Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The Carousel: Swinging Through Candidates in the Carolinas

October 31, 2022

Nebraska, with the help of search firm Collegiate Sports Associates, has done a good job to this point of keeping a lid on any potential leaks around its coaching search. Nobody is even saying what stage this search is at, though it stands to reason, as the calendar gets ready to flip to November, the weeks ahead will be busy behind the scenes.

It still stands to reason, I think, that Nebraska could focus its attention on the group of coaches in the Big 12 and do pretty well, but The Carousel likes to take advantage of this extra time we’ve been given to consider others. Last week was SEC week, sort of, and this week we’ll focus on the ACC.

There are probably only two coaches there who’d both get a “whadda ya think?” call from Nebraska and take such a call. Almost exactly a year ago, I probably would’ve said there were three in the ACC, but we might be watching a small-sample-size problem unfolding on the East Coast.

I was intrigued when Boston College hired Jeff Hafley before the 2021 season. He seemed to be about the right things and had just turned out a really good Ohio State defense. When he got the Eagles to 6-6 last year, despite a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season, I moved from intrigued to interested.

This year, Boston College is sitting at 2-6 and coming off a loss to Connecticut, the Huskies’ first win against a P5 opponent since 2016. I think Hafley’s still about the right things, but, forced to revisit that 2021 season given this year’s struggles, it doesn’t look quite as good on closer inspection. Sometimes things can fall into place for a stretch, maybe a whole season, maybe even two.

At least that’s what I’m forced to consider after the past 4.75 seasons of Nebraska football falling well short of the promise of two seasons at Central Florida.

That’s why—recency bias against small sample sizes—I’m not adding a third ACC name, though, holy crap, have you seen what Mike Elko is doing in his first year at Duke, his first year as a head coach anywhere? The Blue Devils are 5-3, coming off a three-point loss at ranked North Carolina last week. Duke also has an eight-point loss at Kansas and, the one that doesn’t add up, a three-point loss at Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils have Boston College (see above), Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh up next, which should give them a great shot of getting to seven wins before the regular-season finale. If Elko gets the Blue Devils there, it would already be the most wins at Duke in a season since 2018, and would set up a pretty tasty last game in November.

Duke faces Wake Forest in the finale, which would be against one of the ACC coaches I think could be of interest to Nebraska––Dave Clawson. Elko and Clawson coached together for 12 years before Elko moved on to successful defensive coordinator stints at Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Clawson’s name is one that is murmured for a lot of jobs every year, but they’re often only murmurs because Clawson has never really shown any interest in leaving Wake Forest. He’s 57-50 there over nine seasons with six bowl appearances and bowl eligibility already reached this season. The Demon Deacons are 6-2 in a year where expectations were somewhat muted coming off an 11-3 season, though Wake Forest did start the season in the top 25.

The Demon Deacons have a tough November, facing ranked opponents—North Carolina State, North Carolina and Syracuse—over the next three weeks. Ranked for now, we should say, as those three are clustered around No. 20 Wake Forest this week. They’ll all be close to tossups.

Clawson has earned the benefit of the doubt there. For his career, he’s 95-78-2 against the spread as an FBS head coach (.548). That’s pretty strong, though his standardized wins per year, according to McIllece Sports, is only .154. I expected that number to be higher given that all of the context here—being at Wake Forest, Wake Forest not being bad though it historicall is—indicates a coach making the most of it.

Still, if Clawson was willing to have a conversation about the Nebraska opening, that’s probably a call worth making. It might be the only one I’d be excited to make, but there’s another coach who often comes up in this conversations—NC State’s Dave Doeren.

He’s won eight or more games in five of nine seasons in Raleigh and has the Wolfpack at 6-2 this year, though this year is a weird one. NC State opened the season at No. 13 in the AP poll, its highest preseason rating in nearly 50 years. The Wolfpack are currently No. 21, having struggled to a 22-21 win over 2-6 Virginia Tech last week. Its two losses this season, to Clemson and Syracuse when both were still undefeated and in the top-10, aren’t bad, but things just feel somewhat anxious given the lofty preseason expectations. Doeren has a good chance to get to at least eight wins again this year, with games still against Boston College and Louisville, but the general vibe around NC State, given that it has so consistently been good, is the unfulfilled promise of not getting to very good or even great.

Having 26 NFL draft picks over nine seasons, 12 of them taken in the first three rounds, can do that (while also pretty clearly making the point that Doeren can identify, develop and attract talent).

