Coaches skating on increasingly thin ice would no doubt love to have a schedule like Louisville's or Ohio State's this fall, but it doesn't work that way. Which coaches on or flirting with the hot seat could benefit, or be done in, by their schedules?
Lane Kiffin, USC
Heat check: Sizzling
There's no question that last season, which began with incredible expectations, was not pretty for Lane Kiffin and the Trojans. The Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, with the reported locker room scuffle to boot, was the last of the sour notes.
But what now? The defense should have a different look with new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and when I spoke with receivers coach Tee Martin recently, he said he thought quarterback contenders Max Wittek and Cody Kessler both had solid springs.
No one is expecting USC, still feeling the effects of the scholarship reductions, to reach the level it was supposed to in 2012. But will there be enough positive momentum for Kiffin to earn back some trust from fans and those inside the program and keep his job? Or will the slide continue?
How the schedule sets up: There's some good news and bad news here for Kiffin. With 13 regular-season games, thanks to the opener at Hawaii, the win total could potentially appear slightly more inflated. The opening stretch of the Rainbows, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State might result in some climbing back on the USC bandwagon, especially if the Trojans follow that up with a win in their Sept. 28 road test at Arizona State. That game should help shape the division race.
USC then hosts Arizona -- the Trojans' most surprising regular-season loss a year ago -- for a Thursday night game and another winnable matchup, and then goes to Notre Dame a week and a half later.
Depending on where the Trojans are entering the final week, the UCLA game could be a significant barometer. A win could get some momentum back in the battle for L.A. A loss could further tip energy toward Westwood and increase the pressure on AD Pat Haden to make a move.
Bottom line: This is a manageable slate overall, but Kiffin doesn't need any more "how did they lose that one?" games.
Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Heat check: Sizzling
Two teams entered the SEC in 2012. One looked like it belonged, and one scuffled. Texas A&M's instant success only worked to make Gary Pinkel and Mizzou appear worse by comparison. That's ironic, since the Tigers had been to the Big 12 title game in 2007 and 2008, and the Aggies had not appeared in it for a decade before that. But things change quickly, and the SEC move could end up being a death sentence for Pinkel's employment. It will be interesting to see what Josh Henson's promotion to offensive coordinator, following David Yost's departure, means for Dorial Green-Beckham and the offense.
How the schedule sets up: Missouri has Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in consecutive weeks in October, so it could be reeling as it enters a November that features games against Tennessee, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss and against A&M.
With that in mind, whether Pinkel can get the Tigers back in a bowl game might be decided by the time the SEC season begins. Mizzou opens with Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State. They're all winnable games, potentially confidence-building games, but the final three opponents are far from pushovers.
Toledo's Matt Campbell would be on the hunt for a potential resume-building victory. It was just a four-win season, but Kevin Wilson had Indiana going in the right direction last year. The Hoosiers were fifth in the league in yards per play (5.65) and fourth in points per game (30.8).
Bryan Harsin takes over at Arkansas State for Gus Malzahn, who won 10 games in 2012. Malzahn took over for Hugh Freeze, who won 10 games in 2011. Point there: Don't rule out first-year coaches in Jonesboro.
Bottom line: At least there's no Alabama or LSU, but overall, this schedule is a grind.
Randy Edsall, Maryland
Heat check: Simmering
When a linebacker winds up playing quarterback, when injuries have set in to that extent, a coach generally receives a pass for that season. That was essentially the case in 2012 for Randy Edsall, whose team went 4-8 and won two ACC games. That did constitute a doubling of the 2011 win total, but six victories in two seasons is not going to cut it. Six in a single season likely wouldn't work for very long. With better health, Edsall's teams will have to show real growth in the next season or two.
How the schedule sets up: As it has been lately, it will come down to how the Terps manage 50-50, coin-flip type ballgames. So rather than be concerned about FSU and Clemson, which are forgivable losses, it is more about games such as Oct. 12 versus Virginia, Oct. 19 at Wake Forest and Nov. 23 at Boston College. That's the starting point for Maryland's current station. The nonconference start of Florida International, Old Dominion and UConn could help, too, leading into a matchup with West Virginia in Baltimore.
Presuming Edsall survives another year, the 2014 schedule obviously will look significantly different. But it isn't as if the Big Ten presents anything all that different than the ACC in terms of difficulty. In fact, the conferences currently are quite similarly structured.
Bottom line: You wouldn't call this schedule "easy," but Edsall has several winnable games on the docket this season.
