Forde-Yard Dash: Taking stock of college football's coaches after a bizarre Monday

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Pat Forde
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (over-the-counter supplements sold separately – and at great risk to your eligibility):

COACHING SAVIORS, BUSTS AND ENDANGERED SPECIES

We’re not yet to mid-October, and already four head coaches have been fired. A legendary fifth abruptly retired Monday night. A sixth just came back from a three-game suspension. In a sport with increasingly more money at stake, the pressure on the men leading the programs has escalated accordingly.

So have the fans’ mood swings between euphoria and apoplexy. Charlie Strong knows what it feels like to be loathed one week and loved the next. So does Bob Stoops, in the opposite direction.

The best of them – Saban, Meyer, etc. – are worth their astronomical salaries. The second and third tier of coaches probably are, too. But there are many who labor along the fickle fault line between celebrated and cussed.

The Dash runs through a couple of 2015 home-run hires, the dearly departed, a bunch of other coaches who could be on the chopping block and a few who could be on their way up the ranks:

INSTANT SAVIORS

Jim McElwain (1), Florida. With a 22-16 record in three seasons at Colorado State, McElwain wasn’t the splashy hire many Gators fans hoped for. But he strongly resembles the right man for the job, if that conclusion can be reached six undefeated games into his first year.

McElwain brought in the know-how to fix a program that had rusted offensively under Will Muschamp. Despite having a frightfully inexperienced offensive line and little in the way of proven quarterbacks and wide receivers, Florida is on pace to average more than 32 points per game for the first time since Tim Tebow was still a Gator (2009). The team’s pass efficiency rating is highest since that season as well.

McElwain now has a chance to vault from popular to instant legend status – but it won’t be easy. Monday brought the jarring news that Florida must go to LSU without starting quarterback Will Grier (2), who failed an NCAA performance-enhancing drug test and is ineligible for a calendar year. The redshirt freshman had played extremely well, and his absence thrusts spotty former starter Treon Harris back onto the first team.

In his Monday press conference, McElwain skillfully walked the line between empathy for Grier and confidence that the Gators can move on without him.

“Things happen in life,” McElwain said, “and if you want to use it as an excuse, so be it. But that’s not what we’re going to do. I’m going to go in, we’re going to have a great week of practice, we’re going to go play our tails off against one of the best teams in the country on their turf, and this ought to be a blast, man. This ought to be a celebration, this game, for what this is all about. This is fun. ...

“I got a pretty good idea we'll show up. We'll be there. And we will run out of the tunnel or walk out of the tunnel. We'll get out of the tunnel. I'll pull them out and we'll go in there and play this ballgame."

Are Jim Harbaugh and Michigan title contenders? A litmus test against Michigan State awaits. (AP)
Are Jim Harbaugh and Michigan title contenders? A litmus test against Michigan State awaits. (AP)

Jim Harbaugh (3), Michigan. The Dash knew Harbaugh would transform the Wolverines into a tougher team – but it’s happened so quickly and so thoroughly that it’s hard to believe. The difference in the trenches between Harbaugh’s Michigan and the Michigan of Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez is dramatic.

The Wolverines currently are outrushing their opponents by 135 yards per game. That’s a bigger differential than even the 2006 team, which led the nation in rushing defense and finished the season No. 8 in the final AP poll.

Michigan isn’t doing it with good fortune in the turnover department, either. The Wolverines are a minus-1 through six games – and while that’s a huge improvement over last year’s minus-16 contagion of miscues, it still shows that Michigan hasn’t recorded three straight shutouts due solely to offensive incompetence and lucky bounces of loose balls.

Mostly the Wolverines are just smashing the other guy in the mouth, on both sides of the ball. For 60 relentless minutes. Now bring on Michigan State, another program that isn’t at all opposed to toughman football. This will be one of the most interesting games of the year Saturday in the Big House.

