Forde-Yard Dash: Which coaches desperately need to win Saturday?

Pat Forde

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (instructions on how to call a coin toss sold separately):

This week: Embattled coaches | Contenders/pretenders | Conference critic | More

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The going gets more serious from here on out. By The Dash’s count, at least two dozen power-five teams will play their toughest game of the year to date this week. Time to start separating the men from the boys in Gridworld, which will lead to separating some coaches from their jobs. …

HEAT CHECK: COACHES’ SEATS

June Jones (1) got the machinery in gear last week, abruptly stepping down two dismal games into his seventh season at SMU. Now Lawrence Journal-World columnist Tom Keegan has labeled the Kansas-Central Michigan game a must-win for Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis. This seems like an appropriate time to check in on the job security of 10 coaches who entered 2014 with the most to prove to skeptical fans and concerned bosses:

Will Muschamp (2), Florida. Temperature: Rising. Going to triple overtime at home against Kentucky – even an improved Kentucky – is nobody’s idea of a job-stabilizing victory. The key question is whether there is legitimate year-over-year offensive improvement, after wholesale coaching changes on that side of the ball. Throwing out the Eastern Michigan mismatch, let’s compare the Gators’ regulation (no overtime stats allowed) production against the Wildcats from 2013 to 2014: yards are up slightly (402 to 460); points are down slightly (24 to 20). And last year was without injured starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. The early answer is no. The bigger answer will come Saturday, when Florida visits Alabama. “They're all statement games," Muschamp said. "They're all important. They all count for one, so we understand the importance of the game. It's an SEC game. It's the next game. We're in a series of one-game seasons as far as I'm concerned right now, and that's how we're looking at it.” Some one-game seasons are bigger than others, though. The Gators haven’t been competitive with the Crimson Tide since Tim Tebow’s junior year, losing decidedly the last three meetings. For Muschamp’s sake, this would be an opportune time for Florida to play its best game since 2012.

Brady Hoke and Michigan have plenty to prove Saturday against Utah. (AP)
Brady Hoke and Michigan have plenty to prove Saturday against Utah. (AP)

Brady Hoke (3), Michigan. Temperature: Rising. The Wolverines continue to start seasons with astounding sloppiness under Hoke. They have a minus-19 turnover margin in their last 11 non-conference, regular-season games, including a minus-7 through three games this year. Part of that can be attributed to a defense that isn’t taking the ball away, but Michigan’s 37 interceptions in its last 29 games points the finger at careless quarterback play and haphazard execution in the passing game. The only result that matters through this 2-1 start is the shutout loss to Notre Dame, which makes the home game Saturday against 2-0 Utah loom large. Competing in the blighted Big Ten shouldn’t be difficult – which is more an indictment of the league than an endorsement of Michigan – so this is Hoke’s last chance to show something outside of league play.

[Also: Check out Pat Forde's Week 3 College Football Playoff projections here]

Bo Pelini (4), Nebraska. Temperature: Steady. The Cornhuskers are 3-0, which by blighted Big Ten standards is outstanding. But between blowouts of Florida Atlantic and Fresno State was that surreal performance against McNeese State, in which the Cornhuskers appeared headed to overtime until Ameer Abdullah produced one of the great plays of the year to avert disaster. Miami looks completely beatable Saturday in Lincoln, but so did McNeese. The gut feeling is that Pelini will come out of this year more secure than he went into it, but it has to play out. (Speaking of turnover margin: Nebraska is minus-1 this year, which certainly beats the combined minus-23 of the previous two years.)

Tim Beckman (5), Illinois. Temperature: Rising. The Illini were nothing special in beating Youngstown State and Western Kentucky, and they followed that up with a rout at Washington in Week 3. That’s the same Washington that barely squeaked by Hawaii and Eastern Washington, by the way. Beckman is 1-15 in the blighted Big Ten in two seasons, but there could be some winnable games in league play if the Illini can stop giving the ball to the other team. Detect a theme here? Under Beckman the Illini have a minus-25 turnover margin in 27 games. Beating Texas State on Saturday is non-negotiable.

