When Chip Kelly was filling his staff at Oregon back in 2009, an intriguing candidate emerged. He’d played quarterback in college for Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne, played six seasons as an NFL defensive back and worked as Northern Iowa’s defensive coordinator.
Indicative of his unconventional nature, Kelly hired Scott Frost at Oregon in just about the only position Frost didn’t have hands-on experience – wide receiver coach. Less than a decade later, that diversity of background and experience that initially intrigued Kelly has helped Frost emerge as the hottest coach in all of college football.
With No. 20 UCF (5-0) heading into a critical matchup with Navy this weekend, Frost has emerged as the 2017 version of Tom Herman, who parlayed two successful years at Houston into the Texas job last fall.
The tenor of UCF’s undefeated season is as impressive as the record, as the Knights lead the nation in scoring (50.6) and have an average margin of victory of 33.8 in their five games. They rank in the top 5 nationally in total offense (547.2) and turnover margin (1.6), with Memphis playing them closest this season, losing by “only” 27.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, another former Kelly aide, has the Knights in the top 15 in scoring defense. They are as complete of a team as any in FBS football.
“Offensively and defensively, they’re really similar to that run we had at Oregon in terms of what they’re doing,” Kelly said. “It looks a lot like that.” Kelly is beaming with pride about the success of his former protégé: “Frosty is a stud,” he said.
Frost played a key role on Kelly’s staff at Oregon, as they went 46-7 from 2009-2012. After Kelly left for the NFL, Frost served as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, including Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Heisman Trophy season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff Championship.
“He’s got a great way of presenting things; there’s a lot of Coach Osborne in him,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s been there and done that. He’s got an intensity to him, but he’s calculated and smart and not out of his mind.”
The Osborne comparison is apt at this time, as Nebraska fans bracing for the firing of Mike Riley are clamoring for Frost to return to Lincoln. Kelly said he and Frost haven’t conversed about any jobs other than UCF. When a reporter pointed out to Kelly that Frost has been judicious in choosing jobs during Oregon’s successful run, included turning down multiple Power Five jobs, Kelly chuckled: “That’s because he’s smart.” Kelly added: “He’s a well-thought-out person. I also know he really likes it there. It would have to be something really good for him to leave. He’s fortunate to be able to wait for something that’s really good, but I haven’t talked to him about leaving.
“He’s not chasing recognition. He coaches because he loves coaching. He really enjoys it.”
With Frost emerging as the top candidate, here are 10 questions that will define this carousel:
1. How active will the market be?
The 2017 college coaching carousel has unfolded like a sprint through a tunnel of funhouse mirrors. It appeared over the summer that this could be a quieter year, as marquee jobs at Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon and LSU had just flipped over. Few jobs considered market drivers appeared destined to open imminently.
Then a wacky September had everyone on edge, especially after Texas A&M squandered a historic lead to UCLA, LSU lost to Troy, and Butch Jones continued to invent cruel plot twists to torture his fan base. Nothing like a month of college football to throw a market from calm to chaos. But since that time, the market appears to have calmed.
By Halloween last season, there were five openings around college football. This year, there’s only two – Oregon State and UTEP. At this point there are Power 5 jobs that will almost certainly open – Oregon State, Nebraska, Ole Miss and Tennessee. There are jobs like Arizona, Arizona State and Texas A&M that appeared inevitable to open but those teams are having unexpected, solid seasons.
The volatility of the SEC West will dictate the market. Will Texas A&M fire Kevin Sumlin, or could he use this season to make a lateral move? Have Auburn administrators given up on Gus Malzahn being the guy to topple Nick Saban? Are Bret Bielema’s days at Arkansas numbered? To a large extent, those questions will determine the amount of action on the landscape.
2. What happens at Tennessee?
As we wrote on Saturday night, Tennessee has little institutional desire to fire Butch Jones before the end of the season. John Currie had enough to juggle upon arriving at Tennessee and is more bent toward conservatism than emotion.
There’s a notion around Knoxville that after Tennessee gets trucked by Alabama this weekend, it could win out against a soft schedule – at Kentucky, Southern Miss, at Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt. It’s unlikely considering the impotent offense, but Tennessee could be favored in all of them. That would put the Vols at 8-4, and Currie would have to decide whether he can sell hope to a fan base that’s clearly emotionally divorced itself from the notion of Jones ever winning big.
The feeling here is that hope has been lost, and few around Tennessee could imagine slogging through another offseason to confront the same issues of inept offense and poor game management. Jones’ staff failings on the offensive side will ultimately lead to his undoing, as selling hope to that fan base with Jones in charge in 2018 would be a harder sell than bringing back Derek Dooley.
