Cover 3: The case for Nebraska being an attractive place for its big coaching targets

In this week's Cover 3, I look at Nick Saban's biggest test in Tuscaloosa, whether Nebraska is attractive to some of the biggest names on the coaching market and how the new coaching hires are going to be affected by a huge rule change.

1. Making the case for Scott Frost (or better) to Nebraska

Mike Riley is the head coach at Nebraska and, by all accounts, a good guy. He's also by all accounts sitting on a scorching hot seat. If new Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos decides to move the football program in a new direction, it will be because he has a new hire lined up and ready to go.

In Lincoln, Nebraska fans want that new hire to be native son Scott Frost, but outside of Nebraska, the skepticism is growing that Frost would leave UCF for Nebraska -- even as an alumnus -- over an opportunity like Florida. I've even inserted myself into the chorus of voices saying that Frost would be a perfect fit at Florida and add much-needed offensive juice to a program and state that's been lacking in exactly that.  

But maybe the people of Lincoln aren't too far off. Frost wanted to come back to Nebraska from his coordinator job at Oregon, but without head coaching experience, he wasn't seen as ready. But he's not just an alumnus and an all-time great, Frost is a local kid from just west of Lincoln whose parents still live in the city today, and as a new parent, that's no small perk. A call from Tom Osborne is sure to tug at Frost's heart strings as well.

Then there's the offensive system. Sure, it would be fun to see what Frost could do at Florida with the skill talent in that state, but here's the thing about skill talent: there's a lot of it out there. No one knows that better than Frost as he helped convince some of the fastest players in the country to come Eugene, Oregon. He convinced some of the fastest players in Florida to come to UCF. Talent in the trenches can be hard to come by, but if you're building an offense around speed, Frost can lure that anywhere.

I think he can win at Nebraska. Frost probably knows for sure one way or the other, but what does Moos think? The new athletic director was effusive in his praise of Frost recently in a radio appearance, but what if there's someone else out there that Moos wants more? What if it's the teacher, not the student? What if it's Chip Kelly?

On the surface, Kelly is a great fit in Lincoln. Like Frost, Kelly's offense can translate anywhere (aside from the NFL) and he's proven it. Kelly doesn't appear to be a personality fit in the SEC where a lot of jobs will be opening, but he is likely to be drawn to a heavyweight program. In this cycle, outside of the SEC, UCLA and Nebraska are the only two percolating that match that criterion. Kelly's programs recruited at a very high level at Oregon, but he's not a guy that loves to recruit. Lincoln gives him the buffer to make his recruiting process event-based rather than the daily meet-and-greet grind of the more centrally-located programs. Of course, there are public relations obligations at Nebraska that may trump any recruiting nuisance, but what job is perfect? And then there's the established relationship with Moos from their short time together at Oregon (Kelly as OC, Moos as AD).

While the rest of college football may think of Nebraska as a decaying program, I'm not convinced Bill Moos, Scott Frost or Chip Kelly are looking at things from the same perspective.

2. No more "new coach bump" in recruiting

On Tuesday, Tennessee's 2018 recruiting class took a hit when five-star offensive tackle Cade Mays decommitted from the Vols. Considering Mays is a local kid out of Knoxville and a Tennessee legacy, the move was probably a more damning indictment of Butch Jones' job security than any one loss this season.

Tennessee's class, once ranked inside the top five nationally, has stumbled down to No. 13 in the 247Sports Team Composite with no immediate signs of flipping the momentum. At the heart of the Mays decision, of course, is the job security of Jones. Despite a 4-5 record and an expectation around the country that his days are numbered, Jones remains the coach in Knoxville.

In past years, this is where I would reassure Tennessee fans that from a recruiting standpoint, all is well. Jones would either close strong, save his job and watch his recruiting fortunes follow suit or Jones would be fired. If fired, the new head coach, cloaked in optimism and enthusiasm, would have plenty of time to resurrect a strong signing class by February's signing day.  

But things are different this year. In December, for the first time in college football, there will be a three-day early signing period for high school prospects. In the past, if Tennessee were to hire a head coach, he would arrive -- often in mid-December -- with time to squeeze in a week or two on the road, host an official visit weekend and then hit the recruiting dead period in late December and early January with a gameplan for attacking three big official visit weekends in January.

You can do a lot of damage in that stretch and the really good hires are often able to poach commits and go on a recruiting run that can top even what the class was pacing before the coaching change. But this early signing period is about to take the vast majority of prospects off the market altogether.

Look at Willie Taggart at Oregon last year. Hired on Dec. 7, Taggart was able to land current freshman starters like defensive tackles Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott, and quarterback Braxton Burmeister after taking the gig.

Burmeister and Faoliu decommitted from Arizona in January to sign with Oregon. Scott was an early enrollee without a home that signed with Taggart without ever visiting Eugene. Just one year later, Faoliu and Burmeister may never have even been available to Taggart and would probably have signed with Rich Rodriguez in December. With the accelerated timeline, Scott would likely have found another home before Taggart came calling and enrolled elsewhere. The heart of Oregon's freshman class may have never even heard Taggart's sales pitch if that early signing period was in place just one year sooner.

So for Tennessee and any other program looking to make a coaching change, my message this year is different than in years past. It could get a lot worse before it gets better.

3. Nick Saban's biggest challenge

If praise is rat poison, allow me to offer Nick Saban some nourishment. This Alabama team is facing a challenge no Nick Saban Alabama team has faced before: injuries.

When starting outside linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis went down for the season in Week 1, Alabama lost its next two superstar pass rushers and what followed were average (by Bama standards) defensive performances against Fresno State and Colorado State as the unit adjusted.

With some time to gel, Alabama went back to its dominating ways against some bad offenses before LSU knocked two more starters out in linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson. Perhaps more importantly, Minkah Fitzpatrick was hobbled against LSU as well.

Now, facing one of its toughest tests of the season at Mississippi State and an Iron Bowl on the horizon, Alabama is without four preseason starting linebackers and its best player is hobbled. This is a new challenge that even seven straight No. 1 recruiting classes can't mask.

Four starters are easy for Alabama's talented team to replace. Four starters in two position units is a different challenge. Thanks to one of the nation's best strength and conditioning programs, Alabama has been seemingly immune to injuries throughout Nick Saban's tenure. Don't'a Hightower missed the season in 2009 on defense. In 2012, wide receiver DeAndrew White and running backs Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart were knocked out for the season (enter TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake). In 2013, it was center Ryan Kelly and safety Nick Perry.

But that wasn't this. This is disruptive.

Ohio State reminded us this week that we shouldn't be blinded by brand names and blowouts. Alabama's 66-3 win over Ole Miss and 45-7 over Tennessee in this SEC is no more impressive than the Buckeyes' 62-14 over Maryland and 56-14 over Nebraska. Last weekend, that Ohio State blowout machine was exposed at Iowa. On paper, Alabama's resume is no better than, say, Wisconsin's and yet, it's a team being penciled in as the 2017 season's Goliath. With these injuries and an imperfect performance against LSU, Goliath seems a lot more human.

For Saban, here's your dose of media multivitamins: your guys are vulnerable at Mississippi State this weekend and probably beyond that. Here's your side of poison: I'm still not picking against you. 

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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