Being a college football writer in this specific week feels a little bit like stepping into the world of Janus, the Roman mythological god of dates and doors, the one who looks backward and forward with two faces. (Janus is the name from which we derive our month of January.)
College football writers are still trying to process last week, but the coming weekend involves a number of significant showdowns. Several coaches are facing crunch time, as they try to solidify their jobs for the following season. Some teams are fighting for respect this Saturday, others for mere survival.
There’s a lot to talk about. This is why we convene three-person roundtables: to give you a wide sampling of analysis and perspective
Question No. 1: We know Brady Hoke is toast once this season is over. Let’s change the focus a little bit: Which coach sits in a precarious position right now — not likely to be gone, but not entirely safe — and needs to get some work done in the next two months to retain his job for 2015?
On Twitter @TheCoachBart
Again, typing English words about the career shakeups of other people and their families really isn’t my forte, but since the question is asked, I’ll frame it more as “who really needs to win so people like the three of us aren’t including their name in columns like these.”
I’d say in light of the way this week has gone, it’s probably Florida and Will Muschamp. Surely, this is an odd time to bring him up, right after a raucous win in Knoxville (and with Vanderbilt being Florida’s lone true remaining SEC road game).
But surely it’s not. One of the issues, or at least one that manifested itself throughout the fan base during Urban Meyer’s tenure in Gainesville, was related to off-field issues.
The assumption … a probably unfair one considering that, whether people want to admit it or not, controlling an entire football team and knowing what they’re doing at all times can be hard … was that this dynamic was going to change under Muschamp.
This week has not been a good week for that assumption. Treon Harris, only hours after the big victory he helped secure in replacement for Jeff Driskel, was allegedly involved in a sexual assault incident. He was suspended indefinitely, which at least leads you to believe the coaches know something more than the public.
Why? Because anyone can’t just accuse anyone else blindly of something and have a suspension for them handed down. There has to be some kind of teeth to the accusation, and I’m NOT saying he’s guilty.
On top of that, two players were allegedly involved in a fight, enough to at least draw police intervention, and even though it won’t yield charges, it still speaks to off-field distractions and discombobulation.
And, of course, Muschamp hasn’t won a lot. That can change, and none of this gets talked about on such a high level if Florida takes care of business (and that’s just the way it is; I don’t make the rules) against LSU, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina and plays in the SEC title game.
Yet, the margin is thin, as always at a power school like Florida, and everything is in play as an ancillary reason for overhaul when it comes to wins and losses … and not enough of the former.
On Twitter @SectionTPJ
As I wrote in my preseason piece “7 Coaches on the Hot Seat,” Tim Beckman was the head coach most likely to lose his job.
Halfway through the season, I still share that point of view.
Let’s be honest: Illinois has been a huge disappointment this year. Yes, they’ve won three games, but the Illini actually had to rally to beat Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State. In the three contests its played against “power 5” conference opponents, UI hasn’t even been close, losing all of them by double digits.
Considering that the Illini will have to play without star quarterback Wes Lunt for the next four to six weeks, it’s tough to envision them winning very many games in conference play.
That last sentence will ultimately spell Beckman’s doom. Remember, one of the reasons that athletic director Mike Thomas sacked Ron Zook – who always put together an outstanding recruiting class – was that he won only 32 percent of his conference games. In Beckman’s two-plus seasons on campus, Illinois is 1-17 in Big Ten play.
Unless the Illini turn things around over the next few weeks, it’s tough to envision any scenario in which Beckman returns to Champaign next season.
On Twitter @SectionMZ
Coaching-related questions in midseason normally don’t receive this kind of up-front preface or note, but it’s important to say so in this case: Hopefully, the coaches mentioned in the next few sentences are not relieved of their jobs by their employers. This is not said just for kicks. It’s because each coach deserves a chance to be able to work through a period of adversity and difficulty; an employer needs to stand by an employee in a time of trial.
Whether or not that happens, though, is anybody’s guess. The cutthroat world of coaching isn’t a place where sympathy exists in abundance.
Norm Chow’s wife, Diane, had a brain aneurysm last Friday and is recovering this week at UCLA Medical Center. Chow, Hawaii’s head coach, rightly visited his wife, showing an entirely proper sense of priorities. The concern about Chow – looking at this issue dispassionately, solely through the lens of how this business operates – is that Hawaii could very easily take on double-digit losses for the second straight season, despite being fairly competitive in a majority of games.
This was Hawaii’s issue last season. The Warriors didn’t get blown off the field with great regularity. Hawaii proved to be pesky, plucky and persistent, but it could not finish games. Bill Connelly of SB Nation said it plainly: “Hawaii was just about the best 1-11 team you’ll ever see last year.”
Looking at the remainder of the 2014 schedule, Hawaii has a good chance of being able to beat UNLV at home, but its other home games will be difficult. If Hawaii can’t at least snag one other game in addition to Vegas, will Hawaii’s administration be content with a 2015 season preview in which Connelly says that Hawaii was just about the best 2-10 team imaginable in 2014? How much longer can that kind of pattern continue?
Hawaii almost beat Washington. It lost by only one score to 4-1 Oregon State. Yet, how many “almosts” will a demoralized athletic program accept from its football team? Win at least two more games, Norm — we’re pulling for Diane to make a complete recovery… and for you to have a job to come back to next season, if that’s what you and Diane want when the time comes to consider that decision.
