There's an odd recent trend with SEC coaches in neutral-site openers; could it continue in 2018?
Neutral-site openers are considered win-win-win situations.
They give teams motivation throughout the offseason, they make the College Football Playoff selection committee’s job a little easier and they show coaches where their team is at entering the season. In the Playoff era, they make a lot of sense. Teams can theoretically lose a big opening week showdown at a neutral site and still be very much alive in the Playoff picture.
Since the beginning of the Playoff era, 9 different SEC teams played a neutral-site opener against a Power 5 team. A total of 14 such games were played in that stretch from 2014-17, and the SEC team won a whopping 11 of those games.
For those who cry foul that the SEC gets the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee, consider that 11-3 stat and get back to me.
But there’s another stat that I find more interesting.
The SEC’s 3 losses in neutral-site openers vs. Power 5 teams in the Playoff era have something strange in common. Really strange.
That was the final opener for those 3 losing coaches. All of them were fired before they even got the chance to coach their team’s opener the following season.
Is that a coincidence? Or are neutral-site openers not as win-win-win as we think?
Just so you don’t think I’m pulling a fast one on you, here are all of the SEC’s neutral-site openers vs. Power 5 teams in the Playoff era:
- Alabama 24, Florida State 7
- Tennessee 42, Georgia Tech 41 (OT)
- South Carolina 35, NC State 28
- Michigan 33, Florida 17
- Georgia 33, UNC 24
- Alabama 52, USC 6
- Florida State 45, Ole Miss 34
- Wisconsin 16, LSU 14
- South Carolina 17, UNC 13
- Alabama 35, Wisconsin 17
- Auburn 31, Louisville 24
- Texas A&M 38, Arizona State 17
- Alabama 33, West Virginia 23
- LSU 28, Wisconsin 24
As you can see, the 3 SEC coaches who lost such contests were all in the last 2 years (Butch Jones almost made it 4). Jim McElwain, Hugh Freeze and Les Miles all got the boot before they could coach in another season opener. Obviously the circumstances were different with each of their firings.
McElwain’s exit came on the heels of his fake death threats. While some might argue it wasn’t entirely performance-based, it’s tough to imagine McElwain would’ve been fired if his team had been nationally relevant and pushing for a third consecutive division title. Instead, the ugly loss to Michigan showed how far away his team was from that.
Freeze’s firing was certainly based on his off-field conduct. He might not have been fired midseason like McElwain and Miles, but one could certainly argue the devastating loss in Orlando was when his team began to crumble. Shoot, the Rebels coughed up a 28-6 lead that night. Coming off the Sugar Bowl win in 2015, they were knocking on the door of a top-10 ranking.
Who knows if Freeze’s demise would’ve gone any differently had Ole Miss held on against the No. 4 Seminoles.
We do know that Miles’ firing had a lot to do with that loss to Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. After he barely kept his job through the 2015 season, the Mad Hatter had to be a national contender in 2016 in Leonard Fournette’s final year. Instead, his team fell to unranked Wisconsin — a team that had a fraction of the 4- and 5-star recruits that LSU had — and all the old Miles doubt came back. All it took for him to get canned after that was one more loss, which ironically came at the hands of Gus Malzahn in what felt like a win-or-go-home game for both coaches.
So yes, all of their circumstances were different. That’s very true. But all 3 programs could’ve been looking at a top-10 ranking the following week with those wins. It’s hard to fire a coach with a top-10 team.
That brings us to this year. The following SEC teams have neutral-site openers against Power 5 teams:
- Alabama vs. Louisville
- Auburn vs. Washington
- Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech
- Tennessee vs. West Virginia
- LSU vs. Miami (FL)
You’ll notice that’s the most amount of neutral-site openers for the SEC in the Playoff era. The question is if that trend continues again.
Let’s be clear. Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn and Jeremy Pruitt aren’t going anywhere with a loss in the opener. Could one of them lose in the opener? Absolutely. Tennessee is an 8-point underdog, which suggests that the Vols will lose and end this odd streak. But let’s say Pruitt does have things turned around enough for Tennessee to pull off the upset.
It’s not crazy to think that Ed Orgeron and/or Matt Luke suffer an opening-week defeat. Both of their games are basically coin flips. As for whether both coaches are the long-term solutions at their respective programs, that’s a different discussion. At the very least, they don’t have as long of a leash as Saban, Malzahn or Pruitt.
The trend could end, but the school of thought still remains. These neutral-site openers set the table for these coaches. A loss can deflate an entire offseason of hype, whether that’s fair or not. For one reason or another, they can be the beginning of unpredictable demises. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps not.
Just don’t be stunned if the trend gains some more legitimacy in 2018.