Extra Points: An SEC team will make a run at Hugh Freeze. The only questions: Who and when?
College football insider Matt Hayes breaks down what matters most ahead of this weekend’s college football slate.
A hot coaching commodity
The Hugh Freeze exile will soon come to an end.
Whether or not you agree, whether you can stomach the return of a coach who had some disturbing issues the last time he had a Power 5 job, Freeze – 7-0 in Year 2 as coach at Liberty — will be in high demand this offseason, even after agreeing to an extension with Liberty through 2026.
The key question: where?
Multiple industry sources tell me Freeze wants to return to the SEC but may not get a chance this offseason. In most typical seasons, SEC schools could financially handle 8-figure buyouts.
In this COVID season, where athletic departments are hemorrhaging cash and getting bank loans to keep specific programs afloat, the idea of paying millions for a coach to not coach isn’t exactly the best optics.
But a deep-pocket booster – or boosters – who wants change badly enough could make it happen. The obvious choice in the SEC is South Carolina, where the Gamecocks would owe Will Muschamp $15.3 million if he were fired.
Tennessee is in Year 3 with Jeremy Pruitt and would owe him a $12 million buyout. Vanderbilt could also be an option in the SEC, but it’s unlikely Freeze would leave Liberty for Vandy.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be other opportunities outside the SEC – hello, Illinois (Lovie Smith, $2.6 million buyout) – and within the Power 5. Don’t expect Freeze to leave Liberty for a Group of 5 job.
“I don’t know if you’re going to see (coaching) change because of this unique season and the loss of revenue,” an SEC athletic director told me. “But would (Freeze) be considered? Let just say this: Someone will take a chance, if not this year, next.”
Before you get high and mighty about Freeze, understand this: His problems at Ole Miss had nothing to do with phone calls that revealed massages (seriously, who cares?). They have everything to do with NCAA violations.
That leaves any Power 5 school that hires him with a distinct choice: are prior NCAA issues too much to overlook, or do you give a coach a second chance despite previous NCAA violations because he has proven he can win in the toughest conference in college football – despite difficult, inherent obstacles.
Freeze has a track record with the most important position on the field, too. He beat Alabama with Bo Wallace (that’s right, Bo Wallace) and with Chad Kelly — and nearly with Kelly again. Freeze was 5-5 vs. Ole Miss’ rivals (LSU and Mississippi State), another huge selling point for presidents and athletic directors.
Stay or go?
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence has returned to practice this week, and with the Tigers in the middle of a bye week, the talk has quickly moved from finishing strong and reaching the ACC Championship Game to the NFL.
Lawrence, an NFL Draft-eligible junior and the consensus No.1 overall pick, said for a second time in 2 weeks that he hasn’t made a decision on leaving early for the NFL.
But leaving for the NFL, multiple NFL personnel people told me, is a done deal.
“It’s one of the things that makes him a great leader, a guy you want in your locker room. He doesn’t want to talk about himself,” an NFL scout told me. “He wants to play, he wants to win games and win a championship, and then deal with his future. Frankly, I’d like to see him come back from adversity – both the loss in the championship game last year and COVID — and turn his game up. He was playing at a high level before he got sick.”
Joe Burrow, last year’s No.1 overall pick in the draft, signed a contract worth $36.2 million — all of it guaranteed. Kyler Murray, the No.1 overall pick in 2019, signed a guaranteed deal worth $35 million.
Lawrence’s deal will likely exceed those deals – and that, NFL personnel people believe, will be the ultimate deciding factor. Too much money on the table, too many risks in returning to Clemson.
“I’m never going to corner myself like that, and that’s what people want to hear,” Lawrence said earlier this week about committing the draft. “At the end of the day, I want to leave myself opportunities and take everything in and make a decision.”
There are numerous reasons for Penn State’s worst start in nearly 2 decades. None is more impactful than the regression of QB Sean Clifford.
His completion percentage (56.6) is the worst of his career, and he has already thrown 5 interceptions in 3 games (he threw 7 in 13 games last season).
His average per attempt (7.0 ypa.) is the lowest of his career, and he’s averaging 17 carries a game. He has been sacked 13 times behind Penn State’s rebuilt offensive line, after getting sacked 24 times in 2019.
“He gets his first progression, and then it’s run,” an NFL scout told me. “He doesn’t trust his protection, and frankly, they’re doing a poor job giving him time. He’s escaping and trying to do too much while breaking contain. He’s throwing across his body, his mechanics are terrible. But those things happen when you’re not sure where pressure is coming from, and the only answer is leave the pocket.”
The Lions travel to Nebraska this week, and the Huskers have struggled defensively. They don’t pressure the quarterback consistently, and they’re giving up 6 yards per play.
The flexible postseason
The most impactful week of postponements and cancelations has hit college football, and sport’s power brokers are getting closer to having to deal with the possibility of moving the postseason.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday he won’t hypothesize about potential postseason schedule changes, but added, “I’m not inattentive to the potential that change may need to occur.”
The change could include pushing back the College Football Playoff to allow conferences to complete regular seasons. The postponement or cancelation of 8 games this week has many administrators researching possible remedies.
Or as a Big Ten athletic director told me Wednesday: “The virus isn’t going away, and we don’t control what happens week to week. I don’t know how many more weeks we can handle like this one before we have to at least look at the option of moving (the schedule) back, and maybe into the second semester.”
Another Big Ten AD told me: “We were willing to play spring football. I think we can figure out a way to move (the schedule) if we have to. Let’s let it play out first. We’ve seen with this virus that things change almost daily.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore those 8 lost (or postponed) games, especially considering 5 of the teams were ranked and 2 of the teams (Alabama, Ohio State) are among the top 5 teams in the nation.
The SEC athletic directors agreed this week that teams not playing in the league’s championship game can play postponed games on Championship weekend.
The problem: the Big Ten and Pac-12 have no open dates. Any game impacted by Covid is canceled and – for now – won’t be replayed. Ohio State, a CFP favorite, had its game against Maryland this weekend canceled, a move that will leave the Buckeyes with seven regular-season games.
If Ohio State has 7 (or less) regular-season games, and the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have 10 or more, that disparity could become an issue when the CFP selection committee chooses the 4 Playoff teams.