There are college football programs seemingly doomed to oversell and underproduce on at least a semiregular basis (think Miami and Texas A&M) much more often than Auburn.
And there are surely places home to vastly more hopeless programs than the one playing on the Plains.
Yet when it comes to utter dysfunction, Auburn might be in a class by itself.
The Tigers finally did the inevitable this week, firing Bryan Harsin just 21 games into his tenure. No tears should be shed for the former Arkansas State and Boise State coach; he’ll be paid $15.3 million to depart.
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Auburn is 3-10 since the start of November 2021, dropping its final five games last season (including a quadruple overtime Iron Bowl thriller) and then starting 3-5 this year. The Tigers went 0-for-October, losing four in a row while giving up at least 41 points in each of the last three games.
From afar, last week’s 41-27 home loss to Arkansas seemed thoroughly shrug-worthy, a development entirely to be expected. So in a vacuum, a(nother) coaching change — even a costly one involving a second-year coach — isn’t surprising.
The real problem for Auburn was the school’s very public internal investigation of the program after coaching staff and roster churn earlier this year. Harsin technically survived it, but he really didn’t. Regardless of whether his coaching acumen might have helped him build a sustainable program, he was essentially toast thanks to Auburn’s latest turmoil.
The school that brought everyone a covert meeting with Bobby Petrino when then-coach Tommy Tuberville was days away from leading the Tigers into the 2003 Iron Bowl (and then retained Tuberville), the firing of Gene Chizik two years after a national title (a feat since matched by LSU) and ceaseless hot seat conversations concerning Gus Malzahn wasn’t going to let a wounded coach last long.
It’s absurd to wonder whether this latest circus will deter coaches from interviewing or taking the Auburn job. Money isn’t a problem, either coming or going. National titles are doable; Chizik won one in 2010 and Malzahn took a team to a BCS final three years later.
New athletic director John Cohen (who just replaced Allen Greene, who resigned over the summer with five months left on his deal) won’t have trouble finding a new coach. Chronic tumult or not, it’s an appealing gig.
But it would be even better if Auburn enjoyed some unity in anything besides disliking Alabama. Barring that, at least recognizing when the airing of grievances has made a coach’s job untenable should be the Tigers’ lasting takeaway. Harsin’s fate was sealed in the offseason, not by an autumn losing streak.
A quick prediction for the next 10 months: North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is going to be prominent in a lot of college football discussions. Maybe even more than Sam Howell was heading into 2021.
Howell was the Tar Heels’ last semi-plausible player of the year candidate. He threw for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2020, and North Carolina took a logical step to 8-4 in Mack Brown’s second year back in Chapel Hill. Howell suddenly became a buzzy name.
Only the erratic Tar Heels didn’t cooperate. Despite decent passing numbers (3,056 yards, 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and a big role in the rushing game (828 yards), Howell was largely forgotten about on a national level by the middle of the season.
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Enter Maye, who might just be the ACC’s player of the year as a redshirt freshman. Maye has thrown for 2,671 yards, 29 touchdowns and just three interceptions while leading No. 17 North Carolina to a 7-1 start. He isn’t the rusher Howell was, but 439 yards on the ground is still plenty effective.
The remaining schedule (trips to Virginia and Wake Forest followed by home games against Georgia Tech and offensively limited North Carolina State) doesn’t guarantee a 10-win regular season, but it’s more than attainable. Maye might not be too recognizable outside of the ACC footprint, but there’s a good chance that changes if he and the Tar Heels author a strong finish this fall.
Five with the most at stake
1. Georgia. In the clash of unbeatens, the team without a victory over Alabama that is playing at home has a little bit more on the line this week. Not a lot more. But it’s enough to elevate the No. 3 Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC) to this spot in their first game since losing linebacker Nolan Smith to a torn pectoral muscle.
2. Tennessee. The No. 1 Volunteers (8-0, 4-0 SEC) are playing truly meaningful football — the kind that could plausibly involve a national title chase — in November for the first time since 2006. How does Josh Heupel’s fast-rising program handle the pressure, both of the psychological variety and the kind Georgia brings to bear?
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3. Clemson. The No. 4 Tigers (8-0) won’t play another true road game after Saturday night’s visit to Notre Dame (5-3), which has shown enough of a pulse since its 0-2 start to qualify as frisky. The Irish’s best victories have come against North Carolina and Syracuse, but Clemson (and especially the Tigers’ defense) is a step up for Marcus Freeman’s team.
4. Alabama. It feels like the Crimson Tide’s game against LSU is every bit as anchored to CBS as Army-Navy. (Well, at least until CBS’s deal with the SEC ends shortly). Yet with Tennessee-Georgia also being played this week, the SEC West showdown will air on ESPN. Both teams are coming off open dates, and No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) can’t afford a loss to the No. 10 Tigers (6-2, 4-1) and remain in the playoff hunt.
5. Kansas State. The No. 13 Wildcats (6-2, 4-1 Big 12) couldn’t have played much better than they did in last week’s 48-0 clobbering of Oklahoma State. Next up for K-State is a classic reload-the-musket contest against Texas (5-3, 3-2), which has had two weeks to get ready for its jaunt to the Little Apple. This doesn’t have playoff implications, but K-State can further solidify its position while chasing a Big 12 title game berth.
A weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue.
1. QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State (2,377 yards, 29 TDs, 4 INTs passing). Only threw for one score, but completed 26 of 33 for 354 yards against Penn State in the No. 2 Buckeyes’ sternest road test of the season. Stroud certainly didn’t hurt his cause in Happy Valley. (Last week: 1)
2. QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee (2,338 yards, 21 TDs, 1 INT passing; 338 yards, 4 TDs rushing). The Volunteers’ star senior is 37 of 49 for 521 yards and six touchdowns in two games since torching Alabama. A monster game against Georgia’s imposing defense coupled with his showing against the Crimson Tide would make a fine foundation for an overall case. (LW: 2)
3. QB Max Duggan, TCU (2,212 yards, 22 TDs, 2 INTs passing; 276 yards, 4 TDs rushing). The longer the Horned Frogs stay undefeated, the more buzz Duggan will generate. He threw for 341 yards, three scores and a pick as No. 7 TCU defeated West Virginia to improve to 8-0. (LW: 4)
4. QB Bryce Young, Alabama (1,906 yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs passing; 137 yards, 3 TDs rushing). With the Crimson Tide’s open date, Young did not have the chance to improve his cause. Missing a game and a half because of injury probably costs him more now than it will at the end of the season. (LW: 3)
5. QB Caleb Williams, Southern California (2,382 yards, 24 TDs, 1 INT passing; 249 yards, 3 TDs rushing). The sophomore had season highs in completions (31), attempts (45) and passing yards (411) and matched a season high with five touchdowns as the No. 9 Trojans handled Arizona. His numbers certainly ensure he belongs in the Heisman conversation. (LW: 5)
6. QB Bo Nix, Oregon (2,221 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs passing; 441 yards, 11 TDs rushing). While Auburn was getting ready to fire its coach, the former Tiger was accounting for six touchdowns (three passing, three rushing) in the No. 8 Ducks’ latest explosive showing. Bo knows prudent transfer portal decisions. (LW: 6)