It’s college football’s offseason, but teams are already gearing up for the 2017 season. And some coaches are gearing up for what could be their last stand.
While we’re still three months from kickoff, it’s never too early to discuss which "hot seat" coaches could be on their way out the door by December. And schedules are among the best indicators. Although some coaches may be able to escape the hot seat with a manageable schedule, others could be hurt by a tougher group of opponents.
Five hot-seat coaches who could be doomed:
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
After another disappointing finish last season (the Aggies went a combined 1-4 in November and December), Sumlin enters the season firmly on the hot seat. And with a young club, he might not have enough opportunities to pick up wins to coach himself off it.
A&M opens against UCLA, an improved team that the Aggies needed overtime to beat last year at Kyle Field. From there, they have what appears to be an incredible stroke of luck – seven of their next nine games at home, and eight of nine in the state of Texas. Dig deeper, however, and that isn’t as advantageous as it may seem. One of those home games is against Alabama (good luck with that) and another is against Auburn, a school that has won its past two games at Kyle Field. Mississippi State – a team that beat A&M in Starkville last year – visits too.
And if the Aggies somehow survive all of that, their final two games of the season are at Ole Miss and at LSU. For Sumlin to survive into 2018, he will not only have to avoid his annual late-season swoon, he’ll need to do it by winning in two of the SEC’s most hostile environments in the final month.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
No one went from the penthouse to the outhouse quicker than Kelly, whose Irish club fell from 10-3 in 2015 to 4-8 a season ago. It also means that Kelly could be coaching for his job in 2017, in what is – like always – a loaded Irish schedule.
In an absolute best-case scenario, the Irish will face a minimum of four teams that will likely begin the season in the Top 25: USC and Georgia at home, with Miami (FL) and Stanford on the road. (NC State could be ranked in the preseason as well). And from there, there are landmines all over, from an opener against Temple (which won 10 games each of the last two seasons) to Navy (which beat the Irish last year) and at Michigan State, which should bounce back after a 3-9 campaign a season ago.
It isn’t unimaginable that Kelly could be 9-3 or 10-2 and comfortably off the hot seat by the conclusion of the regular season. It also isn’t impossible to see him at 7-4 and coaching for his job against Stanford in the final week of the season.
Jim Mora, UCLA
Coming off just one truly bad season in which star Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen missed six games with injury, it isn’t totally fair to say that Mora enters the year on the hot seat. But looking at UCLA’s schedule, it isn’t impossible to believe that he could be there – or worse – by the end of the year.
It’s impossible to imagine a more brutal Pac-12 schedule than the one UCLA has been dealt. The Bruins' four toughest conference games are all on the road (at USC, at Stanford, at Washington – all three are in the Top 15 of FOX Sports’ post-spring poll) – as well as a trip to Utah, which is coming off a nine-win campaign. The home schedule isn’t much better with Texas A&M and defending Pac-12 South champion Colorado both coming to the Rose Bowl.
That is one loaded schedule. Which is not exactly what Mora needed coming into what could be a make-or-break season in Westwood.
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Butch Jones, Tennessee
Last year was Jones’ window to silence his doubters and prove once and for all that he belongs as a head coach in the SEC. Instead, the Volunteers sputtered to a second straight 9-4 finish, which included an embarrassing post-bye loss to South Carolina and a defeat at Vanderbilt that cost them a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The scary part? With a less talented roster in 2017, the schedule ratchets up significantly.
Tennessee opens the season on Labor Day night against Georgia Tech, a worst-case scenario combination of a good team that features an impossible-to-prepare-for offense. The Vols then play three of their toughest SEC games by the halfway point of the schedule: at Florida, at home against SEC East favorite Georgia and at Alabama. Therefore, it isn’t inconceivable for the Vols to open the season 3-4. And that’s assuming they beat South Carolina, a team they lost to last year.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Tennessee picked the wrong year to get LSU as their second cross-divisional game with the SEC West. In a best-case scenario (something that rarely happens under Jones) this feels like a 7-5 season. Would that be enough for him to keep his job?
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Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Malzahn entered last season squarely on the hot seat, but seemingly coached himself off of it with six straight wins. Then the Tigers lost three of their final four games (including to rivals Georgia and Alabama), and Malzahn is in the exact same spot entering 2017. This time with a tougher schedule.
It starts two weeks in, when the Tigers travel to Clemson to face the reigning national champions, and it gets downright brutal mid-season, with three straight SEC road games (at LSU, at Arkansas and at Texas A&M). Even after a return home, things stay tough with matchups against Georgia and Alabama on the Plains.
The Tigers have the talent to beat anyone (except Alabama) that they’ll play in 2017. They also have a schedule that could cost Malzahn his job.