Charlie Weis (6), Kansas. Temperature: Rising. When Central Michigan is a must-win game for a Big 12 team, your program is in sad shape. Thus we encounter the Weis-led Jayhawks, who are as bad as the Turner Gill-led Jayhawks. Since Weis took the redshirt off quarterback Montell Cozart and put the offense in his hands in mid-2013, that unit has floundered. Cozart has thrown 90 passes against FBS competition – none of them for touchdowns, four of them for interceptions. After a 41-3 annihilation at Duke on Saturday, Weis called him in for a Sunday meeting. “You and I are tied at the hip on this one,” Weis told his QB. Hopefully that doesn’t put more pressure on the sophomore; it’s tough to be tied to a drowning coach.

Kyle Flood (7), Rutgers. Temperature: Falling. Athletic director Julie Hermann surprisingly announced a two-year extension for Flood last week leading up to the Big Ten debut game against Penn State, but it may just be for cosmetic recruiting purposes. That was a big recruiting weekend, and it at least theoretically pre-empted one potentially awkward line of questioning from recruits. Flood would probably have to blow this season entirely, which doesn’t seem likely in the blighted Big Ten. But former program resuscitator Greg Schiano is still out there, unemployed, and the botched second half against the Nittany Lions certainly wasn’t ideal.

Mike London (8), Virginia. Temperature: Falling. The Cavaliers are 2-1, with a quality non-league loss to UCLA and a quality league upset of Louisville. Virginia has a defense that could put it in contention to win the ACC Coastal Division – and an offense that could leave it with a third straight losing record. If London’s team goes to Provo and knocks off unbeaten BYU on Saturday, that would be a big boost. But it also seems like a long shot. Virtually every ACC game other than at Florida State on Nov. 8 looks like a toss-up right now, so this could be a season-long drama.

Paul Rhoads (9), Iowa State. Temperature: Falling. He’s under contract through 2022 at a school that probably doesn’t have the cash to buy him out. And Rhoads had his annual So Proud Big Win Saturday, upsetting Iowa on the road. That makes three out of the last four over the hated Hawkeyes, which may be enough to keep him in Ames for years to come. But coming off a 3-9 bust, the Cyclones also started the year 0-2 – losing by 20 points to FCS North Dakota State and blowing a second-half lead at home against Kansas State. Getting a few little wins to go with the big one would be the best way to get everyone back on the bandwagon.

Kyle Whittingham (10), Utah. Temperature: Steady. The Utes have pulverized two bad teams and had a bye week to prepare for Michigan, a big opportunity to get a turnaround season going in earnest. But the real proving ground will be Pac-12 play, where Whittingham has had declining records each of the program’s three seasons in the league: 4-5, 3-6 and 2-7 last year. Staying healthy – starting with quarterback Travis Wilson – could be the key to a winning record and renewed faith in the direction of the program.

Bill Blankenship (11), Tulsa. Temperature: Rising. He took over for Todd Graham and kept the Golden Hurricane on a high plane, going 19-8 his first two years. But since then Blankenship is 4-11, bottoming out Saturday in a blowout loss to Florida Atlantic. And let’s face it, nobody gets blown out by FAU. Nobody good, anyway. That increases concerns that last year’s 3-9 pratfall was not a blip, but the start of a trend. Playing in a new, more competitive conference and with a new athletic director, Blankenship should feel some urgency to get Tulsa turned around coming off a bye this weekend.

ON THE BACK BURNER …

Their schools have been fortunate to have them, and probably will keep them going forward. But if things really go south this year, keep an eye what happens with these five coaches:

Will Frank Beamer and the Hokies get back in the win column Saturday? (USA Today)
Will Frank Beamer and the Hokies get back in the win column Saturday? (USA Today)

Frank Beamer (12), Virginia Tech. Has more than triple the number of victories of the second-winningest coach in school history, spread over 27 years of laudatory service in Blacksburg. But the past two years have been disappointments (a combined 15-11), and last week the 2-1 Hokies lost for the seventh time in their last 20 games as a favorite, after falling behind East Carolina 21-0. Like last year, this was a case of Virginia Tech following an upset road victory (Miami in 2013, Ohio State in 2014) with a stunning home loss (Maryland in 2013, East Carolina in 2014). The past two-plus seasons have been a puzzling departure from decades of remarkable consistency.

