NCAA Football

Eight college football coaches facing most pressure in 2017

college football
Written by Andrew Kulha

College football, and more specifically the business of college football, is all about instant gratification. It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: It’s a “what have you done for me lately?” sport — not unlike the NFL.

Head coaches tend to get around three seasons to put their plans in action, get “their players” into the program and execute at a high level. After those three seasons, the long-term viability of the coach is usually questioned by the higher ups. After all, if championships are the ultimate goal, colleges can’t waste time and money on a coach who they don’t think can get the job done in the long run.

Is that a cause of pressure for head coaches? You best believe it.

Not every head coach is bound by the pressure of the “three-year window,” though. Some are bigger and better than that, but they still have to deal with the weight of their own lofty expectations. They — or their fan base — have set the bar very high for their programs, and they can talk all the talk they want, but ultimately the rubber will meet the road. If you’re going to talk about winning championships, eventually, you’ve got to win one.

And then, in some cases, you’ve got to do it again. And again.

It’s a tough gig, but someone has got to do it, right? With all that said, these eight coaches find themselves under pressure heading into the 2017 college football season.

Butch Jones, Tennessee

Butch Jones

Jones has gone 30-21 in four seasons at Tennessee, which is nothing to scoff at. But he enters 2017 as arguably one of the most stressed out head coaches in the land. Expectations are high at Rocky Top, high enough that most fans, and even pundits, expected the Volunteers to challenge — and even beat — Alabama last season for the SEC crown.

Things started off swimmingly. The Vols raced off to a 5-0 start with wins over ranked Florida and Georgia, but Tennessee went on to lose three in a row before Jones’ bunch lost to an average Vanderbilt team to close the season.

Jones is one of the best recruiters in the nation and his locker room is jam-packed with talent, especially this far into his tenure at Tennessee. So eventually, he’s going to have to win the SEC East — at the very least.

Last season, Tennesee was a College Football Playoff dark horse. This season will see expectations be extremely high, thus Jones will be feeling the pressure from Week 1.

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Jim Harbaugh is not even close to being on the hot seat. In fact, he’s as close to cult-hero status as there is in Ann Arbor, with his khaki pants and “stick it to the man” attitude.

Harbaugh’s a great coach, a great recruiter and he has Michigan trending towards a national championship.

Though, there’s surely a problem here.

Last season, with the talent they had, the Wolverines should have been a CFP team. Instead, they went out and lost to an average Iowa team in Iowa City and then lost to Ohio State in The Horseshoe (albeit in controversial fashion). Michigan then followed that disappointment up by losing to a very good Florida State team in the Orange Bowl. It was another close loss, 33-23.

Harbaugh is a perfectionist and CFP expectations are extremely high in Ann Arbor. He can’t come out and lose to an inferior team in 2017. He also can’t afford to lose, again, to Urban Meyer and Ohio State.

Well, okay, so technically he could, but if Michigan ever wants to get back to truly elite status both in the Big Ten and nationally, it’s going to have to knock off its arch-rival in order to do so.

Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

College Football coaches, Kliff Kingsbury

Is it safe to say that Kliff Kingsbury is all hype and no substance?

Perhaps that’s a bit too harsh. He has won 24 games as head coach at Texas Tech, after all. The dirty little secret is that he’s lost 26 in his four seasons at Lubbock. And no amount of fashion sense will hide the fact that his team went 5-7 in 2016 and can’t seem to play defense if his job depended on it.

And perhaps it does.

Since coming out of the gate in 2013 with an 8-5 record and a Holiday Bowl win, Kingsbury has gone 16-21 with a bowl game loss and two seasons without even an appearance in the postseason.

Kingsbury is losing quarterback Patrick Mahomes to the NFL. And if he can’t somehow pull out at least a winning season in 2017, if not a bowl game win, it’s not hard to imagine Texas Tech moving on from its former star quarterback turned head coach.

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is in trouble heading into 2017.

Since taking over in 2012, Freeze has put up a 39-25 record at Ole Miss. That includes wins in the Compass Bowl, Music City Bowl and Sugar Bowl. He’s become known as a great recruiter, but there have certainly been questions regarding the way the Rebels have gone about attracting elite talent — former five-star tackle Laremy Tunsil’s saga being perhaps the most notable of them.

