Forde-Yard Dash: Which coaches are thriving and which are barely surviving?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (taunting kickers and Hail Marys sold separately, after an amazing weekend):

At roughly 7:05 p.m. ET Saturday, on the last play of a game in Tallahassee, Fla., a long-haired kicker made the longest field goal of his career to beat a longtime conference nemesis, then took off down the field trolling the home fans with their own trademark hand gesture.

At roughly 7:10 p.m. ET Saturday, a freshman quarterback heaved a pass half the length of the football field in Athens, Ga., for what looked like the winning touchdown, stunningly redeeming himself for a disastrous sack-fumble-turned-defensive-touchdown a few minutes earlier.

At roughly 7:15 p.m. ET Saturday, in the same stadium, another quarterback heaved a pass half the length of the football field in the opposite direction, and watched his receiver rise into the sky and snare the ball before it could pass into a thicket of opposing hands.

Roughly five seconds after that, the coach of the winning team started to run onto the field, stopped, dropped to a knee and buried his face, shoulders heaving.

In 10 minutes’ time, in two different stadiums, here came your three-play reminder: College football is a hell of a sport.

THE THREE-YEAR ALARM CLOCK

There was a time when the accepted wisdom called for coaches to be given four or five years to build a program. After that time, decisions would be made about whether a coach was fit to continue in that position, or whether a change needed to be made.

That timetable has steadily crept up this century, as the revenues and salaries and stakes have all risen in unison. The four-year plan became a three-year plan. Now you could argue that it is a two-years-and-a-month plan.

Last week at Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired after two years and a month on the job. On Monday, Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was demoted, and his head coach was basically put on notice that he’s next unless something dramatic occurs to alter the landscape.

That head coach is 29 games into his tenure at the school – two years and a month – yet the decision may be all but made according to at least one report.

The modern expectation is this: If you are the right coach, you’ll show it by your third season in a job. And if you are the wrong coach, you might show it by then, too. Let’s look at a few high-profile examples.

Third year and thriving:

Chris Petersen (1), Washington. First two seasons: 8-6, 7-6. This season: 5-0. After demolishing Pac-12 North heavyweight Stanford on Friday, the Huskies are holding down a No. 5 ranking in the AP Top 25 – their highest ranking since 1992. Petersen was a home-run hire when the school lured him away from his comfortable, upper-middle-class powerhouse at Boise State, and a definitive upgrade from Steve Sarkisian. Now, after two years of amassing talent, the Pete Payoff is arriving. The scary news for the rest of the Pac-12 is that Washington stands an excellent chance of being better next year. There isn’t a senior among the Huskies’ starting quarterback, top five rushers, top three receivers and top three tacklers, and the offensive line is heavy on underclassmen as well.

Bobby Petrino (2), Louisville. First two seasons: 9-4, 8-5. This season: 4-1. If you’ve watched the Cardinals in either of their showcase games – a blowout of Florida State and a dramatic loss at Clemson – you see the quantum leap from Petrino’s first two seasons. There are major improvements across the board offensively, from line to receivers to running backs – but the biggest change is quarterback play, where Lamar Jackson is the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Petrino had little to work with at that position his first season, and had to rotate QBs in search of a hot hand last year with Jackson as an oft-confused true freshman. Now, Jackson is up to breathtaking speed and Louisville is a playoff contender even with an Atlantic Coast Conference loss.

Third year and barely surviving:

Charlie Strong is feeling the heat in year three at Texas. (Getty)
Charlie Strong is feeling the heat in year three at Texas. (Getty)

Charlie Strong (3), Texas. First two seasons: 6-7, 5-7. This season: 2-2. The aforementioned coach of the Longhorns has jettisoned staff at will during his underwhelming tenure following Mack Brown. But he will be out of fall guys if this doesn’t turn around dramatically and quickly. For the first two years the lament was an offense that was slow and unproductive, which led to multiple coordinators. This year they committed to the Baylor Method, hiring Sterlin Gilbert to juice the tempo – which is all well and good, but that aided and abetted a defensive collapse. (When defensive-minded coaches embrace the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, bad things have been known to happen on the stop-them side of the ball. Ask Gary Patterson and Todd Graham.) Texas is surrendering 38.3 points per game, on pace to be the worst average in school history. Here’s the crazy part: If Strong upsets Oklahoma on Saturday for his second victory in three seasons over the Sooners, it still might not be enough to save him.

