By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
There was a time when the result of the LSU-Auburn game determined how the West was won.
This year’s result may determine how the coach was fired.
Between 2000 and 2005, either LSU, Auburn or both claimed at least a share of the SEC West title. In all but one of those seasons, the West’s place in Atlanta was claimed by the winner of the Tiger Bowl.
Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville have long since departed from these teams, however. In their places, respectively, are Les Miles and Gus Malzahn. How long each coach keeps his current job remains to be seen, and Saturday’s result will go a long way in saying who stays, if anyone, and who goes at season’s end — if not sooner.
Call it the Buyout Bowl.
It’d have been difficult to predict just two short seasons ago when first they met that Miles and Malzahn would enter their annual matchup in 2016 coaching for their jobs.
At the end of the 2013 season, Malzahn was the hottest commodity in college football, fresh off a national runner up finish in his debut season on The Plains. Had Kelvin Benjamin not secured a 2-yard touchdown pass from Heisman winner Jameis Winston with 13 seconds left on the clock, Malzahn would have hoisted the crystal ball in his first season on the job, just a year removed from a forgettable 3-9 final season for his fired predecessor, Gene Chizik.
But an 8-5 season in 2014, a 7-6 season in 2015, and seven straight losses to Power 5 opponents have brought Malzahn to the brink of Chizik territory. If things don’t turn for the better, he could join the coach he coordinated for during Auburn’s 2010 national championship season as head coaches fired by the school they’d so recently led to the national title game.
Miles, meanwhile, handed Auburn its only regular season loss in that 2013 season, a 35-21 decision in Tiger Stadium, and would soon haul in his best ever recruiting class, featuring No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette, No. 1 overall receiver Malachi Dupre, five-star safety Jamal Adams, and elite dual-threat quarterback Brandon Harris. He was six seasons or a $15 million buyout from the end of his LSU contract, poised for title runs in 2015 and 2016.
Like Malzahn, however, Miles stumbled down the stretch in 2014 and 2015, barely surviving an attempt to oust him last November after LSU lost three straight contests between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
A season opening loss to Wisconsin did little to assuage those masses calling for Miles’ oddly-hatted head. Nor did a surprisingly close loss to Clemson, or a not-quite-as-close defeat to Texas A&M on Saturday, help Malzahn’s case.
Should either school decide to ax its coach, it will prove a costly decision — literally.
Miles’ buyout dropped from $15 million to ‘only’ $12.9 million, where it will stay until the end of the 2017 calendar year. His contract runs through 2019, and the LSU board’s recent decision to table a postseason incentive raise highlights how perilous his grasp is on the job he’s held since 2005.
Malzahn makes more per year — $4.725 million annually to Miles’ $4.3 million — but would cost less to can, at a discounted rate of just under $9 million.
Here’s a ranking of the SEC’s hottest seats, from coldest to warmest.
14. Nick Saban, Alabama: The only thing colder than Saban’s personality is his job security. Unlike Trump, Saban could actually shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and Tide fans and administrators wouldn’t fret for a moment.
13. Brett Bielema, Arkansas: Big Burt is living high as a hog in Fayetteville these days. The Razorbacks are 3-0, ranked in the top 20 of both polls for the first time since 2012, and if anyone tried to fire him, he could simply refuse to leave his office, and literally no one could physically remove him from his job.
12. Jim McElwain, Florida: The second-year head coach won 10 games in his debut season and, until Luke Del Rio’s nasty injury this weekend, had turned around the Gators’ offense in year two.
11. Kirby Smart, Georgia: First year head coach + school alum. He’s safe and sound, no matter how erratic the Bulldogs have been in their 3-0 start.
10. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Mullen is normally perched in the teens of this list, but the Dogs will likely finish in the West’s basement this season. Have they built a statue for him yet in Starkville? Do they even have the technology for such projects in Starkville?
9. Will Muschamp, South Carolina: First year head coach + low expectations. But Muschamp irks enough people to work his way up this list quickly.
8. Barry Odom, Missouri: First year head coach + recent administrative turmoil, which is a knife that can cut both ways. He’s safe for now.
7. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt: Seats for football coaches don’t get too hot in Nashville, where football is number three behind baseball and basketball. But there are whispers from Vandy fans — all 10 of them — calling for a change already.
6. Mark Stoops, Kentucky: In all, it would cost Kentucky $18 million to be rid of Stoops (12-25 after 3 ¼ seasons) and his staff. John Calipari could call Anthony Davis and ask for a loan, if needed.
5. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss: Mix NCAA violations with two losses featuring large leads lost to highly-ranked foes, and you’ll get plenty of Rebel fans chanting “Hoddy, Toddy, Hire Somebody.”
4. Butch Jones, Tennessee: Jones could move either direction on this list, depending on Tennessee’s results to come. Snapping the program’s 11-game losing streak to Florida this weekend would be a dose of ice to his heating keister.
3. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: Sumlin just misses the cut for the next category of heat, thanks to John Chavis’ defense, his team’s 3-0 start, and its subsequent ascendance into the No. 10 spot of the AP Poll. Who needs five-star freshmen quarterbacks, anyway?
2. Gus Malzahn, Auburn: Losing seven straight to Power 5 opponents is no good for job security. Nor is going 11-13 in one’s last 24 games, no matter a 17-2 start. Malzahn did just get a contract extension this offseason, so it’d be a little weird to fire him. But weirder things have happened on The Plains.
1. Les Miles, LSU: Miles takes the cake here. He was basically fired in November before a political maelstrom turned the wind in his favor in the critical hour. Miles can’t afford to lose many more in 2016.