College football coaching carousel: 10 Power Five jobs to keep an eye on

Last year on this day — Halloween of all days — Auburn fired Bryan Harsin as its head football coach.

The firing was anything but shocking. The buzz around Harsin’s shaky standing at the school began months earlier and intensified after the school split with athletic director Allen Green before the season even began.

But Harsin’s firing was notable: He was the seventh FBS head coach of the season to be fired or resign for performance reasons during the season — the highest number of coaches to lose their job before the calendar turned to November in at least a decade, and maybe ever.

A year removed from that early season firing spree, college football sits in a far different place as Halloween 2023 arrives: Zero coaches have been fired or resigned for on-field performance this season.

“It’s probably a good thing for the sport,” says one sports agent. “The triggers are normally way too quick.”

For the first time in more than a decade, zero coaches have been fired or resigned, in-season, for performance before November. The last time that happened was 2012, when the first move was made 3 1/2 weeks into November.

Reasons for the quiet carousel range widely, industry experts tell Yahoo Sports. For one, college athletics is in the midst of one of its most volatile times of change. For administrators contemplating a coaching change, there are plenty of other distractions: conference realignment, athlete compensation and legal challenges, to name a few.

Secondly, buyouts are at an all-time high. According to USA Today, a whopping 46 coaches have a buyout of at least $10 million. Twenty-five coaches have a buyout of at least $20 million, and 15 coaches are at $30 million or more.

“A lot of guys who are on the fence are owed a lot of money,” says another sports agent.

And then there’s name, image and likeness rules, which have created another expense for school officials who are now encouraging donors to give to NIL collectives. “Athletic directors are in a tough spot. Which one do you want, $20 million to get rid of your coach or $20 million for NIL?” asks one industry insider.

The early coaching changes of the previous two years can’t be overlooked. While seven pre-November changes were made in 2022, five were made in 2021 — a two-year expedited hiring cycle that some attribute to the early signing period and increased player movement.

Eighty-percent of FBS players sign in December, and the transfer portal opens a few days following the end of the regular season, setting off a mad dash to ink both high school prospects and transfers. Somewhat panicked over recruiting new players and retaining existing ones, administrators over the last two years rushed to have a coach in place by early December.

That’s not necessarily the case any longer, says one college football agent. Colorado coach Deion Sanders and others have proven that teams can be assembled through additions and subtractions over the spring period as well.

Either way, all of it is slowing the carousel to somewhat historic levels. In many ways, the high number of changes in 2021 and 2022 impact 2023. There were 24 and 29 changes in 2022 and 2021, respectively - the most over a two-year stretch since 2011-2012. Naturally, there will be a drop in changes after consecutive busy cycles.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a major cycle,” says one agent.

But who really knows, right? One major coaching change could set off a domino effect that suddenly triggers a mountain of moves.

Through various conversations with those in the industry, Yahoo Sports compiled a list of 10 Power Five (soon to be Power Four due to the Pac-12's collapse) jobs to watch as the carousel fast approaches, including those at Michigan State and Northwestern, where head coaches were dismissed before the season over off-the-field matters.

Michigan State Spartans

Coach: Harlon Barnett

Buyout: Interim coach

Skinny: The Spartans' hunt for a replacement for the fired Mel Tucker has accelerated over the last week. The school has, for now, an advantage as the only program in the market. Where the search goes remains somewhat of a mystery, though Michigan State fans and message boards have buzzed over the (far-flung) prospect of hiring Urban Meyer, who has publicly shot down such a move. One of the more obvious potential candidates, Pitt coach and former MSU coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is 2-6 this season with the Panthers. Other possible names include Washington State coach Jake Dickert, currently on a four-game losing streak; Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, who is 23-11 in his last 34 games; Duke’s Mike Elko, who is 14-7 in his second season; and Toledo’s Jason Candle, who is on his way to a sixth winning season in eight years. Would Sparty turn to 62-year-old James Madison coach Curt Cignetti? He’s a Pennsylvania native who is 49-8 in five seasons at JMU.

Northwestern Wildcats

Coach: David Braun

Buyout: Interim coach

Skinny: Braun arrived in Chicago earlier this year after 15 years as a small-college assistant coach, most recently North Dakota State. He’d spent just a few months with the program before Pat Fitzgerald’s firing resulted in his promotion to interim head coach. Despite all the distractions, the Wildcats are 4-4 this season, fresh off an upset of Maryland. Braun’s case for the permanent head job seems real. But if not him, would Northwestern give a look to Willie Fritz at Tulane? Fritz, 63, is in the midst of leading the Green Wave to five bowls in six years.

Northwestern interim head coach David Braun is making a case this season to earn the permanent job. Will the school stick with him? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Northwestern interim head coach David Braun is making a case this season to earn the permanent job. Will the school stick with him? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

West Virginia Mountaineers

Coach: Neal Brown

Buyout: $13 million

Skinny: Brown entered the 2023 season on maybe the hottest seat of any Power Four coach. Things have cooled considerably. The Mountaineers are 5-3 and are a Hail Mary catch against Houston away from being tied for the lead atop the Big 12. They are likely to be favorites in three of their final four games. An 8-4 or 7-5 finish should calm things in Morgantown and give Brown a sixth season at WVU.

