Mailbag: Top five hottest coaching seats, Aggies-'Horns feud and more

Who are the top 5 coaches on the hot seat entering 2014? Which teams return the most talent and take the biggest hits? What's up with the Big 12? In his latest mailbag, Stewart Mandel answers those questions and more.

Miles talks College Football Playoff, recruiting

JUL 16, 8:53 pm
LSU head coach Les Miles believes at least two SEC teams will be playing in the new College Football Playoff.

HOOVER, Ala. -- Greetings from SEC Media Days. Attending this event has given me new appreciation for the originality and intellect of Mailbag readers. None of you to this point has asked whether I think Kevin Sumlin misses Johnny Manziel.

One guy did write in with the no-no generic question, “How will UCLA do this year?” But I’ll excuse that. I never laid down any rules when I came to FOX like I did back when the SI version launched. Here’s a (ancient) refresher course.

Apologies in advance if this week’s version is a little scattershot, as I wrote it in between doses of Dan Mullen and Butch Jones sound bites.

(To submit Mailbag questions, email

Hi Stewart, Glad to see you've set up shop at the new location. Can you both speculate on which coaches are on the hottest seat at marquee programs and will likely be shown the door barring a miraculous turnaround, and then predict who will be on the short list to succeed them? Any top-flight NFL coordinators in the mix? Thanks.

-- Kirk Koetter, location unknown

Waiiiit a second. “Kirk” Koetter? Asking about possible job opportunities for NFL coordinators? Anyone in particular? Notice he left out his location. Is it by chance … Atlanta?

My five coaches on the hottest seats entering the 2014 season are Florida’s Will Muschamp (coming off Florida’s first losing season since 1979), Virginia’s Mike London (18-31 in four seasons), Kansas’ Charlie Weis (1-17 in Big 12 play his first two seasons), Illinois’ Tim Beckman (1-15 in the Big Ten) and Rutgers’ Kyle Flood (widely considered a placeholder until the school can afford to upgrade).

A couple of those guys could still save themselves, but based on past experience you can safely assume at least three won’t make it. For instance, heading into last season this same list would have included Texas’ Mack Brown, USC’s Lane Kiffin and UConn’s Paul Pasqualoni.

As for the next wave of rising coaches, much will obviously depend on how guys fare this coming season, but I would not be surprised if Utah State’s Matt Wells, Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter, Ball State’s Pete Lembo and the usual cast of respected coordinators -- Clemson’s Chad Morris, Alabama’s Kirby Smart, et al. -- wind up elsewhere.

There’s also a couple of free agents hanging around out there, most notably Greg Schiano, who many think could end up back at Rutgers. As for NFL coordinators, I’m not sure you can predict those ahead of time -- even the ones who were once Pac-12 head coaches.

What does the term "returning starters" mean? Is a player that has started one game in any prior season counted as a returning starter? Or, is the term more narrowly defined, like a player that started the last game of the prior season? Any program can use a very broad or narrow definition, making this a pretty useless stat.

-- Keivan Shahab, Dallas

That’s a great question, and a very timely one at that.

The unofficial demarcation that most schools and publications use is that a player started at least half his team’s games the year before. So if a guy started the first three games, missed the next six because of injury, then returned for the last four, he’s considered a returning starter. The guy who started in his place in the interim is not. Athlon editor Braden Gall told me that magazine goes by either seven starts on the year or six straight to end the season. Oftentimes you’ll see a school list something like: “The offensive line returns six players with starting experience.”

That includes anyone who’s ever started a game in his career, even if that start came three years ago. But in most cases a guy like Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has 15 career starts but missed most of last season to injury, does not count toward his team’s 2014 number.

So yes, this can be a highly misleading stat, increasingly so in this age of specialization. Some teams list their nickel back as a returning starter, others do not, yet when facing spread offenses teams often play almost entirely in nickel formations. A team may list only two starting receivers but employs three-wide sets so often that the No. 3 guy played almost as much as the other two.

Conversely, a team may list its fullback as one of the returning starters even though it uses a one-back formation half the game. Throw in the fact that some schools count the kicker and punter as returning starters and others do not, and the number “13 returning starters” can mean different things at different places.

I’d propose that we come up with a more accurate metric for gauging a team’s experience level. I’d love to know how many guys coming back played at least 30 percent of a team’s snaps the year before on offense or defense. Because there’s a big difference between someone like that becoming a first-year starter.