BUSTED CLEAN OUT OF HERE

The Unemployed Floyd list:

Steve Spurrier (4), South Carolina. On a day when all hell broke loose in college football, this news was the capper. One of the greatest coaches of the modern era suddenly hung it up Monday night, reportedly telling his team he was retiring and that an interim coach will be named Tuesday. Spurrier’s retirement is not a shock in and of itself, but the timing surely is. His team is lousy this year – 2-4 and on its way to a losing record – yet bailing out midyear was not something anyone saw coming. The irony is that Spurrier is getting out five days before facing Vanderbilt – a program he beat 20 times in 22 meetings. Spurrier modernized the Southeastern Conference in the 1990s at Florida, winning six league titles in 12 seasons. And he was a larger-than-life character, thoroughly full of himself when things were rolling. Spurrier spared few rivals from smart-aleck remarks and run-up-the-score touchdowns, making him a coach opposing fans both feared and loathed. The sport will be a poorer place without him, but the golf courses of the South will be that much more lively.

USC showed Steve Sarkisian the door on Monday, one day after forcing him to take a leave of absence. (AP)
USC showed Steve Sarkisian the door on Monday, one day after forcing him to take a leave of absence. (AP)

Steve Sarkisian (5), USC. Easy to say that Sarkisian blew the career opportunity of a lifetime, but the bottom line is that it’s a career opportunity he was not qualified to get. Bad hire by Pat Haden, and yes that was obvious before Sarkisian coached a game at USC. The school has become Interim Coach University under Haden: Bob Cantu in basketball, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton in football – they all had to step in after in-season firings. The Dash hopes Sarkisian gets healthy, but it may be a long time before he gets another chance to be an FBS-level head coach. If ever.

(Side effect of the Sark firing: word is that rival coaches have been burning up the phone lines since Sunday calling USC’s 15 current commitments in the Class of 2016. All of them are highly ranked, and it’s now open season on their services.)

Tim Beckman (6), Illinois. He was fired before the season even started for off-field reasons – but his 12-25 record with the Illini only made that call easier. Illinois is 4-2 in his absence under interim Bill Cubit, giving life to aspirations for the program’s first winning season since 2011. The question is whether a dysfunctional university with a chronically underachieving football program can lure a long-term winner as its next coach.

Randy Edsall (7), Maryland. Fired Sunday, after three days left twisting in the wind. Yahoo Sports confirmed an InsideMDSports.com report Thursday that Edsall was going to be fired, and the school basically sat back and did nothing after that damaging news leaked out. Edsall’s team managed to play an inspired three quarters in his swan song against Ohio State, but that was too little and too late to save a guy with a 22-34 record at the school. If Maryland is going to compete in the Big Ten East with Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin, it needs a better coach than Randy Edsall. Now Maryland can get a jumpstart on finding that guy.

Dan McCarney (8), North Texas. After a 9-4 season in 2013 it was all downhill for McCarney – he lost 13 of his last 17 games, including all five this year. The final act was a disgrace: a 66-7 loss to FCS Portland State. North Texas didn’t even wait until Sunday to pull the trigger, firing McCarney on Saturday after 4 ½ seasons.

GOING, GOING ... ?

It isn’t likely that these guys still have their jobs in 2016:

Mike London (9), Virginia. Well on his way to a fifth losing season in six years. The Cavaliers are 1-4, and even without Atlantic Coast Conference heavies Clemson or Florida State on the schedule it would be a surprise to see 2015 end with a bowl game of any kind. London’s conference record is 11-30, and not many power-five schools will give a guy a chance to lose that many league games before firing him. Virginia will be at least a year late, but a change should be coming.

Kyle Flood (10), Rutgers. Had his first press conference Monday after a three-game suspension by the school, and Flood got quite a greeting from the media. According to the transcript sent out by the school, 22 of the 24 questions to Flood dealt with non-football issues related to academics, drug testing, student hostesses and the coach’s role in trying to influence a professor on a grade change for a player. So it’s a very positive environment for Flood to finish out his fourth season on the job. Funny thing is, 2-3 Rutgers could win enough to go bowling – and it still might not save Flood’s job.