Michigan Wolverines

Coach: Jim Harbaugh

Buyout: $25 million+

Skinny: Harbaugh’s situation is included in this list for an assortment of reasons. Will the current NCAA probe into Michigan — for both sign-stealing and recruiting during the pandemic — trigger the school to cut ties? Unlikely (but if it did, UM could probably wiggle free of that buyout). However, Harbaugh’s future may be elsewhere voluntarily. For the last two years, he’s been in the mix for NFL head coaching jobs. And while NFL Network reported Sunday that the league would not serve as a “safe harbor” for him to escape NCAA sanctions, he could still get a crack at a few jobs. An opening at Michigan could create a potential late-season domino effect across the country.

Houston Cougars

Coach: Dana Holgorsen

Buyout: $15 million

Skinny: Does Holgorsen belong on this list? Many would say no. Holgorsen won a combined 20 games in 2021-22. Hiccups were expected in the Cougars’ first season in the Big 12 (1-4 in the league so far), but that’s not as much the issue as the loss at Rice and the uncompetitive outings against TCU and last week against Kansas State. Remember, UH fired Major Applewhite after an eight-win second season. Three of Houston’s final four games come against teams with a losing Big 12 record. There’s a chance for a bowl bid. Shouldn't that be enough?

Arkansas Razorbacks

Coach: Sam Pittman

Buyout: $11-16 million

Skinny: Heralded for a nine-win campaign in his second season in 2021, Arkansas has slipped this year, dropping to 2-6 after an ugly 7-3 loss to Mississippi State on Oct. 21. That led to Pittman firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos eight games into a three-year contract (the school owes him nearly $3 million in a buyout). Would Arkansas then spend more money to get rid of Pittman and start a coaching search? Some don’t think it happens. Also, Pittman’s buyout is an interesting situation. Based on language in his contract, the buyout is contingent on his overall record since the 2021 season. If he’s below .500, the school owes him 50% of remaining pay. If he’s above or at .500, the school owes him 75% of the pay. That’s a $5 million difference. Since 2021, Pittman is 18-16.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Coach: Zach Arnett

Buyout: $4.5 million

Skinny: Arnett is just eight games into a four-year, $12 million ($3M/year) contract with the Bulldogs. Would they really make a move so soon? Remember that Mississippi State promoted Arnett, without much of a search, after the sudden passing of former coach Mike Leach. The move was rooted in retaining current players and recruiting commitments at a time when the school did not have an athletic director. Zac Selmon came aboard a few weeks later as State’s AD. The Bulldogs are 4-4 and their only SEC win is that 7-3 victory in Fayetteville. Arnett’s contract is school-friendly, giving the program the ability to wiggle free of it for 50% of the remaining pay with mitigation language (if he’d get another gig, his new salary would reduce the buyout).

The struggles of Texas A&M under head coach Jimbo Fisher are well documented, but would the school be willing to eat his enormous contract buyout, which is at least $70 million? (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
The struggles of Texas A&M under head coach Jimbo Fisher are well documented, but would the school be willing to eat his enormous contract buyout, which is at least $70 million? (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Texas A&M Aggies

Coach: Jimbo Fisher

Buyout: $70 million+

Skinny: The Aggies are 5-11 in their last 16 Power Five games. That’s a lot of very expensive losses. Fisher’s salary is nearly $9 million in a contract that was extended out a decade after the 9-1 season in 2020. Money isn’t an issue at Texas A&M, but will school administrators and mega-boosters spend it to fire a coach they’ve invested so much in? The final price tag — with staff buyouts and a new head coach and staff — could exceed $125 million. The Aggies should be heavy favorites against Mississippi State and Abilene Christian but the other two games are tricky: at LSU and, this weekend, at Ole Miss.

Syracuse Orange

Coach: Dino Babers

Buyout: $8-9 million*

Skinny: Babers got off the hot seat last year, leading the Orange to a surprising bowl trip, and his eighth season in New York started great. The Orange won their first four games. Since then, they’ve lost four straight, dropping Babers to 22-34 since Syracuse won 10 games in 2018. As a basketball power, are the Orange invested enough to pay a steep buyout and then hire a new staff? Syracuse’s final four opponents have a cumulative record of 15-17. A bowl would seem to be enough to secure his future, but who knows?

*This is what Babers’ buyout is believed to be. As a private school, Syracuse is not subject to release such public records.

Indiana Hoosiers

Coach: Tom Allen

Buyout: $20 million

Skinny: Speaking of basketball schools, the Hoosiers were rolling under Allen after completing the 2020 season at 6-2. Since then, they’ve won eight games and lost 24 and are currently on a four-game losing skid. But Allen’s ouster could be incredibly costly. Would a school more concerned about the hardwood pay such a lofty price? One of the more difficult Power Four jobs — considering the league competition against historic football powers — Indiana hasn't finished consecutive seasons ranked since the 1980s.