Stewart, welcome to your new digs. Hope you like it here. Georgia gets seemingly its entire team back from injury but it has to deal with casualties in the secondary from its annual "spring suspension drive." Meanwhile, Oregon is starting over at receiver, Ohio State lost four of five starting offensive linemen. Missouri lost both starting defensive ends, LSU both D-tackles. Among the top 25 teams, what position groups were hit the worst and least in the offseason, and what might that mean for how teams finish the year?

-- Trevor, Minneapolis

All of the examples you cited are significant. In addition, one of the most decimated groups is South Carolina’s defensive line. The Gamecocks lost not only Jadeveon Clowney but All-American defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, their 2013 sack leader (9.5), and the other starting end, Chaz Sutton. South Carolina will be breaking in a bunch of younger guys up front during a formidable opening stretch of Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia.

Elsewhere, Wisconsin is being penciled in as a Top 15 team despite the fact the Badgers lost their entire starting front seven, most notably All-American linebacker Chris Borland. Its opening opponent, LSU, may run the ball a little bit. And Baylor must replace nearly its entire secondary, including defensive leader Ahmad Dixon, though sophomore safety Orion Stewart is a promising replacement.

As for least-affected position groups, Florida State seems particularly charmed along its offensive line. The 'Noles will likely start five seniors, three of whom – tackle Cameron Erving and guards Tre Jackson and Josue Matias – were All-ACC performers last season. Alabama, as always, is loaded at the skill positions, though maybe more than usual this year both at running back (T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake) and receiver/tight end (Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, O.J Howard).

Auburn, too, brings back its top four receivers, led by Sammie Coates, and adds a likely starter in juco transfer D’haquille Williams. Stanford is so stacked at receiver it moved Kodi Whitfield to safety. And Oklahoma brings back every defender that started up front and at linebacker against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Would you please get your facts straight: In your Mailbag dated July 9, 2014, you wrote [that Texas and Texas A&M] "stubbornly refuse to play each other." It is NOT true that Texas A&M stubbornly refuses to play Texas. It IS true, however, that Texas stubbornly refuses to play Texas A&M, likening our leaving the Big 12 for the SEC to a divorce initiated by Texas A&M. 

If you or anyone else were in a marriage with a bully, would you want to stay married to that person? Texas is a bully and A&M finally got tired of Texas and its bullying tactics and antics. The majority of Aggies and the Texas A&M administration would gladly welcome the opportunity to kick t.u.'s ass anytime, anywhere -- but Texas refuses to play us.

-- Kathleen Hubbard, Bryan, Texas

I suppose a better definition would be, three years later, the two sides stubbornly refuse to get past the point of: “… But he started it!”

Hi Stewart, I'm happy to see the Mailbag is continuing. What do you think it would take for Wisconsin to join the ranks of the college football elite? It seems Gary Andersen has them moving in the right direction. However, in almost every piece I read about my Badgers, they seem to be on the second tier of college powerhouses. Will they ever be in the same conversations as the Ohio States, Penn States, Alabamas, Floridas, etc.?

-- Chris, Minneapolis

In my college football feudal system, Wisconsin has certainly solidified itself among the Barons, one step below the 13 Kings, and I have no doubt Andersen will at the very least maintain that status. How do you join the elites? Simple. Play for national championships.

All of the programs in my top tier have won at least two and played for others. Wisconsin has played in six Rose Bowls since 1993, winning three of them, and that’s no small accomplishment, but it means more in Big Ten country than it does nationally. You’ve got to go one step higher.

The question is whether that’s a realistic goal for Wisconsin, a program that built its identity on finding and developing lightly recruited, “blue collar” players. It’s been a successful formula in allowing the Badgers to compete for Big Ten titles. But it’s been proven over time that the teams that win national titles are almost always the same teams that horde all the four- or five-star recruits. Even during their recent run of success, the Badgers have not fared well against the Big Ten’s marquee programs like Ohio State. They’ve simply clobbered everyone else.

But we’ll get a pretty good gauge of Wisconsin’s talent level soon enough as they kick off against one of the Kings, LSU, on opening weekend.

Last year you boldly predicted Virginia Tech would win only seven games and head coach Frank Beamer would retire. You were pretty close on the Hokies' 8-5 season, but Coach is back on the sidelines for another season. In a tough ACC, what are the chances this one is more memorable than the last?

-- Mark Gribbin, Richmond, Virginia

I don’t mean to pile on Beamer, but I really don’t see many signs for optimism with the Hokies. On the one hand, the interception-strewn Logan Thomas era is mercifully over, and perhaps Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer can bring consistency at that position. On the other hand, I still find it puzzling why Beamer tabbed disastrous former Auburn coordinator Scot Loeffler to run his offense last year. I saw no discernible identity.

