richt, Miami hoped continuity would be the right move by poaching his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, as their next head coach. Diaz made a point that he was going to bring the "swagger" back to Coral Gables, but his first year at the helm was extremely frustrating. It wasn't all bad, as the 'Canes entered their final two regular season games a respectable 6-4, with two beatable teams remaining in Duke & Florida International. Miami ended up dropping both of those games, with the FIU loss being particularly embarrassing, coming against former Hurricane head coach Butch Davis. To make matters worse, Miami had a dismal showing in their Independence Bowl matchup with Louisiana Tech, not managing to score a single point in a 14-0 defeat. Diaz is hopeful a new OC (Rhett Lashlee) and one of the transfer portal's biggest gets, former Houston QB D'Eriq King, can right the ship as he enters Year 2.
How He'll Save His Job: It seems time to ditch the gimmicks, like the "Turnover Chain" and "Touchdown Rings" and start actually producing on the field. That extra noise may work when the team is winning, but it only adds frustration when the 'Canes are on the other end. The new-look offense has the pieces in place to succeed, and the defense has a trio of stud pass rushers in Gregory Rosseau, Quincy Roche and Jaelen Phillips. That's enough to think that an Coastal Division title contention is at least a possibility, particularly when you consider the reigning champ, Virginia, is almost sure to take a step back. If not a Coastal Title, Diaz needs to improve the record by at least a few games, and there can't be any losses to Group of Five opponents this fall.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern 2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten) Career at Northwestern: 99-79 (57-59 Big Ten)
It's difficult to include a guy who won a division title in 2018 on this list, but Northwestern's 2019 was so pitiful, Pat Fitzgerald's seat is getting warm in Evanston. To be fair, Fitzgerald is an alum who has meant a great deal to this Wildcat program during his time there. He's turned them from the laughingstock of the league into a consistent factor in the Big Ten West, including four straight bowl trips from 2015-18. But, in the era of offense, Fitzgerald's old-school, defensive approach seems like it has fallen out of style, and the Wildcats came incredibly close to a 1-11 record last fall, before winning their final two games. Much like others on this list, Fitzgerald shuffled his coaching staff and added some talent that can win now, in the form of Indiana QB transfer Peyton Ramsey.
How He'll Save His Job: Much like Sumlin, Fitzgerald does not need to win ten games or a division title to work his way off the hot seat this fall. Simply getting back to a bowl would satisfy most around the program. In order to do that, this offense has to show some signs of life. It was historically bad in 2019, and we just saw a coach very much in the old-school Fitzgerald mold, Mark Dantonio, get forced out in East Lansing. Fitzgerald does have an advantage being an alum of the school, as it is always much more difficult for administrators and boosters to force out a guy with such lengthy ties to the school.

Tom Herman, Texas Longhorns 2019 Record: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12) Career at Texas: 25-15 (17-10 Big 12)
I'm under the firm belief that Texas was a better team than 8-5 last year, as they suffered through a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball. But, at a place like Texas that doesn't matter when you lose five games, especially coming off such a successful 2018. Herman continues to reel in impressive talent on the recruiting trail, but the lack of development on defense is concerning. In response, Herman juggled his coaching staff by bringing in a new OC (Mike Yurcich) and a new DC (Chris Ash). He will also have the luxury of retaining his veteran quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, but that only raises the stakes for Herman.
How He'll Save His Job: Outside of Oklahoma, the Big 12 race is wide open, and it isn't unreasonable to think the Sooners could also take a step back after losing Jalen Hurts at quarterback. The Longhorns have the talent to make a Playoff run, but I think UT would settle for a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game. Even if that isn't possible, double-digit wins would at least prove to the Longhorn faithful that Herman can compete on a national level. A meeting with LSU will be an important barometer test early on in the season.

