Mailbag: Two places fired LSU coach Les Miles could coach next

It used to be that the coaching carousel didn’t officially ramp up until the Monday after Thanksgiving. That forever changed three years ago when Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin on the tarmac in the middle of the night in late September.

I’ve come to accept that hiring and firing questions will now be as much a part of the Mailbag in-season as the playoff race or officiating complaints. But I can’t imagine it will often involve the dismissal of as prominent a coach as Les Miles four weeks into the season.

With Les Miles out at LSU, where do you see him ending up? 

— Brian, New Jersey

In the immediate aftermath of his dismissal Sunday, I saw quite a bit of chatter suggesting it’s a given that some power program will snap up a coach with such an accomplished resume. As much as I love Les, I’m not nearly as confident that will happen.

The coaching profession is inherently ageist. A respected coach can go very quickly from up-and-comer to washed up. And that’s in large part because schools looking to rejuvenate a stagnant program are generally more apt to hire the hot young coach who can quote hip hop and dominate social media (i.e., Tom Herman) than, in Miles’ case, a soon-to-be 63-year-old whose Achilles heel toward the end was an outdated offense.

I’m reminded of Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer, another long-tenured SEC coach with a national championship ring who was 58 at the time of his ouster. I know he was surprised and disappointed to find how tepid the interest was once he was back on the market. There were certainly opportunities over the ensuing years, but none remotely as glamorous as Tennessee.

So at this point I consider it more likely we’ll be watching Miles on GameDay next year than on a sideline, unless he’s willing to go a couple of rungs down. However, I can think of two possible exceptions if these jobs open up.

One is Houston if Tom Herman leaves. It makes a lot of sense, given how much that program’s profile has risen, given he’d be taking over a championship-ready team rather than embarking on a massive rebuilding job and given he recruited that city frequently while at LSU.

The other is much less likely, but arguably more logical: Penn State. Miles hails from roughly the same part of the country (Northeast Ohio), he’s a blue-collar guy by nature and a Big Ten alum (Michigan). He’d be going into an increasingly SEC West-like division where you’re expected to butt heads with Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio. And Penn State is currently trying the glitzy up-and-comer route with James Franklin, so if he doesn’t work out, it makes more sense to do the opposite with its next hire.

I hope Les does return to coaching. College football is a little drier without his sound bytes. But be prepared for the possibility it might not happen.

The consensus top two candidates for the LSU job seem to be Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman. While I understand why Herman would consider LSU, Fisher’s inclusion in this list baffles me. Why would he leave FSU for LSU?

— Thomas Bagley, Lehi, Utah

Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But we know Fisher was the LSU brass’s primary target during its botched attempt to run off Miles near the end of last season and that the interest was mutual. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported at the time that LSU had begun negotiating a deal with Fisher’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, before opting to retain Miles.

Taken in a vacuum, leaving Florida State to go to LSU certainly looks like a lateral move. Heck, over the past 30 years the ‘Noles have contended for national championships far more frequently than the Tigers. So why would Fisher be tempted? Well for one thing, he spent seven years there as an assistant, including two under Miles. His reverence for the SEC is no secret, and it surely irks him that FSU, for all its success, doesn’t always fill its own stadium. Also, whereas in Florida he shares the spotlight with the Gators (and sometimes Miami), LSU is king in the state of Louisiana.

And finally, I wonder how much it bothers him the general lack of respect for ACC football. You never hear anyone question whether a one-loss SEC champion would be able to reach the playoff like we did at times both of the past two seasons with the ACC champ. (2014 FSU and 2015 Clemson both went undefeated.)

It would mildly surprise me if he leaves, but I’ve long ago stopped trying to put myself in the mindset of college coaches and the career paths they weave.

Stewart, I was pretty dismissive when you’d suggested at the beginning of the season that two SEC teams would make the playoff. But now I’m warming up to the idea of two teams making the playoff, only now I think they would be from the Big Ten. If Michigan or Ohio State wins the Big Ten and its only loss is to the other, would both make it in?

— Foster, Wilmington, North Carolina

It’s certainly not hard at this point to see a scenario where we have two teams from one conference. No Big 12, for one thing. Houston loses to Louisville (or someone else). And the Pac-12 champ has at least two losses. Given the fact the Big Ten currently has two teams in the top four and a third in the top eight, that conference would appear most likely to pull it off.

