When we ask if this upcoming college football season is make-or-break for Justin Fuente, we need to start by noting that this season might not be make-or-break for any coach.
Let’s be clear: I’m not firmly declaring it won’t be; I’m merely saying it MIGHT not be a must-win season for any FBS head coach.
The reason should be obvious enough: The COVID-19 pandemic has blanketed the college sports industry with uncertainty. We’re worried less about the makeup of the two-deeps right now than on the status of the season itself. We’re focused less on the offseason preview magazines, more focused on if college football can be played if one person on one team comes down with the coronavirus, a matter which hasn’t yet been fully addressed.
We all know so little about this situation and how it will be resolved. YES, I would certainly agree that it seems a lot more likely that football will be played, compared to a month ago… but in the same breath, this is a very fluid situation. Our collective national understanding of the disease, how we can trace it, how we can contain it, and how we can treat it is constantly changing… and we certainly aren’t at a point where we have ironclad certainties. We’re not sure.
All of these — and many other — necessary points of focus are distractions from the coaching carousel and the hot seat, and the other things we would normally worry about in July and August of each year. This July, we’re going to be wondering when the power brokers of college sports will make definitive decisions on whether teams get back to the practice field.
We’re not going to be talking about coaching situations.
It is different.
So, we have to ask in general: When this season ends — whenever that might be — are athletic directors going to assign enough weight and meaning to the 2020 season to think they need to fire coaches, and that they need to pay large buyouts?
I have a sense that there will be fewer coach firings at the end of this season, compared to a normal coaching carousel cycle. I am not sure, though, if certain coaches will be exempt from hot-seat pressure. Dave Doeren of North Carolina State strikes me as the coach who is truly on the hot seat in the ACC. I don’t think Fuente is in the same position of danger.
Ultimately, I think the bottom would have to fall out for Fuente to be gone. As long as the Hokies compete for the ACC Coastal — finishing second or third behind North Carolina and maybe Miami — Virginia Tech won’t seek change. If the Hokies fall to fourth or fifth in the division, then we might have a coaching change on our hands.
That last inclination, however, depends on Whit Babcock making a choice that the 2020 season’s outcome matters enough to merit a change… and athletic directors might be more reticent to use 2020 as a hinge-point moment for their football programs than in a normal season.
This season, say whatever else you want about it, is not going to be normal. (Well, except for Clemson being really good.)