Every Friday, the Friday Five will rank something in the world of college football -- anything and everything from the logical to the illogical. This week, we rank the five coaches entering the 2017 season on the hottest seats in the country.
This is the third year I’ve been doing the Friday Five, and in each of the last two years, I’ve done a list of coaches on the hot seat during the offseason. Of the 10 coaches to make the first two lists, six of them have been fired either during that season or directly after it.
I don’t share that to toot my own horn. It’s merely an example of how volatile the business of college football coaching can be. Being fired is just a part of being a college football coach. With so many passionate fan bases around the country, each with their own set of expectations -- normally of the unrealistic variety -- there are always going to be coaches failing to live up to them.
So coaches will be fired this year just like any year, and the only purpose of this list is to try and figure out which coaches are more likely than others. What’s different about this year’s list is how hard of a time I had putting it together. Not because there aren’t coaches on the hot seat. No, it’s actually the opposite.
There are so many coaches on the hot seat this season that I had trouble picking which five to put on the list. The guys in the honorable mention portion could be in just as much danger as the five who made the list.
And as for the five that did make it, as I mentioned, our previous history here suggests that three of them won’t be employed by their current schools by the time the season is over.
5. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: It wouldn’t be a college football season if Kevin Sumlin weren’t entering the year on the hot seat. Sumlin was a rock star in College Station following his first season, as the Aggies jumped right into the SEC and made plenty of noise. They finished 11-2, beat Alabama, and saw Johnny Manziel win a Heisman Trophy. Things were looking up.
Those same things haven’t been the same since.
Now, the Aggies have not had a losing season since then, as they’ve gone 33-19 over the last four seasons. The problem is that they’ve plateaued in the SEC. In those same four seasons, the Aggies have gone 15-17 in conference play, and there’s a familiar theme to every season.
The Aggies start hot and then crash land at the end of the season.
Because of this, there was some scuttlebutt out there that Sumlin may have been fired after last season with the Aggies making a run at Tom Herman. The fact Sumlin had a $15 million buyout at the time no doubt put the kibosh on that plan. That same buyout drops to $10 million following this season, and if it’s another lackluster year in College Station, the school may decide to pay that price.
4. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: In RichRod’s third season at Arizona, it looked like the Wildcats had turned a corner. Arizona finished the season at 10-4, winning the Pac-12’s South Division and earning a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Things have gone the wrong direction since.
Arizona followed that up with a 7-6 mark in 2015, going from a 7-2 record in conference play to 3-6. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, it was not just a hiccup. Arizona was worse last season, finishing 3-9 and winning only one game in conference.
Now Rodriguez enters the 2017 season needing a rebound. Making matters worse, he has a new boss as well. The man who hired Rodriguez, Greg Byrne, left to take over as athletic director at Alabama. Dave Heeke was hired from Central Michigan to replace Byrne, and he has no connection to Rodriguez, which would make it that much easier to pull the trigger on firing him if Arizona has another down season.
3. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech: When Texas Tech hired Kingsbury prior to the 2013 season, it caused a lot of excitement. The former Texas Tech quarterback was returning to lead his alma mater to the promised land a season after he helped Johnny Manziel win a Heisman Trophy. He was young, energetic, and rather easy on the eyes. In other words, Kingsbury was the perfect face for the Texas Tech program.
But things have not gone as planned.
Kingsbury enters his fifth season in Lubbock with an overall record of 24-26 and a Big 12 record of 13-23. The Red Raiders have made only two bowl games in his first four seasons, and while they’ve scored plenty of points, they’ve given up a lot more.
Another mediocre season could see Texas Tech deciding it needs to head in a different direction.
2. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: I nearly put Brian Kelly at No. 1 on the list, but I ended up leaving him at No. 2 for a couple of reasons. The biggest being that while Notre Dame had an awful season in 2016, it was the first really disappointing season under Kelly. This was the same team coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl in 2015 after all. It’s not like Kelly had back-to-back down seasons.
Also, while there’s been talk of Kelly looking to leave South Bend -- and depending on whom you ask, it’s either real or just talk -- there hasn’t been nearly as much about Notre Dame looking to replace him.
All that being said, 4-8 is still 4-8, and at Notre Dame, they aren’t looking to go 4-8. That alone puts Kelly on a very hot seat heading into 2017 because he can’t afford to have another season. In fact, an eight-win season might not be enough, either.
1. Butch Jones, Tennessee: In the end, I had to go with Jones ahead of Kelly on this list. Unlike Kelly, Jones doesn’t have an appearance in a national title game or a Fiesta Bowl on his resume at Tennessee. All Jones really has on his Vols resume at this point are a lot of expectations that his teams have failed to live up to.
Now, I don’t really hold last season against Jones. Tennessee entered the year as the popular pick to win the SEC East, and for the first half of the season, the Vols were playing like it. Then the injuries came, and they kept coming. After starting the season 5-0, the Vols finished the regular season at 8-4, including a loss to Vanderbilt to finish the regular season.
Through four seasons Jones is only 14-18 in conference play, and that’s just not good enough.
Further complicating matters for Jones is that he’ll have a new boss this year too. Tennessee recently hired John Currie to be its athletic director, and while Currie has spent plenty of time in Knoxville, he has no connection to Jones. If the Vols don’t take a significant step forward in 2017, the next step Jones takes will likely be out the door.