Which College Football Teams Might Actually Make a Mid-Pandemic Coaching Change

Which College Football Teams Might Actually Make a Mid-Pandemic Coaching Change

South Carolina's Will Muschamp was fired Sunday. How many more moves are coming?

South Carolina’s Will Muschamp was fired Sunday. How many more moves are coming?Associated Press

There is roughly one month remaining in the 2020 college football regular season, which meansunder normal circumstanceswe would be about one month away from all sorts of hirings and firings and 10 times as many rumors of both.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, this figures to be the most stagnant coaching carousel in decades.

Many teams were unable to conduct any sort of spring camp. Summer workouts were compromised. The start of the season was delayedby two weeks for some leagues; by two months for others. By my count, 70 unique FBS teams have had at least one game postponed or canceled. And significantly more than 70 teams have had to play games with depth charts that were ransacked by positive tests and contact tracing.

For every player in the country, this season doesn’t even count against their eligibility clock. So if ever there was a year to extend a mulligan to a head coach on the hot seat, this is it.

However, not every athletic director (or group of deep-pocketed boosters) is going to see things that way.

South Carolina certainly didn’t, firing Will Muschamp less than 24 hours after the Week 11 loss to Ole Miss. For what it’s worth, I finished writing this thing about four hours before that news broke, and I had the “Likelihood of a Coaching Change” at 95 percent for South Carolina.

Given the way things have gone thus far this season, here are a few other teams that are going to seriously consider making a change if things don’t improve over the next four weeks.

All salary/buyout information comes from USA Today, unless otherwise noted.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh

Michigan head coach Jim HarbaughTony Ding/Associated Press

Michigan: Jim Harbaugh
Estimated Buyout: $6.4 million

This is the big one everyone is clamoring for, and it feels almost inevitable after Michigan’s last three losses have gone from bad to worse.

At least the Wolverines were competitive in the loss to Michigan State on Halloween. They have since been smoked by Indiana and downright obliterated by Wisconsin. Between the terrible play-calling and the lackadaisical “effort” to tackle on defense, it just looks like they’ve given up on this season.

Harbaugh has spent a lot of time on the hot seat in the past few years, largely because his team has barely even bothered to show up for the games against Ohio State. And with the way things are going for both teams this year, Michigan may well lose by eight touchdowns in its regular-season finale against the Buckeyeswhich would certainly be the final straw for this head coach.

Harbaugh’s contract runs through 2021, and the buyout is plenty reasonable compared to others. (Nebraska’s Scott Frost would be owed over $25 million if fired this offseason, and he doesn’t even rank among the five most expensive.)

If they don’t get rid of him, the Wolverines almost have to give him a contract extension instead, which is much harder to justify. Recruiting has been rock-solid under Harbaugh, and Michigan’s decision-makers might balk at the thought of rocking that boat while paying a guy to go away. But if they just let his contract run out, kids aren’t going to want to commit to a lame-duck coachlook at USC’s 2020 recruiting class, for example—so the future of the program is going to get a shake-up either way.

Likelihood of a Coaching Change:  85 percent

Vanderbilt: Derek Mason
Estimated Buyout: Unknown (Private School)

The lack of public buyout information makes it hard to know whether this is actually an option Vanderbilt would consider. But like Michigan, the Commodores might be facing an “Extend or Terminate” dilemma with Mason.

Mason received a contract extension (undisclosed length and amount) after the 2018 seasonhis fifth with the program. At that point, he had a 24-38 overall record and just a 9-31 record in SEC play. Things weren’t going great, but this also isn’t exactly a program rich with winning culture. Vanderbilt has never had 10 wins in a single season, and it had a sub-.500 record in 28 of the 31 years before Mason took over.

At a certain point, though, even a program that doesn’t expect to contend for a national championship gets tired of serving as the laughingstock of the conference.

Since Mason’s most recent contract extension, Vanderbilt has gone 1-13 in league play and was outscored 502-201 in those 14 games. In all but one of the past seven years, the Commodores ranked dead last in the SEC in recruiting. During that time, they have signed a grand total of eight 4-star recruits and zero 5-star guyswhile Alabama has signed 115 4-star guys and 30 5-star studs.

There’s no guarantee the next coach will have any more success on the recruiting trail, but let’s just say Vanderbilt wouldn’t be burning its bridge with top-notch talent if it did decide to make a change.

Perhaps most damning of all for Mason is how much better than Vanderbilt the SEC’s four first-year coaches are doing. Both Arkansas and Vanderbilt were terrible last season, but Sam Pittman swooped in and immediately made the Razorbacks respectable, while the Commodores have just gotten worse.

