Saturday Football: Auburn update, a B1G job opening and Arizona's search
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Good morning and happy Wednesday! It’s a busy week in the college football world, and a crazy one for coaches (the ones who still have their jobs, that is). The coaching carousel is in full swing, the Early Signing Period starts today and runs through Friday and, oh, some teams are just, you know, getting ready for their conference championship games this weekend.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll dive into the coaching carousel headfirst. First, we’ll discuss the latest rumors and rumblings out of Auburn. Then, we’ll take a look at the job opening at Illinois after Lovie Smith was fired. Finally, we’ll head out to Arizona and see where the Wildcats might turn after parting ways with Kevin Sumlin. So, without further ado, let’s get going!
Auburn continues to search for its new head coach. What’s the latest on this important decision?
The Auburn Tigers parted ways with Gus Malzahn on Sunday. With the Early Signing Period underway, many thought the Tigers might have someone in place already. But, as of Tuesday night, that wasn’t the case. The rumors continue to swirl around the opening on The Plains.
So, what’s the latest on the Auburn search? Who are the coaches in the mix? Let’s take a look at where things stand in Auburn as the hunt for Malzahn’s replacement continues:
- It has become clear that Malzahn was well-respected in the CFB world. The outpouring of support has been strong. Mizzou’s Eli Drinkwitz, who got his start under Malzhan, said he was stunned by the news. Auburn QB Bo Nix posted a heartfelt message to his former coach on Instagram. Alabama’s Nick Saban said he has a ton of respect for Malzahn. Ditto Kirby Smart. Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl said Malzahn had become a good friend to him over the years. SEC Network host Paul Finebaum reflected on the legacy Malzahn will leave behind at Auburn.
- Malzahn showed his class on the way out at Auburn, too. He released a statement thanking Auburn officials, fans and everyone who helped him have success with the Tigers. Even his wife, Kristi, posted her gratitude for their time at Auburn on Facebook.
- Now, though, it’s all about moving forward for the Tigers. Saturday Down South’s Matt Hinton wrote that firing Malzahn is Auburn’s biggest gamble yet. Auburn announced an eight-person hiring committee, which includes AD Allen Greene and 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson.
- So, who will that committee ultimately decide to go with? Well, after it was initially speculated that Liberty’s Hugh Freeze was a top candidate, momentum seems to have stalled around him. A couple of names involved are current interim coach Kevin Steele and Oregon’s Mario Cristobal. However, Cristobal said on Monday that he hasn’t been contacted by the Tigers. He is also reportedly working on an extension at Oregon. Freeze also recently signed an extension at Liberty. Could the Tigers just bump Steele up to head coach? According to some rumors, he has the support of some major boosters. He’s reportedly the top candidate at the moment. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik says Steele would be a good choice if a top offensive mind like Freeze doesn’t take the job.
If Steele is the guy, this search could wrap up pretty quickly. However, if it’s not him and not Freeze, the search could continue for a couple of weeks or more. It’ll be interesting to see how Auburn handles this. Without a coach in place during the Early Signing Period, whoever lands the full-time gig will have his work cut out for him ahead of National Signing Day in February!
TOP 2021 RECRUITING CLASSES
By the time you read this newsletter, chances are the Early Signing Period will already be in full swing. Starting today, players in the 2021 class can sign with the schools they’ve committed to, so we’ll see plenty of commitment ceremonies and high-profile flips between now and Friday.
But, to get you ready for all the wild recruiting action, here’s a look at how the top 10 recruiting classes for the 2021 cycle looked heading into Wednesday’s madness (via the 247Sports composite rankings):
- Alabama — 22 players, 6 5-stars, 12 4-stars
- Ohio State — 21 players, 5 5-stars, 13 4-stars
- Georgia — 20 players, 3 5-stars, 12 4-stars
- LSU — 19 players, 1 5-star, 13 4-stars
- Clemson — 18 players, 2 5-stars, 14 4-stars
- Oregon — 20 players, 0 5-stars, 15 4-stars
- Florida — 26 players, 1 5-star, 14 4-stars
- Notre Dame — 24 players, 0 5-stars, 11 4-stars
- Michigan — 21 players, 1 5-star, 11 4-stars
- Oklahoma — 15 players, 1 5-star, 11 4-stars
Miami, North Carolina, Texas A&M, USC and Tennessee are in the 11-15 spots, so we’ll see if they can crack the top 10 with big performances during the Early Signing Period. We’ll update the recruiting rankings soon when the madness has settled down again.
