As has long been expected, Bryan Harsin didn’t make it out of Year 2 at Auburn. The Tigers fired the former Boise State coach who simply was never a good fit and didn’t have the support of almost anyone who mattered there. On top of that, and largely because of both of those things, recruiting at Auburn was in dreadful shape. The good news: Auburn has some very interesting options and will attract some big-time coaches. After all, Gene Chizik won a national title there and his successor, Gus Malzahn, took the Tigers to the brink of another one.
Lane KiffinOle Miss head coach
The biggest name to watch is working in the SEC West right now. 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’s one of the better offensive minds in college football. He’s also proven adept at managing social media and knows how to build buzz like the one that gave the Rebels a lot of momentum. When Kiffin left Tuscaloosa, there was plenty of skepticism about whether he could be trusted with running his own program, but hiring him proved to be a very wise gamble for Florida Atlantic, which went 26-13 in his three seasons. Word is, Kiffin had interest in this job two years ago when Harsin got it. Of the three biggest names in play, he might feel like the safest, most attractive option to the Tiger power brokers.
Hugh Freeze, Liberty head coach
Former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze left the SEC amid a scandal, but no one doubts how sharp of an offensive mind he has, 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. I have resurfaced at Liberty and it is 33-12 overall. There have been rumblings about SEC boss Greg Sankey being against one of his programs by hiring Freeze as a head coach. Freeze is still a very polarizing figure, but if Auburn hired him, he’d have the Tigers back in the top 20 before too long.
Deion Sanders, Jackson State head coach
The biggest wild card in this search is also a head coach in the deep South, but he’s running an FCS program: Jackson State’s Deion Sanders.
The 55-year-old is 19-2 the past two seasons and was honored with the Eddie Robinson Award as the season’s top FCS head coach in 2021. He upgraded that roster dramatically and landed big-name recruits who probably never would’ve 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. No doubt Sanders would be a huge force in recruiting. No one has a presence like he does. The guy is Saban’s co-star on all those Aflac commercials and got dragged into that NIL dust-up between the Alabama head coach and Jimbo Fisher. Sanders was the only one of the three who probably emerged from it not looking bad or having to apologize. We’ve heard mixed reactions on whether Auburn brass would be comfortable with Sanders taking over. The feeling here is that the Tigers would be foolish not to give him serious consideration to find out if it seems like a good fit.
Matt Rhule, former Carolina Panthers head coach
Former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is expected to get consideration. He struggled in the NFL but did a very good job at Temple and a great job overhauling Baylor. At Temple, the Owls went from 2-10 to 20-7 in his last two seasons. Then, he turned down Oregon for the Baylor job and made a one-win team into an 11-3 team two seasons later. He’s a proven whiz at evaluation and development. The downside: The Pennsylvania native has never worked in the SEC, and after the way Harsin flopped at Auburn, that’ll probably be tough for folks to get past.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knows how to win in the SEC. In the previous four seasons, he had two 10-win years, and at Kentucky, that’s a remarkable feat. The Wildcats had only one 10-win season in the previous 65 years. Kentucky is 5-3 thus far, which has felt a little disappointing given how much he elevated the expectations around the program. Would he leave Lexington for another job in the SEC albeit it’s one where prior to Harsin, the last two coaches either won a national title or played for one? It might be hard to say no, but he’s comfortable enough at UK where that may be the case.
Dan Lanning, Oregon head coach
Oregon’s Dan Lanning, 36, knows the SEC well from his time on the Alabama and Georgia staffs. He has had a very good debut season at Oregon, going 7-1. One year, and it’s not even a full season, is not a lot of experience for a job like this. It’s probably too soon for Auburn to make this kind of move.
(Photo by Lane Kiffin: Justin Ford/Getty Images)