After weeks of speculation, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik was fired Sunday. Now that Chizik has been given his walking papers, it's time for the athletics department to focus on hiring The Tigers' next head football coach. Who are the names to watch?
Often discussed and likely targets
Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech head coach
Dykes has been running the show in Ruston, La., since 2010, and he's done a nice job of continuing to build on the foundation former head coach Derek Dooley established. After a 5-7 finish his first year, Tech was 8-5 last season and has a 9-3 mark this year. Dykes' offensive pedigree is impressive -- before becoming a head coach, he held offensive coordinator positions at Texas Tech and Arizona. This season, Tech leads the country in scoring and total offense, averaging 51.5 points and 577.9 yards per game.
The problem for Dykes is the fact that Auburn likely doesn't want to hire a mid-major coach, especially one with so little experience -- well, there is an exception; we'll get to that in a minute. And the fact that Dooley flopped at Tennessee after having a successful run with the Bulldogs doesn't help. Dykes will probably go on to have a successful career, but Auburn needs to make some noise with this hire. It's pretty unlikely that he will receive an offer.
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach
And if Auburn wants to make noise, there are few realistic candidates that would have people talking more than Fisher. He's been successful as a head coach, he comes from the Saban coaching tree and he's a great recruiter -- of all the recruiting battles Auburn has lost in recent years, most have been to FSU. And for those that still hold onto the "Auburn man" thing, Fisher coached at Auburn in the 1990's, and he supposedly has an affinity for the town. And with a new athletics director at Florida State, the hot rumor is that he's ready to get out of Tallahassee. Of course, if you ask a Florida State fan, the hot rumor is that he loves it down there and is just going to entertain offers to get a raise. Which is true?
The one ding on Fisher: Florida State has a rep for losing games it shouldn't under his watch. As mediocre as the ACC is, Florida State should be dominating, and that hasn't happened. Still, a 29-10 record before his third year is over isn't shabby, and most Auburn folks would like to believe that he would have a better chance at success on the Plains. Whether or not that's true isn't known. He hasn't made the leap to elite-level yet, but Auburn could do much worse than Fisher.
James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach
Franklin hasn't received much chatter, but when CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman mentions him, it's time to pay attention. Franklin has done wonders at Vanderbilt, turning around the SEC's perennial doormat. The Commodores won five SEC games this year for the first time since 1935, and with a win in their bowl game, they'll finish the season 9-4. Nine wins at Vanderbilt. Just think about that for a minute. The last time Vanderbilt won nine games was 1915, and the Commodores have 20 seasons with nine or more losses since then. Would he leave Vanderbilt for another SEC school after two years? He seems to legitimately care about building something in Nashville, but it's hard to believe he wouldn't be at least tempted by an offer.
Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State head coach
Auburn doesn't want to hire a mid-major guy with little experience -- unless that guy is Malzahn. Everyone knows what the Gus Bus did at Auburn in 2009 and '10, and even in those seasons, Malzahn wasn't able to run his offense at full throttle 100 percent of the time. The thought of Malzahn employing his attack the way that he wants makes us drool, and in 11 games at Arkansas State, his Red Wolves have an 8-3 record.
But Malzahn certainly isn't a perfect candidate. There's no way of knowing whether or not he can be a successful head coach in the SEC, and his issues with Mike Dyer at Auburn leave questions about how much of a disciplinarian he is. Plus, he failed to develop quarterback Kiehl Frazier in his final year on the Plains. Malzahn may seem like an obvious, safe hire, but he comes with plenty of risk.
Butch Jones, Cincinnati head coach
Jones is on the same type of career arc as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, and if that continues, he'll be competing for a national championship in a few years. After a 4-8 2010 season, his first at Cincinnati, Jones led the Bearcats to an 8-5 campaign last year and is 11-2 this season. Before his time in the Queen City, Jones was 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan, including 20-3 in conference play. The Bearcats have ranked first or second in the Big East in scoring the last three years, and Jones has overseen a defensive revival, too. In 2010, Cincinnati was dead last in the conference. The Bearcats improved to third last year and are second this season. He may not be a big name yet, but Jones has a solid track record.
Bill O'Brien, Penn State head coach
O'Brien hasn't been mentioned much, but his name has come up a few times on Twitter and the message boards. Of all the candidates listed, O'Brien may be the best. He's done an incredible job at Penn State this season, leading a decimated Nittany Lions team to an 8-4 record -- 6-2 in Big Ten play. Before landing in Happy Valley, he spend five years with the New England Patriots and held the offensive coordinator job in 2011. O'Brien supposedly wants out at Penn State because of the harsh sanctions imposed by the NCAA, and the hot rumor is that his agent has contacted Auburn. If the Tigers have the chance to hire O'Brien, they should probably do it.
Bobby Petrino, unemployed
This would be the most divisive hire Auburn could make. Many Auburn fans, who feel morally superior to the rest of the SEC, hate Petrino for his affair and scandal that led to his ouster at Arkansas. Many Auburn fans, who have given up the "holier than thou" attitude, want Petrino because he is the most proven winner of the available candidates. As an offensive play-caller, he's as good as it gets, but his defenses and recruiting classes at Arkansas left a lot to be desired. Would his recruiting improve at Auburn, a place with better resources? Has Petrino figured out that he must pay attention to the defensive side of the ball or hire a great coordinator? Would he be able to beat Alabama, a team that had his number at Arkansas? Those are all fair questions, and we don't know the answers. But no matter what some fans think, Petrino would be a good hire, and his chances seem to be on the rise.
Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
Smart is the perceived head coach in waiting at Alabama, but like plenty of other head coaches in waiting, he would likely take the right job now if offered. If any other big SEC program offered, Smart would probably make the move, but because of the Iron Bowl rivalry, a move to the Plains would be a little -- or a lot -- more complicated. Smart's defenses in Tuscaloosa have been great, but that could be a result of head coach Nick Saban. If you look around at coaches from the Saban tree who have moved on to other college jobs, you'll find mixed results. Florida head coach Will Muschamp is doing well, but Fisher has underachieved a bit at FSU, and Jim McElwain was 4-8 this year at FSU. Dooley was a colossal failure at Tennessee. Athletics director Jay Jacobs said he'll consider a candidate without head coaching experience, but in this day and age, it's tough to see a high-profile coach moving directly to Auburn from Alabama.
Charlie Strong, Louisville head coach
After years of being stuck as a defensive coordinator, Strong finally was hired as ahead coach by Louisville in 2010. He has brought the Cardinals back from the ashes of the Steve Kragthorpe era, leading his team to a 9-2 record so far this year. In 11 years as an SEC coordinator with Florida and South Carolina, Strong's defenses were often among the conference's best. Strong would be a good hire, but after waiting so long to be a head coach, he may remain loyal to the school that finally gave him a break.
Not known targets, but should be
Bo Pelini, Nebraska head coach
If Auburn wants to duplicate Alabama's Saban hire, Pelini is the man for the job. He's fiery, oversees great defense and has a "my way or the highway" attitude. Those are all the qualities Saban has used to become the best head coach in college football. Pelini has SEC experience as defensive coordinator for LSU from 2005 to '07, and he's been successful at Nebraska, compiling a 49-18 record since 2008. Pelini is rumored to have a hankering for moving back to the SEC, and if that's true, Auburn would be wise to reach out.
Chris Petersen, Boise State head coach
Petersen transformed Boise State into the biggest program outside a BCS conference, and his BCS-busting Bronco teams can be viewed as one of the catalysts that led to the decision to move to a four-team playoff. Peterson has been offered by plenty of schools, and he's always remained to stay in Boise, but without a home in a major BCS conference, he has to wonder if he'll ever be able to win a national title in his current location. Yes, the playoff will give the Broncos better access than they've ever had, but with a loss in any given season, it's still unlikely they would finish the season ranked in the top four. If there was ever a time Petersen would consider leaving Boise, now is probably it.
David Shaw, Stanford head coach
He coached under Jim Harbaugh, and since taking over at Stanford last season, Shaw is 21-4 overall and 16-2 in Pac-12 play with the Cardinal. Stanford will host the Pac-12 Championship Game next week and have a shot at the Rose Bowl. Shaw's salary at Stanford isn't known, but it is rumored to be in the $1.5 million range, which Auburn could easily double or triple. We don't know if Shaw would want to move from the West Coast to the SEC, but if Jacobs and co. don't at least make the call, it would be a mistake.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams head coach
Jay G. Tate, former Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser and current insider at AuburnSports.com, reported a few weeks back that Auburn was looking at a name that no one was talking about and that everyone would consider a home run. Message board/Twitter speculation did its thing, and the Internet determined the name was Jeff Fisher. Fisher's son, Trent, earned a few starts at safety for the Tigers, and his daughter, Tara, graduated from Auburn.
Fisher is in his 18th year as an NFL head coach. In the previous nine years he spent as an assistant, every job he held was in the NFL. He makes $7 million per year as Rams head coach, and he has total control of his team. Anyone that truly believes he would come to Auburn, we'll have what you're having. There is no way Fisher is coming to Auburn. Even if he did, he has no experience dealing with recruiting, boosters, etc. There's no way of knowing if he would be any good as a college coach. Go ahead and forget about Fisher.
Chip Kelly, Oregon head coach
Kelly had a chance to move up to the NFL last year, and he turned down the head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the time, Kelly said he had unfinished business at Oregon. A year later, the Ducks are once again going to miss out on a BCS championship. Plus, Kelly's offense has struggled against they kind of big, fast defensive front sevens most SEC teams employ. Why would he want to face them each week? If Kelly turned down a chance to go to the NFL, it's pretty far-fetched to think he would come to Auburn.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma head coach
Stoops interviewed for the Auburn job in 1998, so he's interested now, right? Wrong. The prevailing thought is Big Game Bob and Oklahoma have grown tired of one another, but there is no evidence to prove that. Whether we're talking about the current BCS format or the four-team playoff set to take its place in 2014, it will be easier to get to the national title game out of the Big 12 than the SEC for the foreseeable future. And there's no reason to think Stoops would want to leave the most established program in that conference to come rebuild a team in the toughest division in college football.
It's worth noting that there is a good chance the names we're hearing about could be misinformation, and that Auburn may be focusing on a name no one has heard or a name that hasn't received much attention. That was the case in 1998 and 2008 when the Tigers hired Tommy Tuberville and Chizik, respectively. And with several other head coaching vacancies around the SEC, a few of these names could land at other schools. Malzahn is likely in the mix at Arkansas, and Kentucky could make a move for Jones.
We should be able to expect a pretty quick timetable for this hire. A move could be made in the next couple of weeks, and it could even happen as early as this weekend. Depending on the hire and the timing we'll know whether or not Auburn played it safe or tried to hit a home run.
Dusty Miller contributed to this post.