The Hokies also lack the star power at tailback they enjoyed for so many years, and while one should never underestimate Bud Foster’s defense, he does face a tall task replacing stars Kyle Fuller, James Gayle and Jack Tyler.

The good news is Virginia Tech’s not in the same division as Florida State and Clemson. However, its own ACC division could be very competitive, with Duke, Miami, North Carolina and perhaps even Pittsburgh as good if not better. I could see Virginia Tech getting to nine wins, but I could also see it finishing below .500. That’s just where the program is right now, which is certainly not where it was just a few years ago when it strung together eight straight 10-win seasons.

Stewart -- I saw, and really liked, the new Football Playoff championship trophy. However, the Crystal ball was definitely more flashy. What are your thoughts on the two trophies?  

-- Josh B, Deltona, Florida

I like the new one a lot. It’s sleek, and it does a nice job of incorporating the new system's new logo. It’s particularly cool that the main football part of the trophy detaches from the base, allowing for the customary postgame photo op of the coach hoisting the trophy above his head.

I know there’s a lot of attachment to the crystal ball, which, it should be noted, will still be awarded to the No. 1 team in the coaches poll, albeit with the new sponsor Amway now plastered on the base. No word yet whether the trophy will now rest atop a pyramid. But the reality is that trophy was associated with the now-defunct BCS. It was time for a fresh new icon.

Do you think the Big 12 is really OK with 10 teams or they are secretly working on getting 2 more teams? If they wanted two more teams who do they get? My picks would be BYU and Cincinnati (since geography no longer means anything in a conference).

-- Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Florida

Yes, the Big 12 is really OK with 10 teams, at least for now. The schools really liked sharing their record $220 million in revenue last year 10 ways instead of 12. BYU and Cincinnati are logical choices if the conference were to expand, but they would not net enough additional revenue to avoid the individual members getting smaller slices of pie. However, I do wonder whether attitudes will start to change in the next couple of years.

For one thing, we’ll see whether lack of a championship game helps or hurts the league with the selection committee. I believe they’ll be OK because of a nine-game, round-robin schedule, but that lack of an extra marquee game could hurt. To me, however, there’s a bigger concern.

With conference media day season upon us, I can’t ever remember less buzz for the Big 12. You’ve got two hot programs, Baylor and Oklahoma, and a big name, Texas, with a new coach. And that’s about it. None of the other teams move the needle, even though Kansas State and Oklahoma State have been very good recently. That’s a big departure from the days when Nebraska assured its share of national attention, or even just a few years ago when the league boasted a quarterback lineup of Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill, Collin Klein and Landry Jones.

The problem is that TCU and West Virginia, both recent BCS bowl victors at the time they joined, have fallen off the map. Should that change, and certainly should Texas return to glory under Charlie Strong, this becomes a moot topic and the league goes back to counting its money.

My question is about Utah. Do you think the hiring of Dave Christensen as offensive coordinator is enough to help Utah regain some sort of offensive prowess? Enough for a bowl game appearance?

-- Taylor, West Jordan, Utah

I feel like I’ve answered this same question about Utah every year for the past four offseasons. First, Kyle Whittingham brought in Norm Chow for a year in 2011, then promoted Brian Johnson, then teamed him with Dennis Erickson last season. Now Johnson, demoted after last season, is gone to Mississippi State, and Christensen has come in and bumped Erickson to running backs coach.

All the while Utah hasn’t ranked higher than 73rd nationally in yards per play since joining the Pac-12. Christensen had a nice run as Missouri’s OC from 1997-2008 and could well be the savior Whittingham has been seeking, but at this point it’s unclear what exactly Utah’s trying to be.

Even if Christensen has only a modest impact, I would not be at all surprised to see the Utes return to the postseason because they weren’t as bad as their 5-7 record last season. They beat a Top 10 Stanford team, narrowly lost to Oregon State (51-48), UCLA (34-27) and Arizona State (20-19), all at home. They finished the season 31st in the F/+ efficiency rankings and 34th in Sagarin. Turn a couple of those close ones in the other direction and they’re back on the right side of .500. Pull off a win at Michigan on Sept. 20 and they could be in for a breakthrough year.

Lost in your little transfer to a new site is that fact that I have to change my top bookmarked page for the first time in more than a decade. My question is: Is that kinda cool or really sad?

-- John K, Liberty, South Carolina

A little of both? I’ve been surprised to learn just how many of you still use bookmarks. I generally type two letters and let autofill do the rest.

Regardless, I thank you for bookmarking. My new bosses do as well.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails to

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