But here’s the problem – Michigan and Ohio State play the last game of the season. While the committee doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to the age-old “better to lose early than late” formula, so far it has. There have been six one-loss playoff teams in the first two years, and the latest any of them suffered a defeat was Nov. 7 (Michigan State at Nebraska last year). Could, in the case of Ohio State-Michigan, a team survive not only losing on Nov. 26 but that then becoming its last game prior to the selection by virtue of not winning its division?

I could see the Buckeyes pulling it off if Oklahoma goes on to have a good season (and especially if they win the Big 12). If they went into the Michigan game undefeated with potentially four Top 25 wins already (Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State), they could probably make a compelling case they still have one of the four best resumes. For Michigan to pull off the same scenario, they may need to hope Colorado and/or Iowa goes on to become a Top 25 team.

Then of course the other possibility is the loser of the Big Ten title game getting in. That may sound crazy, but the committee so far has not punished the losing team in those games to nearly the extent BCS voters did. Iowa, for instance, fell from fourth to fifth after suffering its sole loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis. If it’s Wisconsin or Nebraska they’d have a better chance if non-conference conquests LSU and Oregon, respectively, start rebounding in a hurry.

Stewart: As an FSU fan I recognize the ‘Noles must win out and need Louisville to lose twice. In the process of winning out, it would be nice to face as many ranked teams as we can. My question is, how do you think the playoff committee will view a UNC team that is ranked in the coaches poll but not the AP? Which poll has the most weight, if any?

— Ralph Scott, Honolulu, Hawaii

The committee isn’t going to care one way or the other where UNC was ranked in the polls at the time Florida State played the Heels on Oct. 1; all that matters is whether they’re in the committee’s Top 25 come the end of the season. Of course, the committee members are not currently sequestered somewhere without the Internet; they know well who’s in the Top 25 right now, and that will certainly influence their own opinions when they meet for the first time Nov. 1. But without knowing how the rest of the teams’ seasons will play out, my guess is FSU beating UNC on Saturday would be seen as a win against a decent opponent that’s shown it can score points but plays very little defense.

Also, it’s not entirely accurate to say that FSU needs Louisville to lose twice. Mostly, it needs the Cardinals to lose at Clemson this week, and then the ‘Noles need to beat the Tigers on Oct. 29. That could create a unique three-way tie for first in which analytics ranking will serve as the tiebreaker. Now, I have no idea if FSU would win be highest-rated of the three, but regardless I’m selfishly rooting for this scenario to play out. The outrage over a conference title and possible playoff berth being determined by a mysterious “metric that evaluates all facets of on-field team performance that are highly correlated to team success and combines them into a single comparable value” would far eclipse anything from the BCS era.

Going on a limb so bear with me, what are the odds LSU looks at Bo Pelini for coaching? He went 9-4 at Nebraska consistently, imagine what he could do with LSU’s talent.

— Quinn, somewhere

They’re slightly better than the odds of me getting the LSU job – but not by much.

Stewart, With Trevor Siemian slinging touchdown passes in the NFL unlike anything he ever did at Northwestern, and the Wildcats reverting back to underachiever after one good season, is it permissible to raise questions about favorite son Pat Fitzgerald, especially his loyalty to his long-time coaching staff? Or should we be grateful for a great role model who graduates kids and occasionally has good seasons?

— Jeff, Chicago

It’s definitely fair to raise questions, especially given Fitzgerald more than anyone has demonstrated there’s no reason to accept mediocrity from that program. He’s not far removed from a string of five straight bowl seasons (2008-12) and has posted two of only three 10-win seasons in school history (2012 and ’15). The problem, as the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein recently wrote, is that last year’s 10-3 season is proving to be an aberration amidst an otherwise uninspiring stretch of putrid offenses and embarrassing losses that began with consecutive 5-7 seasons in 2013 and ’14.

Interestingly, Siemian’s NFL star turn has simultaneously become both a badge of honor for Northwestern and an indictment of its offense. No one was more surprised he was even drafted, much less won the starting job, than Wildcats fans themselves given his career there was fairly unimpressive compared with productive predecessors Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. But if he’s indeed talented enough to start and win games for the Denver Broncos, then clearly there were other issues there beyond his control.