3. Who will Tennessee hire?
The good news for Currie is that his options are a lot better than he had when plotting to replace Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Instead of a legendary coach trying to shove his unqualified son, Sean Snyder, into the coach’s chair, Currie should have a strong list of options. Hard to believe Jon Gruden’s name is serious, as he is notorious for publicly fanning the flames of coaching candidacies to boost his ego and remind people he used to coach. But he’s happy on TV, and that’s never appeared to seriously change.
Could big dollars lure Justin Fuente from Virginia Tech? Does Greg Schiano’s success in building Rutgers into a power appeal to Currie? Is Tennessee a better job/fit for Scott Frost than Nebraska? Mike Norvell has led the nation’s No. 13 scoring offense at Memphis? Could a sleeper name like N.C. State’s Dave Doeren, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell emerge?
4. What’s next for Chip Kelly?
An interesting news nugget came up when calling around about SEC jobs this week. He appears unlikely to end up at an SEC school. People who know Kelly say the SEC would be an awkward fit, as he prefers anonymity outside the football facility.
But new SEC legislation passed at the spring meetings earlier this year requires an extra layer for hiring a coach with prior NCAA issues. According to a document provided by the SEC, it says any coach “who has either engaged in unethical conduct or participated in activity that resulted in a major infraction” must have the school’s president or chancellor “consult with the commissioner” about the hiring. This essentially creates another layer of accountability and pause before bringing a coach into the league with NCAA issues.
Kelly received a show-cause from the NCAA for head coach responsibility after he’d left Oregon for the NFL, stemming from recruiting violations. If he or anyone else with NCAA issues gets hired in the SEC, it will mean a phone call to Greg Sankey from someone above the athletic director’s head. But with Kelly unlikely to be looking toward the SEC, the new legislation likely won’t come into play.
5. Who is next at Nebraska?
Nice guy Mike Riley is destined to get bounced at Nebraska. Administrators there didn’t bring in Bill Moos as athletic director for the status quo, especially when it involves losses to Northern Illinois and 56-14 drubbings by Ohio State.
Frost isn’t as big of a shoo-in as many have assumed. He obviously considers Nebraska a special place. But the judiciousness he’s shown in past year indicates he’ll vet the job as thoroughly and emotionlessly as any other job that opens on the market. He certainly could end up at Nebraska, but he’ll do so with an approach that’s more pragmatic than sentimental.
If he passes or goes elsewhere, Mike Leach is the next most obvious name. Traditionalists will thumb their nose at the unconventional Leach. His spread offense is the opposite of the power football that brought so much glory to Lincoln. But Lincoln is a lot more like Leach’s past stops in Lubbock and Pullman than anyone in Nebraska wants to admit. Leach brings an identity, can lure top quarterbacks and a style that can make Nebraska a destination again.
There’s a disparate list of names from there. Could Sumlin beat the posse there and make Nebraska cool again? Can Arkansas’ Bret Bielema sell his Big Ten success and bring a smashmouth identity? Would Schiano’s program-building experience and no-nonsense sensibilities work? Does a Big Ten assistant like Penn State’s Joe Moorhead get a chance?
6. Who is next at Oregon State?
The Beaves hired Glenn Sugiyama’s search firm, which shows athletic director Scott Barnes is starting from scratch here. They’ve made it known they’re looking for a sitting head coach, the mantra of most officials attempting to fill a bad Power Five job. Here are three names that could be intriguing at a place that’s hard to find an organic fit: California OC Beau Baldwin, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith.
Baldwin won big at FCS Eastern Washington, making Cooper Kupp and Vernon Adams household football names with a prolific spread offense. He’s been a linchpin coordinator on Justin Wilcox’s Cal staff that’s been one of the biggest surprises in college football this year.
Niumatalolo could tap into a West Coast recruiting pipeline at a school that already has an established tradition of recruiting Polynesian players. His track record indicates he’d figure out a way to win, as he’d be the most qualified candidate who’d likely consider the job.
Smith is a former walk-on quarterback at Oregon State who finished his career by re-writing the record book.
Roll your eyes at Mike Riley returning. His job there late in his tenure was more fireable than laudable, as he went 5-7 in his final season and the talent voids the past few seasons in Corvallis can be traced to Riley’s poor recruiting. (The more realistic return is Gary Andersen going back to Utah State if the Aggies move on Matt Wells).
7. What’s next at Ole Miss?
This is tricky to determine, as so much will be dictated by the amount of NCAA sanctions. Will athletic director Ross Bjork be around to make the hire? What will be the scholarship reductions and bowl restrictions the new coach needs to contend with?
