Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where fans were introduced to the varied animal life—green dogs and rats—in Tuscaloosa:
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Interim Coaches and Other Candidates vs. Matt Rhule—Who Wins?
A new, attractive FBS coaching option materialized Monday when the Carolina Panthers fired Matt Rhule. He was a bad fit in the NFL—or at least a bad fit with a franchise that never gave him a good quarterback—but has a very good record in college. Rhule turned two struggling programs into big winners, taking Temple from 2-10 his first year to consecutive 10-win seasons in his third and fourth seasons, then elevated Baylor from one win his first year to an 11-win season in his third campaign .
So if the 47-year-old Rhule wants to jump back in at the college level, as has been suspected for about a year now, he should have options. But he’s also sitting on a huge buyout from Carolina after signing a seven-year, $62-million deal in 2020. He can afford to be as choosy as he wants to be, while the Panthers would be very interested in seeing him hired and reducing what it owes Rhule.
The interesting twist to the current market is that four interim coaches started making their own cases by winning games Saturday. Here is a breakdown of the current market, the interims’ chances, other potential candidates, and what the interest from Rhule might be:
Nebraska (31). Interim coach Mickey Joseph is 2-1, making him the first coach with a record over .500 at the school at any point since Mike Riley was 19-18 in November of his final season in 2017 (he lost his last game to finish . 500). As of today, the Cornhuskers would likely be underdogs in every remaining game, so Joseph would exceed expectations if he could win a few of them. How much that matters remains to be seen, and Rhule would seemingly be someone Nebraska would love to talk to.
Others could be in play. Among them: North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren (69-50 with the Wolfpack, 92-54 overall, with a decade in the Midwest and four years in the Big Ten on his résumé); Kansas’ Lance Leipold (7-11 at a perennial doormat, 44-44 in FBS, a whopping 109-6 at the Division III level, a former Nebraska assistant); Kansas State’s Chris Klieman (25-17 with the Wildcats, 69-6 at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, as Midwest as they come); and Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien (15-9 at Penn State, 52-48 with the NFL’s Houston Texans).
In its current state, Nebraska could be turned down by plenty of people it aspires to hire. That might include Rhule, depending on how he views the former power program.
Wisconsin (32). Interim Jim Leonhard got off to a strong start Saturday, with the Badgers blowing out miserable Northwestern, 42-7. The performance of quarterback Graham Mertz in a tweaked offense was not lost on Wisconsin fans who were tired of the stagnation under the fired Paul Chryst. The Wisconsin administration gave Leonhard a chance for a fast start with the Wildcats and Michigan State as his first two opponents, and it seems clear the school would like to see Leonhard show enough to earn the job on a full-time basis.
But this also might be the best fit for Rhule, who played in the Big Ten at Penn State. The above candidates, especially Leipold and Doeren, would also make sense at Wisconsin, as both have ties to the school and state. If Leonhard can’t take advantage of his opportunity and secure the job, there will be other good options.
Arizona State (33). Interim Shaun Aguano is 1-2, with an upset win against Washington this past Saturday in the bank. The former high school coach is only in his fourth season at the collegiate level. He could have a chance for several more wins in the second half of the schedule (Stanford, Colorado and Arizona, most prominently). But if athletic director Ray Anderson is still on the job and making the next hire, he would likely want to make a bigger splash.
This is a job of perennial potential that has largely gone unfulfilled. With an ongoing major NCAA infractions case hanging over its head, that might continue to be the case. Would the specter of sanctions be enough to chase off candidates like Rhule, BYU’s Kalani Sitake and former Power 5 coaches Tom Herman or Bronco Mendenhall? It could be more attractive to someone moving up a level, like San Jose State’s Brent Brennan or Jackson State’s Deion Sanders.
Georgia Tech (34). Interim Brent Key has gotten everyone’s attention with a 2-0 start, taking down Pittsburgh and Duke. It’s the first time Tech has won back-to-back games since 2018, when Paul Johnson was the coach. The Yellow Jackets haven’t turned over the ball yet under Key, a former Nick Saban assistant at Alabama from 2016–’18. Other than Leonhard at Wisconsin, Key might have the best chance of the current interims to land the full-time role. (But an athletic director has to be hired first.)
Tech is a paradox of a job, sitting on a gold mine of talent but institutionally averse to the all-in mindset of big-time football. The challenge might appeal to Rhule, who had to rebuild Baylor amid trying circumstances but did have the rich Texas recruiting ground to help him. Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken has jazzed up his unit this season and certainly knows the recruiting ground. So does O’Brien at Alabama. Former Florida coach Dan Mullen could kick the tires on this one. And someone has to hire Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell (28-3 over the past two-and-a-half seasons) at some point.
Colorado (35). Interim Mike Sanford hasn’t yet coached a game. He is the offensive coordinator overseeing the worst offense in the Pac-12 and had two inglorious seasons as coach at Western Kentucky (9-16 in a job where most coaches win). So barring a radical upgrade to the current product, don’t expect Sanford to be a serious full-time candidate.