James Franklin (4), Penn State. First two seasons: 7-6, 7-6. This season: 3-2. There hasn’t been much to get excited about so far in 2016, unless an overtime home win over Minnesota moves the needle. Thus, Saturday against unbeaten Maryland looms surprisingly large. Athletic director Sandy Barbour said last week that Franklin’s job is safe, and it should be, given the residue of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions he inherited. But if the Nittany Lions fail to reach .500 for the first time since 2004, that support could be open to revision – or Franklin could look to jump on his own before being pushed. (If nothing else, give Franklin some credit for handling his kicker with grace during a difficult time.)

Made it through the third year, but the warning signs were there then – and stronger now:

Mark Helfrich (5), Oregon. First three seasons: 11-2, 13-2, 9-4. This season: 2-3. With Marcus Mariota as his quarterback, Helfrich was Chip Kelly-level good. With FCS free agents as his quarterbacks, not so much. The start this year has been abysmal, bottoming out (Helfrich hopes) in a 51-33 loss to Washington State. The Ducks are 0-2 in the Pac-12 for the first time in 20 years, and the chance to kick them while they’re down is tempting to some, says Portland Oregonian columnist John Canzano: “There’s a lot of folks dancing on Oregon’s grave right now. The Ducks didn’t demonstrate an abundance of empathy and humility on the way up the ladder. Oregon’s athletic department has been a tremendous money maker, but it’s also been dismissive of local media, and taken blue-collar season-ticket holders and some of the loyal, long-standing business relationships for granted. The national media has fled the press box. Ducks fans who were priced out or turned off have stopping buying tickets. Opponents and opposing fans are enjoying the downfall. The end of the program’s 110-game sellout streak, and all the ramped-up hostility out there right now is about more than mediocre football.” Nobody will have more bloodlust than visiting Washington on Saturday. The Huskies, who for decades enjoyed the upper hand in that Pacific Northwest rivalry, now are trying to end a 12-year losing streak to Oregon.

Gus Malzahn (6), Auburn. First three seasons: 12-2, 8-5, 7-6. This season: 3-2. You open a critical year with five straight home games, and you’re certainly hoping for better than 3-2. But that’s where the Tigers stand heading into a very important road game against Mississippi State – a middle-class SEC program that has beaten the Tigers the past two seasons. The deconstruction of Malzahn’s offense last year and this year has been stunning – Auburn is averaging 15.7 points per game against Power 5 opponents this year, has yet to throw a touchdown pass against a Power 5 opponent and hasn’t scored 20 in its past five Southeastern Conference games. The Tigers are 3-10 in their past 13 league games, which means the coach is performing rather far beneath the expectations that go with a $4.7 million salary for 2016.

NOTABLE PREVIOUS THIRD-YEAR BREAKTHROUGHS

Brian Kelly (7) at Notre Dame in 2012. Year 3 is often the big year for Fighting Irish coaches: Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third seasons. Kelly didn’t quite get that done, but he did make the title game at 12-0 after consecutive seasons of 8-5. It was Notre Dame’s most wins in a season since 1989, solidifying Kelly’s status as by far the school’s best coach since Holtz.

Jim Harbaugh (8) at Stanford in 2009. The Cardinal went 8-5 in Year 3 under Harbaugh, and while that might sound modest by title contender standards, consider where Stanford had been. It had not won more than five games in the previous seven seasons, and its 35.5 points per game were the program’s highest since 1949. If there were doubts about Harbaugh as a coach, the ’09 season effectively ended them.

Dabo Swinney (9) at Clemson in 2011. The Tigers went 10-4 and won their first ACC title since 1991, and the program has only ascended since then. Clemson now has put together five straight seasons of double-digit wins, and this looks like a lock to be the sixth.

