Coaching search takes some hits

Tennessee's coaching search took more turns than a mountain road Saturday as several of the supposed "leading candidates" for the Vol vacancy took their lumps.

- Butch Davis, regarded by many observers as the odds-on favorite, saw his No. 22 North Carolina Tar Heels suffer a 41-10 beat-down at the hands of a North Carolina State team that entered the fray with a 4-6 record. The score was no fluke, either. The Wolfpack outgained the Heels 466 to 203 in yards.

- Mike Leach, another high-profile contender, watched his second-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders get hammered 65-21 by No. 5 Oklahoma on national TV. Leach's heralded offense converted just 1 of 13 third-down tries while his suspect defense was torched for 625 yards.

- Tim Brewster, a popular option because of his reputation as a relentless recruiter, surely lost some ground in the UT coaching search when his Minnesota squad was crushed 55-0 by Iowa. The 8-4 Hawkeyes outgained Brewster's 7-5 Gophers 483-134 in yards. Heck, even Tennessee's woeful offense gains more than 134 yards per game.

- Mark Dantonio, a Nick Saban disciple known for his defensive expertise, exhibited very little of it as his 15th-ranked Michigan State team was battered 49-18 by No. 8 Penn State. The Nittany Lions (11-1) piled up 557 total yards to 322 for the Spartans, who slip to 9-3.

- Troy Calhoun, a low-cost option at $600,000 per year, probably saw his stock drop a bit when his Air Force Falcons suffered a 44-10 loss to No. 16 TCU. Air Force (8-4) managed a paltry 161 yards of total offense.

Not all of the coaches considered to be on Tennessee's "list" suffered lopsided defeats Saturday, of course. A few of them actually notched impressive victories. For instance:

- Brian Kelly guided No. 19 Cincinnati to the first defeat of Pitt in program history, a 28-21 triumph. The Bearcats kept the ball 34:47 to 25:13 in improving their record to 9-2. They need only to beat Syracuse in six days to clinch the Big East title.

- Gary Patterson led No. 16 TCU to the afore-mentioned 44-10 drubbing of Air Force. The Horned Frogs totally dominated, keeping the ball 38:32 to 21:28 and outgaining the Falcons 504 yards to 161.

- Todd Graham guided Tulsa to its ninth win in 11 games, a 56-7 blowout of Tulane. The Golden Hurricane, converting better than 50 percent of its third-down tries this season, succeeded on 8 of 10 this time. Tulsa, whose offense is coordinated by former Arkansas OC Gus Malzahn, piled up 593 yards.

- Chris Peterson moved No. 9 Boise State to 11-0, surviving four turnovers to hold off a 6-5 Nevada team 41-34.

For what it's worth (not much, admittedly), here's how I'd rank the candidates on a 1-10 scale in the wake of Saturday's results:

Brian Kelly, Cincinnati (9.5): Like UT basketball coach Bruce Pearl, Kelly has enjoyed terrific success at the Div. II and mid-major levels. He obviously gets a lot out of his players because Bearcat quarterback Tony Pike threw for 309 yards and three TDs last night despite a broken arm.

Mike Leach, Texas Tech (9.5): He consistently fashions explosive offenses around nondescript quarterbacks, which appears to be the challenge he would face at Tennessee. His high-scoring attack would keep fans entertained while he's rebuilding the Vol program. Leach reportedly is a bona-fide eccentric but UT supporters will overlook that if he wins.

Gary Patterson, TCU (9.5): The fact he has posted five 10-win seasons in seven years at a traditional also-ran is really impressive. His teams are solid, offensively and defensively. The problem: He's an alumnus of Kansas State, which also is shopping for a new head coach.

Chris Peterson, Boise State (9.0): He has just three years' experience as a head coach and the competition has hardly been elite. Still, his record is an imposing 34-3, including an 11-0 mark this year. At age 44, he should be hitting his prime.

Todd Graham, Tulsa (9.0): His team scores 50 points per game without being pass-happy. The Golden Hurricane gained 489 of its 593 net yards on the ground vs. Tulane. If I could get Graham and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as a package deal, I'd be tempted to pull the trigger. The problem: I'm still scratching my head over that 70-30 loss to Houston a few weeks back.

Butch Davis, North Carolina (8.0): There's no way I'd pay the salary Davis would command to a guy who stands 7-4 after bowing by 31 to an underdog with a losing record. If 7-4 is satisfactory, Tennessee should've kept Phillip Fulmer.

Lane Kiffin, unemployed (7.5): He's a young, good-looking guy with a pro background and a respected coach for a father. Of course, so was Mike Shula, and we all remember how he worked out for Alabama.

Tim Brewster, Minnesota (7.5): His recruiting prowess is enticing but lopsided losses to Michigan (29-6) and Iowa (55-0) in the past three weeks have raised concerns about his coaching abilities.

Troy Calhoun, Air Force (7.5): He's done awfully well at a program where winning is a real challenge. The fact he has lost 11 games in a row to ranked teams, however, suggests his Falcons have trouble rising to the occasion in big games.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (7.5): When your team gives up 49 points and 557 yards to Penn State, you don't qualify as a defensive specialist to me.

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