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The FSU coaching search is winding down: Time to get out your brackets!

It doesn’t appear FSU will be able to lure Bob Stoops to Tallahassee, so we break down the most visible remaining candidates in a three-day NCAA bracket-like showdown.
Florida State players dismount the wall after celebrating with their fans after defeating against Alabama State 49-12 in an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. [MARK WALLHEISER  |  AP]
Florida State players dismount the wall after celebrating with their fans after defeating against Alabama State 49-12 in an NCAA college football game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]
Published Nov. 27, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — If Florida State does not have a new football coach by this time next week, it likely means one of two things:

1. The Seminoles are targeting a coach on a team with a conference championship game still ahead.

2. Something has gone seriously wrong.

After all, you don’t fire a coach in mid-season if you’re planning on waiting until January to hire a replacement.

Athletic director David Coburn told the FSU Athletics Board three weeks ago that they were on pace to have a coach hired by the end of November. And that’s generally how it’s done in these situations. It’s okay to poach a coach before a bowl game, but not before the end of the regular season.

That’s what Louisville did last year when it hired Scott Satterfield from Appalachian State on Dec. 4, and that’s what Florida did in 2017 when it hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State on Nov. 26.

It can be a little trickier for a team with playoff aspirations, although Alabama has come close to perfecting it. For four consecutive seasons, the Crimson Tide has allowed a coordinator to be hired as a head coach after the Southeastern Conference title game but all four remained in Tuscaloosa in December during preparations for the playoffs. The lone hiccup was Lane Kiffin – being Lane Kiffin – leaving in between the semifinals and the championship game.

So what does it all mean for the Seminoles?

They are in a bit of a precarious position. Whether unwittingly, or on purpose, they have raised expectations about their next hire. First, Coburn acknowledged Bob Stoops was on his list of candidates. And then they sent letters to boosters asking for more money to help with the “renaissance of FSU football.’’ The inference being they needed more money to attract a big-time coach, or pay for his buyout elsewhere.

Stoops is already out of the picture, which means any subsequent hire is going to be measured against that standard. And you never want to hire a coach merely because you think he will attract the most positive responses on Twitter.

With all of that in mind, we’re here to help.

Not that Coburn and FSU president John Thrasher need our help, but we figured an FSU coaching bracket would be a fun way to talk about the candidates who have been most closely identified with the job coming down the home stretch.

So we have two brackets (Bowden Rules! and Jimbo Who?) with four seeds on each side and zero logic in between. We’ll eliminate four possibilities today, two more on Thursday, and name a winner on Friday. Your ridicule about our choices and intelligence is both welcomed and expected.

Bowden Rules! Regional

No. 1 Matt Campbell vs. No. 4 Josh Heupel

If you go by the oddsmakers in Vegas, then Campbell is your man. He had an impressive four-year run at Toledo, going 36-15 as one of the youngest head coaches in the nation from 2012-15. (He turns 40 on Friday) After a 3-9 start at Iowa State, he’s ripped off three consecutive winning seasons and won two Big 12 Coach of the Year awards.

Heupel, 41, made a splash in his first season as a head coach, going 12-0 at UCF last year before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights took a slight step backward in 2019, but can still win their ninth game on Friday against USF. On the plus side, he knows recruiting in Florida. On the downside, he was once fired by Stoops as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.

Winner: Campbell. It doesn’t help Heupel’s case that he inherited a strong team at UCF.

No. 2 Odell Haggins vs. No. 3 Clemson coordinators

A member of the FSU Hall of Fame, Haggins is gaining momentum around Tallahassee. He has been a loyal soldier, coaching 26 years at FSU and taking over as interim coach twice. Players have responded to Haggins, 52, and the team seems to have a better sense of direction the past month. A victory against Florida on Saturday would be a heck of a selling point.

When it comes to Clemson coordinators, you can take your pick of hot candidates. There’s defensive coordinator Brent Venables, 48, who has won three national titles between Oklahoma and Clemson. There’s co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, 40, who won the Frank Broyles award as the nation’s top assistant coach in 2017. And there’s co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, 38, who is considered a recruiting savant and is the son of former Bowden assistant Brad Scott.

Winner: The Clemson coordinators. Hard to imagine Haggins being a candidate at any other major program.

Penn State head coach James Franklin could soon have the choice of Florida State, USC or his current job. [BARRY REEGER | AP]

Jimbo Who? Conference

No. 1 James Franklin vs. No. 4 Anonymous

Hard to beat Franklin, 47, as a candidate. His three-year stay at Vanderbilt may have been the school’s best run since the 1920s. And then he righted the ship at Penn State after the furor over Joe Paterno’s departure and Bill O’Brien’s short, and mostly unhappy, tenure. The question is whether FSU can lure Franklin away. He will supposedly be a candidate at USC if Clay Helton is fired, or he may decide Penn State is a better situation than FSU.

It was an ill-advised move to acknowledge Stoops as a candidate early in the process. FSU has since kept quiet, which means there could be less-obvious possibilities still out there. Maybe it’s someone like Minnesota’s PJ Fleck, 38, who is considered a longshot because of a new contract. Maybe it’s Matt Rhule, 44, who has turned around programs at Temple and Baylor but is considered to have NFL aspirations.

Winner: Anonymous. This is like betting the field against Tiger Woods.

No. 2 Mike Norvell vs. No. 3 Brian Kelly

It’s only a matter of time before Norvell, 38, bolts from Memphis. And he’s certainly earned the attention. The Tigers are 36-15 and have been to bowls in all four of his seasons. Norvell’s offenses put up a ton of points and his buyout is reportedly cheap ($500,000).

Kelly, 58, is the oddest name on the list. He’s won everywhere he has been, and has nearly won two national titles at Notre Dame. Money can’t be a lure. Prestige isn’t either. Perhaps the idea of a new challenge or more relaxed admissions standards are appealing. He would be a major coup for FSU, but would he be there for the long haul?

Winner: Norvell. It almost feels like Kelly’s name is being floated to get more love in South Bend.

Memphis head coach Mike Norvell is coming off a 49-10 rout of USF in Tampa. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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