THE GUY WHO RUINED THE THREE-YEAR CURVE

That would be Urban Meyer (10), who has made a career habit out of winning faster and bigger than most schools would reasonably anticipate. The rebuilder résumé:

Year one at Bowling Green: 8-3, 30.3 points per game
Year two at Bowling Green: 9-3, 40.8 points per game.

Year one at Utah: 10-2, 30.3 points per game.
Year two at Utah: 12-0, 45.3 points per game. Won Fiesta Bowl, finished in top five in the polls.

Year one at Florida: 9-3, 28.6 points per game.
Year two at Florida: 13-1, 29.7 points per game. Won national championship.

Year one at Ohio State: 12-0, 37.2 points per game.
Year two at Ohio State: 12-2, 45.5 points per game.

At every stop, the second year has been better than the first – and the first has always been very good. (That includes Ohio State, where that 12-0 mark was partly the product of a very weak schedule.) Meyer waits for no one.

Neither does his former offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, currently tearing it up at Houston. Herman’s record in one year plus one month: 18-1. (For comparison’s sake, Meyer was 16-3 at Bowling Green through the same point.) Which is why we could be heading for a melee for Herman’s services between Texas, LSU and who knows who else.

FIRST-YEAR HEAD COACH WHO THINKS THIS IS EASY

D.J. Durkin (11), Maryland. The Terrapins have played pretty much nobody, so that 4-0 record isn’t exactly a sign of arrival at contender status. But still, Maryland has losses in the last five years to the likes of Bowling Green, Rutgers, Wake Forest, Connecticut and Temple – so they’ll gladly take undefeated at this juncture. Especially the way the Terrapins are doing it, winning by an average of 28.5 points. And beating Purdue 50-7 to open Big Ten play was a welcome development for a program that only won a single Big Ten game all last year.

FIRST-YEAR HEAD COACHES WHO DO NOT THINK THIS IS EASY

Chris Ash (12), Rutgers. Record: 2-3. Scarlet Knights’ wins are over Howard and New Mexico (unimpressively). Rutgers has scored a total of 20 points in the losses and is averaging just 3.6 yards per play in those games.

Kirby Smart (13), Georgia. Record: 3-2. Dump-trucked in second SEC game, then the Bulldogs bounced back and had the chance to upset rival Tennessee on Saturday – until an unsportsmanlike conduct pushed back the kickoff, and then Georgia was offside on the kickoff, and the kick was a bloop designed to limit a runback but actually provided great field position for the back-breaking Hail Mary. So after that calamitous series of events, the ‘Dogs should feel doubly fortunate Missouri gave away a late lead and lost by a point to Georgia on Sept. 17. And, of course, Mark Richt is going undefeated so far at Miami.

Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker against Tennessee on Saturday. (AP)
Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker against Tennessee on Saturday. (AP)

Barry Odom (14), Missouri. Record: 2-3. Speaking of giving away that lead: that was Odom’s chance for his first victory over a Power 5 opponent, and the Tigers blew it in multiple ways. Beating up on Eastern Michigan and Delaware State isn’t exactly going to make everyone forget Gary Pinkel. Neither is giving up 42 points and 634 yards to an LSU team that was previously punchless offensively. Odom walked into a tumultuous situation at Mizzou, and the school shouldn’t expect the first few years to be smooth.

Kalani Sitake (15), BYU. Record: 2-3. He needs anti-anxiety medication more than support at this juncture. All five games of his head-coaching tenure have been decided by three points or less, with the Cougars winning two of them. BYU won the opener over Arizona on a field goal with four seconds left; lost the second to Utah on a failed two-point conversion with 18 seconds left; lost the third to UCLA by a field goal after failing to recover an onside kick for a final shot at a tie or win; lost the fourth to West Virginia by three when a final drive ended in an interception near the Mountaineers goal line; and won the fifth over Toledo on a field goal on the final play. Whew.

Mike Jinks (16), Bowling Green. Record: 1-4. The Falcons have given up 77 points in a game – twice. Their only victory is by a single point over FCS North Dakota. And this is coming off a 10-win season and four straight winning seasons.

