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Coaching Carousel 2021: Who Takes Over At CFB's Vacant Positions?

Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette

There's little denying the obvious: college football is big business, and with big business comes the inevitably of high pressure and turnover. It seems like that has only been taken up a notch following the ramifications of COVID, NIL, and potential CFB Playoff expansion. We typically see a few jobs open up during the season, but never before have we seen this many in-season, at some of the most notable programs in college football. USC, LSU, Washington, Washington State, and TCU have already opened, and there's a chance more could be added to that docket with Miami (FL), Florida, and UCLA possibly changing hands soon. Where do these respective programs turn in the midst of such a busy coaching carousel? Coaching searches are rarely linear, but these names make the most sense moving forward at each opening. 

USC Trojans

Out: Clay Helton

Replacement: James Franklin, Penn State HC

One of the longest "hot seats" in recent college football memory wrapped up in the month of September when USC finally decided to move on from Clay Helton. It was an understandable move given the slip in recruiting and declining on-field product, but it was interesting timing so early in the season. Helton has since taken the job at Georgia Southern, but 'SC could go any number of directions with his successor. My guess? None other than James Franklin, who has been rumored to have interest in this job for some time now. Although Penn State is now 6-4 and out of the Big Ten East race, there's plenty of reason for the Trojans to be interested in Franklin. Overall, Franklin is 66-32 at Penn State with a Big Ten Title to his credit, and before that he reached unprecedented heights while at Vanderbilt. It's not the on-field success either; Franklin is a dominant recruiter who would be even more terrifying at a school with the resources and pipeline of USC. This is a move that has been rumored for awhile and it just takes too much sense for it not to happen. Franklin's decision to move agents to Jimmy Sexton, one of the most well-known in the college football universe, seems to indicate he's also ready to move on from PSU.

Other Possibilities: Urban Meyer (Jacksonville Jaguars HC), Luke Fickell (Cincinnati HC), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota HC), Jay Norvell (Nevada HC), Chris Petersen (former Washington HC)

LSU Tigers

Out: Ed Orgeron

Replacement: Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette HC

Nobody is a better example of the volatility of college football coaching than Ed Orgeron. Less than two years ago, he was on top of the college football world and couldn't make a wrong decision, renovating a once-stagnant LSU offense by bringing in a transfer QB, Joe Burrow, and a pass-game coordinator, Joe Brady, that put up record-setting numbers. In under two full seasons, with one of them in the midst of a global pandemic, Orgeron has found himself ousted in Baton Rouge. He will still get a chance to finish the season, but it's obvious LSU felt the program desperately needed a new direction before things really fell off the rails. While there will continue to be be big-name jobs discussed, don't be surprised if LSU instead decides to stay inside the state of Louisiana and roll with UL-Lafayette head man Billy Napier. 

Napier has already proven himself to a valuable commodity, openly flirting with both the Auburn and South Carolina jobs last off-season before deciding to stay put with the Ragin' Cajuns. There are numerous reasons why Napier has earned so much interest. For one, he's 37-12 at ULL and is likely to deliver his third consecutive Sun Belt West Division Title. Secondly, he has spent time at several major college football programs, including working with Nick Saban at Alabama, as well as working at Clemson and Arizona State. Lastly, Napier is known as a strong recruiter and great evaluator of talent, which is the name of the game in the ultra-competitive SEC West. I've seen him described as a "safety" option if LSU swings at other big names and misses, but that seems to be selling Napier short. He's a candidate well worthy of this spot and the fact he didn't take an SEC job last year makes me wonder if he knew there was a good chance LSU was bound to open in 2021.

Other Possibilities: Mel Tucker (Michigan State HC), Dave Aranda (Baylor HC), Joe Brady (Carolina Panthers OC), Mike Elko (Texas A&M DC), Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame DC)

Washington Huskies

Out: Jimmy Lake

Replacement: Joe Moorhead, Oregon OC

Replacing a coach like Chris Petersen is always a difficult task, but Jimmy Lake looked about as sure of a thing as you could get as a successor. He had already spent several years on the Washington staff and proven himself to be an elite developer of talent, especially in the secondary. But, Lake seemed to rub people the wrong way during his very short tenure as head coach and Washington didn't waste much time, firing him after just 13 games. Lake will undoubtedly get another shot as a defensive coordinator or position, but the move leaves UW at somewhat of a crossroads. This is a program with obvious potential that had a lot of success under Petersen, but they play in a rapidly improving Pac-12 North, and there isn't an obvious replacement waiting in the wings.

Washington may choose not to go far for their next head coach but instead turn to division rival Oregon and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Moorhead's had a fascinating career path; he's long been known as an East Coast guy who was head coach at Fordham, but saw his light really begin to shine while offensive coordinator at Penn State. His success with the Nittany Lions allowed him to land the Mississippi State gig, but he was always a strange fit in the SEC West and was let go after just two seasons. Following that, he landed at Oregon, where he has done an excellent job guiding a Duck offense that has been hit hard not only by COVID, but injuries and bad luck. Putting together a Broyles Award-esque season for Oregon, Moorhead is likely to be a hot name. While he doesn't have ties to Washington, he now knows the area and has proven he can run high-flying offenses, which was the one of the most significant reasons why Lake was let go.

