The axe came down for its first college football coach of the year, and it was still September when it happened. Rutgers’ Chris Ash entered the season on an extremely hot seat, and after a 52-0 loss at Michigan, his tenure was over.
Ash will be far from the last major head coach to be fired this year. There are already a number of prominent names who face serious pressure to get things turned around, and fast.
The name that has probably been discussed most is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. He made the high-profile move to give the reins of a floundering offense over to Josh Gattis. The Rutgers win aside, that hasn’t totally worked out as of yet, as best demonstrated by the Wolverines’ dismantling at the hands of Wisconsin the week before, 35-14.
If Michigan really falls apart, Harbaugh could be in trouble. I wouldn’t put him at the top of the list though. Michigan is going to want to give its favorite son as much rope as possible.
There are a number of significant coaches that are in deeper trouble than Harbaugh at this point.
Jeremy Pruitt – Tennessee
2019: 1-3 (0-1 SEC) – Last Week: 34-3 L at Florida
2018: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Career: 6-10 (2-7 SEC)
Pruitt got off to a good start in recruiting basically right away as Tennessee head coach, after his tenure under Nick Saban as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. After a ridiculously hectic coaching search, the Vols hoped they had landed their own Kirby Smart.
Last year was a fine first season, with upset wins over ranked Auburn and Kentucky teams. That momentum did not continue this fall, as Tennessee has dropped three of its first four games. The loss to Georgia State to start the year gets most of the headlines, but a loss by 31 to Florida has to be similarly deflating.
UT gets Georgia this weekend and Alabama on the 19th. There aren’t too many wins left on the schedule, as UAB isn’t a walkover, and Vanderbilt has had Tennessee’s number for three years in a row. A 2-10 season is absolutely on the table, and it is unclear of Pruitt, who was put on the hot seat by many in the Tennessee community, could survive that.
Charlie Strong – USF
2019: 1-3 (0-1 AAC) – Last Week: 48-21 L vs. SMU
2018: 7-6 (3-5 AAC)
Career: 71-48 (18-11 at USF)
Charlie Strong clearly didn’t work out at Texas, but his immediate move to USF seemed like a no-brainer. Willie Taggart built a strong program there before leaving for Oregon, and Strong has deep Florida roots, that helped propel him to the Louisville head coaching job, and once there, towards the Longhorns job.
Strong’s sputtering out with the Bulls is a big surprise.
USF has been very bad this year, getting run out of the building by Wisconsin, falling to a complete rebuild of a Georgia Tech squad, and most recently, losing by 27 to SMU. The lone win so far has come against FCS South Carolina State.
The AAC is clearly the best Group of Five league this year, and with tough games against BYU, Navy, Temple, Cincinnati, Memphis, and of course, rival UCF left on the table, Strong’s going to need to pull off some major upsets to keep from having his hot seat burn up.
Clay Helton – USC
2019: 3-2 (2-1 Pac-21) – Last Week: 28-14 L at Washington
2018: 5-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Career: 35-19 (26-11 Pac-12)
USC has a tendency to hire its own, going down the line on former Pete Carroll assistants since he left the program for the Seattle Seahawks. Helton didn’t work for Carroll, but did serve under both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, and was the interim head coach between the two, after Ed Orgeron’s resignation. He parlayed a second interim stint, after Sarkisian was fired, into the full-time job, but there have been questions about his ceiling as Trojans coach basically the entire time.
Helton answered them with back-to-back double-digit win seasons and trips to New Year’s Six bowl games, including a Rose Bowl win.
It took just one five-win campaign for that to fall apart, however. The persistent rumors of guys like Urban Meyer being in line for the job haven’t helped keep Helton off the hot seat.
Helton’s 2019 season has been up-and-down so far. Beating Utah certainly helps, but losses at BYU and Washington have really limited just how far USC can go in 2019. If the program’s major boosters want to see him replaced in hopes of bringing a flashier name to the historic Pac-12 power, he has a lot of work to do to hold them back. Having an athletic director vacancy doesn’t help him, either, as whomever takes over the job will want to make their mark on the football program.
Willie Taggart – Florida State
2019: 3-2 (2-1 ACC) – Last Week: 31-13 W vs. NC State
2018: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
Career: 55-59 (8-9 at Florida State)
Willie Taggart may be more of a builder than people realized when he got the Florida State job.
He was 2-10 his first year at Western Kentucky, before back-to-back seven win seasons. At South Florida, he got off to a 7-21 start before a mid-year turnaround in 2015. He finished that year, and won 10 games in 2016 before jumping to Oregon. The Ducks job was the only one where he won at least a marginal number of games right away, but things fell back to the pack in year one at FSU, clearly the best program of the bunch.
Jimbo Fisher’s tenure clearly grew stale at Florida State, but it seemed like the program may only need a shot in the arm. Clearly, the issues were much deeper than that, especially on the offensive line, where the team has struggled mightily through Taggart’s first two years.
Things have gotten better in 2019, and back-to-back double-digit wins over ACC opponents (even pretty mediocre ones like Louisville and NC State) represent a step forward from 2018. The question is: how much time will Taggart be given? If the Seminoles only win six or seven games in a weak ACC, and get crushed by Clemson, it is unclear if that will be enough for him to stay through to 2020. Even so, he’ll remain on the hot seat until Florida State gets back to competing with Clemson at the top of the conference.
Justin Fuente – Virginia Tech
2019: 2-2 (0-2 ACC) – Last Week: 45-10 L vs. Duke
2018: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)
Career: 53-40 (27-17 at Virginia Tech)
When he was hired, Justin Fuente seemed like an absolute perfect hire for the Hokies, coming off of a long, legendary tenure by Frank Beamer. The school moved swiftly to get its guy, who transformed Memphis from a long-time basement program into a contender in the AAC in pretty short order. In a double-win, Fuente was being brought in, but Beamer’s longtime assistant Bud Foster, considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, was staying on to run the defense.
After two successful seasons, Fuente and the Hokies hit a skid last season, narrowly making a bowl game. In the off-season, Foster announced that 2019 will be his last year. It was also reported by Sports Illustrated that the locker room culture got so bad in 2018, that a small group Hokie players were openly trying to persuade others to throw the season finale against Marshall, in order to avoid making a bowl.
Had Virginia Tech come out strong in 2019, that would be water under the bridge, as the problem players are reportedly no longer with the team. Instead, Va Tech fell to Boston College to start the year, just got blown out by Duke, and looked pretty underwhelming in wins over Old Dominion and FCS Furman in between.
Pretty much every game in the ACC Coastal is a winnable one, and things can turn around, but Fuente seems to have a real problem on his hands. After a few nice years with rosters still heavy with Beamer’s recruits, the Hokies find themselves farther from filling the famously empty trophy case than when Fuente took over. His hot seat isn’t quite as pronounced as some of the other coaches on this list, but things are trending downward in Blacksburg, and that’s never good.