The college football coaching industry is as pressure-packed as any in the American sports world. Whether it’s the pressure to build a national championship-caliber program, bring a team back from the abyss or clean up a program marred by scandal, the business can be (and often is) a 24/7/365 grind that demands more than any other coaching job in American sports.
The 2021 season brings plenty of pressure to college football coaches and programs around the country.
Sure, there are several veteran coaches who need to win big in order to keep their jobs, but that isn’t the only kind of pressure that exists. Several teams on the brink of greatness need to break through that glass ceiling in order to appease increasingly frustrated fan bases that have dealt with heartbreak over the last few years.
Here’s our list of coaches under the most pressure entering 2021. This is not a hot seat list. Again, this is NOT a story consisting only of coaches who may be on the proverbial hot seat ahead of this season.
If not now, when? Georgia will enter 2021 with the best quarterback in the SEC (JT Daniels), the best running back room in the SEC (Zamir White, James Cook and a host of ultra-talented studs) and the best defense in the SEC — if not the country. It also has a chip on its shoulder as evidenced by the #UnfinishedBusiness hashtag that was used when several of those stars like Daniels, White and stud defensive lineman Jordan Davis opted to stay in school rather than declare for the NFL Draft. That mindset has a very “Clemson 2018″ sort of feel.
All of that has led to a ton of optimism in the Classic City, but it also has cranked up the pressure on Smart. This Georgia team walked into Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a shot at the College Football Playoff in three consecutive seasons from 2017-19, and it has therefore raised the bar for Smart and the Bulldogs. Granted, they made the CFP in 2017, but we all know how Tua Tagovailoa put an end to that fairy tale. Georgia needs to make the CFP this year. Otherwise, Smart will start looking plenty like former Georgia coach Mark Richt.
Clay Helton, USC
Helton has been on the hot seat for the last three offseasons, so it should come as no surprise that he finds himself listed here. The Trojans have become an afterthought on the national stage at best, a laughing stock at worst. But here’s the thing — an argument can be made that they shouldn’t be thought of in that manner. Remember, USC entered championship weekend last year with an unblemished record before losing to Oregon, which actually finished second in the Pac-12 North.
That has put pressure on Helton two-fold. His program’s continued struggles are some of the primary reasons that the Pac-12 has become a joke, which is exactly why that unblemished record was ignored by the majority of the country. Helton also needs to win the keep his job. The definition of “big” is different than it is for coaches who lead down-trodden programs. For Helton, it is contending for the CFP in November.
Riley took over the Sooners in 2017 with one goal in mind: win the national championship. Sure, he has led his team to the CFP in three of his four years at the helm, but that’s a double-edged sword. It became apparent in those three seasons that Oklahoma is a team that’s ceiling is getting to the CFP, not winning it. That should — should — change in 2021.
The dirty little secret is that, even though the Sooners missed the CFP last year, they were the most complete team Riley has led in Norman, Oklahoma. They finished 26th nationally in defensive yards per play. That might not seem like a big deal, but remember, those three CFP teams had defenses that were mediocre at best and horrendous at worst. That changed last year and should be the case this year, too. We know that the offense, led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Spencer Rattler, is elite. If the defense is “just average” for a full season, Oklahoma should be a true contender for the national title. If it isn’t, then maybe Riley has already reached his peak at OU.
The Wolverines hired Harbaugh in 2015 with one goal in mind: win the national championship. Five seasons later, that seems like something out of an expensive fantasy movie. Harbaugh’s team hasn’t won the Big Ten East or topped heated rival Ohio State during his tenure in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the national perception of the program is that it’s a punchline to a very poorly-formed joke. Harbaugh’s restructured contract provided a little bit of relief for the program, but there’s no doubt that the school’s big investment in its former star quarterback-turned-coach needs to pay dividends now. Not later. Now.
Fuente is another one of those coaches, like Helton, who faces pressure from multiple sides. Bottom line: A 38-26 record in the five seasons since taking over for the legendary Frank Beamer won’t cut it. Plus, this is Virginia Tech — a team that had eight straight seasons of double-digit wins between 2004-11. Annually contending for ACC titles is — and should be — the expectation in Blacksburg, Virginia, every year. Instead, Fuente’s program has regressed into national anonymity, and according to Sports Illustrated, has experienced massive internal problems during Fuente’s tenure. The Hokies are a mess, and Fuente better clean things up quickly. Otherwise, he’ll be looking for work elsewhere in 2022.
Brohm made a big name for himself in his second year when his Boilermakers topped then-No. 2 Ohio State 49-20. That was the catalyst for Brohm’s seven-year, $36.8 million contract that he agreed to the following spring. Purdue hasn’t been getting what it paid him to produce. The Boilermakers are 6-12 over the last two seasons, including a 2-4 record in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. Look, it’s Purdue. Winning national championships is about as likely as Bitcoin crashing to $0. But that massive contract coupled with a taste of success requires Brohm, at the very least, to put an entertaining product on the field. That seems more like fantasy than a realistic possibility.
The pressure on Frost is similar to the pressure on Harbaugh. He’s a legendary quarterback coaching at his alma mater who came in with a ton of hype and hasn’t lived up to it. OK, so it’s exactly the same. He has a 12-20 record in three seasons, hasn’t finished .500 or better in a single campaign, and has placed fifth in the Big Ten West — not exactly a gauntlet — in all three of his seasons back in Lincoln. That won’t cut it — not by a long shot.
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