DON’T MESS WITH HAPPY

With Louisville’s fast start has come immediate speculation that Petrino will look to move on – again. If he studies school history – including his own – he will see why that’s a bad idea. It’s been a long time since a coach voluntarily left Louisville and it ended well. The list:

Howard Schnellenberger (17). Tenure: 1985-94. Claim to fame: Brought the program back from near-dead, leading it to a 1991 Fiesta Bowl triumph over Alabama, forcing a series with Kentucky and ultimately pushing for a stadium to be built and rescuing the football program from playing games in a dilapidated minor-league baseball venue. Where he went: Oklahoma. What happened: Schnellenberger was fired after a single 5-5-1 season. He finished his career coaching at Florida Atlantic. (Leaving Louisville was only the second-worst career move by The Schnell. After giving birth to the Miami dynasty by leading the Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983, he bailed for the USFL and a franchise that left Miami without him. He never coached a game in the league.)

John L. Smith (18). Tenure: 1998-2002. Claim to fame: Was the first Louisville coach since 1913 to have a winning record every season he was there, the first to win 11 games in a season and the first coach to beat a top-five opponent. Where he went: Michigan State. What happened: Smith was fired after four seasons with a 22-26 record.

Bobby Petrino 1.0. Tenure: 2003-06. Claim to fame: Won at least nine games every season, had the highest winning percentage in school history (82 percent), won an Orange Bowl, came within three points of an undefeated season and possible shot at the national title in 2006. Where he went: Atlanta Falcons. What happened: Left through the back door after 13 games, quitting on the team and hightailing to Arkansas. Things didn’t end well there, either.

Charlie Strong. Tenure: 2010-13. Claim to fame: Returned program to prominence after ugly three-year tenure of Steve Kragthorpe, which was instrumental in getting Louisville into the ACC, recruited Teddy Bridgewater, thumped Florida in the Sugar Bowl, was a second-half collapse against Central Florida away from an unbeaten season. Where he went: Texas. What happened: You’re seeing it in real time.

Moral of the story: If you’re winning at Louisville, you should strongly consider staying at Louisville.

HOW LONG CAN TENNESSEE KEEP WINNING THIS WAY?

The Volunteers are 5-0 and ranked ninth in the nation heading into a huge two-game stretch: at fellow unbeaten Texas A&M on Saturday, and then playing host to fellow unbeaten and SEC kingpin Alabama on Oct. 15. But the way they have done it has not yet convinced The Dash that Tennessee is much more than admirably resilient and wildly fortunate. The four lucky escapes to date:

The fluke fumble recovery (19) to beat Appalachian State. Locked in a shockingly close season opener that went into overtime, quarterback Josh Dobbs ran for the end zone and launched himself toward the goal line. He was hit in the air and the ball came loose, landing in the end zone amid several Appalachian State players. But running back Jalen Hurd corralled the ball for a touchdown and the Vols won, 20-13. Total amount of time Tennessee led: zero until OT, which is untimed.

The slog (20) past Ohio. Tennessee fumbled five times and fortuitously lost none, part of a blessed season pattern. The Vols lead the nation with 15 fumbles and somehow have only lost three, a percentage only topped in the last six years by South Carolina’s 18 and three last year. If they continue their rate of putting the ball on the ground three times per game, and play at least 13 games, it will be the most fumbles in a season since Nebraska had 45 in 2010.

The rally (21) to defeat Florida. Give Tennessee credit for playing an explosive second half, roaring from down 21-0 to win going away, 38-28. But falling behind by three touchdowns at home in a huge game? That was ugly. Total amount of time Tennessee led: 12 minutes, 45 seconds.

