Auburn coach candidates: Hugh Freeze, Mario Cristobal lead candidates to replace Gus Malzahn

Auburn fired coach coach Gus Malzahn on Sunday, one day after a 24-10 win against the state of Mississippi. The vacancy on the plain is the highest profile open job in the college football market and is sure to attract the best candidates in the game.

Auburn won a national championship in 2010 under coach Gene Chizik, in the blink of an eye when he did it again in 2013 against the state of Florida, and in 2017 he entered the SEC championship game against Georgia.

The past decade has proven that you can win at an elite level in Auburn, no matter what your Alabama rival is doing across the state. Auburn’s next coach has the keys to the Ferrari and he just needs to fill up the tank.

Let’s take a look at the top names to replace Malzahn.

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze: Freeze should be the first, second, third and fourth names that sports director Allen Greene will add to his roster. He was 39-25 at Ole Miss in five seasons between 2012 and 16, leading the rebels to the New Year’s six bowls in 2014 (peach) and 2015 (sugar) and beating the Alabama coach in both seasons. Malzahn’s 3-5 record against Saban made him the most productive coach against the best of the game outside of Dabo Swinney, which is clearly a huge hurdle that Auburn head coach needs to clear.

The obvious criticism of Freeze is that he left Ole Miss embarrassed after being hit hard by NCAA sanctions. That is true. But it’s not as if Ole Miss’s rosters are deeper and more talented than Alabama, Auburn, LSU or others in the SEC. In addition, the first half of Ole Miss’s 2015 season – which ended with a Sugar Bowl victory – was played without an All-American offensive battle, without Laremy Tunsil. One such game that Tunsil missed was the Alabama win.

It’s no secret that the SEC wasn’t curious about Freeze returning to the SEC when he was seen as a candidate to take over Alabama’s crime in 2018. The SEC Commissioner is able to prevent (or at least prevent) the recruitment of coaches who have had an NCAA problem in the past. This will not be such an issue now.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal: Cristobal took over the ducks after Willie Taggart left for Florida and was a success. His duck went 12-2, won the Pac-12 and led Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to finish 5th in the country last season. He set 24-9 records for the responsible plus three seasons. This success came after building the FIU into a competitive program between 2007 and 12. The Panthers got out to 7-6 in 2010 and 8-5 in 2011 – the first two bowl games in the program’s history. In 2012, he went 3-9 and fell victim to a quick hook.

Cristobal has recovered with coach Nick Saban and an Alabama program that has become a landing place for coaches of leaders seeking to revitalize their careers. He spent four seasons as an associate head coach, offensive line coach and recruitment coordinator at the staff. I like a lot in Cristobal. His recruiting expertise, including connections to fertile recruitment sites in South Florida, fits perfectly with the SEC. This, coupled with proven success in both small and large schools, can make him attractive to Auburn.

Louisiana Coach Billy Napier: Napier has led the Ragin ’Cajuns for three seasons and will lead them to the Sun Belt Championship against seaside Carolina over the weekend. He has an overall record of 27-11 (20-5 Sun Belt) and three straight division titles. Like Cristobal, he has experience with Alabama staff as an analyst (2011) and broad customer coach (2013-16). Between 2009 and 2010, he was an offensive coordinator at Clemson, leading Dabo Swinney’s first two full seasons. Working with Saban and Swinney – the game’s two best coaches – is a pedigree that turns the heads of athletics directors in the SEC’s footsteps. Does Napier have enough experience? Malzahn only had this when he was hired before the 2013 season. It depends on whether Greene wants to go home or let a young coach learn on the go.

Coach of Bill Clark, UAB: After the 2014 season, Clark navigated the Blazers team through the shutdown of the program, forcing them to roll games in all three seasons since it was put back. He posted a record of 11-3 in 2018 and won Conference USA, which was remarkable considering it was only the second season since the shutdown. UAB reached a record of 39-22 in 2013 and FCS in Jacksonville State had a record of 4-4 in 2013. Considering the two seasons that UAB hasn’t played, it’s six seasons as a college coach in the state of Alabama. This experience allowed him to cultivate relationships with high school coaches within the state and around the southeast.

Other names to watch:

  • Jamey Chadwell, Coast Carolina coach
  • Steve Sarkisian, Alabama attack coordinator
  • Brent Venables, Clemson Defense Coordinator
  • Kevin Steele, Auburn Defense Coordinator