Mailbag: Why LSU-Auburn could cost Les Miles or Gus Malzahn his job

It’s still only September and yet I could easily fill the Mailbag most weeks almost entirely with Hot Seat questions. In most cases, such speculation is premature. But not in the SEC West.

Stewart: Love your articles and The Audible. Is the LSU-Auburn game a de facto playoff for Les Miles and Gus Malzahn to keep their jobs? I see them both getting fired if they don’t improve on early results, but is there any chance the loser is still the head coach in 2017?

— Andrew from Fairfax, Virginia

It sure feels that way.

Miles is obviously under more intense and immediate pressure than Malzahn given the fact his athletic director tried to fire him last year. The primary expectations for LSU coming into this season were A) Miles’ offense and quarterback play finally improve and B) the Tigers contend for the College Football Playoff. If LSU loses its second game before the end of September, the second goal is all but shot. As for the former, I find it hard to imagine QB Danny Etling throws for four touchdowns in the defeat.

SEC coaches get fired for going 9-3, and 9-3 becomes the absolute best-case scenario if LSU loses this weekend. So if ever Miles and embattled offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are going to put the pieces together, they’ll want it to happen Saturday. Texas A&M freshman RB Trayveon Williams broke an 89-yard touchdown and the Aggies ran for 231 yards on Auburn last week, so perhaps Leonard Fournette is himself poised to go off.

Turning to Auburn, I realize AD Jay Jacobs was insistent this summer that Malzahn will be his coach for “a long, long time” and even gave him an extension and a raise. And I’ve found that Tigers fans tend to get defensive at the suggestion they have a penchant for running off coaches. All parties really want this to work.

But at this point the trend line for Malzahn is reaching dangerous territory. Auburn has lost 12 of its last 18 games against FBS opponents and 10 of its last 12 SEC games. His continued juggling of quarterbacks with no apparent strategy is only hurting his cause. There will be mutiny if fans don’t see a turnaround soon, which of course could still happen. Auburn’s two losses have come to teams both now ranked in the Top 10.

But if the Tigers fall to 1-3? Pawwwwl!

It reminds me of some of those Charlie Weis-Rich Rodriguez Notre Dame-Michigan games that always felt like a referendum on the coaches’ jobs. On Saturday night, two teams with a combined 3-3 record are going to square off for what could easily be a 10-9 game – and the intensity will be palpable.

Stewart: I am a big fan of the podcast. (I don’t like calling it "the pod.") It always seems that every year some teams that start the season falter while teams some seem that struggle early then put it together and peak at the right time. Example: 2014 Ohio State. What are the teams that are struggling now that you think could put it together? (Clemson, I am looking in your direction.)

— Peter Shempp, Dallas

Thanks on the podcast. I look forward to a day in the very near future where we will just call them “shows,” because that’s what they are. Podcasts have become infinitely more popular the last couple of years – the “Serial” effect – which, combined with better and better technology for listening in the car, is going to lead to a day where most listeners don’t differentiate between listening to the radio and listening to a podcast.

But I digress …

Clemson would certainly be the first on the list of teams you’re talking about. I don’t believe the Tigers’ offense will struggle for long. Meanwhile, I seem to be the least concerned person in America about Iowa’s loss to North Dakota State. The Hawkeyes aren’t going to have many games where they rush for 34 yards. Ditto for Washington State, which also suffered a less-than-embarrassing FCS loss to Eastern Washington. Mike Leach’s teams are always good for a mid- or late-season surge.

But the two most interesting teams to watch whether they do or don’t progress will be Ole Miss and Florida State. The Rebels are sitting at 1-2, yet they held three-touchdown leads against both FSU and Alabama. QB Chad Kelly just threw for 421 yards against the Tide defense. Would anyone be surprised if Ole Miss turns it around and finishes 9-3? As for the ‘Noles, what happened Saturday is mystifying, but don’t put it past Jimbo Fisher to make the necessary fixes for QB Deondre Francois to perform better under pressure. And Dalvin Cook isn’t going to average 76 yards per game forever.

Despite Louisville-Florida State not being a competitive game, it was fantastic to have a Top 10 matchup on at noon eastern last weekend. It felt like I was in a 20-year time warp. How did we get to a place where there is normally nothing worth watching at noon, some decent games in mid-afternoon followed by the five best matchups of the day all being played at the same time at night? I would think networks wouldn’t want to cannibalize each other for ratings.

— Steve, Atlanta

Good question. You’re right that last Saturday was unusual in just how well the networks combined to stretch compelling matchups from Noon (FSU-Louisville) until 2 a.m. (Texas-Cal).

