It’s been called “The Hot Seat Bowl,” “The Buyout Bowl,” or, as my colleague Bruce Feldman said, the “Loser Leaves Town Match.” For only the fourth game of the season, Saturday night’s LSU-Auburn game sure feels like it could carry dire consequences for the losing coach, either LSU’s Les Miles or Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
“You could find the most positive person -- you could get [televangelist] Joel Osteen on the phone right now -- and he couldn’t paint a positive picture of the loser of this LSU-Auburn game,” SEC Network star Paul Finebaum told us on Wednesday’s edition of The Audible.
On one hand, it seems crazy to think that a national championship coach (Miles) who’s never won fewer than eight games in a season at LSU and another (Malzahn) who reached the BCS title game less than three years ago could be coaching for their jobs. But that’s life in the SEC, where nine of the 14 coaches make at least $4 million a year and all of their respective fan bases expect to contend near-annually for championships.
The problem for all of them, though, is that right now Nick Saban and Alabama are hogging all of the banners. As such, it sometimes feels like half the coaches in the league are on the hot seat to at least some degree.
That’s because there are in fact only seven SEC coaches who we can say with 100 percent certainty will be back in 2017 (assuming they want to stay). And many of those enjoy that status only because they just got there.
Those are: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Florida’s Jim McElwain, Missouri’s Barry Odom, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp. They have a 100 percent chance of coming back next season -- again, assuming they still want to be there.
The other seven range from mild to very big trouble. Here they are, assigned with their percentage chance as of today of coming back next season.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze: 97 percent
The Rebels’ 1-2 start hardly endangers a guy who led them to consecutive New Year’s Six bowls in 2014 and ‘15. My slight hedge here is due only to the ongoing NCAA investigation into Ole Miss’ program, which could theoretically turn up something serious enough to merit Freeze’s ouster.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin: 83 percent
Sumlin entered the season feeling as much heat as any coach in the conference following consecutive disappointing seasons in 2014 and ’15 and a tumultuous offseason of quarterback transfers and misbehaving assistant coaches. He’s quieted that talk in a hurry with early wins over UCLA and at Auburn to send the Aggies soaring into the AP Top 10 this week.
So why don’t I have him closer to 100 percent? Because we’ve seen this movie before. A&M was undefeated and ranked in the Top 10 into October in each of the past two seasons before collapsing over the second half of the year. I do believe this is a more mature team that will better handle the meat of its schedule, but you never know. Three of the Aggies’ next four games are against Top 20 foes Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
Tennessee's Butch Jones: 76 percent
The fourth-year Vols coach has won nine straight games dating to last season, the school’s longest streak since the late ‘90s. That’s restored his popularity in Knoxville quite a bit after testing fans’ patience with last year’s 3-4 start.
But man, he better beat Florida this week.
Tennessee’s 11-year losing streak to the Gators has come to symbolize the program’s larger decade-long downturn, especially given Florida has hardly been a power itself the past five years. This year’s game is at Neyland, and Florida will be playing backup QB Austin Appleby. The Vols should win, but then again they’ve been less than dominant so far in home wins over Appalachian State (in overtime) and Ohio (28-19).
Getty ImagesMichael Chang
Auburn's Gus Malzahn: 39 percent
Needless to say, Saturday’s game against LSU is a must-win for Malzahn, who’s lost six straight SEC home games and 10 of his last 12 conference games. A 1-3 start would incite a whole new level of panic. But nor would beating Les Miles quiet the job chatter completely.
Between his seemingly endless juggling of quarterbacks and harsh self-assessments (his play-calling “hadn’t been very good”), Malzahn has done little to inspire confidence that the Tigers will finish even .500 in conference play, which, following last year’s 2-6 mark, would seem like the bare accepted minimum.
Getty ImagesMichael Chang
LSU's Les Miles: 27 percent
Unfortunately, it does feel like we’re down to the last days of the ever-quotable Les at LSU. After getting an 11th-hour reprieve from school president F. King Alexander following a weeks-long public execution last year, fans expected the Tigers to contend for the playoff this season. They proceeded to fall on their face in the opener against Wisconsin.
Miles’ switch to QB Danny Etling two weeks ago was a step in the right direction, but he can’t afford to lose this week to Auburn. A win will buy him some time, but ultimately his fate may get decided one way or the other on Nov. 5 when he faces perennial nemesis Saban, whose five-game win streak in the series is driving Tigers fans mad.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
Kentucky's Mark Stoops: 18 percent
Stoops needed to at least get to bowl eligibility in his fourth season after consecutive 5-7 campaigns. Instead, the Wildcats are headed in the opposite direction. They blew a 35-10 lead to lose 44-35 to Southern Miss in their opener, after which Florida drilled UK 45-7. Last week, the defense allowed 500 yards to New Mexico State in a 62-42 win.
Kentucky’s offense isn’t half-bad (though juco transfer QB Stephen Johnson is now replacing injured starter Drew Barker), but its defense is atrocious. Which is terrifying given it still plays both Alabama and Louisville. The one saving grace for Stoops is the school would be on the hook for a staggering $12 million buyout if it fired him, but this is the SEC. If you go 3-9, they find the money.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason: 10 percent
Mason is a salt of the earth guy and a phenomenal defensive coordinator, but the head coach thing just isn’t working out. He inherited a program that went 24-15 in three seasons under James Franklin and has gone 8-19 since. In the preseason, optimism ran high that this year’s team could win some games with its manageable schedule. Instead its defense has badly regressed, and the 1-2 Commodores suffered an embarrassing 38-7 loss last week to Georgia Tech.
Vandy still has several winnable games left against the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee State and Missouri, but it’s not a good sign that Conference USA foe Western Kentucky is a 7.5-point favorite against the Commodores this week. Compounding matters, the school is discussing building a new on-campus stadium. AD David Williams needs a winning program to sell.