What do the against-expectation numbers say on Doeren? Is he doing a great job making NC State a consistent eight- or nine-win team, or is he missing an opportunity to do more? The point spreads would lead you more towards the latter. Doeren is 73-74-2 against the spread as a head coach (.497), including two seasons at Northern Illinois. That said, his standardized wins per year, .327, is solid thought not no-brainer good.

I’ll never know for sure, but this has to be how coaching searches actually go for the decision-makers: Like this a lot. Little concerned about this.

That’s probably the case for both Clawson and Doeren, and why a lot these decisions probably have to come down to the interviews and conversations with an AD.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever be in a room with either coach—unless one comes to Nebraska, but I’d say that’s unlikely, too. But those are the two coaches I could see fitting the Huskers’ criteria for its next head coach. Forced to choose, I’d probably go with Clawson, despite similar numbers from Doeren, because of an intangible—Clawson’s never shown much interest in leaving Winston-Salem.

Of course, anyone could read that a different way, too, but I look at it as an indication he’s pretty much just about coaching.

MICKEY METER

Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach steps off the bus before the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini during a collegefootball game Saturday, October 29, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

I never expect anyone to be OK with a loss, but I was a little bit surprised by how much angst surrounded Nebraska’s 26-7 loss to Illinois. One, when quarterback Casey Thompson was in the game, the Huskers were pretty much level with the one-loss Illini. They’d gained nearly 220 yards through a quarter-and-a-half, about the number Illinois was giving up per game this season.

Two, the defense played pretty well. Illinois scored 26 points, right on its season average, but the Illini scored 13 points off four Husker turnovers, including 10 points on drives that started at the NU 11- and 25-yard lines.

If that’s the source of angst—opportunity lost to beat a good team—that makes some more sense. Had the Huskers pulled a win off on Saturday, there probably would’ve been a tidal wave of public support for Mickey Joseph to keep this job full time.

That probably wouldn’t have been a fair reaction to one game either, but my personal Mickey meter didn’t dip much after the Illinois loss.

If I could bump my range up 2 percentage points on both ends last week based on landing a high-profile commit, I’m only going to take it down that much after Saturday. Current reading: 25–30% chance of being Nebraska’s head coach (which, again, would still probably make him the favorite at this stage.)

TEAL TIME

Most of this week’s column dealt with coaches in North Carolina, but since we’re already mentally all the way out there, let’s head to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina quick.

Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell had his name mentioned early as a candidate at Nebraska—the Joe Moglia link helped—and he’ll be a name mentioned for most openings this cycle. It doesn’t seem as though he’s gained much traction with Husker nation beyond that, however.

That could be due to two factors: 1) The Tennessee native’s entire coaching career has been spent in his home state, Mississippi or South Carolina, 2) Going the G5-up-and-comer route (with an offensive wunderkind kicker thrown in) might not be Nebraska fans’ favorite route right now given the past four seasons.

The first one gives me some hesitation. You’d have to really get a feel for fit during the courting process. The second one doesn’t give me much hesitation. Find the best coach you can, don’t overreact to the last hire that didn’t work out.

Outside of those two things, Chadwell offers a lot to like. Coastal Carolina is 7-1 this season, having just won at Marshall as a slight underdog. It went 11-2 last season, 11-1 the year before that. Over four-plus seasons as the full-time head coach, Chadwell is 34-11 against the spread (.756), the 11th-best percentage over that span and tied with Michigan and Oklahoma State. At McIllece Sports, Chadwell has posted a positive standardized wins number in each of his seasons, including a pair of 2.1s in 2020 and 2021. He also posted a 2.9 and 0.7 as Coastal’s OC in 2018 and 2017 respectively.

All told, for the five seasons in the database at McIllece, Chadwell’s average standardized wins per year is 1.6, meaning by that model his coaching has been worth 1.6 wins per season over expectation. For just the three seasons in the database as a head coach, he’s at 1.4 and seems like to be in the black again this year. The Chanticleers already have seven wins against a preseason total of eight.

Alberts said he didn’t care about winning the press conference with this hire, and I think there’d be some real reservations around Chadwell, but I find him creeping up the list for me.

Coastal has a massive game Thursday at home against Appalachian State, so check the Chanticleers out if you haven’t already. Even if you’re not interested in the coach, should be some good football.

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