Paul Rhoads (11), Iowa State. He’s a popular guy with an increasingly lousy record – the Cyclones are 7-22 since Rhoads started his head-coaching career 24-27 from 2009-12. He’s 3-17 in Big 12 play since 2012, and two of those victories are over a Kansas team that for all intents and purposes is currently on par with a low-level CUSA program. Don’t expect the bleeding to stop anytime soon with TCU and Baylor up next.

Paul Petrino (12), Idaho. He’s 3-25 and picked an idiotic fight with a local reporter during fall camp. Even by Idaho’s extremely low standards, it’s been a bad run for Bobby’s little brother. The question is whether the school feels like it can do any better – or has the money to try.

IN THE BALANCE

A couple of coaches who may need to finish strong in the second half of the season to stave off a firing:

Al Golden's seat at Miami is awful hot these days. (Getty)
Al Golden's seat at Miami is awful hot these days. (Getty)

Al Golden (13), Miami. A close loss to Florida State won’t stop the “Fire Golden” planes from circling. Especially when that loss follows an upset defeat at the paws of Cincinnati (Bearcats have paws, right?). Next up for the 3-2 Hurricanes is a Hot Seat Bowl against Virginia Tech (see below), then consecutive games against ranked teams – No. 5 Clemson and No. 25 Duke. If Miami is 4-4 or worse heading into the final month of the season, Golden’s situation may be trending toward untenable.

Darrell Hazell (14), Purdue. Hazell is only in his third season, and he’s at a notably thrifty school (that’s nicer than saying cheap, isn’t it?). Maybe that will be enough to give him a fourth year. But his 5-25 record gives him the worst winning percentage (.167) of any coach in school history who coached more than five games. Unless this season turns around drastically, bringing him back in 2016 won’t sell many tickets or enthuse many recruits.

RETIREMENT CANDIDATES

Steve Spurrier led this list until about 9 p.m. ET Monday. He’s since moved up higher in the column. The rest of the potential retirees:

Frank Beamer (15), Virginia Tech. After winning 10 or more games 13 times in a 16-year span from 1995-2011, the Hokies have been utterly ordinary. The record over the last 3 ½ seasons: 25-20, with a .500 record in ACC play. Beamer is enormously popular in Blacksburg because he’s been a winner, loyal and classy. But the program has fallen and isn’t likely to get up while he’s the head coach.

George O’Leary (16), Central Florida. In a story that wound up barely generating a blip on the overloaded radar Monday, O’Leary stepped down as interim athletic director. That will allow him to try and salvage the rest of a football season that has utterly imploded. UCF is 0-6 despite a schedule that includes FIU, Furman, Tulane, Connecticut and a South Carolina team that just drove Steve Spurrier to retirement. When you’re getting blown out in consecutive games by Tulane and UConn, your program has collapsed. The stunning thing is that this collapse follows seasons of 10-4, 12-1 and 9-4. The new athletic director – whoever he is, and whenever he is named – needs to convince O’Leary to step down from his day job, too. If this season turns around now that O’Leary is no longer multitasking, he might buy himself another season – but a turnaround seems highly unlikely.

Larry Coker (17), UTSA. The former Miami Hurricanes boss is the only head coach the Roadrunners have ever known, and he got the program off to a decent start. But the last season-and-a-half has been a struggle: UTSA went 4-8 last year with what people thought could be a breakthrough team, and this year’s rebuilding job is off to a 1-5 start. However, all remaining games could be winnable, as UTSA takes on the soft underbelly of CUSA.

CHANGE OF SCENERY CANDIDATES

Mark Richt (18), Georgia. He’s done very well for a very long time at a school that wants to be great on occasion – and should be. It wouldn’t be totally shocking to see Richt walk away from the profession altogether. Or perhaps he would entertain the notion of a change for change’s sake to refresh his batteries. The right coach could win a national title at Georgia, but the wrong coach could turn in four straight seasons of 7-5 and make everyone wonder why they ever pushed out Richt.