After going 5-7 in 2016 with a quarterback on his way to the NFL — Chad Kelly — things got worse for Ole Miss. The university announced that the NCAA had charged it with a lack of institutional control — 15 Level I NCAA violations — and it had self-imposed a postseason ban in 2017 as somewhat of a preemptive strike.

So not only does Freeze enter the 2017 season knowing that no matter what his team does, it won’t make the postseason, but his program is entrenched in a big-time NCAA investigation.

Before all is said and done, both of those facts, plus an awful 2016 season, could cost him his job.

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Brian Kelly

Four full seasons have passed since Brian Kelly took the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to the BCS Championship game — a contest that saw them lose to Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. In those four seasons, the Irish have won two bowl games while losing in the Fiesta Bowl during a 10-win 2015 campaign. This past season saw Kelly’s squad fail to even earn a trip to the postseason.

The Fighting Irish went 4-8 last season and Kelly came away from the campaign not necessarily looking good. After a 38-35 home loss to Duke, Kelly told reporters that all 22 starting positions on the field were up for grabs. He insinuated that none of his players were safe, which wasn’t bad on its own, but then he basically threw his team under the bus in favor of the coaching staff.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today,” Kelly said. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today.”

That’s never what you want to hear out of your head coach.

To make matters worse, there were rumors galore near the end of the season that Kelly was actively trying to find his way out of South Bend in an effort to perhaps land a coaching gig in the NFL.

That obviously didn’t come to fruition, or at least it hasn’t just yet. But coming off a terrible season with Kelly perhaps not feeling great about his job status with Notre Dame anymore — one has to wonder how much longer the Fighting Irish’ brass will put up with him.

It could be time for Notre Dame to move on.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson

When discussing hot seats and coaches on them, Dabo Swinney is the very last college football coach you’d bring up.

He has his Clemson program entering the 2017 season as the defending college football playoff national champion. And in the grand scheme of things, he has his program coming off two title appearances in a row. Clemson went 14-1 in 2015, beating Oklahoma in a CFP game before losing to Alabama in the title game. The Tigers avenged themselves in 2016 after a one-loss season that ended with two-straight CFP wins, one over Ohio State and the other over the Crimson Tide.

Swinney is one of the top coaches in college football, which means he faces a very rare pressure heading into 2017: the pressure to do it all over again.

Repeating is one of the hardest things to do in sports. But even with Deshaun Watson and some of his talented friends on the way out of the door and into the NFL, Clemson should be one of the favorites to win it all again in 2017.

Swinney is a good enough recruiter to keep things rolling for the Tigers, and the expectations couldn’t be any higher.

If Clemson doesn’t go back-to-back, will Swinney be considered a failure? Absolutely not.

Will he be under some pressure to win it all again, though? Absolutely. Everybody on Clemson’s schedule will be gunning to take the Tigers down.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Gus Malzahn burst onto the national scene in 2013 by taking Auburn to the BCS National Championship in his first year as head coach. The Tigers lost to Jameis Winston and Florida State, 34-31, but the tone was set.

Unfortunately, Auburn followed that up with an 8-5 season and a loss in the Outback Bowl to Wisconsin. The Tigers continued to slip with a 7-6 season in 2015, albeit with a 31-10 win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. Auburn then went 8-5 in 2016.

The Tigers lost big to Oklahoma in the 2016-17 Sugar Bowl, 35-19, and now Malzahn must find a way to right the ship and get his program headed back into championship territory.

The good news? He’s proven in the past that he, and his system, don’t need much time to get going.

The bad news? Auburn has to try to get going in a stacked SEC East.

Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Mississipi State and Ole Miss will all be trying to get Malzahn fired in 2017.

James Franklin, Penn State

James Franklin and the Penn State Nittany Lions face a good pressure in 2017, but it’s pressure none the less. After entering the 2016 season as somewhat of a hot-seat candidate, Franklin finally found his all-star potential and mojo while leading PSU to an 11-3 season that included a win in the Big Ten Championship game and a loss in a thriller (and classic) to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Penn State was one of the hottest programs in college football in 2017, relying on a hard-nosed defense and an equally tough quarterback/running back combo in sophomores Trace McSorely and Saquon Barkley, respectively.

Both McSorely and Barkley will be back in 2017, and Penn State should be one of  the favorites to again win the Big Ten. This time around, though, Franklin and crew will be under pressure to make it all the way to the CFP.

About the author

Andrew Kulha