Bob Davie (13), New Mexico. Former Notre Dame coach surprised a lot of people when he took this dead-end job as a means to get out of the broadcast booth and back onto the sidelines. Davie’s been better than Mike Locksley, but that says what exactly? After opening with home losses to UTEP and Arizona State, his record slipped to 7-20 overall. If Davie loses for the first time to rival New Mexico State on Saturday, the critics who suspect him of on-the-job retirement will be heard from.

Pat Fitzgerald (14), Northwestern. He’s the winningest coach in school history, and at 55-48 he’s the first Wildcats coach with a winning record since Ara Parseghian (36-35-1 from 1956-63). He’s also one of the best players in school history, a Chicago native and a guy who bleeds purple. But Fitz is on a negative roll of startling proportion: nine losses in his last 10 games, including season-opening home flops against California and Northern Illinois. (That prompted some ramped-up rigor in practice, as Fitzgerald searches for missing toughness.) There has been uncharacteristic turmoil in Evanston, between the All Players United situation last year, the union movement in the offseason and star running back/returner Venric Mark suddenly transferring before the season. Of course, the blighted Big Ten does offer a chance for a turnaround – and Saturday opponent Western Illinois should be a low-stress victory.

Kirk Ferentz (15), Iowa. With a 29-25 record since 2009 (15-17 in the blighted Big Ten), he long ago stopped being worth the massive salary Iowa is paying him. Now Ferentz has dropped three of his last four against Iowa State, a program he is expected to beat almost every year. Even with a veteran returning offense, the Hawkeyes are a mess on that side of the ball, ranking 92nd in yards per game, 102nd in yards per play and 102nd in points per game. And that’s not against murderous competition (Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State). Iowa now faces its first road game of the year, at undefeated Pittsburgh. Then they transition into Big Ten play.

Larry Blakeney (16), Troy. In his 24th season at the school, Blakeney is synonymous with the program after overseeing its rise to FBS status. But the five straight winning seasons from 2006-10 seem a bit distant now. The record since then: 14-25, including an 0-3 start this year that bottomed out in a loss to FCS Abilene Christian on Saturday. Next up: Georgia. Gulp. Even in the stripped-down Sun Belt Conference, wins may be hard to come by this season for the Trojans.

SCHOOL ON THE HOT SEAT?

Al Golden (17), Miami. Last week was not a great one for Golden. A Miami fan started a “GoFundMe” online account to raise money for a “Fire Al Golden” banner to be flown over the stadium when the Hurricanes play Florida State on Nov. 15. And the school announced that prospective starting defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, a Rivals four-star recruit in the class of 2013, will not play this season and is not enrolled. That was a university punishment after being involved in an altercation with a former teammate and roommate, and according to reports, it was a decision the football staff disagreed with. In Year 4, after enduring a postseason ban and scholarship reductions, Golden is working for a different athletic director than the man who hired him and will have a new president in 2015 after the retirement of Golden backer Donna Shalala. Less than a year after removing himself from consideration at his alma mater, Penn State, it seems fair to wonder whether Golden might reconsider his commitment to The U.

REALITY CHECK: CONTENDERS OR PRETENDERS?

The Dash categorizes 10 unranked and undefeated teams:

Are Will Muschamp's Gators for real? We'll find out Saturday when they take on Alabama. (USA Today)
Are Will Muschamp's Gators for real? We'll find out Saturday when they take on Alabama. (USA Today)

Florida (18). Record: 2-0. Best win: 36-30 over Kentucky in triple overtime. Most fallible moment: Getting an officiating bailout on a near-delay of game in the first OT against Kentucky, on a fourth-down play when the Gators scored to stay in the game. Status: contender in the SEC East, but looks like a pretender compared to the powers in the SEC West. We’ll get a better reading on that Saturday at Alabama.

