We’re still days away from the kickoff of the 2019 college football season and further still from hot seat season, but it’s never too early to forecast what spots on the coaching carousel may come vacant later this fall.
Here are four jobs to watch, with one bonus pick at no extra charge:
Clay Helton, USC: This is the one plenty of people in college football consider as good as open — including Reggie Bush. Put it this way: winning the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 in consecutive seasons could only get the USC fan base lukewarm on Helton, and every bit of those warm fuzzies washed away with last season’s 5-7 debacle. The 2019 Trojans have the most difficult opening half in college football, with games against ranked opponents Stanford, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame and non-conference games at BYU and home against defending Mountain West champion Fresno State. If USC returns home from its Oct. 12 trip to Notre Dame at 2-4 or worse, it’s officially off to the races for the best job that could conceivably come on the market this winter.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: We all know the drill by now. Auburn has a good season and wants to marry its coach. Then, on the honeymoon, it begins plotting how to get the thing annulled. This time around, Auburn handed Malzahn a 7-year, $49 million contract after winning the SEC West in 2017, then followed that up by going 3-5 and finishing in fifth place in that same division. Given Auburn’s yo-yo tendencies, War Eagle will probably shock the world and win the SEC this fall. But if Malzahn is under .500 in SEC play for a second straight season, Auburn may not be able to stop itself from cutting its current coach a massive check to go away so it can cut another huge check to a different coach and start the whole dance anew.
Lovie Smith, Illinois: This one is so obvious you probably forgot about it, right? This was a weird hire from the get go — he got the job in March!!! — and has never even flirted with success. Smith is 9-27 in three seasons and 4-23 in Big Ten play. Two of those four wins are against Rutgers. This isn’t hard. Right or wrong, if this wasn’t a pride play for AD Josh Whitman, who plucked Smith off the unemployment line and pulled him back to college football for the first time since 1994 weeks after getting the job, Smith would have been gone a year ago.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: All 14 SEC head coaches return from a year ago. That type of continuity isn’t common in college football isn’t common and won’t happen again. If Auburn surprises and/or balks at the sticker price of replacing Malzahn (plus staff) and hiring a new head coach (plus staff), the next best bet is up the road in Nashville. The program hasn’t slid to near the depths it was pre-James Franklin, but it’s also not close to where it was with Franklin, either. Mason has been at Vandy five seasons; the Commodores have missed a bowl game three times and went 6-6 with a bowl loss in the other two, including 2018. He’s 9-31 in SEC play (though he has taken three straight from Tennessee). New AD Malcolm Turner has been on the job since December, which is plenty long enough to get his sea legs and marshal support to make a head coaching change if one becomes necessary.
And one bonus pick:
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: No, I don’t believe Harbaugh is anywhere near the danger zone at Michigan. He’s not even in danger of being close to the danger zone. Despite what his critics might tell you, he’s significantly elevated the level of football played by the maize and blue upon his homecoming.
But, still. Harbaugh is 1-9 against the AP Top 10 at Michigan. What if he loses to Ohio State… again? Failing to best Urban Meyer is one thing, but losing to Ryan Day is something different. And it’s not just the Ohio State game, either. If USC has the nation’s toughest first half, Michigan has the nation’s most daunting close: at No. 14 Penn State, vs. No. 9 Notre Dame, at Maryland, vs. No. 20 Michigan State, at Indiana, vs. No. 5 Ohio State. What if Michigan goes 3-3 in that stretch? That sound you’ll hear is the process of a fan base losing its collective mind as it realizes it wants to move on from its head coach but can’t because he’s Jim Harbaugh.