Mack Brown, Texas
Heat check: Simmering
Bouncing back from that five-win season in 2010 with 17 victories since has sort of quieted the restless in the heart of Texas, but only sort of. Two seasons ago, the offense was a mess. Last season, the defense struggled with injuries and tackling. So it's tough to know what to make of the Longhorns entering 2013, even with it fairly difficult to argue that any team in the Big 12 has more talent (I ranked them second in the country in terms of overall talent earlier this offseason, behind only Alabama). So if they're not at least in the hunt this fall, that restlessness will again increase to the point that Mack Brown will again be a hot-seat guy.
How the schedule sets up: Texas again has Ole Miss in the nonconference. It had little problems with the Rebels on the road last season, but that was before they had found a groove -- and before Freeze added a big-time recruiting class featuring defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. So that Sept. 14 date could be tricky.
Another danger-zone game: A Thursday trip to Iowa State on Oct. 3 -- the week before the Red River game -- looks awfully perilous.
The Horns have lost the past two Oklahoma games by a combined score of 118-38, so finding respectability in Dallas would be a nice midseason goal. A trip to TCU, which won in Austin in 2012, is next. If that three-game stretch goes sideways at all, 1-2 or 0-3, Brown could really find his seat warm before the conference stretch run.
Bottom line: There are plenty of games here that could trip up the Longhorns, but not many games in which they won't be favored.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Heat check: Warming
Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell spoke recently with quarterback Keith Price, who has demonstrated moments of excellence but did have a 19-13 TD-to-INT rate a year ago. Gemmell left Price with an open-ended statement: "In 2013, Washington will be ..." Price said "better."
But what's "better"? How much better?
With Price as an example, Washington is far from bereft of talent, which means there's no excuse for the Huskies to win fewer than the seven games they did a year ago.
How the schedule sets up: U-Dub gets back into its lakeside home after an overhaul. So reopening it with a victory against Boise State -- avenging the contested Vegas Bowl loss last December -- would be a heck of a start toward "better." A win in the Week 3 matchup with Illinois in Chicago looks more like a "must."
In league play, going to Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State will not make contending in the Pac-12 North any easier. We'll likely have a good idea about the Huskies by Oct. 12, just after they play Stanford and Oregon in consecutive weeks. The final five regular-season games, however -- Cal, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon State and Washington State -- could be the ones that shape the perception of Sark and his staff going forward.
Bottom line: There are enough challenges here to make Sarkisian and Co. nervous, but the opening and closing stretches provide good opportunities to rack up wins.
Mike London, Virginia
Heat check: Warming
Mike London continues to do a nice job of attracting recruits, particularly those from the commonwealth. The Cavs currently are 15th in our class rankings, bolstered by No. 1 DT Andrew Brown's recent commitment.
But, as we've seen at places such as Auburn, recruiting isn't the end. You have to do something with the talent. London seemed to have things steered in the right direction two seasons ago, an eight-win year, but then 2012 became his second four-win season in three years on the job.
How the schedule sets up: Well, Oregon comes to Charlottesville Week 2 (after BYU arrives for the season opener). That isn't helpful. The Cavs miss Florida State, but listen to this November finish: Clemson, at North Carolina, at Miami and Virginia Tech. Even if the Hoos have a decent record after the first two months, it could be tough for London to get much traction. Fan bases tend to grumble more, too, when a team stumbles to the finish line rather than showing some signs of promise.
Bottom line: This schedule won't do London any favors.
More hot-seat notes:
• If only Iowa could figure out a way to raise, offering plate-style, the $2-plus million a year it would need through 2020 to get out of Kirk Ferentz's airtight contract. "His agent deserves more than what he's getting," one coach told me last fall. "It isn't easy to win at Iowa -- we take that for granted -- but you get big-time money, you better get results." The Hawkeyes went 4-8 last season.
• Beyond Missouri, what might be the next SEC job to watch? This takes some stretching, and it wouldn't necessarily be immediate, but Mississippi State's Dan Mullen could begin to face increasing pressure after Ole Miss has started to steal headlines in that state. It's been a decent run for Mullen the past three seasons, winning nine, seven and eight games. But the momentum feels as if it's going toward Oxford and not Starkville. If results follow suit -- and to be clear, that's no guarantee -- Mullen could find himself scrambling for victories. Beyond Ole Miss, Mullen talked last summer about finding ways to climb in the West by beating Alabama and LSU. Mississippi State, despite some NFL-level talent, doesn't seem collectively any closer, and Texas A&M quickly took over Arkansas' peg on the division's ladder.
• After a two-win season, including no conference victories, Illinois' Tim Beckman is in a similar spot to where Edsall was a year ago. No administration wants to punt on a hire after a season or two, but at some point it becomes an issue of regression to the detriment of the successor. That's what Tennessee is dealing with, I've been told, after quick tenures for Kiffin and Derek Dooley.