Is Bob Stoops underappreciated in Norman? (Getty)
Is Bob Stoops underappreciated in Norman? (Getty)

Bob Stoops (19), Oklahoma. He would seem less likely than Richt to jump at a fresh start – but the frustration level is growing in Norman, and that shocking loss to Texas last Saturday sure didn’t help. The Dash believes Stoops can still win big, but may need a change of venue to do so. A guy with a defense-first mentality may be better off somewhere other than the track-meet league the Big 12 has become.

UPGRADE CANDIDATES

Three coaches who could be ticketed for a move into a Power 5 job:

Justin Fuente (20), Memphis. Has breathed life into a moribund program, winning 15 of his last 18 games and taking the Tigers undefeated into a huge home game against Mississippi Saturday. This is a heated non-rivalry, given the number of Ole Miss fans and alums that live in the Memphis area, and knocking off the No. 13 Rebels would elevate Fuente to superhero status at a school that has always been a football outcast. Of course, it would also elevate him to can’t-miss upgrade potential at a school that is not a football outcast. So enjoy him while you have him, Memphis. Because you may not have him much longer.

Matt Campbell (21), Toledo. If you want to know which school has the best chance to go 12-0 in 2015, it might be the Rockets. They’re 5-0 now, including upsets of Power 5 schools Arkansas and Iowa State. And it’s not like Campbell is doing it with a few hidden recruiting gems – this is a team of complementary parts that is winning with outstanding defense, especially in the red zone. (Just one touchdown allowed in 13 opponent trips inside the 20.) Campbell’s record is now 31-13, but he might also be facing the Beckman Stigma – the last Toledo coach proved to be overmatched at the Big Ten level.

Jeff Brohm (22), Western Kentucky. You want a guy who can coach some offense? In 19 games as a head coach, his teams have averaged 43.7 points and 527 yards total offense. The former NFL quarterback has shaped senior QB Brandon Doughty into a college star – he’s thrown 69 touchdown passes in 1 ½ seasons. There has been some speculation about Brohm being a top candidate at Illinois, but his tenure as an assistant ended badly there in a contract dispute, and he’s fully aware how dysfunctional the place is. There could well be other options for Brohm.

REAPPRAISAL TIME

Onetime rising stars who are now trending quickly in the wrong direction:

Mark Helfrich (23), Oregon. Concerns about whether he could ever fill Chip Kelly’s shoes were seemingly put to rest last year, when Helfrich took the Ducks to the first College Football Playoff championship game. But life after Marcus Mariota has been ugly – Oregon is 3-3, having been routed at home by Utah and then suffering an embarrassing home loss last Saturday to Washington State. If Kelly really does have interest in returning to the college game in 2016, he might have a chance to go back where he came from.

Tim DeRuyter (24), Fresno State. With Derek Carr throwing to Davante Adams, DeRuyter won 20 games his first two years as a head coach – and got his name involved in several vacancies at bigger programs. He didn’t get any of those jobs, and reality after losing that dynamic duo has arrived with a thud. Fresno was 6-8 last year, its scoring average plummeting from 43.4 per game to 26.5. This year it’s worse: the Bulldogs are 1-5, with the only victory over Abilene Christian, and scoring is now down to 20.5 points per game, 113th in the nation.

Pete Lembo (25), Ball State. The world was full of Lembo lovers when he went 25-13 his first three years in Muncie. Not nearly as many people are feeling the love now, as the Cardinals have gone 7-11 over the past 1 ½ seasons. Hopes were high with 18 returning starters this year, but Ball State is 2-4 (against an admittedly challenging early schedule).

HALFWAY HEISMAN

The games that will truly decide who wins the Heisman Trophy lie ahead – but that doesn’t mean some serious groundwork hasn’t already been laid. The Dash appraises the leading men, and the top players giving chase, and by the way the college football running back renaissance remains in effect:

LSU's Leonard Fournette has been in a class of his own thus far this season. (AP)
LSU's Leonard Fournette has been in a class of his own thus far this season. (AP)

Leonard Fournette (26), LSU running back. He’s opened daylight on the rest of the nation, running with a mesmerizing combination of power and speed. Fournette doesn’t just lead the nation in rushing by a whopping 46 yards per game; he’s done it with every opposing defense game-planning specifically for him since the Tigers are a remedial passing team. He’s unstoppable, even when the entire defense is geared to stop him. But there are a couple of boss defenses looming: Florida on Saturday and Alabama on Nov. 7.