Question No. 2: Excluding Mississippi State, which program has more riding on a game this Saturday than any other program in the country?
A clarifying note is worth advancing at the beginning of this answer: When one refers to a high-stakes game, the general assumption is that it’s a proving-ground moment of sorts. In other words, a program might have a lot riding on a game in which it’s a huge favorite, but do you vault that game to the top of the list when there are other, more contentious contests on the slate?
No, you don’t.
Oklahoma just might have the most riding on its game with Texas, and yes, the Sooners spit the bit against the Longhorns as a decisive favorite last season, but this Texas team is so impotent on offense that Oklahoma should be able to handle Bevo without too much of a problem. That game doesn’t make the final cut in terms of a program-defining showdown, if only because there’s an assumption, well before kickoff, that Oklahoma will prevail.
A better choice for this question (and my colleagues both identified such games in their answers below — they know what’s up…) is Arizona at home against USC.
Very simply, Arizona is the one member of the original Pac-10 (formed in 1978 after existing for years as the Pacific 8 Conference) that has never won an outright league title and gone to the Rose Bowl. Northwestern has made the Rose Bowl. Purdue has made the Rose Bowl. Oregon State has made the Rose Bowl. Washington State has made the Rose Bowl. Indiana has made the Rose Bowl. Illinois has made the Rose Bowl.
Granted, the Rose Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff this year, which might mean that the Pac-12 champion gets left out of the event in 2014 and perpetuates Arizona’s Rose Bowl drought. However, if one Pac-12 team is in position to make the playoff and smell Roses, it is Arizona.
Mind you, this is not a projection of what will happen; it’s simply a reflection of the fact that unlike UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, and USC, Arizona doesn’t have a single loss to its name. The Wildcats do have more of a margin for error.
The question becomes, “Can Arizona actually withstand the pressure of the occasion and avoid the stumbles that have sabotaged promising seasons in the past?”
If you look at Arizona’s schedule, road dates at UCLA and Utah figure to be tough, but quite winnable, due to UCLA’s lack of an offensive line and Utah’s general penchant for inconsistency. The season finale against Arizona State won’t be easy, but the Wildcats get that one at home.
Let’s say, for the sake of clarity, that Arizona goes 2-1 in those three games against UCLA, Utah, and Arizona State. The Wildcats would probably be in position to go 11-1 and enter the Pac-12 title game as long as… yes… they can handle USC this weekend.
Arizona will either sustain (and back up) what it achieved against Oregon, or it will suffer an all-too-typical letdown, the kind of deflating event that has plagued the Wildcats as long as they’ve been a member of the Pac-10-turned-Pac-12.
Rich Rodriguez really does have an opportunity to forge one of the great single-season feats in the history of college football. This Saturday’s USC game represents an essential (non-optional) component in an Arizona march to Pasadena… and history.
The temptation is to stay in-state and go with Ole Miss, but I’ll go out west, get up at noon, wear sandals and no shirt all day, and talk Oregon.
The stunned Ducks limp into UCLA in what a month ago was supposed to be a battle of top-five Pac-12 heavyweights, but instead ends up being two teams playing to preserve their championship goals.
While UCLA is mostly new to the scene of being expected to compete for championships, this schtick is not new in Eugene, Ore. A loss would be heartbreaking to both, but this was finally supposed to be the year for Oregon. Marcus Mariota came back when he didn’t need to. The team was loaded on both sides of the ball.
What ends up happening are murmurs of worry, another season of expectations not totally met, and what to make thus far of the Mark Helfrich era. Granted, the man is 15-3 at Oregon, but this is coming off the Chip Kelly era … and in the Willamette Valley, the bar has been set as high as any program in the country.
A loss would be devastating in the sense that once again, Oregon would likely end this season still able to hold onto that “best program to never win a college football championship” label the Ducks tussle with West Virginia over. However, they’ve been knocking on the door for years, always having one head-scratching loss somewhere along the line.
The reality, though, of this playoff era we’re in means that regular season losses mean less and can be more feasibly overcome without staring at the scoreboard, hoping someone above you tinkles the bed.
Oregon is fine, but the Ducks are back in the BCS world now: zero margin for error. Eventually, even in cheerful Oregon, they get tired of knocking on the door.
Without question, Baylor has the most riding on this weekend’s game.
Let’s be honest: the Bears simply don’t get the type of respect that they deserve. Despite winning the Big 12 last year – including a decisive 41-12 victory over Oklahoma – almost no one tabbed Baylor to repeat as conference champion. Instead, these “pundits” kept talking about how the Sooners were a threat to win the inaugural College Football Playoff because of their impressive showing against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Sadly, the Bears’ on performance on the gridiron hasn’t earned many accolades this season, either. Although Baylor currently ranks in the top five in the nation in both total offense (2nd) and total defense (4th), all people want to dwell on was how unimpressive the team looked against Texas last weekend. In their eyes, the Bears only have these stellar numbers because they played a weak schedule.
Of course, the beauty of college football is that the teams can settle the issue on the field. With a win over a very good TCU team – which managed to overcome miscues and Oklahoma last week – the Bears can finally shed the “Rodney Dangerfield” label attached to them and get some much needed respect.
A loss, on the other hand, would only add fuel to the fire of the arguments listed above.