Winning in college football comes and goes in bunches. Teams can be successful for a long time, creating dynasties, while others win for a few years and lose for many others.
Even in the preseason as college football programs prepare for the upcoming 2019 campaign, there are several head coaches facing pressure to win now, some as much on the hot seat entering 2019.
Guys like Lovie Smith, Brent Brennan, and Chris Ash could be the first coaches fired this season after overall disappointing tenures with their programs, while guys like Clay Helton and Jim Harbaugh have their seats warming up a little bit despite being overall successful with their respective programs.
Here are six head coaches entering this year’s college football season who are facing pressure to win in 2019.
Lovie Smith, Illinois
It’s been a rough three years at Illinois for Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini haven’t come close to a winning record since he arrived, winning only nine games in the last three years – he’s 9-27 with Illinois since his 2016 arrival. His success with the Chicago Bears has yet to translate to the college game and doesn’t seem like it will. Illinois believes in Smith, according to the Chicago Tribune, but it’s also worth noting that Illinois gave up 63 points in three different games, highlighted by a 63-0 loss to Iowa last season.
Chris Ash, Rutgers
Let’s be real blunt here: Rutgers has been abysmal lately. It’s not like they were ever a great program like Ohio State, Michigan – they’ve finished in the top 15 of the AP polls just once since joining the Big East (12th in 2006), but the Scarlet Knights have been terrible under Chris Ash. In his three years at the helm, Rutgers has won just seven games, going 2-10, 4-8 and 1-11. His contract extension after a 4-8 campaign in 2017 was definitely rushed, especially after last season’s 1-11 sleeper of a season. But Rutgers, somehow, believes in Ash enough to keep him, despite athletic director Patrick Hobbs telling ESPN that the program “must and will do better.” If Ash continues to struggle, don’t expect him to finish the season in Jersey.
Clay Helton, USC
Even after last year’s 5-8 season, USC’s first losing campaign since 2000, Clay Helton returns to the Trojans based on a lot of positive things. USC continues to recruit very well and in his first two seasons, he led USC to two top-12 finishes in the AP poll, 21 combined wins and a pair of major bowl appearances, including a win in the 2016 Rose Bowl over Penn State. The program is expected to do better from last season’s disappointing campaign, but if Helton doesn’t turn things around quickly, especially with a majority of his talent coming back, his 15 minutes in the Hollywood spotlight could fade away fast. At least for Helton, new offensive coordinator and former Texas Tech passing great, Graham Harrell is expected to dramatically improve an offense that struggled under Tee Martin last year.
Brent Brennan, San Jose State
San Jose State doesn’t have the financial resources, support, or even attention that much other Division I college football programs have, but winning there isn’t impossible – it’s just rare. The late Dick Tomey won with the Spartans in 2006, as did Mike MacIntyre in 2012 – who even guided the Spartans to their first top-25 finish in the AP Poll in program history (21). But Brennan nor San Jose State have had that kind of winning luck. He’s won just three total games in San Jose since his 2017 arrival. But his 3-22 overall record entering 2019 is the worst for any coach’s first two years in program history – two shy of John Ralston’s 5-17 start in 1993-94, putting him on the hot seat immediately entering 2019. After taking the job with just one year as a coordinator under his belt, he may prove that not everyone is fit to be a head coach after all. A winless 2019 is possible in San Jose.
Justin Wilcox, Cal
Justin Wilcox’s pressure entering 2019 isn’t fully based on turning Cal’s football program around, but rather on continuing to build on the success from last season. Cal’s defense was borderline top-10 overall in the country. Statistically, they finished ninth in passing yards allowed seventh in turnovers, second in interceptions per game. Where they struggled was against the run, allowing an average of 142.3 yards per game and were 22nd in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.4 points per game, which, in turn, dropped them from the top-10 defense they were perceived as, to borderline top-20 statistically. Not terrible overall, but it feels disappointing for a defensive-minded head coach. Toss in the quarterback carousel that Cal’s offense survived last year, and the pressure under Wilcox isn’t just to continue to win, but to build consistency in 2019 in Berkeley
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Unless Michigan simply, and unlikely, struggles out of the gate, his job should be safe in 2019. Afterward, however, is the big question. Harbaugh has won in Ann Arbor, except against Ohio State and a national championship. With a pay rate of a cool $7.5 million per year, the third-highest in the country amongst college football head coaches, anything short of a national title in 2019, especially for a program as historic as Michigan, could spell the end of Harbaugh’s time at Michigan.