What offseason? At least, that’s got to be the mentality of our list of coaches facing the most pressure this year. Some are recent, high-profile hires for whom anything less than instant success will be considered a failure. Some have had time to develop their programs but have fallen short of expectations. Across the board, a lot of eyeballs — and not all friendly — will be on this group when it’s time to take the gridiron this fall.
Clay Helton, USC
This December, after a 5-7 finish to the season, Trojan fans and college football pundits alike were mystified when USC athletic director Lynn Swann hitched his wagon to Helton for another season. It was the worst finish for the Trojans since 2000 (the year before Pete Carroll went to Los Angeles) and one of only four seasons with fewer than six wins since 1961. In three full seasons as USC’s head coach, Helton has taken the Trojans to a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. For almost any other program, that would be considered coaching success, but USC is a program accustomed to being in the national title conversation every year. Anything short of a playoff berth in 2019 will be viewed as an abject failure (especially in light of the Kliff Kingsbury debacle that kicked off the Trojans offseason).
Chris Ash, Rutgers
The prospects for Rutgers couldn’t be more different than those at USC, and yet Ash hasn’t lived up to the comparatively meager expectations. The Big Ten is a tough conference — one which the Scarlet Knights joined fewer than five years ago — and to be sure, it can take a while for football programs with lesser pedigrees to catch up. But under Ash, Rutgers has looked like it barely belongs in the FBS, let alone the Power Five. Coming off a 1-11 season in 2018 and with just five FBS wins in his three years as head coach, Ash is in dire need of an uptick. This is a case where a multimillion-dollar buyout is likely keeping the coach in place for the time being, but if Ash doesn’t make great strides in turning the program around in Year 4, Rutgers will surely cuts its losses.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
After a season in which his team only narrowly missed a playoff berth, Harbaugh may not quite be on the proverbial hot seat…but the noise from the rafters is getting harder and harder to tune out. In 2019, Harbaugh will have to prove he can “win the big game,” a task that has often eluded the head coach since he led the Stanford Cardinal to an Orange Bowl win to end the 2010 season. Specifically, the Wolverines need to beat rival Ohio State for the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure. A 41-15 shellacking in the Peach Bowl, courtesy of Florida, left a stench that will carry over into next season unless Harbaugh can finally prove that he’s more than just a fixer — that he has what it takes to guide a team to a championship finish. Nothing less than a playoff spot will do in Ann Arbor.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
The stink of the Greg Schiano debacle, in which Tennessee fans railed so hard against his hire that Vols administration was forced to renege on the deal, still lingers in Knoxville. When Jeremy Pruitt got the gig a few weeks later, the same fans were supportive and seem to remain so despite a disappointing 5-7 finish in Pruitt’s first year. That will all evaporate quickly if the ex-Alabama defensive coordinator doesn’t produce a winning season in 2019, especially because the pieces are in the place. The Volunteers lost only a couple of seniors, return key performers at a multitude of positions and had an impressive signing day — so expectations will be high. Fair or not, SEC fan bases can turn on a dime, with the Volunteers’ among the most passionate.
Scott Frost, Nebraska
Frost is another second-year coach with something to prove. The Cornhuskers’ 0-6 start in 2018, which was the worst in program history, had some fans calling for Frost’s head despite the fact the ink on his contract had hardly dried. Considering the dismal inauguration to the Frost era, the fact that Nebraska finished 4-8 left a sense of optimism for the year ahead. The 2019 schedule is much more favorable — the Huskers will get their two toughest opponents, Ohio State and Wisconsin, at home. But this is a program with a proud tradition, big expectations and a definite sense of impatience in the wake of Mike Riley’s tenure. Should Nebraska suffer another slow start, or fail to show up for the midlevel Big Ten opponents, Frost’s favor will dry up in a hurry.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
When Malzahn guided the Tigers to a BCS Championship berth in his first season, hype for the coach reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately it appears Auburn’s skipper may have peaked early. Subsequently, the Tigers have been, well, just OK. Sure, they’ve played in two New Year’s Six bowl games and won the SEC West in 2017. They’re also 2-6 in the postseason under Malzahn and followed up that stellar 2017 campaign with a dud this past year. After 2017, Auburn signed Malzahn to a reported seven-year, $49 million contract extension — a number that all but precludes a buyout. But this is the SEC. Stranger things have happened than an expensive coach getting the boot following a winning season. Malzahn should be ready for a 2019 in which his every move, every play call and every final score will be scrutinized.
Mack Brown, North Carolina
But, you say, Brown is a living legend who’s already proved he can win in Chapel Hill! That, of course, is exactly why Brown is under a fair amount of pressure before he’s even donned the Tar Heel colors for his second stint. Since Brown departed for Texas in 1998, after leading one of the most successful eras in North Carolina football history, the Tar Heels have struggled to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive ACC. Brown’s hiring isn’t just about the X’s and O’s — it’s a sentimental one as well. North Carolina’s fans and administrators alike are hungry to recapture the magic of Mack Brown, Part 1. There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Brown hasn’t coached since 2013, and his final years at Texas weren’t successful ones. Additionally, this a full-blown rebuild: The Tar Heels have won a total of five games over the last two seasons. No one is predicting an overnight turnaround, but this was easily one of the most high-profile hires of the offseason, so a lot of eyeballs will be on Brown.
By: Kate Rooney