But whether you love or detest night games, I think you may be romanticizing the old days just a bit. For one thing, there were far fewer games on in 1996, and those that were often got regionalized. It wasn’t that long ago that if you lived in Virginia you could get stuck watching a Maryland-Georgia Tech game ABC beamed while people in Michigan watched Ohio State-Wisconsin and people in California watched USC-Oregon. That started to go away when ABC started its weekly primetime series in 2006.

Since then, FOX entered the market with its own marquee primetime game in 2012, NBC started shifting a couple of Notre Dame games a year to nights, ESPN started showing more 10:30 ET Pac-12 games, and the Big Ten and SEC Networks came along and themselves started airing night games.

Ultimately, primetime is when networks usually get the maximum possible viewers, and from what I’ve learned, they don’t generally worry about cannibalizing each other. The more fans tuning in to begin with, the more may eventually switch over to your game. Case in point: Both ESPN and FOX saw their season-long ratings increase last year despite their biggest games often overlapping.

So while last Saturday was great, it’s likely to be an exception. Worth noting this Saturday, however, is that Big Ten Network got a sneaky good Noon ET game, Wisconsin-Michigan State. You might prefer that to Iowa-Rutgers on ESPN2.

I hate to be “that fan,” but the Mark Helfrich era at Oregon is feeling a lot like what happened to Miami and Nebraska when Larry Coker and Frank Solich took over, respectively. Looking at the glass half-empty, would Oregon consider firing Helfrich if the Ducks finish the year 8-4 or 7-5? And, if they did, what caliber coach could fans expect to come to Oregon?

— Tony Fox, Portland, Oregon

What’s happening with Helfrich is exactly what I feared when he got the job. No matter the coach Oregon hired to succeed Chip Kelly, the Ducks were not going to keep winning 12 games a year forever. It’s simply not realistic for a non-traditional program with no real recruiting base. Kelly’s inventive system caught the Pac-12 completely flat-footed at the time, but inevitably opponents have figured out how to demystify it. And, of course, a new Marcus Mariota wasn’t going to keep coming along every three years.

To be clear, Oregon has unquestionably regressed, and Helfrich deserves blame for a couple of important elements. For one, his defensive coordinator choices have been puzzling to say the least. Perhaps Brady Hoke gets things turned around, but Don Pellum left him with quite the rebuilding project. And most notably, how Oregon managed to misfire on about four years worth of quarterback recruits is baffling. You shouldn’t need an FCS transfer to come in and rescue you in consecutive years.

All that being said, no, I do not expect AD Rob Mullens will fire Helfrich anytime soon. He’s a consummate Oregon guy, and he’s two years removed from a national title game appearance. Not to mention, he’s only in Year 2 of a guaranteed five-year, $17.5 million contract, so it would cost the school about $11 million to fire him. Interestingly, though, when I researched his contract for this answer, I found a unique clause: If Helfrich goes 5-7 or worse in consecutive seasons, his buyout gets reduced by half.

Clearly, Mullens did not attend the Gary Barta School of Contract Buyouts.

So Oklahoma’s losses to top teams Houston and Ohio State have most pundits writing the Sooners out of playoff contention altogether, but does Oklahoma deserve any kind of plaudits for having the courage to schedule like this? Contrast this to the schedules Washington and Michigan have played this year, and Baylor in years past. They’ve played no one that can challenge them, and yet still hold on to top rankings.

— Aaron Chang, D.C.

Yes, Oklahoma deserves praise for scheduling ambitiously. But nor does it get a consolation prize for losing both games. As I’ve discussed many times, in the playoff era, the reward for scheduling tough outweighs the risk. Just a year ago, Oklahoma did make the playoff, and playing and beating Tennessee on the road helped ensure there would be no controversy over its selection.

As for Washington and Michigan’s cupcakes, while they haven’t affected the early-season AP rankings, they could certainly come back to bite the two with the committee. Both should get plenty of chances for quality wins in conference, but for example, if Michigan goes 11-1 but does not win its division, it’s not going to get much sympathy in a debate with, say, 11-2 Pac-12 champion Stanford when the Cardinal played Kansas State and Notre Dame.

Hi Stewart: I do have another suggestion for your Big 12 team projected for the Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma State.

— James G., Gilroy, California

It’s as good an answer as any, but I’d note that the Cowboys thus far rank 72nd nationally in total defense (5.4 YPP) and 102nd in rushing offense (3.1 YPC). Usually you have to at least be good in one or the other to win a conference, but maybe not in this year’s Big 12.