The miracle (22) at Georgia. Again, Tennessee deserves respect for a major rally – this time on the road. But once again, the rally was needed after being outplayed for a half. And instead of winning going away, the Vols needed a Hail Mary on the last play and a terrible freshman mistake a few minutes before that from Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason. Total amount of time Tennessee led: 2:46.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE ISSUES

Contenders who not only need to keep winning, but because of scheduling quirks and deficiencies might need some help elsewhere to get a piece of the College Football Playoff:

Baylor/West Virginia (23). Could an undefeated Big 12 champion actually be left out of the playoff? Well, yeah. There could be a number of teams with better résumés, actually. The conference already has definitively established itself as the worst of the Power 5. And of the teams in that league, nobody has played a weaker schedule than Baylor (No. 118 SOS in the nation, per Sagarin). West Virginia’s is better (currently No. 36), but Missouri and BYU are a combined 4-6 so far. The teams should hope they’re both unbeaten when they meet to close the season Dec. 3, because not much before then is going to move the needle. The only other ranked team is Oklahoma, currently No. 20 in the AP poll, and if Houston runs the table with wins over the Sooners and Louisville, that might be at least the equal of what either Baylor or West Virginia could present. Then there are the champions (and others) from the remaining Power 5 leagues, all of whom could be ahead of the Big 12 champ.

Washington (24). The Huskies have been great and own high rankings with polls and computers, but there aren’t many résumé-boosting games remaining. Oregon and USC have losing records, and the only ranked opponent left on the schedule is No. 24 Utah. (A matchup with No. 21 Colorado is possible in the Pac-12 title game.) The non-conference schedule was awful: Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State. Washington needs to keep winning and needs Stanford to win a bunch as well, to maintain the quality of that win.

Boise State (25). Not a ranked opponent on the schedule, and the shocking upset of San Diego State by South Alabama un-springs a potential matchup of unbeatens in the Mountain West Conference title game. There is still current unbeaten Air Force at the end of the regular season, but a non-conference slate of Louisiana-Lafayette, Washington State and Oregon State makes it unlikely that even a 13-0 Boise State could crash the playoff.

Louisville (26). The biggest problem for the Cardinals is that their crossover ACC opponents are weak: Duke and Virginia, a combined 4-6. Unless Clemson somehow loses twice in ACC play and surrenders the Atlantic Division, Louisville will not get a shot at a Miami or North Carolina to boost its résumé. Playing Houston late is a great bonus, but following that with a weak Kentucky team is not. Louisville should root for Florida State and Houston to win out.

OCTOBER SURPRISES

In a political race, an October Surprise is bad. In college football, it’s good. Five teams playing far above recent form and most expectations:

Colorado (27). The Buffaloes are 4-1 for the first time since 2005 and 2-0 in league play for the first time since 2007. And if you don’t think 2-0 is a big deal, consider that coach Mike McIntyre lost 20 of his first 21 Pac-12 games as coach of the Buffaloes. Even more impressive, Colorado has gotten off to that 2-0 conference start with a freshman backup quarterback after an injury to senior standout Sefo Liufau. If Colorado can beat USC Saturday for the first time ever – as in, ever – the first bowl bid since ’07 will be close enough to touch.

Maryland (28). Already 4-0, the schedule was set up nicely: three non-Power 5 opponents out of conference, then Big Ten doormat Purdue, now four more October opponents with a combined league mark of 2-4 (at Penn State, home against Minnesota and Michigan State, at Indiana). Three current unbeatens loom in November, but this should be a bowl team and possibly a seven- or eight-win team.

Central Florida (29). Nobody anticipated the Knights repeating last year’s winless debacle, but 3-2 thus far under new coach Scott Frost probably exceeds expectations. UCF took Maryland to overtime and started American Athletic Conference play 1-0 with a road win over East Carolina – a team that beat the Knights by 37 in Orlando last year. Progress.

Eastern Michigan (30). The Eagles are 4-1, which isn’t something that happens every decade in Ypsilanti. EMU last was 4-1 in 1995, and has won only four games in a season four times this century. There has been a lot of talk about dropping down to FCS or just punting football at the school, but third-year coach Chris Creighton has quietly built some hope.

Troy (31) The Trojans last had a winning season in 2010, but they’re off to a 4-1 start that included a close loss to Clemson. Everyone wondered what was wrong with the Tigers after that game, but maybe the question should have been what was right with Troy. Winning at Southern Mississippi the following week showed that second-year coach Neal Brown has the program headed in the right direction.

