Clay Helton, Jim Harbaugh lead list of college football coaches feeling pressure entering 2020

Every coach in America has enormous pressure to win every season, but several coaches at high-profile schools will enter this 2020 with pressure as strong as a depressurized airplane at 30,000 feet. Skyrocketing salaries, pristine facilities and top-level success on the recruiting trail have contributed to a “win now” mentality that doesn’t look like it is going away anytime in the near future.

That’s not to say that these coaches are on the “hot seat” with their jobs on their line. Sure, there are a few who are in dire straits. But many more have to produce successful seasons to avoid scorching seats next season.

Of course, we do not yet know when the 2020 season will start nor how long a leash coaches will be given once it does. These are certainly unique circumstances we are operating under, and if the 2020 season is significantly condensed and teams do not have extended camps in the summer or fall, it will be interesting to see how administrators react. Particularly considering athletic departments may be hurting financially.

As far as who would enter a normal 2020 season under the most pressure, let’s break it down.

Clay Helton, USC: Helton is entering his fifth season as the full-time coach of the Trojans, and his second on a seat as hot as the beach sand in summer. An 8-5 record and 7-2 mark in the Pac-12 wasn’t enough to take any pressure off of the 47-year-old Helton, who also has a new boss in athletic director Mike Bohn. To compound issues for Helton, the Trojans have games against Alabama, Stanford, Arizona State and Utah within the first five weeks of the season. If they don’t come out hot, Helton’s seat will be scorching. 

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: Harbaugh’s five years leading his alma mater have been all sizzle and no steak. He has posted three, 10-win seasons and flirted with the College Football Playoff … but has neither beat rival Ohio State nor won the division. The Wolverines also have an offense that’s as vanilla as soft serve ice cream. For $7.5 million per year, that won’t cut it. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Harbaugh is fired. But if the Wolverines fail to beat the Buckeyes and make the CFP again this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a “mutual breakup,” particularly if there’s an intriguing NFL job.

Tom Herman, Texas: Barring a 3-9 disaster, it’s unlikely that Herman will be fired if the Longhorns fail to contend in 2020. With that said, they’ll have to prove that they truly are “back” in order for Herman to avoid Texas power brokers eyeing him up like Bevo when he saw Uga prior to the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago. He’ll have a senior quarterback in dual-threat weapon Sam Ehlinger, plus a door that’s wide open thanks to Big 12 stalwart Oklahoma breaking in a young quarterback. Herman was hired to bring Texas back to the glory days it enjoyed in the latter half of the 2000s. Three seasons in, that looks as far away as it was during Year 1 in 2017.

Chip Kelly, UCLA: Remember when Kelly’s hire prior to the 2018 season was celebrated as one that could vastly alter the landscape of the Pac-12? Yeah … about that. He’s 7-17 through two seasons, which is a far cry from his four-year stint at Oregon from 2009-12 that never resulted in a single-digit win season. To make matters worse, UCLA returns just 64 percent of its production from a year ago, according to ESPN. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson needs to live up to his recruiting hype as a junior. Otherwise, he might have a new system and a new head coach for his final season with the Bruins.



Will Muschamp, South Carolina: Much like his career trajectory at Florida, Muschamp has struggled mightily since his second season at the helm. He won nine games in Year 2 but dropped to seven wins in 2018 and four one year ago. Even though one of those wins was over eventual division champion Georgia, he received the dreaded “vote of confidence” in mid-November. Translation: Muschamp better win now. He’s got his signature recruit at quarterback in Ryan Hilinski but lost his top two running backs and stud wide receiver Bryan Edwards.

Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: The Pac-12 South isn’t exactly the gauntlet Sumlin used to work in. Despite that, Sumlin has failed to make a bowl game in each of his first two seasons despite having the ultra-dynamic Khalil Tate as his primary quarterback. Rising sophomore Grant Gunnell was solid in limited action behind Tate last season, so there’s a glimmer of hope for the Wildcats. But the door in the division will never be as open as it has been over the last two years. 

Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Tigers fans, calm down. Malzahn isn’t on the “hot seat.” With that said, the most successful coach in America vs. Nick Saban outside of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has failed to win the SEC since 2013. The moving target he has created with his “on again, off again” approach to the offense has frustrated the fan base. Games at Georgia and LSU, combined with a home tilt vs. LSU the week before the Iron Bowl, will make it tough for the Tigers to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2017.

Scott Frost, Nebraska: The native son returned with major fanfare after posting an unblemished record at UCF in 2017, but he hasn’t made a bowl and finished 3-6 in the Big Ten in each of his first two seasons. This despite having his hand-picked quarterback of the future in Adrian Martinez taking the majority of the snaps in both seasons. Frost will not be fired if he struggles in Year 3. I repeat, Nebraska fans, he won’t get fired. But if he fails to go to a bowl game … again … frustration will mount.

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: The bar was set high for Mason after he took over for James Franklin. In six seasons, though, he hasn’t come anywhere close to reaching it. Mason hasn’t finished above .500 while posting a pair of 6-7 seasons, losing in bowl games both times. The Commodores also haven’t finished higher than sixth in the SEC East since 2016. Vanderbilt went to bowl games in four of the six seasons prior to Mason’s arrival and finished above .500 three times. It’s reasonable for Vanderbilt to make a change after the 2020 season unless Mason gives the fan base and administration a taste of success.

Manny Diaz, Miami (FL): Hurricanes fans are really good at the internet. So, if lighting up my Twitter mentions after reading this blurb makes you feel better, that’s fine. Have at it. But can we talk about where Miami is as a program right now? It has failed to build off the division title run and 10-win season in 2017. The Hurricanes regressed to a point where they lost FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech, getting shut out in the bowl game by the Bulldogs last season. The door to an eight-win season was wide open in mid-November, but the Canes choked it away. He won’t be fired after this season unless his program tanks and goes 3-9. But another lackluster performance could land him on the hot season next season.

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