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College Football Hot Seat Watch: What's Next at Auburn, Wisconsin and Nebraska

Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Rebels Football

By the time this weekend’s final slate of regular-season games wraps up, it’s likely college football’s biggest openings will be filled – and maybe even before then. While there’s an unprecedented slew of jobs currently open, let’s focus on the three biggest, all hailing from the two richest conferences in college football. Coincidence? Probably not:

College Football Hot Seat Watch: What's Next at Auburn, Wisconsin and Nebraska

WISCONSIN

The Badgers’ “opening” might go down as the easiest Power 5 job hunt to read in a long, long time. Their willingness to dismiss and pay out former head coach Paul Chryst after one month of football, combined with their quietness on the market has pointed to making interim head coach and former Wisconsin player Jim Leonhard the permanent replacement almost from Day 1.

Leonhard’s Wisconsin has struggled at times (a 24-10 loss at Iowa, losing to Michigan State in double overtime) but he’s managed to guide the Badgers to bowl eligibility and a chance to beat Minnesota for Paul Bunyan’s Axe this weekend. That’s apparently good enough for Wisconsin brass, who feel convinced the overhauls needed inside the football program are more off-field and offseason-oriented (recruiting, recruiting, recruiting).

Expect Leonhard to get the full-time job, possibly before this weekend’s rivalry game with the Gophers to get a jump-start on recruiting and the transfer portal. If that happens, the next area of attention at UW is what the future of the Badgers offense will be…

NEBRASKA

Athletic director Trev Alberts has earned a lot of respect during the Cornhuskers’ process to replace Scott Frost, specifically by creating a thorough, qualified list while also keeping his decision-making process close to the chest. Alberts has used a search firm, but not in the full-service sense: This hire will be Alberts’, good or bad.

Husker fans and the industry at large feel that if Nebraska landed any one of the names associated with the search, they’ll be in a great position moving forward. The early-on favorite, Kansas head coach Lance Leipold, is still alive and viable. Alberts is a big personal fan of Army head coach Jeff Monken and former TCU head coach Gary Patterson, but neither is expected to land the gig. Former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was associated with the job for the better part of the month, but it’s thought that Rhule is leaning away from the job, and possibly from working as a head coach next season.

Alberts has played the search incredibly well, imitating USC A.D. Mike Bohn’s consistency in secrecy last season before the Trojans swiped Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. To that end, it’s very possible Nebraska could land a sitting P5 head coach in a week. Possible names include Leipold, NC State’s Dave Doeren, and even Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, long thought to be off the market for all but a handful of jobs (namely: Ohio State or Notre Dame). One last name to keep in mind is former Virginia and BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

AUBURN

You can now safely divide all the conjecture around the opening on The Plains to Lane Kiffin and Not Lane Kiffin. That’s not to say that Kiffin is a shoo-in yet – there’s a lot left in this search and vetting process for new A.D. John Cohen – but he’s certainly on the top of most boards among boosters and message boards.

If not Lane, then what? The conversation has died down on the other Ole Miss option, Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze, and not just because the Flames have lost two games in a row. It seems insane that Cohen, the Mississippi State A.D. during the off-field Egg Bowl battle over NCAA violations between Freeze and Dan Mullen, would hire a man his former school accused of a litany of NCAA violations. After an initial list of other, questionable-fit names (Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, TCU’s Sonny Dykes), Auburn has started to shake more trees, and for perception’s sake, bigger ones.

Could Auburn convince Matt Rhule to come back to college and offset his buyout from the Panthers? Of any available name, Rhule matches the personality and warmth of basketball coach Bruce Pearl better than anyone else. What about Penn State’s James Franklin, whose name was briefly associated with the Tennessee opening? And what about a 2021-style shocker? Auburn has the financial wherewithal to pull off a poaching a la LSU, Miami, or USC. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is all but out after signing a new extension with a strong buyout, but that’s just one P5 coach. Can Cohen, still fresh on the job, pull off a shocker?

You can hear more from Steven Godfrey at Split Zone Duo, or watch his work at Secret Base. He’s on Instagram and Twitter at @38Godfrey.