Dave Doeren, NC State 2019 Record: 4-8 (1-7 ACC) Career at NC State: 47-42 (21-35 ACC)
Dave Doeren is one of the longest tenured head coaches on this list. In fact, he comes in third among active ACC coaches in experience at his current school, behind only Dabo Swinney and Duke's David Cutcliffe. Yet, NC State's 2019 season seemed to really sour the success Doeren has had in Raleigh, and he has had moments. The Wolfpack won nine games in back-to-back years in 2017 & 2018, and they've made five bowl berths in seven years. With that being said, finishing 1-7 in the ACC Atlantic, which was dreadful beyond Clemson and Wake Forest, was a wake-up call. Doeren is further hurt by the success of arch-rival UNC and their new coach Mack Brown. Seeing the Tar Heels rise quickly back into ACC Title contention will impact the way NC State views their own program. It isn't unreasonable to think it could push them towards a change at the head coach position themselves.
How He'll Save His Job: NC State is an interesting job in the grand scope of college football. It's never been a program that is consistently among the ACC's elite, but the Wolfpack have produced a lot of NFL talent and they reside in a talent-rich state. It's obviously hard to know what the NC State athletic department are hoping for from Doeren in 2020, but he has to show that '19 was simply a blip on the radar and not an indication of a program slipping. Certainly a bowl berth would be a start, but the Wolfpack also have to show they can compete with some of the league's best; they've been regularly blown out in some of the program's biggest games during the Doeren era, which has to change.

Chip Kelly, UCLA 2019 Record: 4-8 (4-5 Pac-12) Career at UCLA: 7-17 (7-11 Pac-12)
It's easy to forget that two years ago Chip Kelly was so highly regarded in the collegiate ranks that he essentially had a choice between the Florida and UCLA jobs. Kelly of course chose UCLA, a more natural fit for his offense and a sensible fit for a coach who has already won big win on the West Coast. Kelly took over a program that needed a jolt, but two consecutive losing seasons have really cast a shadow in Westwood. Both years the Bruins have started out incredibly slow, losing all six of their non-conference games in that span. They've shown signs of life down the stretch, but the 2019 team clearly still had a long way to go, losing to South Division Champion Utah by 46. UCLA didn't entertain the option of moving on from Kelly this off-season, but seven wins in two years is not going to get the job done, even worse when you consider the state of the Pac-12 these last few seasons.
How He'll Save His Job: Year 3 is always a crucial year for head coaches and as Kelly enters his third season, his Bruins must become better disciplined and more consistent. They've been right near the top of the Pac-12 in turnovers and penalty yardage over these last two seasons, which is not a good look for Kelly. They've also been incredibly confusing on the field, beating two Top 25 teams last fall but also losing in ugly fashion to Arizona and Oregon State. You would really like to see some consistency at the least and with that, a postseason trip. In the wide open South Division, any thing less would likely leave Kelly searching for his third job in less than five years.

