Gus Malzahn, Not Kevin Sumlin Will Feel The Burn in 2016

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If you ever wanted to know what investing millions of dollars in fool’s gold feels like, ask the athletics department at Auburn or Texas A&M.

The reasons for both programs’ irrational investing aren’t difficult to discern. Each has proud fan bases that vehemently want to stick it to their in-state big brother, and both needed splash hires (Auburn) and extensions (A&M) after falling short of lofty goals set after getting a taste of what it feels like to be the man locally. This leads wealthy alumni into rash decisions like forcing hires, firings and silly extensions.

As we turn the page on the 2015 season and enter the spring session for the latest college football circus, perhaps nowhere else in the country will we see a more clear example of college football excess in both money and expectations than we’ll see in these two SEC West programs.

Kevin Sumlin ($5 million) and Gus Malzahn ($4+ million) are among the highest paid coaches in the nation and just a few short years ago—or weeks, in Sumlin’s case—were among the hottest names in all of football, yet each will enter the 2016 season feeling serious heat.

If you were a betting man you’d be silly not to put some cash on at least one of these two being fired before January 2017. The similarities between Auburn and A&M are easy to see, beginning with the little brother syndrome and continuing with the head coaches.

Both Sumlin and Malzahn have each been described as offensive geniuses at certain points of their current tenures. Sumlin rode the Johnny Football craze all the way to a $5 million salary with nary a single conference title to his credit. Ever. Not even at Houston did he win a conference championship. $5 million doesn’t buy what it used to, I guess.

Malzahn was the genius behind the once-in-a-generation season Cam Newton pulled off in 2010. Malzahn backed up the national title he won as Auburn’s offensive coordinator with perhaps the strangest national runner-up season you’ll ever see, culminating in the Kick 6 insanity in his debut season as head coach for Auburn in 2013.

Life is all about timing, and both coaches struck while the iron was white-hot in cashing in; Sumlin after the year of Manziel and Malzahn with the collapse of the Gene Chizik era at Auburn.

Cashing in comes with a price, however, and that price is likely going to cost at least one of these men their job. My bet is on Malzahn, and the news of Dameyune Craig leaving the Plains to take a lateral position at LSU is a big reason why. Not so much because Craig leaving means the program can’t function, but because it’s the latest example—and most inexplicable since Craig is an Auburn alumnus—of Malzahn being in over his head.

Over the last two seasons Malzahn has turned over nearly every full-time staff member. That’s what panic looks like when you feel the need to keep up with the Sabans. You hear rumors all the time in the South as it relates to SEC football programs.

One of the common whispers you hear about Auburn is Malzahn only trusts a very select few. Craig, apparently, wasn’t one of them, according to Gridironnow.com.

Two sources close to the situation said Craig is leaving because of concerns about how the offense was being run and how he fit. Those concerns grew to a point that Craig believed he no longer fit the program and that it was was time for him to leave.

Texas A&M went out and hired John Chavis when Sumlin needed to project confidence in his leadership. Gus Malzahn needed to project similar strength, and instead hired journeyman Kevin Steele to replace Will Muschamp as his defensive coordinator and he just lost a former Auburn great who happened to be among the best recruiters in the country to a divisional rival.

The Athens Banner Herald‘s Fletcher Page and Marc Weiszer host a Georgia-centric podcast and they recently interviewed David Ching, an LSU beat writer for ESPN.

When asked if LSU upgraded by replacing Steele with Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda, Ching burst out laughing before answering yes. Part of that laughter comes from Aranda being very good, no doubt, but not all of it does. Malzahn had no choice but to replace Muschamp, who took a head coaching job, but after being turned down by Florida State’s Charles Kelly, also an Auburn man, Malzahn hired perhaps the most blah choice on the market.

The 2016 schedule does Malzahn no favors, either, as Auburn opens with Clemson week-one then wrapping up with their classic even-year slate of road games with Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss. Don’t forget home dates with LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas, too. Auburn fans won’t give Malzahn another bite at the apple should the Tigers suffer another five-loss campaign.

When you’re arch rival is coming off of yet another national title, waiting to groom the next great dual-threat quarterback to run your system isn’t an option.

While Sumlin and Texas A&M can look to Austin, Texas, and see a program still in need of serious upgrades beyond one solid recruiting class, Auburn fans live everyday with the knowledge that big brother is still very much in control. They don’t handle that well — something Malzahn is all too familiar with as that’s a large reason why he’s currently Auburn’s head coach. Two years after winning a national title Auburn fired Chizik.

Two. Freaking. Years.

That’s what Malzahn is up against, and a third consecutive season with five or more losses means you’re out on the Plains.