Fitzgerald has basically had the same coaching staff since nearly the beginning of his 11-year tenure save for a couple of minor changes. In particular, Mick McCall has been his offensive coordinator since 2008. When you’re winning, you can tout that stability as a positive. When you’re losing, it means there’s a reason nobody is coming after your assistants.

Given his team is 1-3 and scoring fewer points per game (16.3) than all but three teams nationally, and given it did not crack 20 points per game last season either (19.5), I’d imagine changes will be coming in December.

Save for a few notable exceptions, athletic directors aren’t really big names. Scott Stricklin isn’t one of the notable exceptions. How should Gators fans feel about that hire? What do the smart, informed people think about him?

— Andrew Bare, somewhere

Most smart, informed media members respect the heck out of Stricklin, but we may also be a tad biased given his career path. Less than a decade ago he was still working in our corner of the world as a media relations guy at Kentucky (and Baylor before that). The fact that he’ll now be running one of the most prominent athletic departments in the country is a testament to his reputation.

Mississippi State really modernized itself in recent years, first under Greg Byrne (now at Arizona) and then Stricklin. Davis-Wade Stadium and other facilities there got a major upgrade, and the Bulldogs’ brand as a whole has really expanded. Dan Mullen, whom Byrne hired, obviously had a lot to do with that (with a helping hand from Dak Presott), but Stricklin gave him the necessary support to do it. And it was quite a coup when Stricklin convinced former UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland to come to Starkville.

The one blight on Stricklin’s recent record was his handling of freshman Jeffrey Simmons’ “punishment” following the video of him stomping on a woman on the ground. I was very critical at the time, and I still disagree with his and Mullen’s handling of it. I do not, however, think it’s an indication of any future decisions that may arise at Florida. Following Jeremy Foley is no small feat, but he’s arriving at a good time. I believe he’ll do well there.

Yeah, that was a great pick on the Florida-Tennessee game last week, Stewart, but not unexpected from ye of little faith. Historically, if there’s ever even a soupçon of doubt for Tennessee to win an upcoming game, you media pundits always pick the opponent to win. So at least you’re consistent.

In Butch We Trust,

Steve Hatley, probably somewhere in Tennessee

Well, there’s a reason for that – your coach was 3-18 against ranked opponents. But congrats on the big win, and major props for your use of  “soupçon.”

Stewart: Love The Audible and Mailbag. I noticed some strange Power 5 road games early in the non-conference season and wondered how they could possibly get scheduled. I realize that Indiana and Maryland may have a reason to play at FIU (exposure to fertile recruiting area), but why would Louisville agree to play at Marshall? Miami at App State? And the head scratcher of them all: Mississippi State at UMass? Am I missing something?

— Tom Cleary, Washington DC

What you’re missing is just how expensive one-off guarantee games have become. The schools with the biggest stadiums – Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama et. al. – now pay in the range of $1.5 million for a one-time visit from a MAC or Sun Belt school. Of course, when you sell 100,000 tickets and take in $4-5 million that’s a coverable expense. For schools in the 50,000-seat range, the guarantees are more like $600,000. The difference is, none of the schools you mentioned are guaranteed to sell out their stadiums. There’s more risk there.

So increasingly, schools are taking on home-and-homes they might not have in the past because the cost over the course of two games is theoretically zero, or, in the case of Mississippi State-UMass, a two-for-one that at least defrays the cost (and gave the Bulldogs the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium). Obviously it doesn’t hurt that the selection committee has provided incentive to schedule tougher out of conference, and going on the road supports that, but that wasn’t likely the motivating factor in any of those examples.

In fact, the Mississippi State-UMass matchup – signed at the time by newly announced Florida AD Stricklin – was made mostly out of desperation after Tulane backed out of a planned visit to Starkville to play Oklahoma instead.

This would be the perfect weekend for you to check off item No. 1 on your bucket list of stadiums you have not visited with a night game at Clemson. Clemson vs. Louisville should be rocking.

— Sean Storey, Davidson, North Carolina

I am indeed, at long last, going to cover a game at Clemson on Saturday – and what a game it should be. How fortuitous that this happens to be one of the few weekends all season I’m not scheduled to be at FOX Sports HQ in L.A., and that Louisville was kind enough to rise up and become the No. 3 team in the country just in the few weeks since your original question.

Needless to say, I’m planning to soak it all in. I’m so excited I may just run down The Hill myself.