SEC’s Coaching Carousel May Prove “Who Auburn Could Have Hired”
A few days ago, we discussed whether the current average losses per year under head coach Gus Malzahn were acceptable. Auburn has historically been an 8-win-per-season team with a sprinkling of a few great years. This has been the case under every great Auburn coach, and is one of the reasons that so many Auburn fans cling to Gus Malzahn.
To be fair, Gus has done what few Auburn coaches have done. He’s played for a National Championship. He’s had two ten-win seasons. He’s never had a losing season. He has beaten Nick Saban and the Tide three times, something that no one in college football has done and, while many may say that the 2013 win was “flukey” or a “miracle,” the last two wins were anything but. Auburn dominated the Tide in 2017, and the 2019 Iron Bowl was one of the most masterful jobs on both sides of the ball that Malzahn has ever displayed.
The knock on Malzahn, however, has been the filler along the way. Start with the Iron Bowl wins, which have always preceded a bowl game loss. The National Championship in 2013 is hard to look as total failure. But what has been a total failure is Auburn’s inability to look motivated or prepared in bowl games. Malzahn-led teams are now 2–5 after a loss to Minnesota while the rest of the SEC (not, you Mississippi State) was absolutely stellar this postseason.
Yet, the coaching carousel turned as it always does While many Auburn fans kept saying, “Who would we get that is better than what we already have,” that didn’t stop other SEC teams from making changes. Let’s be clear: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Missouri aren’t Auburn. Only Missouri can say it’s been to Atlanta, but in its consecutive years there, the Tigers were bum rushed by Auburn and Alabama.
The point is, these teams were not willing to be defined by their traditional places in the conference, and while firing coaches in just their second year may turn out disastrously, the future can’t be much worse; at best, it gives them a chance to buck their own historical trends. My point is that some of the names mentioned by Auburn people as candidates to be “better than Gus” ended up in the same conference, some even in the same division. In looking at them, it becomes pretty obvious that Auburn might have, once again, waited too late to pull the trigger and thus is right where it was, asking “who could be better” when it comes to available coaches. Also, the nature of some of those hires, most of them proven winners, cast doubts as to Gus’ place in the coaching hierarchy, further polarizing him based on his salary.
Let’s take a look at the schools that made changes, and the impact they have or may have on those programs as well as on competing against Auburn.
While LSU made its coaching change two years ago, it’s still relevant to this discussion. Gus Malzahn has a dreadful record against the Bengals, including an 0–2 record against Ed Orgeron, who has somehow completely reinvented himself. When he was elevated to head coach he seemed to be the pundit’s punching bag. Orgeron was a colossal failure in his first stint as head coach at Ole Miss and was skipped over at USC. Yet, LSU gave him a shot, and he responded with back-to-back ten-win seasons and last night’s National Championship win over Clemson.
So, Coach O has done the unthinkable, especially in the context of his past. Could he fall into Gus’ mold of having a player that makes his career? I suppose we will see. At $4 million per year, LSU is paying him about $325,000 per win.
The Rebels made the splash hire of the year when they hired Lane Kiffin. Obviously, Kiffin has baggage, but the things that most people hold against him, such as the Tennesee/USC job switch, were over a decade ago. Since transforming Alabama’s archaic offense, Alabama has fielded one of the most potent offenses in the country. Kiffin then took over Florida Atlantic, winning two conference championships in three years.
He takes over a program at Ole Miss that may suit his strengths as a high-powered offensive coach. While Kiffin can recruit, can he pull in the talent to be competitive in the SEC West? Most importantly, how does he compare to Gus Malzahn? The edge has to go to Kiffin, whose offenses have never been stale and continue to evolve. Of course, Auburn didn’t want his baggage, but in terms of X’s and O’s, one must appreciate his ability to develop players and score points. He will reportedly make almost $4 million a year, well under Malzahn.
The Razorbacks booted now-Auburn OC Chad Morris after just two years. That alone is astounding as Arkansas has been an afterthought since Bobby Petrino left town. The hook came early for Morris, and Sam Pittman now steps in to take over the struggling program. It was easily the boring-est hire of the lot, coming from Georgia as its offensive line coach. This has all the makings of Brett Bielema V2.0 as Pittman has only coached offensive line. He hasn’t put a coaching staff in place, so it remains to be seen what he will do for Arkansas to become relevant on offense.
It is interesting that what Pittman does well, developing offensive lines, is one of the things that Auburn has been unable to accomplish. Auburn’s offensive lines have been sieve like for most of Gus’ career. Pittman can at least show what a good coach can do with the big Hogs up front.
Perhaps no new coach in the SEC will polarize Gus Malzahn more than Eliah Drinkwitz. He coached with Malzahn in Arkansas at the high school level and then under him at both Arkansas State and Auburn. He takes over a floundering Missouri program. Drinkwitz coached one year at Appalachian State, taking it to a 12–1 record, after serving as the 2018 offensive coordinator at NC State. Drinkwitz turned Ryan Finley from a 3500–17–7 QB to 3900–25–11, (Finley is now with the Cincinnati Bengals.)
His contract details aren’t hammered out.While Missouri and Auburn may never play with these two head coaches, it will be interesting to see how the Missouri offense transforms under him. The SEC East doesn’t have the defenses of the SEC West, but they are good enough to provide a litmus test as to who is the better offensive mind.
At the end of the day, Mike Leach’s move from Washington State to Mississippi State will be the defining moment in judging Gus Malzahn’s ability to coach an offense, despite the differences in their styles. A Hal Mumme disciple, Leach has no need for a run game, preferring to air it out every down. His offenses have been record-setting at every stop he’s made.
There are two important differences at Mississippi State. First, he will have access to better quality players than he’s likely ever had. Not that his players at Texas Tech or Washington State weren’t good; they were, and he has put a lot of talent in the NFL. However, there’s just more physically gifted players in the SEC, period. Secondly, he has never faced the defenses he will have to face every week in the SEC. While no one has consistently stopped his offenses, he’s never regularly played against SEC-level opponents.The real discussion, here, is that a lot of Auburn fans used Leach as one of the obtainable coaches that could realistically come to Auburn and make a difference. Instead, they get to see him every year on the opposite sideline.
Gus Malzahn’s run-first, tempo attack is almost completely opposite of what Leach will bring. Yet, Leach has consistently performed for 20 years, and Malzahn has continued to put up “career worsts.” It may not happen in Leach’s first year, but his success, or lack thereof, will paint a pretty clear picture of what Auburn could have done when everyone else was making moves.
It is fascinating how in just a few years the entire SEC coaching landscape can change. For the most part, the new crop is offensive minded and highly respected, just as Gus Malzahn has been. The difference is, none of the new guys have been figured out yet, which is incredible for Kiffin and Leach, who have been around the block. And, some of the coaches who have been around for a while such as TAMU’s Jimbo Fisher, are more complete as offensive coaches. The coming seasons may just reveal “who could Auburn get that’s better.”