Pittsburgh (19). Record: 3-0. Best win: 30-20 at Boston College, a victory that looks better after the Eagles shocked USC last weekend on the same field. Most fallible moment: Falling behind Florida International 16-0 in the first quarter Saturday before rallying. Status: Contender in the wide-open ACC Coastal. Panthers are in the top five nationally in total defense, although those stats were fattened against outmanned Delaware in the opener. Pitt is riding 250-pound wrecking ball running back James Conner, but still must prove it can pass when opponents are expecting it. Iowa game Saturday is a credibility test for both teams.

North Carolina State (20). Record: 3-0. Best win: 49-17 at South Florida. Most fallible moment: Needing late rallies to beat both Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. Status: Pretender. The rout in Tampa on Saturday was nice (and surprising) but probably says more about the sorry state of the Bulls than the Wolfpack. Even chalking up a blowout win Saturday over Presbyterian to go 4-0, The Dash isn’t ready to say N.C. State is a bowl team. Reality arrives in consecutive weeks Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 to start league play in the form of Florida State and Clemson.

North Carolina (21). Record: 2-0. Best win: 31-27 over San Diego State. Most fallible moment: Trailing FCS Liberty in the third quarter, and the Aztecs in the fourth. Status: Pretender. The Tar Heels are still porous defensively, ranking 92nd nationally in yards allowed per play and 95th in yards allowed per game. And coming off a bye, the next four games are at East Carolina, at Clemson, Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame. Dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams has a lot on his shoulders trying to lead a unit that is going to have to win some shootouts.

Mississippi State (22). Record: 3-0. Best win: 47-34 over UAB. Most fallible moment: Trailing UAB by a point in the second quarter. In other words, not much in the way of fallible moments yet. Status: Contender. Maybe not for the SEC West title, since that division is ludicrously difficult, but the Bulldogs will win a game or two they’re not expected to and could win at least eight in the regular season. Dak Prescott is doing a pretty fair Tim Tebow impersonation for Tebow’s old offensive coordinator, MSU head coach Dan Mullen. But the secondary needs to step up and play better.

Marshall (23). Record 3-0. Best win: 44-14 over Ohio. Most fallible moment: Letting miserable Miami (Ohio) close within eight points twice in the second half. Status: Contender-ish. At least within the Thundering Herd’s realm of the possible. Which means Marshall is a contender to go 12-0 and grab the token “New Year’s Six” bowl appearance that will go to the best team from outside the power five conferences. Marshall’s schedule is so incredibly bad that it will never be taken seriously, no matter how many touchdowns (nine so far) and yards (953) Rakeem Cato throws for.

Washington (24). Record: 3-0. Best win: 44-19 over Illinois. Most fallible moment: Surrendering 52 points (and nearly the game) to FCS Eastern Washington. Status: Slowly evolving contender. The first two weeks were not pretty, but chalk that up to a suspended starting quarterback in the opener and a coaching staff still feeling its way with new personnel. The Huskies looked much more the part against the Illini – although, it must be noted, it’s the Illini. Quarterback Cyler Miles is improving, receiver John Ross has become an out-of-nowhere home-run threat (one catch in each game for at least 55 yards and a touchdown) and Shaq Thompson is the nation’s newest two-way rage at linebacker/running back. There are at least eight wins out there for Washington.

Arizona (25). Record: 3-0. Best win: 35-28 over a Nevada team that beat Washington State. Most fallible moment: Trailing UT-San Antonio late in the first half. Status: Dark-horse contender in the Pac-12 South? Or a pretender that’s no pushover. Take your pick. The Wildcats revolve offensively around a freshman quarterback and freshman running back, which means the room to grow is substantial. The defense must improve – like, now, because high-octane California comes to Tucson on Saturday. Arizona does get five at home in league play, and four on the road.

Penn State (26). Record: 3-0. Best win: 13-10 at Rutgers on Saturday. Most fallible moment: Waiting until the final play to beat Central Florida, and the final 75 seconds to beat Rutgers. Status: Pretender. But this is the blighted Big Ten, which means even a pretender has a chance to win a bunch of games. Penn State has been plucky and lucky, but not very potent offensively. Talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg has thrown for more than 1,000 yards already but has more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four). The running game is a myth to date, behind an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have been good and opportunistic on defense. You can find eight wins (and a newly possible bowl bid) on the schedule without even looking too hard.

