There is no preseason in college football. We know this. NFL and high school teams can take the steps into the pool, but the college game requires its team to dive in to the cold water head first.
This means the meter on coaches’ season-long grades starts running from the moment they step on the field. For some, this could be a good thing. For others, not exactly.
Here’s a look at the coaches with a lot to gain and a lot at risk as we head into the 5-day opening weekend extravaganza.
Jimbo Fisher. Here are some numbers for you: 10-0, 40-10; 7-0, 38-15. Those are the records and average scores Nick Saban holds in games against his former assistants and in neutral site kickoff games. Not a single one of those 17 games was decided by single digits. Of course, Saban has never before faced Jimbo Fisher, and never opened with a team as highly-ranked as these 3rd-ranked Seminoles. And, still, Alabama heads to Atlanta a touchdown favorite.
This is the biggest opening game of all-time, perhaps too big an opener for college football to handle, and the winner jumps straight to the front of the line to reach the College Football Playoff. With a win Saturday, Florida State can absolutely endure one loss down the road and perhaps even two, provided FSU beats Clemson and wins the ACC. A win would also elbow Fisher back into the conversation with Urban Meyer, Saban and Dabo Swinney — the only coaches to win national titles more recently than him.
Neal Brown. Brown is on the fast track. At just 37, Brown enters his third season as the head coach at Troy with much expected of him; Brown’s Trojans bounded to 10-3 last season after a 4-8 debut. The Trojans open at Boise State as 11-point underdogs, and nothing would announce Troy’s status as a Sun Belt and Group of 5 contender and Brown as a rising star more than a win at the Group of 5’s answer to Alabama.
Scott Satterfield. Remember last season when everyone anointed Tennessee as a serious challenger to Alabama and then that talk essentially ended three quarters into the Vols’ season? Satterfield’s team went into Neyland Stadium and played then-No. 9 Tennessee to a draw through four quarters before falling in regulation. The Mountaineers won 10 of their next 12 games, claiming a share of the Sun Belt title and beating MAC East champion Toledo in a bowl game for the second consecutive year.
This year, Appalachian State opens at the newest team expected to rise up and challenge Alabama — No. 15 Georgia. Satterfield, 44, owns back-to-back 10-win seasons and a 14-2 mark against the Sun Belt over that span. A win or something close to it in Athens could put him in the national spotlight for good.
Philip Montgomery. Oklahoma State is the national darling this year. Many have picked the Cowboys to dethrone Oklahoma in the Big 12, and some even have them reaching the Playoff. But first they must survive Thursday night.
While Art Briles is gone, Montgomery is running his offense to perfection at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane topped 40 points nine games in last year’s 10-3 season, closing the year on a 6-1 kick while averaging 46.3 points per game. What a better opportunity to begin Year 3 at Tulsa than to end Cinderella’s trip to the ball before she even makes it out of her driveway?
The coaches with the most to lose:
Jim McElwain. Scott Stricklin started work at Florida on Nov. 1 of last year. Since that time he’s seen McElwain go 3-3 with blowout losses to Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama and his football team get engulfed in an ongoing scandal involving a conspiracy to misuse school funds, with 10 players suspended for Saturday’s game with Michigan and the number possibly rising.
The active roster has devolved to the point where Florida isn’t expected to win — which, maybe, helps McElwain somehow? — but another blowout would be a nightmare within another nightmare.
Jim Mora and Kevin Sumlin. We don’t do hot seat rankings here, but just about everybody else does and these two are at the top of each list. Mora is 5-11 in his last 16 games. Sumlin is 2-5 in his last seven. Both can absolutely win their way out of perceived trouble, but each path calls for a win over the other.
Oddly, Sumlin has less to gain here than Mora. Sumlin is 13-0 over his past three Septembers and 11-15 from October on, so he isn’t even eligible to make deposits in the bank until Alabama visits on Oct. 7.
Gary Andersen. Andersen is in Year 3 in Corvallis, with an AD that didn’t hire him. His Beavers opened with a 31-point loss at Colorado State and now return home to face Portland State. A loss would essentially end the season before it began and doom Oregon State to being the third best team in a state with two FBS programs.