Trevone Boykin (27), TCU quarterback. He’s second nationally in total offense, averaging 411.5 yards per game, and he’s accounted for 25 touchdowns passing and running. But is he even the best player on his own team? Receiver Josh Doctson has been pretty spectacular, ranking second nationally in receiving yards per game (146.2) and touchdown catches (10).

Dalvin Cook (28), Florida State running back. What would the Heisman watch be without a Seminole who was cleared of alleged violence toward a woman? In 2013 and ’14, that player was Jameis Winston, who won the award in ’13 after being accused of (but not charged with) rape. This year it’s Cook, who was found not guilty of misdemeanor battery in August after being accused of punching a woman in the face. Cook has had a pair of 200-yard rushing games, against South Florida and Miami, and is second to Fournette nationally in yards per game.

Baylor (29) player of your choosing. You may prefer quarterback Seth Russell, whose 210.7 passer rating leads the nation by a wide margin and would break the NCAA FBS record. You may prefer receiver Corey Coleman, who leads the nation with 13 touchdown receptions while averaging 21.87 yards per catch. Or you may prefer running back Shock Linwood, fifth nationally at 143.2 yards per game and fourth in yards per carry at 9.6. The problem is trying to pick one – and trying to decide whether they’re all just plug-and-play products of a system gone wild.

Devontae Booker (30), Utah running back. The Utes offense doesn’t go without him. Booker is ninth nationally in rushing yards per game at 133, and his numbers would be much higher if he hadn’t faced America’s No. 3 rushing defense the first week of the season in Michigan. But Booker also is a major receiving threat, leading the team with 19 catches for 194 yards. In a conservative attack, Booker is the irreplaceable driving force.

Ezekiel Elliott (31), Ohio State running back. The engine in the Buckeyes’ postseason march to the national title has gained at least 100 yards in every game this year, but he’s rarely gotten loose for game-breaking runs. There was an 80-yarder in the opener against Virginia Tech, then three long bursts against Indiana. Otherwise, Elliott has been largely contained – as has been the rest of Ohio State’s fitful offense. But The Dash expects him to produce bigger numbers in the season’s second half.

Lurking off radar: Greg Ward, Houston quarterback; Paxton Lynch, Memphis quarterback; Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State defensive end; Myles Garrett, Texas A&M defensive end; CJ Prosise, Notre Dame running back; Deshaun Watson, Clemson quarterback.

LAST INTERCEPTION POOL UPDATE

We lost two contestants last week: Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State and Riley Neal of Ball State were eliminated after throwing picks. Four remain, plus a fifth late write-in candidate:

Dak Prescott (32), Mississippi State. Zero interceptions in 182 passes. Up next for Prescott: Louisiana Tech, which has intercepted 2.9 percent of opponents’ attempts.

Paxton Lynch (33), Memphis. Zero interceptions in 146 passes. Next up for Lynch: Ole Miss’ renowned Land Shark defense, which has intercepted 4.1 percent of opponents’ attempts.

Anu Solomon (34), Arizona. Zero interceptions in 145 passes. Next up for Solomon: Colorado, which has intercepted 4.7 percent of opponents’ attempts.

Everett Golson (35), Florida State. Zero interceptions in 139 passes. Next up for Golson: Louisville, which has intercepted 6.3 percent of opponents’ attempts.

By the numbers, Golson is at highest risk this week.

Daniella Alonso (Getty)
Daniella Alonso (Getty)

Late addition: Brandon Harris of LSU just entered the NCAA pass efficiency top 100 this week after not previously having enough attempts to qualify. Harris now has thrown 89 passes without a pick and will face a Florida defense that has intercepted 3.4 percent of opponents’ attempts.

The last FBS quarterback in the efficiency top 100 to throw an interception this season will win a stadium corn dog, a gently used wristband from a player in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl and the undying devotion of Dashette Daniella Alonso (36).