Hot Seat Level: Hard to Tell

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan 2019 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten) Career at Michigan: 47-18 (32-12 Big Ten)
Few coaches in college football evoke as strong emotions in people as Jim Harbaugh. Simply put, you either love him or you hate him, and those detractors have had material to work with. Harbaugh is yet to beat Ohio State, going 0-5 against UM's chief rival, and he hasn't been able to take the Wolverines to a Big Ten Championship Game in a half-decade there. To be fair to Harbaugh, the Big Ten East is probably the most difficult division in college football, and Ohio State is as strong now as they've ever been. I believe Harbaugh has actually done a really good job raising Michigan back from a mediocre program in the Big Ten to the upper echelon of the league, but he has yet to really see that breakthrough needed to get any national respect.
How He'll Save His Job: Beat Ohio State. No matter what else Michigan does in 2020, save them being a complete and utter disaster, if Harbaugh were to beat OSU he would be adored by all Wolverine fans. Harbaugh knows the Buckeyes are his main goal too; he has shuffled his staff and implemented a new-look offense all focused on countering the athletes Ohio State can put on the football field. You'd have to think that if he were able to do that, a Big Ten East Title most likely would come with it. Perhaps that's an unrealistic goal for 2020, but it simply needs to happen within the next few years.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn 2019 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC) Career at Auburn: 62-31 (33-23 SEC)
You almost are required to put Gus Malzahn on a hot seat list at this point in his career. Every year that he was doing something to get on it, Malzahn incredibly works his way out of it, and then the cycle repeats. After a down 2018, Auburn recovered to win nine games and the Iron Bowl, and it isn't completely crazy to say Malzahn out-coached Nick Saban in that game. It was an impressive recovery from the Tigers, but also raised the stakes for 2020 and beyond. With young QB Bo Nix back, Auburn will be expected to seriously contend for an SEC Title. That's a lot to ask of any football team, no matter the losses the Tigers suffer on the defensive side of the ball. It seems like every year Malzahn flips a coin between success and disappointment. What side will that coin fall on in 2020?
How He'll Save His Job: The good news for Malzahn is that he operates in an SEC West that will be in a transition phase in 2020. LSU must replace Joe Burrow and a host of coaches, Alabama will be without Tua and a ton of talent at receiver, while Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas all break in new coaches. If Auburn is able to take advantage of that and win the division, it would clearly show the program can compete with the big boys of the league consistently. If not, I'm sure 9-10 wins would be enough to indicate Malzahn can win in back-to-back years.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech 2019 Record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC) Career at Virginia Tech: 33-20 (20-12 ACC)
On the surface, Justin Fuente's 33-20 record over four seasons at Virginia Tech is very respectable, considering he had to replace a coaching legend in Frank Beamer. But, Fuente lands on this list because of the ongoing turmoil that seems to be milling around the program. Players have transferred away from the program at astounding rates, which seems extremely concerning for a coach who has long been labeled a "player's coach." On the field, the Hokies have also slipped a bit after Fuente won 19 games over his first two seasons. VT went 6-7 in 2018 and while a hot second start saved their year in 2019, 8-5 is still a step down. There seems to be continuing drama between the athletic department and Fuente, who interviewed for the Baylor job over the off-season. Perhaps there's more smoke than actual fire there, but the fit doesn't seem perfect as he gears up for his fifth season.
How He'll Save His Job: As I mentioned, the ACC Coastal is going to be wide open in 2020. North Carolina will probably enter the year as the favorite, but Miami and Virginia Tech both have the pieces in place to be in the mix. The Hokies have the schedule to do it, as they get Miami and arch-rival Virginia at home, as well as their toughest non-conference foe (Penn State) in Blacksburg. That doesn't mean it's division title or bust for Fuente, but that they should at least be in the conversation. If not that, Virginia Tech would settle for taking down Virginia again, after their lengthy win streak against the Cavaliers was snapped this past fall.

Others to Watch

Lovie Smith, Illinois... Beating Wisconsin and making a bowl in 2019 likely saved Lovie's job, but if the Illini take a step back in '20, it's hard to imagine him sticking around much longer.
Scott Frost, Nebraska... Nebraska faithful still supports Frost despite a disappointing encore in 2019, but there's significantly more pressure now. Fans in Lincoln always expect winners, and they've sat through three straight losing seasons now.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt... A pretty obvious name to include on this list after a 3-9 2019, but who can Vandy get that is much better? Mason has kept the Commodores respectable in the unforgiving SEC.
Dino Babers, Syracuse... After the Orange's 2018 breakthrough (10-3), they fell back to life with a 5-7 dud in 2019. Babers has to prove the '18 success wasn't all about former QB Eric Dungey.
Mike Locksley, Maryland... Mike Locksley won his first two games as Maryland head coach, then proceeded to go 1-8 the rest of the way. He was brought on to recruit, and he has done well in that aspect so far, but the wins have to come.
Randy Edsall, UConn... Edsall turned UConn into a factor in the old Big East, but they always felt out of place in the American Athletic. Now an independent, can he get the program back to respectability?
Phillip Montgomery, Tulsa... Since a 10-3 2016, his second at the helm, Montgomery has gone 9-27 with the Golden Hurricane. If they don't make a bowl this season, he's likely gone.
Gary Patterson, TCU... Patterson has done so much for this TCU program, so perhaps it's unrealistic putting him on this list. But, the Horned Frogs have gone 12-13 in their last two seasons, and the odds don't look great for improvement in 2020.
David Shaw, Stanford... Shaw is another name here that isn't on a very hot seat, but the Cardinal really look like they've fallen, going 4-8 in 2019. Shaw seems like he'll be able to right the ship, but the improvement of the Pac-12 North makes it all the more difficult.

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