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Key games for hot-seat coaches

8/15/2012

The Tennessee Volunteers are currently on a business trip, holding a portion of their preseason camp about 100 miles from the school's Knoxville campus. It was Derek Dooley's idea to transport everyone an hour and a half up the road to Johnson City for a handful of practices -- including a couple at Steve Spurrier's old high school.

The third-year UT coach wanted to hearken to Junction Boys-type road shows, a sanctuary of football away from the familiar comforts, and distractions, of on-campus camp. Plus, it's a touch cooler as you travel north and east, up into the Appalachians.

It's a sweet story, really pretty cool, but will it function in an indirect or direct manner to save Dooley's job? Dooley, 13-14 in two seasons on Rocky Top, is squarely on the hot seat as the season begins, as are several other coaches across the country. Which swing game or games will dictate whether the seats warm to temperatures that require action, or cool to allow for continued employment?

For Dooley, September is dotted with those games, including the neutral-site opener against North Carolina State on Aug. 31 -- a Friday night game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Georgia played Boise State in the Atlanta-based opener a year ago, and the Bulldogs' Mark Richt was in a similar position to the one in which Dooley finds himself, even if Richt has been at UGA far longer, with far more success.

It seems unlikely that Dooley's team could follow Richt's team, starting 0-2 before winning 10 straight to reach the SEC title game -- if for no other reason than Tennessee has Georgia State for its Sept. 8 home opener. The Vols aren't going 0-2 to begin the year; but they might start 1-2 since Florida is next, on Sept. 15.

Then again, Tennessee could go 3-0 in those games. That's kind of the nature of this team as we sit here in the middle of August. UT is the SEC's preseason enigma, which doesn't shine much of a light on Dooley's future. "They have talent on offense, but I want to see their D," one SEC coach said a couple months ago. "If they won five games, it wouldn't surprise me. If they won eight or nine games, it wouldn't surprise me."

That talent is in reference to junior quarterback Tyler Bray (17 TDs, six INTs as a sophomore), potential 1,000-yard receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, and one of the league's most experienced returning offensive lines. If sophomore Marlin Lane can slide in for leading rusher Tauren Poole, the Vols will score some points.

Defense, with first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri bringing along Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme, is where the Vols' season -- and Dooley's fate -- will be determined. Let's see how that defense, with nine returning starters as well as junior college specimens such as Daniel McCullers (6-foot-6, 380 pounds), reacts against a fairly experienced NC State offense.

Mike Glennon, now a senior, may be one of the most improved quarterbacks in the country, as evidenced this summer by his rise among peers -- including Bray -- at the Manning Passing Academy. With Glennon leading, the Wolfpack won four of their final five games, including a 37-13 blasting of eventual ACC champ Clemson in Raleigh.

With its offensive weaponry, it's a game Tennessee should win. Should. Which makes it all the more essential for Dooley. A loss, and the fire-the-coach talk will begin to boil before the season is even off the ground. With the Gators coming to town in Week 3 and a four-game stretch of at Georgia, at Mississippi State, Alabama and at South Carolina awaiting midseason, the Vols simply can't afford to stumble in Week 1.

Here is a look at four other coaches on the hottest seats to start the season, and the games that are most likely to save them -- or cost them -- their jobs:

Jeff Tedford, California Golden Bears

Year: 11

Record: 79-48

Tedford's teams are always competitive and always seem to feature dynamic players on offense. But some semblance of stagnation has set in after 12 total wins the past two seasons. And, quick, name the school's starting quarterbacks since Aaron Rodgers came out in 2005.

With Stanford replacing Andrew Luck, and the Bears returning six offensive starters, it might be now or never if Cal -- under Tedford, anyway -- is going to move back toward the conference's top shelf.

The Bears have a difficult September back-to-back, traveling to Ohio State and USC on consecutive weeks, but the ensuing three-game stretch could be more defining for the program and Tedford.

The reason: Tedford will be going against three first-year coaches in the league. Todd Graham and Arizona State visit Sept. 29; Jim Mora Jr. and UCLA are in the following week; and a trip to Pullman to face Mike Leach and Washington State awaits Oct. 13.