THE COACHING GOOD SAMARITAN

The coaching profession has taken a beating lately, as some of the things at the top of this column reflect. But the job has a great representative in Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell (37), who is now famous for the second time in his career.

The first time was in July 2010, when the interim head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores stepped behind a microphone at SEC media days for the first and only time and proceeded to be the funniest man alive for about 20 minutes. Caldwell bathed in the moment, telling hilarious countrified stories about his youth in South Carolina. The best of them: working on a turkey farm as a teenager, in charge of turkey insemination.

Yes, turkey insemination.

“First time I’d ever been paid an hourly wage,” Caldwell told The Dash Monday. “I thought I was rich.”

Glamorous as it was, turkey insemination eventually gave way to coaching. After that one season as a head coach – Caldwell went 2-10 and was promptly invited by Vandy to pursue other options – he went back to his home state and joined the staff at Clemson.

Today he’s part of an undefeated team. But he also earned some viral praise for coming to the rescue of two adrift Notre Dame fans hours after Clemson beat the Fighting Irish on Oct. 3.

As Notre Dame fan Larry Luppi explained it to The Dash, he and his brother, Tony, were expecting to get a shuttle from Clemson, S.C., back to their hotel in Seneca, some eight miles away. When they arrived at the schedule rendezvous point after the game, they were early, so they decided to set off on foot to locate a taxi.

“The plan was idiotic,” as Larry Luppi explained.

After slogging for quite a while on dangerous roads in a downpour, the Luppis came to a convenience store and called a taxi at around 1:15 a.m. The taxi never arrived, and subsequent phone calls to the dispatcher yielded little hope.

Finally, around 2 a.m., a burly fellow in an orange Clemson shirt saw them at the convenience store and offered them a ride.

“They looked like a couple of drowned rats,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell told them to climb in his SUV – “my old fishing truck” he said – but one of the back rear doors didn’t work. When both men tried to sit in the second row, he made one get up in the front. The Notre Dame fans were concerned they might have signed on with a rural serial killer.

That fear was allayed in the ensuing small talk. They asked the driver what he did, and the answer shocked them: he coached Clemson’s offensive line. They had a jolly conversation after that on the way to their hotel in Seneca.

“It’s kind of sad this has gotten so much attention,” Caldwell said. “Where I grew up, you were raised to help people who needed it. That’s all I was doing.”

Even if Caldwell isn’t impressed with himself, others are. College football could use a few more like him.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Kirk Ferentz has the Hawkeyes back in Big Ten title contention...for the time being. (AP)
Kirk Ferentz has the Hawkeyes back in Big Ten title contention...for the time being. (AP)

Kirk Ferentz (38), Iowa. He came into this season looking like a guy who could join Mark Richt and Bob Stoops on the Change Of Scenery Needed list. But now his Hawkeyes are 6-0, and with a schedule that dares them to dream of 12-0. If the Hawkeyes can win at Northwestern on Saturday, the next five opponents – Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska – all rank outside the top 50 in the current Sagarin Ratings. Iowa would likely be favored in all those games. If the Hawkeyes somehow wander into Indianapolis undefeated for the Big Ten title game it likely wouldn’t end well – but it would certainly beat the 26-25 record of the previous four years.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

The obvious choice here is Sarkisian, but he isn’t commuting to work anymore. So in his stead, The Dash salutes Boston College’s Steve Addazio (39). His Eagles have scored seven points in three ACC games, losing them all. The latest and lowest point: a 3-0 home loss to Wake Forest. The Boston College defense is lights-out, leading the nation in several categories. But with an offense in disarray – especially since the season-ending injury to quarterback Darius Wade in the third game of the year – the defense is going to have to do the scoring, too.

POINT AFTER

When hungry and thirsty in the football purgatory of West Lafayette, Ind., The Dash suggests a meal at Nine Irish Brothers (40). Try the bangers and mash and a Moundbuilder IPA from Lafayette-based People’s Brewing Co., and thank The Dash later. It will help lessen the burden of watching Purdue play football.