Auburn fired coach coach Gus Malzahn on Sunday, one day after a 24-10 win over Mississippi State. The vacancy on the Plains is the highest-profile open job in the college football market, and it will surely attract some of the top candidates in the game.
Auburn won a national title in 2010 under coach Gene Chizik, came within an eyelash of doing it again in 2013 against Florida State and entered the SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia in 2017 with a berth in the College Football Playoff within reach.
The last decade has proven that you can win at an elite level at Auburn regardless of what rival Alabama is doing across the state. Auburn's next coach will have the keys to a Ferrari, and he'll just have to fill up the tank.
Let's take a look at the top names to replace Malzahn.
Hugh Freeze, Liberty coach: Freeze should be the first, second, third and fourth name that athletic director Allen Greene pulls up on his contact list. He was 39-25 in five seasons at Ole Miss from 2012-16, led the Rebels to New Year's Six bowls in 2014 (Peach) and 2015 (Sugar), and beat Alabama coach Nick Saban in both of those seasons. Malzahn's 3-5 record against Saban made him the most successful coach outside of Dabo Swinney against the game's best, which is clearly a massive hurdle that a head coach at Auburn must clear.
The obvious criticism against Freeze is that he left Ole Miss in shambles after NCAA sanctions hit it hard. That is true. But it's not like those Ole Miss rosters were deeper and more talented than those at Alabama, Auburn, LSU or others in the SEC. What's more, the first half of Ole Miss' 2015 season -- which ended with a Sugar Bowl win --was played without suspended All-American offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. One of those games that Tunsil missed was the win at Alabama.
It's no secret that the SEC wasn't keen on the idea of Freeze coming back in the SEC when he was considered a candidate to take over Alabama's offense in 2018. The SEC commissioner has the ability to block (or at least impede) the hiring of coaches who have NCAA issues in their past. That won't be as much of an issue now.
Mario Cristobal, Oregon coach: Cristobal took over the Ducks after Willie Taggart left for Florida State and has seen success. His Ducks went 12-2, won the Pac-12 and topped Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to finish ranked No. 5 in the country last season. He has compiled a 24-9 record in three-plus seasons in charge. That success came after he built FIU into a competitive program from 2007-12. The Panthers went 7-6 in 2010 and 8-5 in 2011 -- the first two bowl games in program history. He went 3-9 in 2012 and was the victim of a quick hook.
Cristobal landed on his feet with coach Nick Saban and an Alabama program that has evolved into a landing spot for jettisoned head coaches looking to revive their careers. He spent four seasons on the staff as an associate head coach, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. There's a lot to like about Cristobal. His recruiting prowess, including ties to the fertile recruiting ground of south Florida, makes him a perfect fit in the SEC. That coupled with his proven success at both small and big schools should make him attractive to Auburn.
Billy Napier, Louisiana coach: Napier has been in charge of the Ragin' Cajuns for three seasons, and he will lead them into the Sun Belt Championship Game against Coastal Carolina this weekend. He has a 27-11 overall record (20-5 Sun Belt) and has three straight division titles. Like Cristobal, he has experience on the Alabama staff as an analyst (2011) and wide receivers coach (2013-16). He was the offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009-10, which were Dabo Swinney's first two full seasons at the helm. Working with Saban and Swinney -- the top two active coaches in the game -- is a pedigree that will turn the heads of athletic directors in the SEC footprint. Does Napier have enough experience? Malzahn only had one when he was hired prior to the 2013 season. It depends if Greene wants to go for the home run or let a young coach learn on the fly.
Bill Clark, UAB coach: Clark navigated the Blazers through the program's shutdown following the 2014 season and have led them to bowl games in all three of its seasons since it was reinstated. He posted an 11-3 record in 2018 and won Conference USA, which was remarkable considering it was only the second season since the shutdown. He has a 39-22 record at UAB and 11-4 at FCS Jacksonville State in 2013. If you factor in the two seasons that UAB didn't play, he's been a college coach in the state of Alabama for six seasons. That experience has allowed him to cultivate relationships with high school coaches within the state and around the southeast.
Other names to watch:
- Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina coach
- Steve Sarkisian, Alabama offensive coordinator
- Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator
- Kevin Steele, Auburn defensive coordinator