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Take Two: Which SEC coordinator is most likely to be a head coach in 2016?

5/20/2015

Every year it seems as though two or three coordinators in the SEC get tabbed to be a head coach. This offseason, Mike Bobo took over at Colorado State. Neal Brown returned to Troy. And even longtime Missouri assistant Dave Steckel accepted the head coaching position at Missouri State.

The coaching vacancies have all been filled for the 2015 season, but which coordinator will get their opportunity after this season? Which coordinator will be the next college head coach?

David Ching: Given the recent trend in college football to look to the offensive side of the ball for head coaching candidates, Auburn’s Rhett Lashlee seems like a promising choice here.

He’s only 31, but Auburn’s offensive coordinator is one of the first names that comes to mind among SEC assistants who almost certainly will lead his own program someday. For one thing, Lashlee’s name was already bandied about when a couple of mid-level jobs came open last season. For another, Lashlee already is viewed as one of the conference’s whiz kids, having been a finalist for the Broyles Award – which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach – at the tender age of 30.

Like Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who has certainly reaped the benefits of working under Nick Saban, it’s reasonable to question the extent to which Lashlee’s success stems from working under Gus Malzahn. Their decade-plus relationship stretches to Lashlee’s days as a high school player, and the young assistant has worked for Malzahn at nearly every stop in his college coaching career. Yes, Lashlee has held a coordinator title with high-scoring offenses at Arkansas State and Auburn, but everyone would agree that Malzahn was the architect of those schemes.

In Lashlee’s defense, the one season where he struck out on his own – in 2011 as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Samford – he presided over a rapid improvement by installing an up-tempo offensive scheme. Then it was back to working under Malzahn, first as OC and QBs coach at Arkansas State and since 2013 in the same positions at Auburn.

That said, Malzahn is obviously one of his young protégé’s biggest fans, which would explain why he consistently offered Lashlee positions well before they teamed up to become one of the SEC’s dynamic duos on the Plains.

If Lashlee gets solid production this fall out of new quarterback Jeremy Johnson – and there’s good reason to expect that will happen given what we’ve already seen in limited action from Johnson, plus Lashlee’s previous results with junior college transfer Nick Marshall – it’s entirely possible that a program looking for a charismatic young coach will come calling. It’s only a matter of time with Lashlee, and that time could be as soon as next season.

Greg Ostendorf: I like the Lashlee pick. I believe both he and Jake Spavital, another young up-and-coming offensive coordinator, will get jobs sooner rather than later. But who’s next to get a head coaching job? I think it has to be Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Yes, I realize his struggles as a head coach in the past. I understand how his personality has rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. But he’s still a name, and some team is going to take a chance on him. Former Alabama assistant coach Lance Thompson said he was shocked that Kiffin didn’t land a head coaching gig this offseason, and I tend to agree. I just don’t see Kiffin staying in Tuscaloosa for a third season.

It was refreshing to see the former USC coach return to the role of offensive coordinator this past year. Maybe he wasn’t cut out to be the head coach at a high-profile program. Maybe that will come in time. But there’s no doubt the guy can coach offense. He turned Blake Sims, a former running back, into one of the SEC’s top passers. He was a major reason why wide receiver Amari Cooper made the trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. And without him, Alabama doesn’t win the Iron Bowl.

Kiffin faces another major challenge this coming season with a new quarterback and no Cooper to draw plays for. If he can manage to help the Crimson Tide back to the College Football Playoff, somebody is going to offer him a job next offseason. If not at the college level, look for an NFL team to hire him as the offensive coordinator.

The question then becomes whether Kiffin can succeed if he gets another shot as a head coach. I think his time at Alabama, working under Nick Saban, will certainly help him, but it’s all about fit. He doesn’t need to go to another high-profile program, at least not right away. I see Kiffin thriving at a smaller Power 5 school that he can build up, a school without lofty expectations.

I haven’t given up on Kiffin as a head coach, nor do I believe that college athletic directors have either. He’s a name that would generate instant buzz for the program, and in this day and age with recruiting, that’s half the battle.