Gus Malzahn helped lead Auburn to a national championship as its offensive coordinator in 2010 and the brink of another as head coach in 2013. Les Miles is in his 12th year in Baton Rouge, and he’s got 114 wins and a title under his belt.
But it doesn’t feel like any of that matters much right now.
Last November, it looked certain that LSU athletic director Joe Alleva would fire Miles. He didn’t, and Miles rebounded to sign up one of LSU’s best recruiting classes ever. But No. 18 LSU could fall to 1-2 against FBS competition (2-2 overall) in 2016 if it can’t beat Malzahn’s Auburn on Saturday.
If Miles does win, that’ll make Malzahn Saturday’s loser. He’ll be 1-3 this year, 16-14 in the three years following his 12-2, BCS Championship debut.
Either coach could wind up getting fired, even with a win. Let’s check in on what the locals are saying about how much this specific game matters, though.
LSU entered the year as a national title contender, and starting 2-2 would be gory
“I really think the firing thing will have to play out over the course of the season,” Dan Davis, the editor of our LSU blog, And The Valley Shook, wrote. “This is, arguably, the most talented team Les has had in Baton Rouge, so to have two losses in September would be unspeakably unacceptable. Maybe that's enough to prod the powers that be into action, but I still feel like there would be enough push back against.”
But Miles would be setting himself up for longer-term problems.
“I doubt an Auburn loss, especially a close one, would lead to any action right now,” Davis said. “But, it would almost surely mean he has to win every other game but Alabama, which he would then need to lose only closely to stand any chance of surviving.
“That three-loss barrier becomes a tough call. Our fans are not Texas A&M fans. They won't consider that a success. Especially not with a squad this talented.
“It could be enough to force a Mark-Richtian style coaching change ... a sort of, ‘It's not you, it's me’ breakup, if you will.”
A 1-3 start and effective SEC elimination by Week 4 wouldn’t wear well on Malzahn, either, especially after four straight home games
“A loss in and of itself would not be the end for Malzahn,” writes Walt Austin of our Auburn blog, College and Magnolia. “How that loss happens might send him further down the hole, though. If there's a revival of the offensive play calling and this is a close, hard-fought game, then there will still be talk, but it won't be pitchforks time just yet.”
Historically, Auburn hasn’t fired coaches quickly. Coaches like Shug Jordan, Pat Dye, and Tommy Tuberville built toward big seasons, though, rather than winning right away and then slipping.
And Malzahn’s immediate predecessor, Gene Chizik, was canned after four seasons, the shortest tenure by any Auburn coach since the 1948-1950 run by Earl Brown. Chizik also helped lead Auburn to that 2010 title. If Malzahn, an offensive mind by trade, can’t pick up Auburn’s offense, the Tigers could have a trend of firing head coaches who surged to national prominence and then fell off.
“A bad loss – coupled with further struggles this season – may mean the end for Malzahn, but I don't believe just losing this game will be enough,” Austin said.
The stakes are big, and the consequences here could last a while
Nobody here’s in win-or-die mode. But Malzahn and Miles both work under expectations that would crush ordinary people, and calls for either man’s firing will only crescendo with a loss.
LSU’s playoff hopes are on thin ice, and Auburn’s bowl hopes could be in bad shape soon. That’s what’s on the line. Anybody else anxious?