While there were a few exceptions, most college football coaches who had a bad season in 2020 got a little bit of a pass. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic made it next to impossible to have a normal training camp which led to some struggles.
Keep in mind that most teams were lucky to play as little as 10 games during the season. Those circumstances, not to mention financial restraints, made it a little more difficult to fire coaches.
But that isn’t likely to be the case in 2021, especially for coaches who had a disappointing season last year. In fact, there might be a few more coaches than usual who are starting the new season already on the hot seat.
Let’s take a look at the college football coaches who are under pressure to win in 2021 or risk losing their jobs.
Dana Holgorsen, Houston Cougars
There’s no question that Houston believes it should be a top-tier team in the AAC. But under Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars have gone 7-13 over the last two seasons.
He’ll get a little bit of a pass because of the D’Eriq King situation in 2019 and the unusual 2020 season. But it’s put up or shut up for Holgorsen in his third season. If the results aren’t positive, he’ll be gone.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines
Patience is starting to wear thin in Ann Arbor after six seasons. The losses to Ohio State every year are hard to stomach, and so was last year’s 2-4 campaign. It also hurts that the Wolverines are just 1-5 in bowl games under Jim Harbaugh.
There are no excuses for Harbaugh in 2021. If Michigan isn’t a top-10 team and can’t get a win over Ohio State, he might be out.
Mike Leach, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mike Leach could find out quickly how rough life in the SEC can be.
Despite going 3-7 last season, the Bulldogs were invited to a bowl game, which they won to finish 4-7. But other than an upset win over LSU to start the season, there was nothing to like about MSU’s 2020 campaign.
Leach’s high-scoring offense scored 14 points or less five times last year. He might be able to survive another losing season, but if his Air-Raid Offense doesn’t show progress and put some points on the board, there’ll be no reason for Mississippi State to keep him.
Scott Frost, Nebraska Cornhuskers
As a former Nebraska player, Scott Frost is going to get a little extra slack compared to most coaches. But going 3-5 last year was not the step forward the Cornhuskers envisioned in Frost’s third season.
He’s now 12-20 at Nebraska, falling well short of the expectations he set for himself while at UCF. Six wins and a bowl bid will probably be enough, but anything less and Frost will have a reason to be nervous.
Doug Martin, New Mexico State Aggies
To be fair, New Mexico State just played two games last year, going 1-1. But Doug Martin is just 23-64 with the Aggies and 6-20 since they became an independent prior to the 2018 season. He’s had more than enough time to avoid such disastrous seasons.
Outside of November road trips to Alabama and Kentucky, most of New Mexico State’s games this year are conceivably winnable, and if the Aggies don’t show substantial progress from a 2-10 campaign in 2019, there’s no reason for Martin to stick around.
Dino Babers, Syracuse Orange
Dino Babers and the Orange had tons of problems with injuries last season, helping to explain Syracuse’s 1-10 campaign. Unfortunately, the goodwill Babers earned from his team’s 10-3 season in 2018 is wearing off. That was the only season he’s taken the Orange to a bowl in his first five seasons. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s a bowl game or bust if Babers hopes to keep his job.
Matt Wells, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech doesn’t expect to win the Big 12, but that doesn’t mean you can go 8-14 over two seasons. Matt Wells deserves a little bit of slack because of the special circumstances in 2020, which could buy him an extra year. But the Red Raiders have tricky non-conference games against Houston and FIU early this season.
If Texas Tech loses one of those games and then fails to lead the Red Raiders to a bowl game, there could be a coaching change in Lubbock.
Chip Kelly, UCLA Bruins
The Bruins just haven’t taken off under Chip Kelly the way one would expect given everything he did at Oregon earlier in his career. There have been some promising moments, but 10-21 after three seasons isn’t going to cut it.
The Bruins won’t have an easy time in 2021 because the Pac-12 South will be more competitive and UCLA will play LSU at home early in the season. But if Kelly can’t get the Bruins to a bowl game, it’s hard to justify giving him a fifth season at the helm.
Clay Helton, USC Trojans
It’s hard to imagine Clay Helton getting completely off the hot seat at USC. Expectations are so high for the program that even winning the Pac-12 South last year and finishing in the top-25 wasn't enough.
If the Trojans don’t win the Pac-12 and make a serious push for the College Football Playoff in 2021, there will be plenty of fans calling for Helton to be fired.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech Hokies
It was always going to be tough for Justin Fuente to follow the legendary Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. To be fair, he hasn’t done a bad job in Blacksburg. But after the Hokies lost four of their last five games last season, including a blowout loss to Pitt and a home defeat against regional rival Liberty, Fuente needs to put together something special in 2021.
An average season in which Virginia Tech barely makes a bowl game might be enough to cost him his job.
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