Why Auburn is the center of the college football universe in November

Pete Thamel

The Auburn football team is amid a solid 7-2 season, came in No. 12 in the initial College Football Playoff standings and hosts two marquee games in November. For a team with a microscopic chance at reaching the top four, Auburn finds itself at the conversational crossroads of the College Football Playoff and beyond.

The Tigers’ role as unlikely November attention magnet comes from a confluence that ranges from the school’s A-list schedule to its unpredictable administration to the open job at Arkansas. Auburn will end up being in the middle of nearly every playoff conversation in the next month, as it is a pivotal factor in the playoff chase and SEC race. With coach Gus Malzahn’s awkward potential role as an expected top Arkansas target again, the conversation about Auburn spans from the top of the SEC standings to the bottom.

Let’s start on the field. Auburn has a chance to deliver a knockout blow to both Georgia (Nov. 16) and Alabama (Nov. 30) when they visit The Plains this month. (Samford offers the Tigers a light snack in between.) Auburn’s defense is No. 13 nationally in scoring (17.4), which portends compelling games in the Tigers’ consistently raucous home atmosphere.

Both Auburn SEC home games could be considered College Football Playoff elimination games for Georgia (8-1) and Alabama (8-1). In theory, playing at Auburn means a quality victory. Unless, of course, the results of the games are so lopsided that Auburn ends the season with four losses and outside the CFP’s top 20.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn leads his team onto the field against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn leads his team onto the field against Arkansas during an October game. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

That brings us to Auburn’s role in the debate over Oregon’s playoff candidacy. The case for Oregon (8-1) hinges, in part, on the 27-21 loss to Auburn to open the season. The one-loss Ducks are in control of the Pac-12 North and heavily favored to head to the Pac-12 title game. Utah (8-1) projects as the opponent in the Pac-12 title game. Alabama, Oregon and Utah all have the same issue right now, which is zero wins over a currently ranked team. (This isn’t as big of an issue for Clemson, as long as it doesn’t lose.) Alabama’s loss to LSU looks destined to be better than any other loss, but Auburn projects as its only possible quality win left.

Oregon debuted in the CFP rankings at No. 7 and will be rooting hard for Auburn for a lot of reasons. Two Auburn wins against those SEC teams could transform Oregon’s case by clearing out two teams potentially in front of them in the next CFP standings. It would also strengthen the caliber of the Ducks’ lone loss. (Auburn beat Oregon on a neutral field outside Dallas to open the season, as the Ducks blew a 21-6 second-half lead.)

The debate is only faux drama compared to what could be going on behind the scenes at Auburn, a school where intrigue around athletics, boosters and board members should be its own varsity sport. The biggest question in the wake of Chad Morris’ firing at Arkansas would be whether the Razorbacks would make another hard charge at hiring Malzahn.

Could Auburn fire Malzahn? Doing so at 8-4 – the potential record with losses to Georgia and Alabama – wouldn’t be crazy. At least by Auburn standards. The buyout amount remains prohibitive – at least for most schools – at nearly $27 million. (Half would be due in 30 days.)

There’s also a chance Arkansas could want to come in and court Malzahn, like it did two years ago before settling for Morris. It would need to pay $7 million prior to Dec. 31. The number drops to $5 million after that. If Auburn is milquetoast on Malzahn’s future, it’s likely something could be worked out if he wanted to leave and the Tigers weren’t eager for him to stay.

All signs are Malzahn is happy at Auburn. But he’s a legendary high school coach in Arkansas, so there will always be the tug of home. He resisted two years ago, and the program is in exponentially worse shape in terms of talent. (Arkansas does have an AD, Hunter Yurachek, for this search after being without an athletic director last time around.)

Will Arkansas chase Malzahn with the same fervor after it rebuffed him last time? The Hogs are not an attractive option, as the other top target – Memphis’ Mike Norvell – would have to think long and hard before going there. He’s expected to be in Florida State’s wheelhouse once it inevitably strikes out on big names. There’s no contest which job is better between FSU and Arkansas, but there’s a strong argument Norvell is better off continuing to win big at Memphis. Winning is the key to career advancement, and for Norvell, 38, his current gig at Memphis is much safer than Arkansas.

Arkansas could pony up and attempt to lure Boise’s Bryan Harsin or Washington State’s Mike Leach, but those coaches would be taking leaps of faith from their stable jobs. Arkansas may end up settling for an under-the-radar program builder to start the painful climb out of this rut. (UAB’s Bill Clark, Tulane’s Willie Fritz, Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin, Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz, Alabama assistant Butch Jones, former Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz fit those categories.)

The expected target remains Malzahn, however. How would a strong finish or a face-plant impact that decision? Like everyone else around college football, locking in on Auburn the next few weeks could end up determining a lot.

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