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8 questions on the college football coaching carousel: Will Michigan State keep Mark Dantonio?

There are just two regular-season weekends left in the college football, which puts the fate of underachieving programs and coaches into focus. What projected as a slower season in the hiring-and-firing market has sped up some, with Arkansas and Florida State both firing their coaches after less two seasons.

Here’s a look at the biggest questions driving the coaching market in the upcoming weeks.

1. What are the potential market drivers?

The biggest potential market driver remains USC, and we dove deep Wednesday on the potential of new athletic director Mike Bohn paying more than $20 million to fire Clay Helton.

Florida State and potentially Michigan State – both of which we’ll dive into below – also have the potential for significant trickle down. There’s limited movement expected in the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC, which hints at a slow year. The MAC and Sun Belt also look relatively stable. (Which, of course, sets up for a big year in 2020.) The place to watch for some unexpected movement is the SEC, where Missouri is flailing, South Carolina’s administration is a laughingstock for putting out statements about its statements and Auburn remains conflicted about the future of Gus Malzahn.

2. Can Michigan State keep Mark Dantonio?

This offers the most drama of any decision on the coaching carousel this winter. Dantonio is the school’s all-time winningest coach, and the Spartans reached the College Football Playoff in 2015.

But the results have turned sour on the field after Dantonio’s predictably disastrous decision to not overhaul his offensive staff. Michigan State has gone from a consistent contender in the Big Ten to an unwatchable slog of a program that ranks No. 107 in total offense. And there are plenty of issues off the field, including top defensive star Joe Bachie getting suspended after a failed drug test.

Dantonio has a $4.3 million retention bonus due on Jan. 15 if he stays at Michigan State. The school would not owe him much more to fire him, as that would cost about $7 million. Likely, considering his status in school history, they’d cut some kind of a deal.

It’d be counter to Dantonio’s identity and reputation to fire a bunch of coaches and attempt to start over. So while he’s publicly said he plans to return, the question lingers whether Michigan State will let him. Or, at the least, let him without wholesale changes. And Dantonio still faces a deposition about the recruitment of a former player who was recruited to Michigan State despite warnings about his troubled history. That player, Auston Robertson, is in jail for sexual assault. 

Mark Dantonio had no answers last Saturday after suffering his worst defeat to rival Michigan since he became Michigan State's head coach in 2007. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

3. Are staff changes coming at Texas?

The defensive slide has been precipitous in Tom Herman’s third year in Austin. The Longhorns are on pace to have a historically bad defense, as they rank No. 83 in scoring defense (29.9 ppg) and No. 110 in total defense (449.4).  

Herman faces a crossroads that many coaches arrive at early in their tenures at elite jobs. They have to make difficult choices about firing the staff that helped get them there, including those who are close friends. (Brian Kelly’s overhaul at Notre Dame after the 2016 season comes to mind here.)

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s work with Herman at Houston played a pivotal role in Herman getting the Texas job. But the results have diminished to the point where strong consideration has to be given for an upgrade. With Texas struggling to meet expectations, changes are expected. How significant they’ll be is the major question, especially – but not exclusively – on the defensive side of the ball.

4. What’s going to happen at Mississippi State?

Could there be another coach fired after just his second season? That’s an increasing possibility as the Bulldogs have sputtered this season and Joe Moorhead’s offensive acumen hasn’t translated without Saquon Barkley in the backfield.

Mississippi State has careened from an SEC contender in the later years under Dan Mullen back to its familiar role as a one of the conference doormats. Mississippi State is 4-6, 2-5 in SEC play and will likely need to beat rival Ole Miss to reach a bowl game. Could a blowout loss to Ole Miss mean a change? That’s certainly possible, as the $7 million buyout comes with mitigation and would end up reasonable.

What athletic director John Cohen has to decide in the macro is simple: Is Moorhead the right fit? Or is his slide from eight wins to scuffling for a bowl mean a downward trend that can’t be reversed?  

5. What’s the reality of Steve Addazio’s future at Boston College?

The Eagles are 5-5 with two difficult games left at Notre Dame and at Pittsburgh. The game against the No. 16 Irish presents a significant opportunity for Addazio, who has beaten just one team ranked by the Associated Press in his seven seasons.

Two wins would present a strong case that there’s hope for the future, especially with a strong nucleus on offense returning and the hope that a young defense can grow up. Two losses could put the Boston College administration at a familiar crossroads. Do they keep a coach who has been 43-43 overall and 21-34 in the ACC in his tenure? Do they accept a program that checks all the boxes off the field and competes for a bowl every year? 

6. What’s next at Florida State?

The Seminoles’ dismissal of Willie Taggart so early in the season has given them time to canvass the field. They hired Glenn Sugiyama of the DHR International search firm, who fancies himself as someone who can help land big-time coaches.

The expectation here is that Sugiyama whiffs on the biggest names and FSU ends up honing in on good coaches where FSU would become a realistic destination. The three coaches who FSU will end up expending its energy on are Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Memphis coach Mike Norvell and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Going to Florida State would be a significant upgrade for all of them. They’re at stages of their career where the unknowns from FSU’s administrative upheaval are worth the potential rewards of coaching a program that could be in national championship contention.

Coach Mike Norvell of the Memphis Tigers watches players warm up before their game against the Houston Cougars on Nov. 16. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

7. What does Arkansas do?

Athletic director Hunter Yurachek is in the unrealistic phase of his search, attempting to lure bold-faced names from the NFL and college football.

The reality of the significant nature of Arkansas’ wholesale rebuild will end up with them in a familiar place. They will throw all of the Walmart and Tyson Chicken money in the state coffers at Gus Malzahn. Again.

If that doesn’t work, the realistic list for Arkansas is Washington State’s Mike Leach, Norvell, Boise State coach Bryan Harsin and FAU’s Lane Kiffin. Harsin and Norvell could afford to wait out better jobs, as it’ll take three seasons for Arkansas to regain a pulse of competitiveness in the SEC. All of them have much better teams now than the current Hogs.

8. Will this be an active year in the Group of Five?

There could be some strong Group of Five openings. Two strong regional jobs could open up in the AAC at Tulsa and South Florida. (Norvell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, SMU’s Sonny Dykes and Tulane’s Willie Fritz could all be targeted by bigger schools.) The Mountain West promises to be the busiest, as UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State all are poised to flip.

The Sun Belt looks solid, with South Alabama as the only chance of a firing. Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz and Lafayette’s Billy Napier both could move up, as they are both having high-end seasons.

In Conference USA, Old Dominion is expected to open and UTSA carries a strong possibility if it doesn’t finish strong. The MAC coaching jobs that appear in flux – Ball State and Miami – have both answered with strong seasons. The potential retirement of Frank Solich at Ohio would be the biggest MAC move.

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