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions are 3-0, but they haven't looked like a contender as of yet. (AP)
James Franklin and the Nittany Lions are 3-0, but they haven't looked like a contender as of yet. (AP)

TCU (27). Record: 2-0. Best win: Best win: 30-7 over Minnesota on Saturday. Most fallible moment: None to date. Status: The Dash would like to say contender, but coach Gary Patterson himself pooh-poohed that notion on the Big 12 teleconference Monday due to lack of competition. Asked about his offense’s progress, Patterson said, “I have no idea. We played Samford and then played a Big Ten team.” For the record, he did not use the word “blighted.” But wow. Anyway, let’s cautiously call the Horned Frogs a contender based on what usually makes TCU competitive: stopping the other team. The Frogs lead the nation in fewest yards allowed per play (3.04).

Northern Illinois (28). Record: 3-0. Best win: 23-15 at Northwestern. Most fallible moment: Losing all of a 23-point lead at UNLV before scoring twice in the final nine minutes. Status: Mid-American Conference contender, and potentially in the argument for the best-of-the-rest bowl bid mentioned above with Marshall. Credit to the Huskies for still rolling without do-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch. They’ve changed starting QBs since the opener and made it work, and a rotation of backs is churning out yardage. If NIU wins at Arkansas on Saturday – a pretty big if – it can start thinking about 13-0.

QUALITY WINS VS. FLUFF WINS

Which power-five programs have fattened up the most on beating teams from lesser levels (mid-major, low-major and FCS opponents)? Which programs have the leanest victory totals? The Dash examined victory totals from 2009 through now for the answers.

SEC (29). Highest percentage of fluff wins: Kentucky 62.5 percent (15 out of 24 total victories). Lowest percentage of fluff wins: Alabama 23.8 percent (15-63).

Big Ten (30). Highest percentage of fluff wins: Indiana 65 percent (13-20). Lowest percentage of fluff wins: Iowa 30 percent (12-40).

Pac-12 (31). Highest percentage of fluff wins: Washington State 52.9 percent (9-17). Lowest percentage of fluff wins: USC 13 percent (6-46).

ACC (32). Highest percentage of fluff wins: Duke 43.3 percent (13-30). Lowest percentage of fluff wins: Miami 22.5 percent (9-40).

Big 12 (33). Highest percentage of fluff wins: Kansas 66.7 percent (10-15). Lowest percentage of fluff wins: Oklahoma 22.2 percent (12-54).

LOSE A STAR QUARTERBACK, LOSE A LOT

Two programs coming off seasons with double-digit victories now find themselves winless. They also find themselves searching at a position where they excelled last year.

Central Florida (34). Then: 12-1, winners of the American Athletic Conference and the Fiesta Bowl behind QB Blake Bortles. Now: 0-2, losers to Penn State and Missouri. The Knights have played good competition – but if they’d started Justin Holman instead of Pete DiNovo in the opener against the Nittany Lions, they probably would have won. DiNovo did nothing in the first half and was replaced by Holman, who gave UCF a chance to win until Penn State drove for a field goal on the last play. Holman was not great against Mizzou (22 of 36 for 209 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions) but he appears to be the man for the job going forward. Still, this is a team that will have to find a ground game, because it won’t dominate opponents through the air.

Fresno State (35). Then: 11-2, winners of the Mountain West Conference behind QB Derek Carr. Now: 0-3, blown out by USC, Utah and Nebraska. The obvious deficiency with the Bulldogs is defense – they’ve surrendered more than 50 points every game. But they were terrible defensively last year, too, and simply won shootouts behind Carr (now with the Oakland Raiders) and receiver Davante Adams (now with the Green Bay Packers). Without them, Fresno is a mediocre offensive team with no defense – a bad combination. The Bulldogs rotated quarterbacks the first two games before going with Brian Burrell exclusively against Nebraska. Burrell and Duke transfer Brandon Connette have combined to throw four touchdown passes; Carr threw 50 by himself in 2013.

Sara Sampaio. (Getty)
Sara Sampaio. (Getty)

Dashette Sara Sampaio (36) takes over for previous star Dashettes with no drop-off in talent whatsoever.

