Heat check: Which college football coaches are on the hot seat entering the 2021 season?

By | August 27, 2021

Even the COVID-19 pandemic failed to cool off some hot seats in the college football world in 2020. All told, there were eight coaches fired either during or after last season among the 65 Power 5 schools.

Who enters 2021 under pressure?

USC’s Clay Helton, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and Texas Tech’s Matt Wells are among those who will have to win in order to keep their jobs. But not all leaders are being judged solely on their team’s performance. 

Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards and Nebraska head coach Scott Frost are under fire due to NCAA investigations into their program, threatening their status regardless of how many games they win. Others are facing buyout pressure, like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, and may not have a chance to survive unless they significantly exceed expectations. 

Ahead of the start of the season, Sporting News compiled a list of Power 5 coaches whose jobs might be in jeopardy, based on on-the-field and off-the-field issues and who could be fired after this season. Here are our rankings below, ranked from most likely to be fired to least. 

On-the-field issues 

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1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan 

  • Record at Michigan: 49-22 (34-16 Big Ten) 
  • Record of Michigan in 71 games prior to Harbaugh: 39-32 (21-25 Big Ten) 
  • Heat Index: Given Harbaugh’s new contract extension, the Wolverines are in a favorable position to buy him out if they choose. Harbaugh went from making more than $8 million last season — the fourth-highest total in the nation — to $4 million this year, which is lower than 10 Big Ten coaches. According to the Detroit Free Press, it would cost Michigan $4 million to buy out Harbaugh after the first year of his new deal, with the figure dropping by $1 million each following year up until 2025, when it would cost them $0 to buy him out. Michigan has lost four games in each of the past two seasons and is 2-12 against top-10 teams and 0-5 against Ohio State under Harbaugh, something that will need to change for him to stay in charge.
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2. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech 

  • Record at Virginia Tech: (38-26, 25-17 ACC) 
  • Record at Virginia Tech in 64 games prior to Fuente: 38-26 (23-18 ACC) 
  • Heat Index: Since posting 10- and nine-win campaigns in his first two seasons, Fuente’s teams have posted a 19-18 record over the last four years, including a 14-12 mark in conference play. Last season, the Hokies finished 5-5 in league action — tied for sixth in the ACC Coastal division — and had a record below .500 for the second time in the last three years. According to 10News in Virginia, Fuente has a buyout of $10 million at the end of this season, something the Hokies may have to explore if their team struggles again. 
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3. Matt Wells, Texas Tech 

  • Record at Texas Tech: 8-14 (5-13 Big 12) 
  • Record at Texas Tech in 22 games prior to Wells: 8-14 (6-12 Big 12) 
  • Heat Index: It is difficult to consider Wells is on the hot seat given that the Red Raiders have struggled back to their days under Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, but Texas Tech has not had a winning season since 2015 and its athletic director, Kirby Hocutt, said “it’s time” for the program to take a step this season. The Red Raiders added offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who previously held the position at TCU, and Oregon sophomore quarterback transfer Tyler Shough, who was named the team’s starter this week. Texas Tech should have the pieces to improve, but if they don’t, Wells’ position could be in trouble. 

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4. Clay Helton, USC 

  • Record at USC: 45-23 (36-12 Pac-12) 
  • Record at USC in 68 games prior to Helton: 47-21 (29-18 Pac-10/12) 
  • Heat Index: This seems like a yearly discussion, but Helton needs to lead the Trojans to a big season in 2021. Even though USC won all five of its regular-season games last year and advanced to the Pac-12 championship game, it has much higher expectations to meet as a program. The Trojans have not made the Rose Bowl since 2016 and posted a combined 18-13 record over the last three seasons. By returning 41 players who have started at least one game, including quarterback Kedon Slovis, and not having Washington or Oregon on its schedule, USC should expect to make a playoff push. 
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5. Dino Babers, Syracuse 

  • Record at Syracuse: 24-36 (13-29 ACC)
  • Record at Syracuse in 60 games prior to Babers: 26-34 (13-25 Big East/ACC) 
  • Heat Index: Since a 10-win season in 2018, Babers and the Orange have posted a combined 6-17 record in the last two seasons, including an ACC-worst 1-10 campaign last year with nine losses in league play. In 2020, Syracuse’s offense averaged just 17.1 points per game, which ranked No. 118 out of 128 Division I teams, and 1.1 turnovers per contest. According to Logan Garvey of Fan Nation, the Orange’s offense has also allowed 88 sacks over the last two seasons, making it difficult for their quarterbacks to stay healthy. Babers has a buyout that could exceed $17 million, according to Danny Emerman of The Daily Orange. 

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6. Chip Kelly, UCLA 

  • Record at UCLA: 10-21 (10-15 Pac-12) 
  • Record at UCLA in 31 games prior to Kelly: 13-18 (9-16 Pac-12) 
  • Heat Index: UCLA had notable improvement last season under Kelly, as it was above .500 at one point for the first time in his tenure and lost all of its games by fewer than six points. The Bruins have 19 starters returning for 2021 and will be expected to continue their development. However, if they don’t make a bowl game and have a fourth straight losing season, Kelly’s position could be in jeopardy. 

Off-the-field issues 

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1. Scott Frost, Nebraska 

  • Record at Nebraska: 12-20 (9-17 Big Ten)  
  • Record of Nebraska in 32 games prior to Frost: 17-15 (12-12 Big Ten) 
  • Heat Index: Frost’s winning percentage has not been great with the Cornhuskers, but his job status is under immediate questioning now that the NCAA is investigating the program’s use of analysts and consultants during practices and games. Frost was also accused of reportedly holding unauthorized workouts amid the COVID-19 pandemic last season, though it is unknown whether those allegations are being investigated by the NCAA, according to Action Network’s Brett McMurphy. 
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2. Herm Edwards, Arizona State 

  • Record at Arizona State: 17-13 (11-11 Pac-12) 
  • Record of Arizona State in 30 games prior to Edwards: 14-16 (10-13 Pac-12) 
  • Heat Index: With all but two returning starters on both sides of the football, Arizona State coach Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils are expected to have their best season in his four-year tenure. But even if Edwards wins this season, ASU might not keep him around. The Sun Devils are under NCAA investigation for alleged recruiting violations that took place during the dead period, which has placed tight ends coach Adam Breneman, receivers coach Prentice Gill and cornerbacks coach Chris Hawkins on paid administrative leave. ASU’s recruiting class has suffered — one of its top safety prospects recently decommitted — and Edwards could be pushed into retirement depending on the severity of the allegations. 
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3. Ed Oregeron, LSU 

  • Record at LSU: 45-14 (28-12 SEC) 
  • Record of LSU in 59 games prior to Orgeron: 42-17 (23-15) 
  • Heat Index: What? Yes, Orgeron, who led the Tigers to an undefeated season and College Football Playoff National Championship just two years ago, could be on the hot seat. LSU is hoping to recover from a 5-5 campaign in 2020, but it is also under the microscope for a Title IX lawsuit in which Orgeron has reportedly been added as a defendant for. He has also been accused of ignoring a sexual harassment allegation against former running back Derrius Guice. If the Tigers, who are ranked No. 16 in the AP Top 25, underperform again this season, Orgeron’s situation might be interesting. He has a buyout of over $17.1 million after this year.