Look for an established Power Five coach like Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre to end up here. Leach could end up in the mix, as sources at Texas Tech indicated that Ole Miss officials have called around to research Leach. Could they end up with someone safe like Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz? Or perhaps someone like Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, who has won consistently – though not this year – and brings a credible off-field reputation. It’ll be a long contract (think eight years), providing safe landing and the school will give secure deals to the assistant coaches. A hot young coach is unlikely to risk crashing his career in Oxford for Hugh Freeze’s sins. If so, it’d have to be an aspirational coach like the crew from the Sun Belt (see below) more so than an established AAC coach.
Ole Miss will wave big money around. But will a credible candidate bite? It’s impossible to tell. Interim Matt Luke doesn’t appear long for the job. But a blowout of Vanderbilt has given a miserable season some momentum. The narrative could change on Luke if he upsets LSU this weekend at home.
8. Who else is coveted in the Group of Five?
Toledo’s Jason’s Candle and Memphis’ Mike Norvell are behind Frost atop the up-and-comer wish lists. Toledo is 5-1 and the MAC favorite despite 11 players having surgery this year. Norvell beat UCLA on national television and authored one of the season’s most astonishing comebacks against Houston on Thursday night. Memphis won, 42-38, with every Tiger point coming after halftime. Navy’s Niumatalolo continues his steady brilliance there, as he’s long established himself as an elite Group of Five coach. For Niumatalolo, it’s an issue of an athletic director having the vision rather than whether he’d succeed.
The three top Sun Belt coaches are still neck-and-neck. Troy’s Neal Brown authored a signature victory at LSU, but then flopped against South Alabama as an encore. (South Alabama is bad enough where Joey Jones is expected to be fired). Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield has been steady, but missed marquee chances for a marquee moment against Wake Forest and Georgia. Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson has the Red Wolves trending toward their fourth-straight bowl game.
The Mountain West, long a West Coach pipeline, is a bit dry these days. Boise’s Bryan Harsin has been good, but has struggled chasing Chris Petersen’s impossible standards. Colorado State’s Mike Bobo, with his Georgia roots, could be a fallback name for SEC openings, as he’s established himself as one of the better coaches out west.
Conference USA appears muddled, as UTSA’s Frank Wilson is 0-2 in the league after gaining some buzz by beating Baylor. There’s no glaring candidate amid that league now.
9. What Power Five coaches have helped themselves this year?
Syracuse’s Dino Babers has earned his buzz after a historic victory over then-No. 2 Clemson last week. (The fatalist Syracuse fan base spent more time dreading his departure than enjoying the Clemson victory). Only in Year Two, Babers’ buyout is likely too big for him to get any serious traction during this round of hiring. With a marquee win, distinct identity and some recruiting momentum, a more likely option is Syracuse negotiating a new deal with Babers. (He joked in a phone interview Saturday that he’s putting more than $60,000 into refurbishing his home, a rebuild as a sign he’s continuing his rebuild).
Campbell and Brohm have injected life into Iowa State and Purdue, respectively, but it seems early for them to make a move. Brohm resisted some overtures while at Western Kentucky, and it’s reasonable to speculate he could wait out Bobby Petrino at Louisville.
One intriguing established coach is N.C. State’s Doeren, who has marquee games at Notre Dame and at home against Clemson. The Wolfpack have been one of the biggest stories in the sport this season, and don’t be surprised if Doeren looks for greener pasture. Winning both those games could change his hiring paradigm considerably.
10. What happens to Bobby Petrino?
There are few schools with a low enough moral compass to bring on all the baggage that comes with Petrino. Louisville is one of those schools, as evidenced by the treadmill of administrative “perp walks” outside academic buildings that its basketball coach and athletic director have been on the past two weeks.
The departure of athletic director Tom Jurich has tossed Petrino’s name around in carousel coaching conversations.
Auburn will forever be linked to Petrino, as they’ve infamously courted Petrino before and have exhibited a history of putting aside ethical failures to hire flawed but successful head coaches. (The recent FBI probe can show you how it has worked out for Bruce Pearl.) But with Auburn’s athletic director, Jay Jacobs, holding onto his job by his fingernails and a softball scandal fresh in administrators’ minds, it’s hard to imagine even Auburn bringing on college football’s most noted adulterer.
After Auburn? Well, the crickets you hear also come from Petrino being 4-6 in his past 10 games, including losses to Houston, Boston College and N.C. State. There’s been some self-induced de-geniusing. Much of this can be linked to the laziest of hires, when he took Mississippi State’s failed defensive coordinator, Peter Sirmon, in the wake of his firing.
Mississippi State finished No. 110 in total defense last year, and Petrino essentially traded for him after the Bulldogs hired Todd Grantham. Most Churchill bettors research trifecta bets more thoroughly than Petrino vetted candidates for that job. The result? Louisville giving up a combined 84 points in losses to Boston College and N.C. State.
This week’s predictions from Brent Musburger