This is a tough job and it’s hard to see someone like Rhule wanting to take it on—he’s past the stage of having to jump at a total rebuild without the benefit of great institutional support. The Buffaloes would be wise to go after alum Ryan Walters, currently coordinating the best scoring defense in the country at Illinois.
Among the programs that may or may not be milling around in the coaching change lobby (36):
- Auburn is letting Bryan Harsin twist through a dismal second season, but it is inevitable that this job opens. Sanders would be a natural here, but the ever-meddlesome boosters here might have their eyes more focused on someone like Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. This would be the best opportunity to recruit and potentially win at the highest level, but does Rhule need the circus that comes along with the job?
- At Louisville, Scott Satterfield is 3-3 at the midpoint of his fourth season, which is pretty much a continuation of the previous three years. The rest of the schedule is hard, and if the Cardinals struggle, a change seems highly likely. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm looms as a logical replacement, but he also comes with a $6 million annual price tag. Would he be willing to take a hometown discount? This doesn’t seem like a Rhule landing spot.
- Boise State coach Andy Avalos has righted the ship with two strong wins after an ugly 2-2 start that led to the firing of offensive coordinator Tim Plough. Continuing that upward trajectory would help get Avalos to a third season—although if Harsin is on the market, a return engagement on the blue turf might be attractive to the school and coach.
- With a 4-24 record at South Florida, Jeff Scott is in the justification stage. The next stage is usually termination. Scott has come close to a couple of massive wins this season, losing to Florida and Cincinnati by a combined seven points, but it’s getting late for almost-wins to help. He has beaten one FBS opponent in his tenure. Not sure who wants this job, which comes with considerable potential and momentum towards an on-campus stadium, but it probably isn’t Rhule.
- In the same conference, Memphis is in an interesting situation. Ryan Silverfield is 18-12, and the program is clearly not where it was under Mike Norvell. The Tigers blew a 13-point lead in the final 90 seconds at home against Houston on Friday, missing a chance to get to 5-1. If the rest of the season goes poorly and athletic director Laird Veatch wants to make a change, how about pairing Penny Hardaway with Deion Sanders and having the two best former players-turned-college coaches in the sport?
- Also in the American: Houston is shuffling through a disappointing season amid high expectations, and with a Big 12 move looming. The school has been aggressive to the point of callousness at times; would it trap-door Dana Holgorsen if it could get Rhule back to Texas in the conference where he did his best work?
- Could Stanford open up? David Shaw has been a highly respected institution there, now in his 12th season and with plenty of glory on the résumé. But it’s faded glory. The four-season slide has been brutal: 12 wins, 23 losses and an 11-game losing streak against Power 5 competition. He has stayed loyal to his alma mater, and few super-talented coaches would want to take on the difficulties of the current job with transfer and NIL rules at a school that will always put academics first. But if Stanford makes a move and Rhule is available, it has to call him.
- A complete wild card: If Rhule doesn’t feel like packing up his house, he could perhaps stay in Charlotte and coach the 49ers. The Will Healy Era began with excitement but has stalled, with an 8-16 record the past two-plus seasons and losses in eight of the 49ers’ last nine. This isn’t the kind of job that can compete for national championships, but if Rhule wants to coach without much of the stress he endured at the NFL level, who knows?
State of the Week
South Carolina (37) has blocked five kicks this season and nine in 19 games under Shane Beamer, who is proving to be quite a chip off the ol’ block (sorry). His father, Frank, was a special teams maestro at Virginia Tech, and that part of the gene pool has carried over nicely to his son. In the six seasons before Beamer took over, the Gamecocks blocked a total of eight kicks.
Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
Marcus Freeman (38), Notre Dame. The sky was falling on Freeman a month ago, after an 0-2 start that included a staggering home loss to Marshall and an injury to his starting quarterback. But he’s won three straight since then, with the last two over previously unbeaten North Carolina on the road and BYU in Las Vegas. This season can still end very well for the Fighting Irish.
Coach Who Should Ride the Bus to Work
Tony Elliott (39), Virginia. The first-year coach didn’t inherit a lot, but he did get a very productive quarterback in Brennan Armstrong. It’s not going well. Virginia is 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the ACC, bottoming out in a 17-point home loss against a Louisville team missing its do-everything quarterback. Virginia even jumped to a 10-0 lead in that game before folding up shop. This is a well-timed open date for Elliott to go back into the lab and fix a few things for the second half of the season.
When hungry and thirsty in the wondrous mountain town of Boone, NC, The Dash recommends a stop at Appalachian Mountain Brewery (40). The pub is homey, and the pizza food truck outside is legit. Grab a Hop Rain Drop IPA and thank The Dash later.
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MORE DASH: Loaded Weekend | Red River Fallout | Latest Heisman Leaders