In 11 of the past 16 seasons, NC State had a future NFL starting QB (Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon and now Jacoby Brissett), but they have only finished ranked to end the season twice (No. 12 in 2002 and No. 25 in 2010). Is this a sign that having a good QB is not as important as people think?

— Seth, Charleston, South Carolina

No, I’d say it reinforces how bad the coaching’s been at NC State.

Rivers was a four-year starter, and a very good one at that. Chuck Amato went a modest 17-15 in a very mediocre ACC with him at the helm. He was a great recruiter, bringing in future pros like Jerricho Cotchery, Mario Williams and Manny Lawson; he just couldn’t consistently win games. Tom O’Brien had future All-Pro Wilson for three seasons, in none of which he cracked 60 percent completions. He goes off to Wisconsin for a year and suddenly he’s at 72.8. But fortunately he had Glennon at the ready; the Wolfpack went 15-11 with him as the starter, and O’Brien got fired.

And I’ve seen nothing in three-plus seasons so far to indicate Dave Doeren can lead NC State to glory, with or without Brissett. He’s won six ACC games, five of those against Syracuse, Wake Forest and Boston College.

I’m not saying all you need is a good quarterback to win football games; on the contrary, this shows you need much more. I also realize NC State is not a ready-made football power. The best players in that state still often bolt to the SEC or elsewhere. But certainly the program should finish in the Top 25 more than twice in 15 years, and with those quarterbacks, it has even less of an excuse.

Stewart: Love your columns, your books, love everything. With North Dakota State coming in at No. 27 in the AP poll this week after its defeat of Iowa, what exactly is the ranking ceiling for the Bison if they go undefeated? That is, as other teams above them lose throughout the course of the year, could voters push them up into the top 15? Top 10? Is there a previous history of this ever happening before?

— Chris H. Parkland, Florida

First of all, North Dakota State should have made the Top 25 this week, especially given that 1-2 Oklahoma is currently occupying the No. 25 spot. Seven other unranked teams have beaten ranked teams since the start of the season, and all but two (Central Michigan and Cal) entered the poll the following week. And mind you, Iowa came into the game ranked all the way up at 13th.

There’s not much precedent here. Other FCS teams have garnered votes, starting when the rule changed after Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007. (Random aside: I was one of the Mountaineers’ voters.) And in fact, North Dakota State itself got at least a few votes every year from 2010-14. But the Bison’s 74 points this week were by far the most any FCS team has ever received and puts them much closer to cracking the poll than their predecessors.

Part of me thinks this is a one-week thing, and as the Bison go back to their usual business playing Illinois State and Missouri State, they’ll fall out of the voters’ minds. But another part of me thinks that respect for that program is now so high, and the candidates in a given week once you get past about No. 22 usually so uninspiring, that perhaps they do go ahead and elevate NDSU. And in fact, current No. 25 OU plays current No. 26 TCU in two weeks, and the other team tied for No. 27, UCLA, could lose to Stanford this weekend.

But if it’s going to happen, it’s probably going to have to be in the next two weeks, and even if it does, I wouldn’t expect NDSU to stay there for long.

Hi Stewart: Since Iowa lost to North Dakota State, will the committee view it as just another FCS loss or will it factor in that the Bison are a quality opponent whose Sagarin ranking is currently one spot behind Cal? If Iowa were to run the table and knock off highly ranked Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, do they have any hope of getting into the playoff?

— Tom, New Jersey

I do believe the committee would view North Dakota State as a good team. The Bison are five-time national champs with five straight victories over Power 5 teams. But it’s also likely moot, because the chances of the Hawkeyes making it past Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and the East champion without a loss are next to none.

We’re not in 2015 anymore.

Stewart, I like reading your column, but I think you’re an idiot for thinking Appalachian State would beat Miami. App State took an overrated Tennessee team to overtime and all of a sudden people think they can beat Power 5 teams consistently? Miami clearly looks better under Mark Richt’s guidance.

— Jaime, Miami, Florida

Well sure, it’s easy to call out my foolishness after the fact. Where were these e-mails last Friday?

Miami is losing to App St?! Look, I get we’ve been down for a bit, but to think we’re going to lose to a team that has one win against an FBS team is frankly preposterous. I watched the TN game and, look, I’m a fan, not an analyst, but even I could see how dinky the App St players are. I’m not going to hurl insults at a professional with a degree from nicely regarded Northwestern, but get with the freakin’ program.

— Steven Gregg, somewhere

OK, that one did come in last Friday.