Other Possibilities: Jonathan Smith (Oregon State HC), Kalen DeBoer (Fresno State HC), Jay Norvell (Nevada HC), Kellen Moore (Dallas Cowboys OC)

TCU Horned Frogs

Out: Gary Patterson

Replacement: Sonny Dykes, SMU HC

It's rare anywhere in college football to see a head coach last at an institution for two decades, but that was the case with Gary Patterson. Patterson oversaw TCU transition from a WAC program, to the Mountain West, and then eventually the Big 12. He won 181 games in two decades with the program and helped deliver some of the most memorable seasons in program history, but things had begun to fall off lately. The Horned Frogs had gone 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, and were in the midst of another down campaign before TCU administration opted to move on mid-season. It felt unceremonious to dump Patterson in the middle of the season when he has meant so much to the program, but the Frogs clearly felt they needed to get a head start on their next coaching hire.

Much like LSU and Washington, I don't envision the Frogs straying too far for their next head coach. Instead, they simply turn to Texas native and current SMU head coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes has been head coach at Louisiana Tech, California and now SMU, and generally speaking, has done a good job. With the Mustangs he is 30-16 and aiming to deliver their second double-digit win season under his leadership (went 10-3 in 2019). Additionally, Dykes not only has great familiarity with the state of Texas, but he served on the TCU staff as an offensive analyst in 2017. It makes all the sense in the world for TCU to turn to Dykes to run the program, as they look for a brand new direction after so many years under Patterson's leadership.

Other Possibilities: Jeff Traylor (UTSA HC), Dana Dimel (UTEP HC), Mike Elko (Texas A&M DC), Jim Knowles (Oklahoma State DC), Jeff Grimes (Baylor OC), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech HC)

Washington State Cougars

Out: Nick Rolovich

Replacement: Troy Taylor, Sacramento State HC

At the time of his hiring, Nick Rolovich looked like the ideal head coach to replace Mike Leach in Pullman. Much like Leach, he was known as an eccentric figure, but also a great offensive mind who guided explosive units at Hawai'i. But, after just 11 games with the Cougars, Rolovich was fired, due to his refusal to comply with the state of Washington's COVID-19 vaccine candidate for all state employees. His decision leaves Washington State at an interesting spot; the program had a renaissance under Leach, but it's a difficult spot to win. They are the less-heralded program in the state and also compete in a division that includes a school pumped full of Nike cash (Oregon) and flagship universities (Cal & Stanford).

My guess is that Wazzu turns to either the Group of Five or FCS ranks for Rolovich's replacement. There are several Mountain West coaches that will likely get looks, such as Brent Brennan from San Jose State or Jay Norvell from Nevada, but I think an interesting name to watch is Troy Taylor. Taylor is in his second full season with Sacramento State and is 16-6 with the program, including a 7-2 mark in 2021. Taylor is also a coach with Pac-12 ties; he's a California native who went to school at Berkeley, and has previously served as offensive coordinator at Utah. He even has coached in the state of Washington, as the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach at Eastern Washington during the 2016 campaign. Even though he doesn't have any direct ties to the school, Taylor seems to be a name rising up the ranks. It could be the type of out-of-box hire that Washington State feels is necessary after all the drama surrounding Rolovich.

Other Possibilities: Brent Brennan (San Jose State HC), Kalen DeBoer (Fresno State HC), Alex Grinch (Oklahoma DC), Jeff Banks (Texas AHC/ST Coordinator)

Virginia Tech Hokies

Out: Justin Fuente

Replacement: Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina HC

Justin Fuente was tasked with replacing a living legend at Virginia Tech, but the former Memphis head coach seemed to up to the task early on. In his first two seasons in Blacksburg, Fuente won 19 games and led the Hokies to an ACC Championship Game appearance. But over the next four-plus seasons, the Virginia Tech program slipped significantly under his leadership. They would go 24-23 over the next 47 games and in addition to the ailing on-field results, the recruiting and player development dropped off. Frankly, it was pretty shocking VT decided to bring Fuente back at all for 2021, and after a 5-5 record, they decided it was time to make the move.

The thing is, this Virginia Tech job could be one of the better in the ACC, especially now that the shadow of Frank Beamer isn't quite as strong. The Hokies have regularly proven they have the resources and capabilities to win big inside the conference, and while Virginia has improved, they are still the power program inside the state. It's an attractive job for any coach looking to make the jump to the Power Five, such as Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell. Chadwell has been head coach at four different schools, but saw his stock really shoot up in 2020, when he led Coastal to a near-undefeated campaign. He has proven that 2020 was no "one-hit wonder", as the Chanticleers have followed it up with an 8-2 season. It just feels like now is the time he's going to make a leap, and the fit is nice, as Chadwell has spent his entire coaching career in the Southeast/East Coast. 

Other Possibilities: Shane Beamer (South Carolina HC), Hugh Freeze (Liberty HC), Warren Ruggiero (Wake Forest OC), Jeff Lebby (Ole Miss OC), Will Healy (Charlotte HC)

Other Big-Name Jobs  to Watch

California: Justin Wilcox

Colorado State: Steve Addazio

Duke: David Cutcliffe

Florida: Dan Mullen

Miami (FL): Manny Diaz

Temple: Rod Carey

UCLA: Chip Kelly

West Virginia: Neal Brown

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