It’s Week 4 of the college football season, and two high-profile head coaches are coaching for their jobs.
Against each other.
Les Miles, a two-time SEC champion (2007 and 2011) and one-time national champion (2007), will take his LSU Tigers into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon to take on 2013 SEC champion and the offensive coordinator of the 2010 national champion Auburn Tigers, Gus Malzahn.
Is it “loser go home,” with the head coach who falls immediately hitting the computer to polish up his resume?
No, probably not right away.
But the loser of Saturday’s showdown on the Plains will have to win back his job for the remaining two months of the season, not fight to keep it.
You can already tell that the pressure is mounting, because both have addressed the “state of the program” after losses this year.
“Yeah, I recognize that there’s some things going on out there, and I’ll address them at the right time,” Miles said after his team’s season-opening loss to Wisconsin, according to quotes emailed by LSU.
“Each year is different, and this is 2016,” Malzahn said after his team’s home loss to Texas A&M, according to Auburn’s emailed quotes. “The only thing on my mind right now is making us as good as we possibly can be. That’s the way I look at it. You turn the page from this one, you learn from it, you go practice, you give them a good plan and you worry about LSU—that’s the only thing on my mind, and that’s how you look at it.”
You don’t address the state of your program this early in the season unless it’s in a bad state, which is exactly where these two programs are.
For LSU, it’s a sense of the same old story.
The offense wasn’t able to stretch the field on a consistent basis early when running back Leonard Fournette struggled, to a point where Miles was forced to go to backup Danny Etling in the first quarter of the Tigers’ Week 2 game against Jacksonville State to find some kind of spark.
Etling has been decent, including a 19-of-30, 215-yard performance in the 23-20 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night.
But LSU established its running game early with Fournette, and the pressure never fell on Etling’s shoulders to be the difference-maker through the air that LSU has been lacking. Thus, questions remain about LSU, Miles and his ability to produce a flexible offense that’s prepared for “Plan B” when “Plan A” doesn’t click.
For Auburn, it’s a case of a head coach flat-out losing his edge.
Three short seasons ago, Malzahn was the toast of the town. An offensive genius. An innovative play-caller who always seemed to be one step ahead of the opposing defense thanks to a power rushing attack out of the spread that thrives with tempo.
The play-calling has become predictable, Malzahn has not developed quarterbacks in each of the last two seasons and he seems convinced that playing “musical quarterbacks” is the only way out of this rut, despite the obvious fact it prevents anybody from getting into and sustaining a groove under center.
As a result, Auburn has lost six straight conference home games for the first time in program history and has lost 12 of its last 15 games against Power Five programs dating back to the loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 8, 2014.
The ESPN broadcast pointed out Saturday that Auburn has the second-longest active home losing streak in the nation against Power Five teams (seven) behind Colorado’s 10 straight home losses. Its last home win over a Power Five opponent was on Oct. 25, 2014, over South Carolina (42-35).
“You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to coach them up, you’ve got to give them a good plan and we’ve got to go out there and execute,” Malzahn said Saturday. “We’ve got to improve. The thing about this offense is that we will improve.”
History suggests that it won’t and that Malzahn is what’s standing in its way.
The loser of this matchup will see his seat go from hot to scorching, and it could get decision-makers moving on paths to finding a replacement.
Offense has been the issue for each, and with offensive-minded Tom Herman rolling merrily along at Houston without a Big 12 invitation for the program in his inbox quite yet, there’s no time like the present to get the back-channel conversations going.
One administration may do just that once the clock hits triple zeros Saturday at Jordan-Hare.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football