THIS WEEK IN LONG SNAPPERS

They are the most arcane of specialists in football: men who do their work just a few times a game, bent over and firing footballs backward through their legs. And they can be some of the most interesting people on a football team.

None more interesting than Thor Hadfield (37), long snapper at Southern Illinois.

Yeah, Thor. It’s his middle name, but Rustin was hard to spell and harder to write in preschool so his dad, Robert, told him to simply stick with Thor. So he did.

Thor grew up in Northern California, redwood territory. But his dad and uncle both played football at Southern Illinois. When he was a little kid, no more than 5, they visited his grandmother, Inge, in Cartersville, Ill., not far from Carbondale. Robert took little Thor to see the SIU campus and got him a replica Salukis helmet. It sat on his nightstand his entire childhood, and Thor became the only boy in Northern California who dreamed of becoming a Southern Illinois Saluki.

But Thor was a quarterback, and nothing special at that in high school. He was unwanted by colleges, but talked his way into a walk-on tryout at SIU. After proving he couldn’t cut it as a college QB, he told the coaches he could also long snap. He fired off three sharp snaps and got an invitation – to film practice all season.

Thor jumped at it, and kept practicing his snapping. The next year he joined the team as a player, and by last year (as a junior) he became the starting long snapper. That earned him a partial scholarship, though he still spent the summer working as a part-time janitor on campus.

“I loved it,” he said. “Four hours with just my iPod and my thoughts.”

He’s been such a dedicated team member that Thor was voted one of five team captains last spring. He could hardly believe it when he was part of the photo shoot for the team’s schedule poster.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “Literally.”

In addition to long snapping, Thor is an expert at intricate handshakes with his teammates. And at freestyle rapping. He also writes a blog. The daily features: Make The Most of It Monday; Storytime Tuesday; Wildcard Wednesday; Philosophical Thorsday (get it?); Focus Friday; Stadium Pic Saturday; and Saluki Sunday in which he wraps up that week’s game. With a light course load, that helps fill the time toward graduation in December.

From there? He’d like to long snap for a living.

“I see nothing wrong with dreaming big,” he said. “I’ll give up on that dream when life forces me to.”

Plan B is becoming an actor – probably in comedy. Plan C: football coach.

But for now, Thor is all about firing spirals backward between his legs for the 3-0 Salukis, who play at Purdue on Saturday. If they win, he will do what he does after every SIU victory: deliver homemade dessert from his grandmother to the coaching staff.

Long snappers may be the most interesting men in Gridworld. And if there is one out there more interesting than Thor Hadfield, The Dash would like to meet him.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Steve Addazio (38), Boston College. Delivered his first big moment as coach of the Eagles, a shocking upset of No. 9 USC. Most shocking of all was the way it happened – a week after being mauled on the ground 303 yards to 142 by Pittsburgh, BC absolutely beat up the Trojans in the same category, 452-20. It was BC’s first victory over a ranked team in six years and first over a top-10 team in a decade. After some lean years under Frank Spaziani, BC is getting its mojo back under Addazio.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Willie Taggart (39), South Florida. Last year was supposed to be the bottom-out season for the Bulls, skidding to 2-10 in Taggart’s first year on the job. But 2014 isn’t off to much of a start either – the Bulls are 1-2 and coming off a 32-point home loss to a North Carolina State team that has been unimpressive. USF is off to a historically bad start throwing the ball, currently completing just 35.7 percent of its passes. Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne might have done better than that in 1913. That isn’t just last in the nation by a large margin, it’s on pace to be the lowest completion percentage in the FBS since 1997, when Ohio completed a scarcely conceivable 27.6 percent of its passes. But similarly futile Connecticut comes to town Friday, offering a glimmer of hope.

POINT AFTER

When thirsty in Indianapolis – and The Dash knows Big Ten championship game fans will be when they arrive in December – check out the Ram Brewery (40) downtown. You can find Ram outlets out West and also in the Chicago area, but this one is ideally suited for football fans killing time before heading to Lucas Oil Stadium. Try a 71 Pale Ale, Disorder Porter or Buttface Amber Ale and thank The Dash later.



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