Which college football coaches need to kick in this season with a little bit of positive momentum? Which coaches could use a hot start, and which ones need to spend this offseason being ready to do something special?
Amassing a tailwind in March and April isn’t solely the objective of players this time of year. In fact, there is a swath of coaches, who’ve grappled with recent adversity, just as eager to put poor finishes behind them, while gathering up a much-needed head of steam for the 2016 campaign.
Now, that’s certainly not to suggest all are facing must-win situations. Jim Mora and Kevin Sumlin, for instance, aren’t going anywhere. However, that won’t quash the urgency to exceed last season’s disappointing results on the field.
For coaches and players alike, erasing the old and ushering in a new direction begins in the spring, when the seeds of next fall are planted in the ground. The 10 coaches below are angling to avoid another rocky year of unmet expectations that really begin to chip away at their job security.
10. Todd Graham, Arizona State
Graham spoke confidently last summer of his best-ever squad, a team capable of winning a Pac-12 title. Yeah, 2015 didn’t quite go as planned.
The Sun Devils were arguably the league’s biggest disappointment a year ago, harboring too much veteran talent to finish a game below .500. The defense was feast or famine, often erasing the offense’s fireworks. Graham is a big believer in seizing momentum from one season to the next. And he’s going to need his holdovers to have a short memory following the disappointment that unfolded in 2015, capped by back-to-back losses to Cal and West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl.
9. Jim Mora, UCLA
Mora has been the driving force in returning UCLA to a national player. But he needs to win a Pac-12 title while he has quarterback Josh Rosen, likely for just two more seasons.
It’s important to put Mora into context. On the one hand, he’s 37-16 at a school that was 21-30 in the four years before he arrived. Plus, he’s dramatically upgraded the roster each Signing Day. However, on the other, now that Mora has succeeded in elevating the Bruin brand he’s justifiably expected to break the tape with a championship. And the 2015 squad, albeit besieged by injuries, missed the mark by going 8-5, capped by disappointing losses to USC and Nebraska.
8. Mike Riley, Nebraska
The hiring of Riley by the Huskers appeared curious in 2014. It looked even stranger by the end of 2015, with Nebraska suffering through its first losing season since 2007.
If Bo Pelini’s succession of four-loss seasons was unacceptable, last fall in Lincoln had to be utterly unbearable for the locals and longtime fans. Plus, Riley closed poorly at Oregon State and left behind a thin squad that only won a pair of games for Gary Andersen. The good news? Big Red finished strong with three wins in four games, including upsets of Michigan State and UCLA in the bowl game.
7. Steve Addazio, Boston College
A chunk of the goodwill Addazio accumulated by winning seven games in his first two seasons on the Heights was squandered in 2015. It was that rough of a year for the Eagles.
Ultra-consistent BC collapsed under the weight of a feeble offense, going 3-9 and failing to win an ACC game. Addazio has since lost Don Brown, one of the nation’s most underrated defensive coordinators, to Michigan, while handing the reins of his offense to Scot Loeffler. The Eagles want to quickly get back to being the kind of feisty program that no one in the league enjoys facing.
6. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
For those who may not have noticed, the bloom is on the verge of coming off Sumlin’s rose.
Hey, Sumlin has done a lot of good in College Station, helping turn the Aggies into more of a national entity out of the SEC West. But he’s a hit a wall of late, going 11-13 in league play over the last three seasons while failing to reach the Top 25 without Johnny Manziel behind center. Far worse than the relative on-field mediocrity, Sumlin lost two former blue-chip quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, to transfers last December.
5. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
It’s been just two years since Auburn finished runner-up for a national championship. Feels a lot longer, doesn’t it?
The Tigers were stuck in neutral in 2014 and especially last year, sinking from No. 6 in the AP preseason poll to a .500 regular season. QB Jeremy Johnson couldn’t approach his preseason hype, and the offense was uncharacteristically inept. Now, this isn’t exactly Gene Chizik: The Sequel. But if Auburn flounders around the middle of the SEC West pack for the third season in a row, rest assured Malzahn will be coaching for his future in 2017.
4. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
It would be reasonable to assume Johnson is in trouble solely because his Yellow Jackets went 3-9 a year ago. It would also be inaccurate.
While Johnson changed the climate surrounding him by winning 11 games and the Orange Bowl in 2014, overseeing Tech’s worst season in two decades was a reminder that his tenure on the Flats has been turbulent. In the four years preceding 2014, Johnson went 28-25, with his triple-option offense coming under scrutiny. The coach has done more good than bad in Atlanta. Struggle again this fall, though, and his critics will have a tough time remembering the Coastal Division crown from two years ago.
3. Darrell Hazell, Purdue
Hazell earned a fourth year with the Boilermakers, but not from anything his team accomplished on the field. Think lucrative, seven-digit buyout.
West Lafayette is a difficult place to win. Noted. But Hazell is 6-30, including 2-22 in Big Ten games, and that’s not going to cut it on any campus in the country. Oh, and his all-time school-worst winning percentage is compounded by lagging attendance and fan interest. Hazell needs to begin exhibiting a degree of progress that reaches the standings because the ransom for sacking him declines with each passing year.
2. James Franklin, Penn State
After two seasons, some in Happy Valley are having buyer’s remorse.
Franklin has gone 7-6 in each of his two years, which is not all that bad considering the state of the program when he arrived from Vanderbilt. But quarterback Christian Hackenberg never bloomed under his watch, offensive play calling has been spotty and there’s a growing sense that his pitchman personality will continue generating allergic reactions if marquee wins aren’t there to back it up. Fair or not, Franklin is facing ratcheted up pressure in 2016, the likes of which only gets dialed down by avoiding another 7-6 season.
1. Charlie Strong, Texas
No head coach in America will face more pressure to raise the bar in 2016 than Strong. It’s a reservation in coaching hell that he earned by finishing below .500 in each of his first two years.
Strong and his players have underachieved in Austin, too often lacking consistency and execution. The team has looked poorly coached, which is always going to fall on the guy in charge and his assistants. Strong is a solid leader, with a promising recruiting class in the barn. But if his Longhorns stumble through another campaign, the coach will have a lot of selling to do to convince AD Mike Perrin that a fourth year at the helm is warranted.