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Thursday, July 18, 2019

10 college football coaches who need a big season

Jim Harbaugh headset

Pressure is always going to be a factor when coaching a college football program. The expectations of the fans, boosters, and athletic department can sometimes be arguably unrealistic, and so many things can go wrong over the course of a season. Some programs simply expect to contend because they’re major programs of historical significance, too.

Here are ten college football coaches who are, for various reasons, in need of a big campaign. They may be coaches who have been successful in the past but have had their stock fall, young coaches with lots of talent and a need to put it all together, or simply coaches at underachieving big-name programs who are tasked with restoring those teams to their former glory. Whatever the case, these guys need to show something this year.

10) Major Applewhite, Houston

Applewhite is working under the good kind of pressure — the kind that comes with high expectations. He has arguably the best defensive player in college football in Ed Oliver on his side, and Houston will be expected to contend for and win the AAC’s West Division. Applewhite is a young coach in his second full year on the job, which only makes his task a bit heftier. Improvement and a potential division title are required this year to keep discontent at a minimum.

9) Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

After a 5-0 start, Navy ended up finishing 7-6 after a late-season collapse last year. Subsequently, he was linked to and ultimately fell short of landing the Arizona job after their quarterback wasn’t too enamored about playing in an option offense. Niumatalolo’s stock is subsequently down a bit, though his standing at Navy isn’t in much danger. It wasn’t long ago he was viewed as a rising star in the profession. Getting Navy back toward the top of the AAC would re-establish some of that credibility.

8) Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

After a total disaster of a coaching search and the high standards of Tennessee fans leading to further bungling, there’s definitely going to be some pressure on Pruitt to prove that the Volunteers ultimately got the right guy. He’s already setting the standard high for the program, even if a total turnaround is very unlikely during his first season. Pruitt will need to be afforded time, but they’re a demanding bunch at Rocky Top. A bowl bid would be a very ambitious goal, but it would go a long way toward silencing the doubters.

7) Kirby Smart, Georgia

Going to and nearly winning the College Football Playoff will buy Smart a whole lot of goodwill, but life in the SEC is tough, and that successful season won’t mean much if it’s followed up by a few underwhelming ones. The challenge for Smart will be keeping the momentum going after Georgia’s excellent 2017. The Bulldogs have depth across the board and should be well-equipped to make another run at the playoff, and Smart won’t want to waste the chance. He has a chance to establish Georgia as a perpetual contender in the SEC.

6) Chip Kelly, UCLA

Nobody should be expecting Kelly to dominate in year one, and to be fair, nobody really is. The UCLA job will definitely be a turnaround project, especially with Josh Rosen going pro. The Bruins haven’t won a bowl game since January of 2015, though, and getting to and winning one would be a nice start for Kelly’s reign. The real pressure and judgment will arrive in the years to come, but it’s vital for Kelly to at least get off to a stable start. Finding a quality quarterback to lead the offense will be his biggest task.

5) Ed Orgeron, LSU

There were some raised eyebrows when Orgeron got the LSU job permanently, and he hasn’t done much to silence his doubters. To be fair to him, he won nine games in 2017, but lost the Citrus Bowl, meaning his coaching job didn’t look all that different from the ones Les Miles was putting together in his last few years in Baton Rouge. His admission that he never should have hired the offensive coordinator he had previously hired was also an unusual one. Orgeron’s offense will need some work to start the season, and it leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the team’s prospects. LSU fans are trained to expect more than eight-win seasons without much else on the end of them. Orgeron will need to show at some point that he can take the team beyond that level.

4) Willie Taggart, Florida State

Taggart, in a sense, landed the best and worst coaching job of the offseason. Florida State is poised to contend now with a deeply talented roster and a pretty clear opportunity to rebound from last year’s disappointing 7-6 campaign. So what’s bad about it? The program and fans will be expecting that instant turnaround, which is a lot of pressure for the coach in his first year at the helm. Taggart will have to ensure that a defense returning only three starters comes together quickly to go with what should be a strong offense. One thing is clear: nine or ten wins is going to be the expectation here, and anything less will be viewed as a disappointment.

3) Tom Herman, Texas

Year one of Herman’s reign showed some modest improvement, including a bowl game win. Still, it was a 6-6 regular season, and further progression is a must if Herman doesn’t want to start hearing murmurs of discontent from Longhorn Nation. Expectations certainly play into this. Herman was the hot coaching hire a year ago, and he is being about $5.5 million this season. Texas brought Herman in to rebuild the program and eventually challenge the top tier of college football’s elite. They’re not there yet. They probably won’t get there this year. They must show continued progress, though, or Herman will start to get a bit hot under the collar.

2) Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

You do not pay a guy $75 million over ten years without expecting him to ultimately deliver a College Football Playoff bid and national title contention, so it’s safe to say Fisher has a tall task ahead of him at Texas A&M. The Aggies went 7-6 last season, and the bare minimum expectation will be improvement on that front. As such, Fisher is under pressure to produce the goods from day one. Division contention might be a bridge too far in year one, but eight or nine wins shouldn’t be, particularly if he can settle and improve the quarterback position, with Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond vying for the job.

1) Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Harbaugh enters year four of his tenure at Michigan never having finished higher than third place in the Big Ten East. Last year’s campaign, in fact, was his worst, both in terms of record (8-5) and finish (4th). He also lost to both of his chief rivals in Michigan State and Ohio State. There will be no excuses this year. Harbaugh has had three and a half years to recruit the team he wants, and in transfer Shea Patterson, he finally has a quarterback talented enough to help the Wolverines reach their lofty ambitions. Questions have been asked of Harbaugh after last season, but the Michigan fanbase remains firmly on board. Another underwhelming season where they finish behind one or both of their rivals and fail to mount a real challenge for the Big Ten title could erode some of that support. It could truly be a make-or-break season.



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