If the new coaches begin to get their programs going, leaving Cal farther behind the Oregons and USCs, it could signal a time for a change in Berkeley. The Bears had better find a way to win two of those three, if not all three. (Cal went 2-1 against those teams in 2011.)

Joker Phillips, Kentucky Wildcats

Year: 3

Record: 11-14

For all the grief Phillips gets, the Wildcats haven't been all that bad in his two seasons, going to a bowl in 2010 and missing the postseason by a victory in 2011. And last year, UK defeated Tennessee for the first time in 27 years. Twenty-seven! That's more significant than a Compass Bowl appearance, right?

Perhaps spoiled by the successes inside Rupp Arena, UK fans want more -- which, truthfully, might be too much to ask of Phillips, who was held over from Rich Brooks' staff. And, in fairness, a 30-point loss to Vanderbilt did away with some of the good mojo of the UT victory. (That's why Dooley's seat is so toasty, anyhow.)

It's tempting to say the opener at Louisville might be the swing game for Phillips, but this will be the first time since 2008 that the Cardinals will enter as favorites. No, look for his future to be hooked more to 50-50 games on the schedule. How about that Oct. 6 home game against Mississippi State? Or the Oct. 27 trip to Missouri, or the Nov. 3 home game against Vanderbilt?

The Wildcats have to find wins where they're available, and that might not even be enough to save Joker. The fact that highly touted QB Morgan Newton hasn't had more success has not helped Phillips' cause.

Randy Edsall, Maryland Terrapins

Year: 2

Record: 2-10

Edsall's on the spot after just a year? Yeah, things have been that sour at Maryland, where the Terps ran off Ralph Friedgen after a nine-win 2010 only to see Edsall win two, including one ACC game, in 2011. And so it's a pretty giant hole he finds himself in entering Year 2, which is why this summer he sought the counsel of a PR firm. The departure of a dozen players, including QB Danny O'Brien, wasn't exactly positive press.

A two-win team generally has to look at every week as pivotal, but it's the lower-end conference games that Maryland must find ways to win. Reporters last month picked the Terps to finish last in the Atlantic Division, so that automatically makes games against Wake Forest (Oct. 6) and at Boston College (Oct. 27) of utmost importance to avoid another last-place finish in the division.

Edsall has to show that the program is on the way up -- where else is there to go? -- for him to earn another season. He's already hanging his hat on a 2012 recruiting class that got decent but not great reviews (it earned a C+ in ESPN Recruiting's grades). But if the defense (rated 108th in the FBS last season) doesn't improve under first-year coordinator Brian Stewart and lead to wins against the Terps' fellow ACC bottom-feeders (and a couple of Big East lightweights in Temple and Connecticut in Weeks 2 and 3), Edsall is unlikely to make it to Year 3.

Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech Red Raiders

Year: 3

Record: 13-12

The good news for Tuberville: The Red Raiders might as well fast-forward the calendar to the end of September, because they'll be 3-0 after working Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico.

The bad news for Tuberville: The Big 12 is again solid, top to nearly bottom. After the cupcake start comes a stretch of conference games at Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, at TCU, at Kansas State and Texas. That 3-0 start won't mean much if Tech is 3-6 or 4-5, something along those lines, because it likely will not be favored in any of those six games. Maybe against Iowa State, you say? Well, Tech was drilled 41-7 at home last year by the Cyclones. That could be as big a game as any for the Red Raiders before October's crush (heading into the OU game on Oct. 6 at 4-0 would be a very good thing).

A bowl berth might be the line for Tuberville and his staff, since last season was the first time since 1999 that Tech had not been in the postseason.

The team returns 17 starters, including senior quarterback Seth Doege and running back Eric Stephens (back from injury), but that schedule is a nightmare. Let's give Tech the benefit of the doubt and say it is 4-5 entering the final three games. If the Raiders find a way to win two of three against Kansas, at Oklahoma State and Baylor -- and reach a bowl -- it could be enough for Tuberville.