(Image Courtesy: Michael Switzer)
Throughout the most tumultuous off-season of his career, I always had Larry Fedora’s back. Coming off a 3-9 season that was due in large part to a historic amount of injuries, Fedora did himself no favors with his bizarre “football is under attack” diatribe at ACC Kickoff. Just a few weeks later he had to suspend more than a dozen players for selling sneakers against NCAA rules. Anything that could go wrong for North Carolina football in the past year and a half, well, has gone very, very wrong. I thought he could survive it. I was wrong.
The injuries were an easy thing to point to in 2017 to explain why things turned so far south. The War on Football thing wasn’t so much about Fedora’s intent as it was his inability to articulate it. Are there questions about the effects of CTE? Sure, but Fedora made it sound like the country was going to hell in a handbasket if football ceased to exist. It was sloppy, poorly timed, and it put Fedora squarely under the microscope heading into the 2018 season. The sneaker scandal wasn’t Fedora’s fault; it was a Dumb Teenager Moment that Fedora and his administration actually handled very well. Most people don’t recognize that, however, and see the optics of another NCAA violation at UNC and want to blame Fedora for it.
Just three years ago, North Carolina played for an ACC Championship against Clemson, and was an onside kick recovery away from having a shot to beat the eventual national runners-up. It’s not like the program hasn’t showed tremendous promise under Fedora’s guidance.
On Saturday though, the program hit rock bottom. Even as a nearly decade-long NCAA cloud cast a shadow over the program, it was never in as bad of a shape as it is today after losing 43-19 to East Carolina.
As Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer perfectly explained, not enough has changed over the course of Fedora’s career in Chapel Hill. There were moments of hope, but too many times the program has failed to live up to expectations. Most of the time it seems like it’s on Fedora, too. Who can forget his stunning refusal to give Elijah Hood the ball in short-yardage/goal-line situations? The Tar Heels are routinely one of the most penalized teams in the ACC. The recruiting has somehow been worse after the NCAA investigation was over. Fedora’s once-innovative offense has never evolved while the rest of the country has caught up to his tricks.
So where do the Tar Heels go from here? As Carter notes, Fedora was just extended a year ago through 2022. It’s going to cost a LOT of money to fire him now. Is AD Bubba Cunningham willing to do that? Fedora’s been loyal to UNC when he didn’t need to be. It wasn’t long ago he was one of the most sought-after coaches in college football. Those days seem like a century ago now. The question UNC officials (and fans) need to ask themselves is: how good of a job is head football coach at UNC?
I ran a poll on Twitter last week where more than 65% said it was either a good or a great job. I tend to think it’s a good job as well. You’re in a winnable division in a talent-rich area of the country. I’d rather be the head coach at UNC than say, Iowa. The fan support might not be there like it is for some other middle-tier Power Five schools, but the pressure is relatively low while the upside is high. If you can win eight games routinely at UNC, and maybe occasionally hit 10 wins, you’re safe. The ceiling at UNC is much higher than that, but it’s rare to find a program that has the infrastructure to compete for conference titles with the right coach where the expectations are so reasonable at the same time. I never would have thought Fedora couldn’t live up to that standard, but here we are.
With Larry Fedora officially on the hot seat, here are five names that I believe make the most sense for UNC to pursue if/when he’s fired.
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State HC
Satterfield has helped guide Appalachian State into one of the more dangerous mid-major programs in college football. He’s taken the Mountaineers to the brink of upsets at Tennessee and Penn State in recent years. He’s 31-10 in 3+ years in Boone, and is a North Carolina native. If it’s not UNC, it will be another Power Five school that comes calling very soon.
Greg Schiano, Ohio State DC
He should be the Tennessee coach right now if it weren’t for the faux outrage showcased by the Volunteer fan base last year after they announced his hire. Schiano is a proven college head coach. He once had Rutgers ranked as high as seventh in the country in 2006. Rutgers! Seventh! All you need to know is that since 1996, Rutgers is 67-66 with Schiano on the sideline and 46-89 without. For a UNC program that has bounced between mediocre and miserable on defense under Fedora, someone with Schiano’s defensive chops might be needed.
Tony Elliott, Clemson OC
The Tigers are 43-4 with Elliott as the offensive coordinator, and he’s helped lead one of the most impressive recruiting runs in recent memory as Clemson has become a household name with five-star prospects. He clearly knows the ACC and can recruit the area. The question with Elliott is can he win without NFL players all over the roster? This would be a gamble.
Seth Littrell, North Texas HC
Littrell spent two seasons working under Fedora as the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, including the 11-3 season in 2015. When he took the North Texas job, the Mean Green were coming off a 1-11 season. They won five games in his first year, eight in his second, and are 2-0 this season. If they continue to trend upwards in 2018, Littrell would make for a very attractive candidate in Chapel Hill.
