Aubserver Mailbag 99: Prime Time
This week: Deion Sanders, Lane Kiffin, John Heisman, underrated players, Zac Etheridge's hammy, hype videos, 3-point shooting, cheeseburgers and book signings
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
I don’t care if I’m biased. I don’t care if people call me a homer. (I’m usually called the opposite, anyway.)
But I believe that Jordan-Hare Stadium, at its peak, is as electric of an atmosphere that you’ll find anywhere in college football. This place is just different when the fans are at 100%.
And Saturday night, I think we’re going to see a peak performance.
That was already going to be the situation, no matter what happened in Starkville last Saturday night. The love and support for Cadillac Williams and this football team during a difficult interim period have been apparent from the very beginning. Then Auburn came back from 21 down and nearly snatched a win at Mississippi State, which only increased the potential of the atmosphere.
For the last time in a while, there’s going to be an SEC game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium in prime time. Forget the records. Forget the stakes. This is a sellout crowd that is going to give it their all, just like the players on the field.
And so, while much more of the intrigue and attention will be on what’s next and who’s next for Auburn football — just judging by the questions in this week’s mailbag — it’ll be fun to experience the interim.
To kick off what should be a loud and eventful weekend on the Plains, here’s a mailbag that tackles a wide range of topics for Auburn football and an Auburn basketball team that takes the floor again tonight. As usual, I wasn’t able to get to everybody’s questions, but all of them are greatly appreciated.
Deion. Just talk about Deion.
You got it.
As I wrote in my coaching candidates tiers last week, Deion Sanders is the ultimate gamble in the coaching carousel. Sanders is a magnet for valuable attention everywhere he goes, taking an FCS team like Jackson State into a place where it can host College GameDay and be profiled on 60 Minutes.
Sanders got Travis Hunter, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 cycle, for the biggest upset in modern recruiting history. He also landed the nation’s No. 6 receiver and a top-55 recruit overall. He got double-digit transfers from Power 5 schools alone. Combining recruiting and transfers, Jackson State’s 2022 class ranked higher than ACC program Wake Forest and most of the Group of Five schools.
That’s all been done at a program that’s a fraction of Auburn’s size. In terms of recruiting potential, it’s hard to imagine any head coach who has a better chance of swinging with the elite powerhouses than Sanders. Armed with more resources, Sanders could immediately compete for top-10 classes.
However, Jackson is only in his third year of college coaching at any level. He was a high school offensive coordinator right before Jackson State hired him. The only time he’s coached against an FBS school was a 12-7 loss last September to ULM. He would step up two whole tiers, and then some, when it comes to the competition he faces regularly. It’s impossible to know how he’d handle the toughest schedule in college football.
Sanders has a vocal group of supporters among the Auburn fan base. However, much like Hugh Freeze, I have serious doubts that the support carries over into the people who are going to be tasked with making the hire. (For very different reasons, of course.)
John Cohen’s “it starts with culture, Xs and Os and recruiting” quote from Tuesday really sticks out to me. You’ve got to be able to do some of everything to succeed against the Alabamas and the Georgias of the world. Sanders seems to have the recruiting part locked down for sure. But is the team culture that he’s building at Jackson State match what people want at Auburn? (To be clear: This is a genuine question, one that can be answered in the interview process.) And will he have the Xs and Os to succeed in the SEC — or hire assistants who can get him there?
Everyone keeps preaching about fit — and Cohen himself was a hire who had previous experience in the same role, in the same conference, in the same division. I think a Power 5 program is going to take a swing at Sanders soon, and we’ll all see if the risk was worth it. I think it will be, but I’m skeptical that it needs to be made first at a top-15 program that plays in the toughest conference in America.
Sanders might be able to get it done at a place like Auburn. But does Auburn want to take that gamble fresh off of failing with a head coach who had a much bigger track record at a step above the FCS level? That’s why I think Cohen and company will pursue more established coaches first and foremost, with a premium placed on experience inside the SEC.
It’s nothing against Coach Prime. It has a lot more to do with what Auburn just went through and where it looks like it’s heading.
Initially, I was all in on Lane. In my mind, he gave us most of the same excitement and recruiting bump that we would get from Deion, but with the bonus of major head coaching experience. However, the more I've thought about it, I'm less convinced.
So here is my question(s): Has Lane shown the ability to win a big game? What is his most impactful win? Now I'm wondering if he can win an SEC title or even win the division. Is he going to be stubborn like Jimbo and refuse to adjust his system?
Thanks. I'll hang up and listen.
Well, Lane Kiffin has an excellent chance to win a really big game this weekend, doesn’t he?
I think it’s important, when looking at a head coaching candidate, to consider their successes in the context of the specific programs. Like, Ole Miss isn’t close to being as successful as Auburn in the last several decades. Also, Auburn is traditionally a much stronger recruiter than Ole Miss, so the level of expectations and definitions of success are very different.
At Ole Miss, Lane Kiffin is 2-5 against teams that finished the season ranked or are currently ranked. All but one of those teams (2021 Arkansas, a 52-51 win) were top-10 opponents, so Kiffin is 1-5 against the top 10. In three seasons under Matt Luke, Ole Miss was 1-10 against ranked teams, with the only victory coming in 2017 against Mississippi State. So Kiffin has been a clear and obvious upgrade there.
In five seasons under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss was 8-16 against ranked teams and 2-9 against top-10 teams. The only top-10 wins were the back-to-back ones against Alabama in 2014 and 2015, and Ole Miss was swept by ranked teams in Freeze’s final year. In terms of pure winning percentage against top-25 and top-10 opponents, Kiffin and Freeze are close. (Kiffin has an SEC winning percentage of 63.6% at Ole Miss, while Freeze was at 47.5%.)
If Ole Miss beats Alabama this weekend, it becomes Kiffin’s most impactful win at Ole Miss. But what hasn’t been helpful for the whole big game question is the quality of the bigger programs in his division: He’s beaten two down Texas A&M teams, one down Auburn team in 2022 and one down LSU team in 2021. The real question is if Kiffin has the resources to compete consistently against strong SEC contenders at Ole Miss, or if another job — like the Auburn one — is a better path to that.
To answer the second part, I don’t see Kiffin being someone who is stubborn and unwilling to adapt. Jaxson Dart is a different quarterback than Matt Corral, and his system has shifted to accommodate a wide range of running back types over the years. He’s a brilliant play-caller who does a great job of playing to his team’s strengths and, more frequently, preying on opponents’ weaknesses. He’s not rigid.