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October 2, 2009

Mailbag: Which coaches are on thin ice?

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Tommy Tuberville is available. So is Phillip Fulmer. Charlie Strong is fielding yet another ornery defense at Florida. Gus Malzahn has Auburn's offense averaging more than 45 points a game. Bud Foster always has a strong defense at Virginia Tech.

That quintet will be among the most attractive candidates for head-coaching jobs this offseason. The question is which positions will come open.

Some coaches will retire. Some coaches will be fired. But who?

That's a topic to consider in this week's mailbag.

Quick hook?

From: David in Salem, Ore.: Normally, one would think it's far too early to consider specific coaches getting the axe, but wouldn't you have to conclude that the coaches at Virginia (Al Groh) and Colorado (Dan Hawkins) already are listing their homes for sale? I would even hazard a guess that Washington State is starting to draw up a short list. And I have assumed Texas A&M already has penciled in Tommy Tuberville for 2010. Your thoughts?

With coaches routinely making seven-figure salaries, patience is the only luxury most programs don't have.

Administrations have become more demanding. If the desired results aren't there, changes can be made quickly. That was made crystal clear last year when Clemson whacked Tommy Bowden midway through the season.

Despite that, I think Hawkins may retain his job even though the Buffaloes are in danger of a fourth consecutive losing season. If Colorado founders through its Big 12 schedule and manages only three or four victories, his job will be in peril. But Hawkins is such a positive, well-liked guy that the administration may wait another year to see if he can get the program turned around.

Besides, Hawkins' buyout reportedly is about $3 million, and Colorado has had some financial issues. Firing him may not be fiscally responsible.

On the other hand, I'd be surprised if Virginia retains Groh unless the Cavaliers make a 180-degree turn and finish the season strong. Virginia has had losing records in two of the past three seasons, and this season has begun with three losses, including a defeat at the hands of (yikes) William & Mary. That doesn't inspire much optimism for the rest of Virginia's season or for Groh's future.

Washington State managed just two wins in Paul Wulff's first season and might not win that many this season. Still, it would come as a surprise if Wulff was fired after only two seasons.

The same goes for Mike Sherman at Texas A&M. His job security may have seemed precarious entering the season because of Tuberville's availability. But the Aggies have gotten off to a 3-0 start and look better than the four-win team of a year ago. In fact, a seven- or eight-victory season seems within reach. I wouldn't expect A&M to replace Sherman in a season in which he's taken them to a bowl game.

I've learned never to rule out anything, but I'd expect to see Hawkins, Wulff and Sherman coaching their teams in 2010.

Several coaching jobs will come open, though. Among the coaches in danger are Groh, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe, UNLV's Mike Sanford, UTEP's Mike Price, Tulane's Bob Toledo, Marshall's Mark Snyder, Memphis' Tommy West, Akron's J.D. Brookhart, Kent State's Doug Martin and New Mexico's Mike Locksley, who is in his first season but has had problems that extend way beyond losing the first four games.

Running with the big dogs

From: Alexis in Marion, Ohio: With all of the grief my beloved Buckeyes have received for getting "blown out" in big games, why don't people see that the USC loss was close? One or two little things, and it would have gone the other way. Ohio State showed it can hang with the big dogs in that game.

The problem here, Alexis, is that Ohio State shouldn't have to prove it can "hang with" the big dogs. Ohio State is a big dog. Or at least it should be.

But to your point, anyone who watched that game knows that Ohio State played USC on almost equal footing. In fact, Ohio State outplayed the Trojans for the majority of the game, but some questionable decisions by Jim Tressel and some clutch plays by USC running back Joe McKnight in the final drive turned out to be the difference.

Ohio State also showed it can play on an even level with Penn State in their Big Ten showdown last year and against Texas, which needed a clutch final drive to defeat the Buckeyes in last season's Fiesta Bowl.

By consistently playing competitive games against highly ranked opponents, the Buckeyes have proven to everyone that they're still a top-level program. OK, so maybe SEC fans disagree, but they tend to believe anything played outside their conference isn't big-time football.

The bottom line, though, is being competitive and playing close isn't what Ohio State is about. Other teams should feel good about losing competitive games against the Buckeyes. It's not supposed to be the other way around.

Where are the Gamecocks?

From: Henry in Sumter, S.C.: We are four weeks into the season and South Carolina is one play away from being 4-0. But all I hear about after the Ole Miss game is how a one-loss team (Ole Miss) can still take the SEC and possibly get to the national title game. Why isn't anything being said about the Gamecocks?

South Carolina fans have a legitimate reason to be irked.

The Gamecocks are 3-1, with a victory over a top-five team (Ole Miss). They have dealt two teams their only loss (Ole Miss and N.C. State). Meanwhile, the Gamecocks' only loss was in a 41-37 shootout with Georgia, which also is 3-1 but ranked in both polls.

South Carolina is the only team with a win over a top-10 opponent that isn't included in the most recent polls. Seriously, how is it that South Carolina is omitted, but 3-1 teams such as Penn State, California, Nebraska and Georgia Tech are not?

Penn State's victories have come against Akron, Syracuse and Temple, which are a combined 4-7. California beat Maryland and Minnesota, neither of which is ranked, and FCS member Eastern Washington before getting throttled by Oregon 42-3 last week. Nebraska gained respect by losing a close game to Virginia Tech. But the Huskers' victories have come against Sun Belt Conference members Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Georgia Tech was pounded by Miami. While the Yellow Jackets do have a win over North Carolina, which was ranked 22nd, that's not as impressive as beating the fifth-ranked team.

So the gnashing of teeth in Columbia is quite understandable. But Gamecocks fans also have to understand something, too. There are two reasons South Carolina still is trying to break into the national rankings. First, the Gamecocks weren't in the preseason rankings, so they have to keep winning and wait for more ranked teams to lose. Secondly, they're victims of their own history of mediocrity. South Carolina typically has been a moribund program that's unable to win big. As recently as 2007 the Gamecocks were ranked as high as sixth midway through the season, only to lose their last five regular-season games.

South Carolina has to show it can play at a high level over the course of a season before it's going to get much national respect.

Jumping the gun

From: Teddy in New Hampshire: Does USC quarterback Matt Barkley really deserve the credit he's gotten for the win at Ohio State? He was 3-for-5 on the last drive. Do those three completions really cement him in "heroic" status?

Barkley deserves credit for keeping his poise in a pressure situation and making some key completions -- 21 yards to Joe McKnight, 26 yards to Anthony McCoy and 8 yards to Damian Williams -- during the winning drive.

That drive demonstrated that he isn't likely to get rattled in pressure situations. It also showed that USC will be set at quarterback for the next three seasons.

But there was an overreaction by some who seemed to want to bestow "legend" status on him. McKnight was a much bigger factor in that drive, accounting for 54 yards.

The stir caused by the drive seemed to overlook that Barkley was just 15-of-31 for 195 yards and no touchdowns against Ohio State. He had a solid showing (13-of-22 for 247 yards and two touchdowns) against lowly Washington State despite a sore shoulder.

Barkley will get better as the season progresses. He will be a good quarterback for the Trojans. He'll probably surface as a leading Heisman contender in a year or two.

But the reaction to his play so far is a little overblown.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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