As long expected, Bryan Harsin failed to make it out of Year 2 at Auburn. The Tigers fired the former Boise State coach who was just never a good candidate and lacked the support of nearly everyone who mattered there. On top of that, and largely because of those two things, recruiting at Auburn was in dire shape. The good news: Auburn has some great options and will attract great coaches. After all, Gene Chizik won a national title there and his successor, Gus Malzahn, led the Tigers to the brink of another.
Lane Kiffin, head coach of Ole Miss
The biggest name to watch is currently working in SEC West. It’s Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, Nick Saban’s former OC who is 18-4 with the Rebels the past two seasons and 10-3 in the SEC. His team is No. 11 in the country. He is one of the best offensive minds in college football. He also has a proven track record of handling social media and knows how to create a buzz like the one that gave the Rebels a lot of momentum. When Kiffin left Tuscaloosa, there was a lot of skepticism about whether he could be trusted to lead his own program, but hiring him proved to be a very smart bet for Florida Atlantic, which went 26-13. during its three seasons. It is said that Kiffin became interested in this job two years ago when Harsin got it. Of the three biggest names in play, he might feel like the safest and most attractive option for Tiger power brokers.
Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze
Former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze quit the SEC amid a scandal, but no one doubts his offensive spirit and he knows how to recruit in the SEC. Freeze led the Rebels into the top 10 and beat Nick Saban’s Alabama team twice. He resurfaced at Liberty and is 33-12 overall. There have been rumors that SEC boss Greg Sankey is against one of his programs hiring Freeze as a head coach. Freeze is still a very polarizing figure, but if Auburn signed him, he’d get the Tigers back into the top 20 before too long.
Jackson State Head Coach Deion Sanders
The biggest wild card in this search is also a head coach in the Deep South, but he runs an FCS program: Jackson State’s Deion Sanders.
The 55-year-old is 19-2 over the past two seasons and was awarded the Eddie Robinson Award as FCS’s best head coach of the season in 2021. He improved that list significantly and landed big-name recruits who probably never thought of going to Jackson State. Last December, Sanders pulled off a huge recruiting coup by beating everyone, including his alma mater, for Travis Hunter, the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Without a doubt, Sanders would be a huge force in recruiting. Nobody has a presence like him. The guy is Saban’s co-star on all those Aflac commercials and was dragged into that NIL dust between the Alabama head coach and Jimbo Fisher. Sanders was the only one of the three to probably come out of it without looking bad or having to apologize. We’ve heard mixed reactions about whether the Auburn brass would be comfortable with Sanders’ takeover. The feeling here is that the Tigers would be foolish not to give him serious consideration to find out if he seems like a good choice.
Matt Rhule, former head coach of the Carolina Panthers
Former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule should be considered. He struggled in the NFL but did a really good job at Temple and a great job revamping Baylor. At Temple, the Owls went from 2-10 to 20-7 in his final two seasons. Then he turned down Oregon for the Baylor job and turned a one-win team into an 11-3 team two seasons later. He is a proven prodigy in assessment and development. The downside: The Pennsylvania native has never worked in the SEC, and after the way Harsin fell apart at Auburn, it’s likely going to be tough for people to pass.
Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knows how to win in the SEC. In the previous four seasons, he had two 10-win years, and in Kentucky, that’s a remarkable feat. The Wildcats had only one 10-win season in the previous 65 years. Kentucky is 5-3 so far, which is a little disappointing given how high they’ve raised expectations around the program. Would he leave Lexington for another SEC job, albeit one where, before Harsin, the last two coaches either won a national title or played for a title? It can be hard to say no, but he’s quite comfortable in the UK where it can be.
Dan Lanning, Oregon head coach
Dan Lanning, 36, of Oregon, knows the SEC well from his stints in Alabama and Georgia. He had a very strong first season at Oregon, going 7-1. A year, and that’s not even a full season, that’s not a lot of experience for a job like that. It’s probably too early for Auburn to make that kind of move.
(Photo by Lane Kiffin: Justin Ford/Getty Images)
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