Likelihood of a Coaching Change:  70 percent

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith

Illinois head coach Lovie SmithAdam Hunger/Associated Press

Illinois: Lovie Smith
Estimated Buyout: $2.6 million

Not that my opinion much matters, but I think Lovie Smith deserves at least one more year.

Outside of perhaps Manny Diaz at Miami, no coach has made better use of the transfer portal over the past couple of years. During the 2019 cycle, Smith added a former 5-star recruit and five former 4-star guys from Alabama, Michigan, USC and Georgia. There wasn’t quite as much movement this past offseason, but Smith did acquire six transfers from Power Five programs.

He has been forced to go that route because recruiting was a struggle for the Illini long before he arrived. From 2010-18, the highest-rated recruit this program signed was the No. 173 overall player in the 2013 class, Aaron Baileyand he didn’t amount to anything for them. Smith did sign a pair of highly touted athletes (Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams) in the 2019 class, though, so that’s progress.

There’s no question this season has been a disaster thus far for the Illini, but their fourth-string quarterback is leading the team in passing attempts because of injuries and COVID-19 protocol that has ravaged the roster. It’s a shame Illinois has been unable to build on last year’s trip to a bowl game. However, this seems like an obvious spot for one of those mulligans previously mentioned.

The buyout isn’t much, but would Illinois be able to hire someone who could do better? With little anticipated movement from the coaching carousel, maybe this would be a good year for a change. Illinois wouldn’t typically be a top-five option for a coach on the move, but it probably will be this year.

Likelihood of a Coaching Change: 30 percent

Louisiana-Monroe: Matt Viator
Estimated Buyout: $175,000

Whether or not this move happens could be the clearest indicator of how much the smaller schools are struggling to remain afloat right now.

Of the more than 100 schools for which USA Today has 2020 salary information, Viator is the second-least expensive coach at $390,000. Of the nearly 100 schools for which buyout information was found, this $175,000 figure is the lowest. And at 0-8 with an average scoring margin of negative-21.8, there’s an argument to be made that the Warhawks are the worst team in the country.

It’s not like this is some shocking new development, either. This is Viator’s fifth year at ULM. None of the first four ended with winning records, and the defense has consistently ranked among the worst. This would be an obvious spot for a coaching change if not for the pandemic. We’ll see whether the Warhawks decide it’s just easier to bring him back again in 2021.

Likelihood of a Coaching Change: 75 percent

And here are two more teams with fanbases that might be screaming for a change, but it’s not going to happen because of the steep buyout clause.

Penn State head coach James Franklin

Penn State head coach James FranklinBarry Reeger/Associated Press

Penn State: James Franklin
Estimated Buyout: More than $30 million

At the end of our Week 11 Expert Predictions column, I pointed out that things are bad and getting worse for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions have lost 33 players as transfersmany of them inconsequential; some of them former 5-star recruitsin the past two years, and recruiting is getting gradually worse. There was almost no separation between Ohio State and Penn State in the 2016-18 window, but that gap has already grown substantially.

But according to Mike Persak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Franklin is signed through 2025 and had a buyout amount of $38.4 million heading into this season. At the end of the year, that number probably dips down to around $32 million. Either way, that is way, way, way too much to even consider giving the boot to a coach who won 11 games in three of the past four seasons.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Franklin going anywhere before the end of the 2023 season, at the earliest. Despite the aforementioned roster difficulties, Penn State really just needs to pray for a rebound in 2021 so the fans don’t completely turn on Franklin before it’s financially feasible to make a move.

Tennessee: Jeremy Pruitt
Estimated Buyout: $12.9 million

It’s less than Will Muschamp’s buyout and it’s a move that Tennessee fans were begging for in the middle of last season.

But $12.9 million is still quite the chunk of change to get rid of a guy whobefore the current four-game losing streakput together an eight-game winning streak, a top-10 2020 recruiting class and a 2021 class that currently ranks in the top 10.

If things continue to deteriorate over the next month, maybe Tennessee will fire Pruitt. The Vols’ remaining schedule is: at Auburn, at Vanderbilt, vs. Florida, vs. Texas A&M. They’ll probably go 1-3 against that slate, which would mean a 3-7 final record. That would be the program’s worst winning percentage in a season since 1909.

However, I think Pruitt earned more than enough goodwill during that eight-game winning streak to keep his job into at least 2021.

Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter:  @kerrancejames.

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