Mike Norvell, Memphis HC
Norvell replaced Justin Fuente three years ago and has kept things rolling at Memphis, if not improved things a little bit. The Tigers finished 10-3 and ranked inside the Top 25 last season, something Fuente never did at Memphis (mostly because Fuente built the program from absolute scratch, but at least Norvell kept building). Assuming Memphis puts together a similar season in 2018 (they’re 1-1 right now), Norvell will be a popular name come December. He wouldn’t be Carolina’s first choice, but we’ve seen the success Virginia Tech has had going to the well in Memphis. Maybe UNC decides to follow suit.
The JP Top 10
As I’ll do every week in the SMQB, here are the most accurate rankings in college football to date. Unlike the AP Top 10, the JP Top 10 rewards teams for what they’ve accomplished on the field. It is a snapshot, not a projection. This isn’t how I think the rankings will look at the end of the season, heck it’s not even how I think they’ll look next week. These are the ten teams who have impressed me the most during, you know, actual football games so far this season.
1. Georgia (last week: 11)
I was at Williams-Brice Stadium to watch Georgia completely outclass South Carolina. The Gamecocks gave everything they had for 2.5 quarters and the Bulldogs barely broke a sweat. Georgia has a chip on its shoulder after the way things ended last year against Alabama. They are on a mission to get revenge in Atlanta on Dec. 1. I don’t see anyone getting in their way. This team is better than it was last year.
2. Auburn (last week: 1)
The Tigers own the second most impressive win so far this season, beating a very good Washington team on a “neutral” field in Atlanta.
3. Alabama (last week 2)
The Tide may have cost me the #BuyTheBoat lock of Week 2, but they are outrageously deep, even for Alabama standards. It’s absolutely silly that their garbage time lineup features a former SEC Player of the Year (Jalen Hurts), and a former #1 overall recruit at running back (Najee Harris). They have been so thoroughly dominant it’s hard to rank them any lower than this, even if Louisville and Arkansas State isn’t exactly a gauntlet.
4. LSU (last week: 3)
I wrote earlier this week that Ed Orgeron/LSU has a little Dabo Swinney/Clemson feel to it from when Swinney was just getting started. The Tigers took it easy on in-state FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana with just seven points in the second half to win 31-0, but the Tigers obliterating an overconfident Miami team last Sunday is still burned into my mind.
5. Oklahoma (last week: 4)
I had a funny feeling Oklahoma might be better than it was a year ago, and the Sooners are starting to convince me even further after two weeks. They hammered a good FAU team 63-14 before walloping UCLA 49-21 in Norman on Saturday. The big question for Lincoln Riley’s club now is the health of Rodney Anderson, who left the game with a scary knee injury early on. That would be a crushing blow to the best offense in college football.
6. Virginia Tech (last week 5)
The Hokies win at Florida State loses a bit of its luster after the Seminoles had to come from behind to beat Samford late Saturday night, but I’m reminded of another team that faced an FCS school after an emotional loss on short rest once upon a time. That would be Virginia Tech in 2010, which lost to JMU after a crushing loss to Boise State on Labor Day just five days before. The Hokies went on to win the ACC that season. All that to say, Florida State still has time to figure things out, and the Hokies still deserve credit for chopping their way through Tallahassee last week. Justin Fuente’s team is in position to be favored in every game the rest of the season. Justttt saying…
7. Stanford (last week: N/A)
David Shaw has the best team in the Pac-12, and the Cardinal showed it on Saturday night against USC. The Trojans are young but talented, and they couldn’t find the end zone against the Stanford defense. KJ Costello didn’t light the world on fire (183 yards, 1 TD), but he’s got all the makings of a future NFL quarterback. Bryce Love looked like his old self with 136 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Stanford is balanced offensively, physical defensively, and the team to beat in the Pac-12. Their biggest hurdle? A schedule that pits them on the road against most of their toughest opponents from here on out.
8. Notre Dame (last week: 6)
I think we might look back on the Irish’s season-opening win against Michigan as one of the better non-conference wins in college football in 2018. The Wolverines are loaded with talent and Notre Dame’s defense made them look downright awful last week. I’m not sold on the Irish as a real Playoff threat, mostly because I’m not a big believer in Brandon Wimbush. But they’ve earned this ranking for now.
9. Ohio State (last week: 7)
If you’re asking me to project who’s going to be ranked where at season’s end, Ohio State is much higher than the ninth-best team in the country. For now, I can’t put the Buckeyes ahead of anyone else on this list for beating Oregon State and Rutgers, two of the worst teams in the Power Five, but I can’t ignore how thoroughly dominant they’ve been. We’ll find out a lot more about the Buckeyes this weekend when they face TCU in Dallas.
10. Arizona State (last week: N/A)
Herm Edwards was mocked by every corner of the college football world when Arizona State hired him last winter, and part of me understands why. The way the school framed his role was puzzling to say the least, and losing his coordinators within weeks was a bad look. But Herm Edwards is a master, and I mean master motivator. Kids are going to want to win for him. I don’t know if he can sustain success at Arizona State, but he walked into a great situation with Manny Wilkins under center and N’Keal Harry on the outside. The Sun Devils upset Michigan State late Saturday night to move to 2-0. I worked with Herm from time to time while I was at ESPN. I couldn’t be pulling harder for him. He’s a high-character coach in a sport that desperately needs more of that right now.