All too quickly, the 2012 regular season came to an official end yesterday. That can only mean one thing: the coaching carousel is just getting warmed up.
There are quite a few major coaching jobs available across the college football landscape. There are now three head coaching positions open in the SEC after Kentucky hired its new head coach, Mark Stoops.
Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn are still accepting applications for its head coaching position.
A lot of names have been rumored at each school, and there are some big names that all three schools have expressed interest in. Monday Night Football commentator and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden has deflected offers from Tennessee. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long swung for the fences and attempted to land LSU head coach Les Miles.
Auburn has been tight-lipped thus far, but there have been rumored interview requests with candidates such as TCU head coach Gary Patterson, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong and Boise State head coach Chris Petersen.
Many have opined on the state of affairs for Auburn's next head coach and the quality of a job that it may be with what many think is a new NCAA investigation. Auburn's actions in the last week should have answered the question about how worried it is about that.
Auburn has batted down the doors at an undisclosed location in Nashville to conduct the interviews, according to Charles Goldberg of AL.com.
It is hard to sift through the quagmire of rumors that surround a head coaching vacancy, but it is safe to say that Auburn has formed its list of top targets and intends to hone its focus on these five names...
Let's take a closer look at each.
One of the first names to emerge on the day that Auburn started its final stages of replacing Gene Chizik as head coach was Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, according to Auburn Undercover (subscription required).
Smart won the 2009 Broyles Award that is awarded annually to the nation's top assistant coach. He has been Alabama's defensive coordinator since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2008. Prior to becoming Alabama's defensive coordinator, Smart coached with Saban at the Miami Dolphins and at LSU. He also spent time at Florida State and Valdosta State.
Smart's Alabama defenses have been extremely successful four of the five years Smart has coached the unit.
The Crimson Tide defense finished first in total defense this year. From 2007 to 2011, the Alabama defense finished No. 31, No. 3, No. 5 and No. 1, respectively.
Smart would bring to Auburn what a lot of coaches could not. He has been groomed by Nick Saban (like it or not, Auburn fans, he's the best in the business). He also is a fantastic recruiter that would likely be able to hang on to the highly-touted 2013 Auburn recruiting class.
Smart fits the defensive-minded philosophy that many Auburn fans want. The most accurate comparison to Smart is Florida head coach Will Muschamp. He has turned out to be pretty successful so far in year two at Florida. His Gators are preparing for the Sugar Bowl.
As with every hire, there is some risk involved with Smart.
Smart has zero head coaching experience. As much as he has probably learned from Saban, no one knows how Smart will do when he is in control.
Smart may also pack his things and leave when the head coaching position opens up at his alma mater, Georgia, or where he made a name for himself at Alabama. Both Georgia and Alabama head coaches appear to be stable currently, but no one knows if things will be the same in two to four years.
How would Auburn fans feel about taking someone that they have been taught to not like the past five years? Sure, Pat Dye coached at Alabama, but he had a couple of stops in between.
Smart would also bring the 3-4 defense that Alabama currently employs. Auburn's defense, while not very good this year, is built for a 4-3 style.
A successful 3-4 defense needs an extremely large human being like Terrence Cody or Jesse Williams to stop up the "A" and "B" gaps. The closest thing that Auburn has to that size now is DT Gabe Wright. Wright played 2012 at 6'3" and 299 lbs. Alabama's Williams played at 6'4" and 320 lbs. this season.
It would take a couple of seasons for Smart to bring in 3-4 personnel, and something tells me Auburn doesn't want to wait that long.
Another name that has popped up during the Auburn coaching search is TCU head coach Gary Patterson. Patterson also interviewed with Auburn in 2008.
Patterson is in his 15th season at TCU, and he has turned the Horned Frogs into perennial winners. He led them to a Rose Bowl victory in 2008 while the Frogs were still in the Mountain West conference.
In TCU's first year in the Big 12 conference, the Frogs have had their ups and downs. They finished the season 7-5 with wins over West Virginia and Texas. With those wins came losses to Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Kansas State.
Patterson fits the defensive-minded and proven winner that the Auburn administration and Auburn fans are looking for. Patterson has won 77 percent of his games as a head coach (116-35). Coming into this season, Patterson's winning percentage was fourth among active coaches, according to his bio.
Auburn supporters will question whether Patterson's winning ways are a result of playing in the Mountain West conference for the majority of his time at TCU. That argument is magnified with TCU's mediocre season in 2012. The Horned Frogs dealt with a variety of injury and personnel issues.
One thing that is sure to be brought up if Patterson does come to Auburn is discipline issues on the TCU team. Auburn had its share of discipline problems under Chizik, and the last thing it needs is more of the same under the new coach.
Last February, 18 TCU students were arrested for their involvement in a marijuana distribution ring, including four TCU football players. The football players were allegedly arranging sales of marijuana outside of class and around the TCU athletic facility. According to the Dallas Morning News, "most of the team failed a surprise drug test two weeks [before the arrests]."
Patterson currently makes $3,467,926 per year, according to USA Today's database of coaching salaries. That number is $100,000 less than Auburn was paying Chizik. To get Patterson to uproot himself from Ft. Worth, Auburn would have to give Patterson a significant pay increase.
There is not a lot of middle ground in the opinions of who Auburn fans want to lead their football team in 2013. At one of the extremes is Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn.
As Auburn fans know extremely well, Malzahn was the man who torched SEC defenses in 2009 and 2010. He was able to do it with Chris Todd and was able to do it even better with Cam Newton.
Malzahn left Auburn following the 2011 season to be the head coach of the Red Wolves. In his first season in Jonesboro, AR, Malzahn led his team to a Sun Belt championship and a 9-3 record. Two of the three losses came to Nebraska and Oregon.