- Ohio State is (once again) a controversial Playoff candidate. The Buckeyes will, at best, be 6-0 after Saturday’s B1G Championship Game against Northwestern. However, other top teams are already trying to discredit the Buckeyes’ resume. Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara dives into how the smear campaign against Ohio State is already underway.
- Kyle Trask and Mac Jones will square off in the SEC title game. The Alabama and Florida quarterbacks are perhaps the top two Heisman contenders, so it should be a heck of a game. Oh, and Alabama WR DeVonta Smith and Florida TE Kyle Pitts are also in the Heisman mix. But, back to the QBs. Is this the best QB matchup in SEC title game history? Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara takes a look into the history of the game and what this weekend’s QB matchup will bring.
- Speaking of Mac Jones, he’s really a very interesting guy. From his days as a child model to (somewhat) speaking Mandarin to his pranks on teammates to making Nick Saban angry, he might be the most interesting man in college football. ESPN’s Hallie Grossman spoke with Jones for this delightful and informative profile on the potential Heisman winner.
- With the Early Signing Period now underway, there are stories to watch. From high-profile flips to teams without coaches trying to sign top players, there will be plenty to take in over the next three days. Bleacher Report’s Brad Shepard picked the top 10 recruiting storylines to keep an eye on this week.
Illinois and Lovie Smith have parted ways. Who should the Illini turn to as their next coach?
The Lovie Smith era is officially over in Champaign. On Sunday, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman announced that the football program was moving on from its head coach after five seasons at the helm of the Fighting Illini program. It was a decision made following a 2-5 record during the 2020 season with a frustrating 28-10 loss to Northwestern to close out the year. As Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara writes, after a 17-39 record and just one bowl appearance, it was time for Illinois to move on.
Whitman actually said he made the decision a few weeks ago, after Illinois dropped a 35-21 contest to Iowa on Dec. 5, but he waited until the end of the “regular season” to make the call. The announcement came just a few days before the Early Signing Period, which will undoubtedly result in ramifications on the recruiting front.
Now, the search begins as Illinois attempts to find its next head football coach. Who are some of the best candidates to take over in Champaign?
- It didn’t take long for a solid list of candidates to emerge. Merely minutes after the news hit the social media streams that Smith had been terminated, Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel had a long list of potential replacements to take over at Illinois. Some of the names included Army’s Jeff Monken, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. But that was just the start of the list.
- What does Illinois need in it’s next head coach? Two things come to mind: consistency and effective recruiting methods. Believe it or not, that pairing tends to be mutually exclusive. One of the primary reasons Smith struggled to get any consistent play on the field was because of his failures on the recruiting front. Illinois never ranked higher than 10th in the B1G recruiting rankings under Smith, according to 247Sports’ Composite. Things haven’t been much better this year, as the Illini are near the bottom once again.
- A little Buffalo sauce may be the cure. Illinois fans are probably not too keen on attempting to crown another Group of 5 head coach as the savior of the football program. However, Leipold might be the best candidate for the job. He’s compiled a 36-32 record at Buffalo, but has been incredibly successful the past three seasons, which includes a 5-0 mark so far in 2020, earning him MAC Coach of the Year honors. Before his time at Buffalo, Leipold was the head coach at Division III power Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he compiled a 109-6 (that’s not a typo) record from 2007-14. He also won six national championships during that time. Sounds like it’s worth a shot, doesn’t it?
