Cover 3: Did Mike Gundy pass up an easier path to the College Football Playoff?

We're in the heart of silly season and the coaching carousel has my mind racing. Did Mike Gundy just pass up an easier path to the playoffs? Who is James Franklin going to pull out of his hat to replace Joe Moorhead? And why didn't anyone have John Currie's back in Knoxville? 

1. Gundy passed up an easier path to the playoffs in Knoxville

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy sent the latest rejection letter to Knoxville on Tuesday. There are a lot of reasons to think that Gundy was a far-fetched candidate at Tennessee. Among them, he's an Oklahoma State alumnus, he's got kids in high school, his relationship with the administration is as strong as it's ever been and he's got the program clicking. There was also the thought that he's got an "easier path to the playoffs" out of Oklahoma State. On that point, I beg to differ.

We've all been programmed to revere the rugged SEC. There was certainly a time when it seemed like the SEC was too tough to survive. When undefeated records were near pre-requisites for national titles and dominating a light Big East, ACC or Pac-10 seemed to give an advantage to the Miami's, Florida State's and USC's of the world.

But times have changed. The Big East is gone, the Pac-10 is 12 and the ACC is maybe the deepest conference in the college football. There's also a playoff system in place that may be on the cusp of welcoming its first two-loss team to the dance. The cannibalistic disadvantage the SEC faced is gone. All that remains instead is the perennial obstacle of Nick Saban.

But for Gundy and other coaches around the country, the path to the playoffs shouldn't deter them from an SEC jump. In fact, the path looks significantly tougher to get out of his own conference -- the Big 12. The way the Big 12 schedules are constructed, Oklahoma State plays nine conference games, as opposed to the SEC's eight. The SEC typically replaces that ninth game with an FCS-level team in what is effectively a bye week. The Big 12 schedules are all backloaded heavily with some of the conference's most important games. If you're fortunate enough to make it to the Big 12 Championship Game, you're guaranteed to be facing a rematch, similar to what we're seeing this year with Oklahoma being asked to beat TCU for the second time in a month in order to reach the playoff.

Additionally, the Big 12 has emerged as a much more balanced conference than the SEC. Aside from Kansas, every team in the conference is competitive and well-coached. If you exclude games involving Kansas, 75 percent of conference games in the Big 12 were within two scores. Contrast that with the SEC that has seen regular blowouts throughout the conference and currently has playoff contenders feasting on everyone from Vanderbilt to Tennessee to Arkansas. There's certainly an up-cycle in store for some of those programs but right now, the weekly grind is more taxing in the Big 12 than the SEC.

The Big 12 is currently the only conference to be left out of two of the three College Football Playoffs. If TCU beats Oklahoma this weekend, it's probably going to be three of the four. Meanwhile, Georgia has only played two competitive conference games all year and is one win away from the playoff. The gateway games to the playoff in the SEC are fewer and farther between, and even with Gundy passing on Tennessee, that should be an encouraging fact to lean on for Vols fans.

2. Franklin will be ready to replace Joe Moorhead

New Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead came into the 2017 season as one of the nation's most desirable head coaching candidates. Landing at Mississippi State may have surprised some around the country, but that he left Penn State didn't surprise anybody, especially Nittany Lions' coach James Franklin. You can bet he's got a plan to replace him.

Franklin has been one of the fastest risers in coaching over the last decade. His ability to recruit, motivate and manage a program have all been impossible to ignore, but one of his best qualities as a head coach has been finding talented assistants.

Consider his first staff at Vanderbilt. His offensive coordinator was Maryland running backs coach John Donovan, someone who had never been a coordinator before. He plucked defensive coordinator Bob Shoop out of the FCS ranks from William and Mary. Those guys powered a run that brought Vandy to 9-win seasons and sent the whole crew to Penn State. At Vanderbilt, he also pulled Sean Spencer out of Bowling Green and Spencer's become one of the nation's top recruiters. 

He pulled Brent Pry from Georgia Southern and Pry has since gone on to take over for Shoop in directing Penn State's highly regarded defense. And then there was the hiring of Moorhead.

When a change needed to be made at offensive coordinator, Franklin went off the radar to hire the Fordham head coach and it was lauded as a smart, low risk, high reward move. It turned out to be exactly that. There was no prior relationship with Moorhead, no coaching tree cross-pollination. Franklin had simply noticed his production from afar and listed to him at a coaching clinic where Moorhead blew him away.  

Franklin has a knack for finding talented coaches in places that others may not even look and when I sat down with him in the spring, I asked him about that specifically: what's his trick? It was clear, he'd be ready for this moment again.

"I go to the convention every year with a plan," Franklin said. "When we go visit staffs, I go visit staffs not just to talk ball, but to look on their staff to see who I would hire. [It's the] same thing when people come and visit us. When I'm out recruiting and I see someone that presents themselves well and is organized, I think that makes sense.

"Whenever we're at a game I open the media guide and I go through and I open it and I'm reading it and I highlight guys. I also highlight guys that are from Pennsylvania or have Penn State ties because I always think that's important. If you can hire a guy from California or a guy from Texas or a guy from Pennsylvania, I think they're all very similar but the guy from Pennsylvania, my belief is a guy from this region you've got a chance to keep him a little longer. The guy from California, if UCLA or USC comes open the next year for the same job it's gonna be hard."

Franklin indicated that he manages a list that is roughly 30-deep of candidates for every position on his staff. The list evolves and grows and given the success his last hire has had over the past two seasons at offensive coordinator, it is safe to expect his offensive coordinator column has gotten some attention. 

3. The Tennessee AD job just became the worst job in the country

Tennessee athletic director John Currie has the toughest, most thankless job in America. This is not a defense of Currie. It's hard to argue that he made some major miscalculations in the botched hiring of Greg Schiano. This isn't a critique of the fanbase and boosters. They've polarized the public but ultimately, it's their program and their conscience if they felt an uprising was warranted. This is an indictment on the leadership and behind-the-scenes influencers in Knoxville.

When things went sour with Schiano, a decision was made to pull the plug. Given the political and potentially financial backlash, that decision wasn't likely made unilaterally, just as the decision to hire Schiano wasn't made unilaterally. You can critique Currie all you want for his failure to gauge the temperature of the fanbase, administration and boosters -- and he deserves all of that criticism -- but important people signed off on that hire.

Currie released a statement defending his decision to hire Schiano, indicated that he was moving on and would continue the process to hire the next head coach at Tennessee. Amid all of that, there was a public, and, reportedly, an internal outcry for Currie's ousting. And yet, the only public support that Currie received was a terse, two-sentence statement from Chancellor Beverly Davenport.

She certainly signed off on the decision to hire Schiano. Is there any doubt that Tennessee patriarch Jimmy Haslam signed off? Peyton Manning reportedly did. Where are all those voices in defense of Currie, or at least in defense of his process that they endorsed? Currie received more support from Penn State trustees and the Ohio State administration than he did from his own bosses.

The Big Orange Nation is a powerful force. We knew that before the weekend and we saw all of its might on Sunday. It's a difficult thing to wield but I think you'd rather have it than not. Currie seems to have lost the faith of that fanbase, but the failures of this coaching search don't stop with him. A little bit of ownership from the other Schiano-supporters would have gone a long way towards making the second effort more credible. 

CBS Sports Writer

Barton Simmons has been involved in college football and recruiting since 2000, first as a player and then as a reporter and analyst. As a player, he was a two-time All-Ivy League safety at Yale before... Full Bio

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