MORE OF THAT, PLEASE

Things The Dash would like to see more often in the coming weeks:

Michigan Train Formation (32). It’s a genius idea to disguise strong and weak sides of the formation until the last second, and it’s frankly surprising nobody had done it before now. Leave it to Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan lined up like this for a play against Wisconsin. (Yahoo Sports)
Michigan lined up like this for a play against Wisconsin. (Yahoo Sports)

Kicker swag (33). Nick Weiler of North Carolina tomahawk chopping in Doak Campbell Stadium. Joey Julius of Penn State crushing kickoff return men (at least until Saturday). Let’s hear it for the guys often derided as the 98-pound weaklings of football.

Clemson giving the ball to Wayne Gallman (34). The Tigers absolutely adore giving their star back the ball on first down – and then finding ways to avoid giving him the ball thereafter. Against Louisville on Saturday night, Gallman ran the ball 16 times. Thirteen of them were on first-and-10 plays, until they became mind-numbingly predictable calls in the second half. Just three of them came on second down. And just once, in a game where Gallman averaged 6.9 yards per carry, did he get the ball on consecutive downs. Louisville had a hard time stopping Gallman, but as the game wore on it became increasingly clear when he was going to get it – and when he wasn’t.

LAST INTERCEPTION POOL

Back by wildly popular demand, The Dash’s Last Interception pool has returned to salute the quarterbacks doing the best job of not throwing the ball to the other team. We already are down to just three QBs who have more than 100 attempts and zero picks on the year. The role call:

Mitch Trubisky (35), North Carolina. He’s put up an array of impressive statistics, but the one landing him on this list is no interceptions in 175 attempts. The junior hasn’t thrown an oskie since he was a freshman. Next up: Virginia Tech, which has five interceptions on the season.

Zach Terrell (36), Western Michigan. No interceptions in 119 attempts, part of one of the most impressive statistics in the game in 2016: The Broncos have zero turnovers through five games. Next up: Northern Illinois, which has just two interceptions this year.

Ryan Finley (37), North Carolina State. No interceptions in 116 attempts for the Boise State transfer, who has fit in well in Raleigh. Next up: Notre Dame, whose porous secondary has four picks on the season.

The Dash also is invoking a Sefo Liufau caveat. The injured Colorado starter has not thrown an interception in 76 passes while missing the past two games. If he comes back and keeps his streak alive he could get back into the pool.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Ed Orgeron (38), LSU. It was destiny for this excitable Cajun boy to one day coach his home state team, and destiny arrived Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. Orgeron is only an interim coach, very unlikely to be more than that at LSU. But you know it meant a lot to him to lead the Tigers onto the field for a night game – and then to stomp Missouri while racking up the most yards of total offense in an SEC game in school history. Maybe Coach O (or “Coach Oeaux” as the shirts say in Baton Rouge) can earn his own niche in LSU lore by salvaging this 2016 season. And if he somehow beats Nick Saban in November, hold back the boosters who will be dying to give him the full-time job.

LSU is off to a good start with interim coach Ed Orgeron. (Getty)
LSU is off to a good start with interim coach Ed Orgeron. (Getty)

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Tim DeRuyter (39), Fresno State. He was 20-6 his first two years in the Valley, but it’s steadily unraveled since then. Over his past two-plus seasons, DeRuyter is 10-21 and may have bottomed out Saturday in a 25-point loss to UNLV. Fresno’s only win this year is over FCS Sacramento State. There is a high likelihood this job is open by the end of the season at the latest.

POINT AFTER

The Dash is switching up this vital element of the column this week to tout a beer that is home-brewed by SEC Director of Communications Craig Pinkerton. He was kind enough to send The Dash a sample of his work under the Master of the Brewniverse (40) label – a delicious Belgian-style pale ale called Blonde Baroness. Apparently some of Pinkerton’s beers have hit grocery shelves in Alabama, so pick up a six-pack and thank The Dash later.