The college football offseason is a time of anticipation for most head coaches, but for some, there’s building pressure to succeed with final tests ahead in the coming months.
Considering inflated coaching salaries and guaranteed buyouts rampant across the sport, I’m not going to feel sorry about opining on potential hot-seat coaches entering the 2018 season.
Coaches know exactly what they must do to keep their jobs and like all business, know a failing grade likely summons a moving truck.
Every season, CoachesHotSeat.com updates it’s list of coaches who have their backs against the wall and may not be retained the first week of December.
I’ve picked out the 10 on the hottest seats and explained what I believe is the reasoning for each:
10. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
My take: Why is Holgorsen, a coach who’s won 53 games over seven seasons in Morgantown, on this list by CollegeHotSeat.com? Unrealistic expectations are partly to blame at a program that craves winning big since moving to the Big 12 in 2012. And West Virginia’s power brass knows this could be Holgorsen’s final opportunity to finish inside the Top 10 for the first time since the Rich Rodriguez era within this current window. The Mountaineers will likely be ranked inside the Top 20 to start the season with a senior quarterback in Will Grier, a play-making group of wideouts and a defense that should perform better than it did a season ago. That opening game vs. Tennessee is important for Holgorsen, as is the road trip to N.C. State a couple weeks later. West Virginia will be favored in both and can’t afford a toe stub prior to conference play.
9. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
My take: It’s hard to believe that magical 11-win season that almost ended with an ACC Championship vs. Clemson was only three seasons ago. The Tar Heels have only won 11 games since and have fallen into obscurity nationally despite a pair of Top 30 signing classes, per the 247Sports Composite. Getting back to respectability in the Coastal Division is the goal this season, but the schedule pulls no favors for a team that still has several questions to answer offensively. Fedora supporters can blame last season’s nine losses on a rash of injuries all they want. Another season like that could end his tenure in Chapel Hill rather swiftly.
8. Major Applewhite, Houston
My take: Applewhite’s promotion to head coach was met with mixed reviews following Tom Herman’s departure, much like Josh Heupel’s introduction in Orlando after taking over for Scott Frost this season at UCF. It’s an obvious challenge for a program in the AAC to hire a big-name replacement when their own savior jumps ship for greener pastures, but the Cougars aren’t ready to pull the plug on this former Longhorns quarterback just yet. Four of five losses last fall came by a touchdown or less and Houston did beat 17th-ranked USF on the road. The Cougars won’t be able to summon the national momentum sustained under Herman unless Applewhite manages wins over Arizona and Texas Tech in September to get people talking, a lot to ask for a team whose game-changing playmaker is a defensive tackle.
7. Ed Orgeron, LSU
My take: Orgeron is on the hottest seat in the SEC and he knows it. Like ex-Tigers coach Les Miles said the other week, there’s always been a win-now championship mentality in Baton Rouge and there’s no time for mediocre seasons by the program’s elite standards. Fans (and the administration) want to see LSU compete — and beat — Alabama on a regular basis, getting back to an annual spot inside the Top 10. Questions about an anemic offense have plagued this program in recent years, so what does Orgeron do? Hires Steve Ensminger as his play-caller, who runs a system similar to how the Tigers looked during the Miles era. For Orgeron’s sake, hopefully Ohio State grad transfer quarterback Joe Burrow solves the Tigers’ problems on that side of the football. If LSU wins less than eight games this fall, Orgeron is likely out and only has himself to blame.
6. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
My take: Beat Ohio State and play well on offense. That’s literally all they’re asking for in Ann Arbor from Harbaugh, who has struggled in both areas since taking over in December 2014. Michigan is yet to finish higher than third in the Big Ten East under Harbaugh. If we may, Harbaugh’s stretch at Michigan is similar to what led to Les Miles’ end at LSU — quality seasons aren’t good enough with losses to rivals and no conference championships. At least for Miles, he had a national title in 2007 and another appearance in 2011 that prolonged his tenure a bit. For all the positive exposure Harbaugh brings the Wolverines, at some point beating Urban Meyer and competing for a College Football Playoff berth will have to happen to keep the pitchforks at bay.
5. Kalani Sitake, BYU
My take: Sitake lost nine games last season, but it was how BYU flatlined that really turned up the heat on his coaching chair. The Cougars were dreadful offensively, ranking 119th nationally in total offense and 124th overall in scoring offense. It was ugly and that came with a returning starter at quarterback. Anything less than a bowl berth this season likely gets Sitake the boot. Behind the scenes, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, a Mormon, would be an ideal fit with the Cougars should they go another direction. He expressed interest in leaving the Midshipmen last fall, but ultimately didn’t land the job at Arizona.
4. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
My take: Why is Fickell, at 10-15 overall as a coach, inside the Top 5 of CoachesHotSeat.com’s list heading into the 2018 campaign? Fickell has only been a head coach for two seasons (one with Ohio State in 2011), but he appears best-suited for a coordinator role. “Fickell took over a loaded Ohio State team after Jim Tressel got fired in the spring of 2011 and promptly went 6-6, taking his team to the Gator Bowl which cost an undefeated Ohio State football team a chance to play for a national title in 2012 under Urban Meyer.” But with a incredibly high buyout, it’ll take a lot for Fickell to get the axe.
3. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
My take: Kingsbury has been inside the Top 5 of the CollegeHotSeat.com list for several seasons, but somehow keeps extending his tenure in Lubbock. Being an alum and beloved former Red Raiders quarterback has a lot to do with it, but at some point treading water becomes too tiring and Kingsbury is going to drown. He’s 30-33 overall at Texas Tech and is 3-9 over the last three seasons against Texas, TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — the teams vying for conference titles annually as the Red Raiders’ primary Big 12 rivals. The most damning numbers however is 16 wins in 45 tries against Big 12 competition. Throw away the name and that conference record will get any coached fired quickly.
2. Lovie Smith, Illinois
My take: The losses are mounting with the Illini for Smith, who was fired in January 2016 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for, well, losing. Smith does have two Top 100 players committed in the 2019 class, potential program-changers that could help Illinois pick itself up off the canvas in the Big Ten West. Entering the season, Illinois has lost 12 straight vs. league competition under Smith. He’ll probably get another season after this one, but anything past four years with wretched quarterback play is asking too much. Facing a challenging slate, five wins is likely best-case scenario this fall for the Illini.
1. David Beaty, Kansas
My take: Is Beaty a dead man walking in Lawrence? Patience is a dangerous word in college football and when you’re expected to win quickly — even after being tasked with cleaning up a disaster — it wears thin fast. Beaty has three wins in three years and recently lost athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who was fired in May. That’s usually a writing-on-the-wall sign that days are numbered for the current regime. And whether you’re at Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina or Kansas, it’s always a chore bringing more interest to football during basketball season. Good luck to the next coach after Beaty, who will be inheriting one of the toughest gigs in Power 5 college football.