Pick Six: Helton, Harbaugh heading into pivotal seasons

Aug 16, 2021, 11:32 AM | Updated: 11:37 pm

Last year, around this time, the conventional wisdom was that a financial crunch brought on by the pandemic would discourage schools from laying out a multimillion-dollar buyout to fire a football coach.

Conventional wisdom was wrong.

Arizona was on the hook for more than $7 million when it sacked Kevin Sumlin.

South Carolina paid a lump sum of $12.9 million to part ways with Will Muschamp.

Texas laid out $15.4 million to get rid of Tom Herman.

Auburn forked over more that $21 million to move on from Gus Malzahn.

Fifteen schools changed coaches, fewer than what has become a typical number across the Bowl Subdivision, but a lot more than what was initially expected.

The hot spots heading into this season include a coach who got a somewhat surprising reprieve, one who took a pay cut and, of course, Clay Helton.

CLAY HELTON, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Might as well start in Los Angeles, where Helton is remarkably entering his seventh season as Trojans coach. Helton’s status has seemingly been tenuous for the last three seasons. His 45-23 record is good, but USC wants great and has invested in assistant coaches and staff to support the well-respected head coach. With only two more seasons left on his contract and a buyout that figures to be around $10 million, Helton is likely to have a high bar to clear in 2021 for No. 16 USC to keep him.

JIM HARBAUGH, MICHIGAN

Harbaugh took a big pay cut after Michigan went 2-4 last season. The former Michigan quarterback has not delivered success at the level expected when he returned to Ann Arbor. But not until last season did it look as if the program was regressing. Harbaugh will get another season with a revamped coaching staff to show he can change the trajectory, but incremental improvements in year seven might not be enough to get him to year eight.

Michigan and USC coming open at the same time could make for one wild coaching carousel, especially if Matt Campbell has another big season at Iowa State and becomes a top target.

JUSTIN FUENTE, VIRGINIA TECH

The Hokies went to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game in Fuente’s first season as Frank Beamer’s replacement. He seemed like the perfect fit. Virginia Tech is 28-22 since. The Hokies went 5-6 last year and speculation about Fuente’s status was so intense that the announcement of a news conference with athletic director Whit Babcock the day before Fuente’s buyout was scheduled to drop in February caused the school to clarify that the coach was indeed coming back. Fuente needs a big turnaround, but a tough early schedule and VT’s recent recruiting rankings don’t suggest one is coming.

HERM EDWARDS, ARIZONA STATE

On the field, Edwards has done OK, 17-13 in three seasons. The is the season the 25th-ranked Sun Devils have been building toward. They look like legitimate Pac-12 contenders. Off the field, the program is being investigated by the NCAA for possible recruiting violations. The question is not only can the 67-year-old former NFL coach survive the scandal, but does he even want to deal with it?

DINO BABERS, SYRACUSE

The Orange won 10 games and finished No. 15 in the country in Babers’ third season. It now seems like a fluke. Syracuse is 14-33 in Babers’ other four seasons. This has become one the toughest jobs in the Power Five and Babers has two more years after this left on his contract. Modest improvement could be enough to buy him another year, but even that will be tough to achieve.

MATT WELLS, TEXAS TECH

Red Raiders fans are getting restless. Since Mike Leach was fired in 2009, Texas Tech has gone 11 straight seasons without a winning record in the Big 12. Wells has only been in Lubbock for two years, but is just 8-14. Compounding the problem for Wells, a school that has become synonymous with proficient offenses has been pedestrian on that side of the ball. It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another to be boring.

Extra point: It’s a big season for two much-hyped and well-paid Big Ten coaches: Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. Both have buyouts in the $20 million range that will likely provide some cover as long as their teams show some improvement. … Amazingly, there are no obvious hot seats in the Southeastern Conference, but things could go sideways quickly at LSU for Ed Orgeron if the Tigers turn in another .500 season.

Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://APpodcasts.com

___

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Pick Six: Helton, Harbaugh heading into pivotal seasons