It is believed that Arkansas is also interested in talking to Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks under Houston Nutt in 2006 when the Razorbacks won the SEC West.
There are numerous advantages to Malzahn returning to the Plains to be the head coach.
For one, the offensive players on Auburn's roster were recruited for and by Malzahn and his offensive system. That includes, but is not limited to, QB Kiehl Frazier. Frazier, as we saw all year struggled in offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's pro-style system.
Malzahn has recruited Frazier since he was in eighth grade.
Malzahn knows how to sell Auburn and can continue the Tigers high level of recruiting that it has attained in the past four seasons. Malzahn's name still rings loud to high school athletes because Malzahn was at the forefront of the explosion of this hurry-up, spread-based attack that so many colleges have turned to.
Malzahn has proven that his system works in the SEC. It's no secret that Alabama head coach Nick Saban has trouble scheming against the type of offense that Malzahn would bring back to the Plains. We saw it in 2010, and we saw it this year when Texas A&M upset the Crimson Tide.
What some would consider an advantage to Malzahn returning, others would call a disadvantage. Malzahn would not bring the culture change that many feel is needed around the Auburn program. Many people feel that Malzahn had as much to do with the discipline issues and the entitled culture that had engulfed the Auburn football team after the 2010 BCS Championship as Chizik did.
Malzahn is very fresh in the head coaching game and is as much of a risk if not more than any of the candidates. While Malzahn may be the next big thing in college coaching, the search committee that Auburn has hired may be looking for a more polished head coaching resume than Malzahn currently has.
The hire that would be the most neutral between the two Auburn fan extremes would be Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Fisher has been rumored to be an Auburn target since signs started pointing toward the inevitable dismissal of Gene Chizik. He is also believed to be a target of Tennessee for its head coaching vacancy.
Fisher locked up an ACC championship against Georgia Tech on Saturday night and will be playing in the Orange Bowl in early January.
Auburn fans are very familiar with Fisher, who coached the Auburn QBs under former head coach Terry Bowden from 1993-1998. He is a Samford (Birmingham, AL) graduate and former assistant coach.
Following his time at Auburn, Fisher had his first offensive coordinator position at Cincinnati in 2000. That was followed by stops at LSU (under Nick Saban) and FSU in the same position.
Fisher has been the FSU head coach since 2010, when coaching legend Bobby Bowden stepped down.
Fisher's teams have always been well-coached and extremely talented. Florida State was ranked in the preseason Top 10 in August. The Seminoles finished the year 10-2. A surprising upset by N.C. State and a loss to rival Florida are the 'Noles only two blemishes on the schedule.
Fisher is an excellent recruiter. He and his staff went head to head with the Auburn staff on many recruiting battles. The Seminoles have had top-10 recruiting classes each year that Fisher has been the head coach. Knowing Auburn very well, Fisher could likely retain Auburn's highly-ranked recruiting class.
Fisher does not jump around much. He was at LSU for six years as offensive coordinator and has been at FSU since 2006.
There are not a lot of negatives with Fisher. He has shown that he can win at a high level. He is 26-10 as a head coach. He turned around Florida State after it was perceived that the Seminoles were just treading water for the later years of Bowden's tenure.
He would please a good portion of the fanbase, and most would consider the hire a "home run."
The debate for Petrino is an extremely interesting one and would make for a fantastic case study for any psychology majors out there. On both sides of the aisle you have fans that love Auburn and want to see Auburn be successful. Some fans think Auburn is above hiring Petrino, other fans think that Petrino could have Nick Saban-like success at Auburn. There's no right answer.
Petrino would bring an unwanted PR hit to Auburn. That is something that it does not need or want at this time. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said that Auburn would hire Petrino out of pure desperation. "It's not just what they're going through, it's that Nick Saban is just the king of the mountain," Herbstreit said. "I think they are in a little bit of a desperation mode." (via Mike Herndon, AL.com)
If Petrino and Auburn can get the truth out to the public and portray a unified message of forgiveness, the PR hit that Auburn will take will be over in a matter of a week. Herbstreit agreed in the same article as above. "If a school takes a chance, I think the important thing to do is step to that podium and address everything," he said. "If a guy is up front and tells you every single thing you need to know ... then it's a story for four days, a week, and then people would move on."
One item of many that concerns Auburn fans about Petrino will be his ability to represent the university. Will he be able to walk into a recruit's house and sell Auburn to a family after that family has only seen and heard awful things about the man for much of the past year?
Will Petrino, someone who is believed to be a job-hopper, be loyal to a university that gives him a second chance? We will never know until it happens but Petrino's job-hopping have all been to jobs that would be considered a better job than his previous location. There are better college jobs than Auburn, but there aren't many.
Most arguments from the fans do not center around Petrino's once adulterous lifestyle. A lot of Auburn supporters do not want Petrino due to his misuse of university funds and lying to his former boss. That is an indefensible offense. Auburn would simply have to count on the fact that Petrino would not be dumb enough to make that mistake again.
On the field, fans worry about the perceived lack of defense on Petrino-coached teams. This is despite the fact that his defenses improved every year he was in Fayetteville. In 2008, Arkansas allowed 31.17 points per game. The Razorbacks allowed 25.75, 22.75 and 22.75 points per game in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively. Auburn allowed 28.33 this season.
There is no reason to rehash the arguments that have already been made for Petrino. By now, Auburn fans know if they are "Team Petrino" or not.
The fact of the matter is that if Auburn is looking for the least risky hire on the field, it's a no-brainer who it should hire. Petrino has won in the SEC and SEC West at a high level.
The question is if Auburn should accept the high level of risk that Petrino brings off the field. You know what they say: "high risk, high reward."