There’s really no clarity on who Illinois is targeting right now, and it would do Whitman well to conduct a thorough search before making a decision. In the meantime, offensive coordinator Rod Smith will serve as the interim head coach as the Fighting Illini close out the B1G season against Penn State this weekend.
JUST FOR FUN
When it comes to recruiting, we tend to focus on the elite schools and racking up the best high school players in the country. But, what about the other end of the spectrum? For today’s quiz, let’s see how much you know about the worst 2020 recruiting classes. Can you name the FBS school with the worst recruiting class during the 2020 cycle? And, can you name the Power 5 school with the worst 2020 class?
Scroll down for the answers to today’s quiz.
ARIZONA COACHING SEARCH
Arizona has fired coach Kevin Sumlin. Who is the right candidate to turn the Wildcats around?
After only three seasons, Arizona has decided to fire coach Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcats finished the 2020 season with an abysmal 0-5 record and a 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State. Dating back to last year, the Wildcats have lost 12-straight games. Oh, and Sumlin never beat the Sun Devils in his three seasons, extending Arizona’s Territorial Cup losing streak to four years.
So, with the program a complete mess right now, who will the Wildcats turn to next? Which coaches are in the mix for the job? Let’s take a look at the latest stories out of Tucson:
- First, we need to ask if the program is even salvageable. The Pac-12 has plummeted in national relevance in recent years. Meanwhile, Arizona hasn’t made the Pac-12 Championship Game since 2014, when it got blown out by Oregon. SB Nation’s Adam Green made the case for why the Wildcats’ job isn’t a complete and total disaster. He certainly makes some interesting points.
- Next, let’s discuss some candidates to replace Sumlin. Jason Scheer of 247Sports reports that Brent Brennan of San Jose State is the Wildcats’ top choice. He also has Nevada’s Jay Norvell and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo in the top three. Yahoo’s Pete Thamel has those three mentioned as candidates, as well as Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, USC OC Graham Harrell and Oregon DC Andy Avalos. Fansided’s Kevin Barney has BYU coach Kalani Sitake atop his list.
- So, what’s the chatter? Are these coaches interested? Well, if Brennan really is Arizona’s top choice, the Wildcats will have to be patient. Brennan’s San Jose State team is undefeated and playing for the Mountain West title this weekend. He said this week that all his focus is on that game. Perhaps he’d be interested in interviewing with the Wildcats after that game? Meanwhile, one recently fired NFL coach has reportedly reached out to Arizona officials about the job. He’s an interesting name to throw in the mix.
We mentioned Gus Malzahn getting fired by Arizona earlier. Keep an eye on his name and if he ends up getting connected to the Wildcats’ job. The Arizona job is an intriguing one, so it’ll be interesting to see if the next coach there is able to turn things around.
The answers to today’s recruiting quiz are:
- Worst FBS 2020 class: Buffalo (No. 131, behind even FCS squad Eastern Washington)
- Worst Power 5 2020 class: Illinois (No. 88 overall)
We’ll have to wait until National Signing Day in February to find out which schools have the worst 2021 recruiting classes, so there’s still time for teams to avoid this dubious distinction. (All rankings via 247Sports.)
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“That’s just a product of when your players play well, you are going to be in rumors like that. There have been no conversations, anything like that.
“I wanted to say what I learned from my mentor. You know, if you guys keep asking this, I’m going to have to tell you, I will not be the next head coach at Alabama, OK! So stopping asking me.
“I wasn’t supposed to say that but I just had to.”
– Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin couldn’t help but troll his old boss Nick Saban when he was asked about speculation he could take over at Auburn for Gus Malzahn. Kiffin referenced Saban saying he wouldn’t be the next coach of Alabama when he was coaching the Miami Dolphins.
TWEET OF THE DAY
A clothing store in Baton Rouge is taking advantage of the infamous Marco Wilson shoe toss for its new promotion. The “Dan Mullen Discount” is sure to be a popular sale in LSU country after the Tigers upset the Gators in The Swamp on Saturday night.