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Gus Malzahn, Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin Will Play SEC Hot Seat Roulette in 2016

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Kevin Steele’s laugh isn’t derisive. He isn’t trying to make fun of or belittle the question. But he lets loose with a deep chuckle that fairly drips with cream gravy.

So, coach, how much pressure is there for coaches in the SEC?

When you work at four different SEC schools during your career and are beginning a tenure at your third in the past three years, you know plenty about how tough it is to make it on the sidelines in that conference. Steele is in his first season as defensive coordinator at Auburn, a program in desperate need of some help on that side of the ball. He arrives on The Plains after directing LSU’s D last year and spending 2013-14 in Tuscaloosa with old pal Nick Saban. A Tennessee grad, Steele knows the conference about as well as anyone. And that includes the expectations that dog every coach in the league.

“It’s the same, week-to-week, year-in and year-out,” Steele says. “It’s based on the last game. Every week, you have to use the pressure for good. You have to use it as a positive.

“You are expected to play dominant defense and be prolific on offense and win every week. If you don’t like that, then the SEC is probably not the place for you.”

Steele joins the Auburn staff at a crucial time in Gus Malzahn’s tenure. Even though the fourth-year coach reached the BCS title game in January 2014, his last two Tiger outfits have managed a combined 15–11 record, and last year’s 2–6 SEC mark did not satisfy AU fans, who had to endure yet another Alabama national title and the continued celebration of Saban, who is as popular with them as a houndstooth skin rash would be.

There has been no formal announcement that Malzahn’s job is in jeopardy, but another seven- or eight-win season would definitely upset an already agitated fan base. Malzahn’s offensive genius, which catapulted him from the Arkansas high school ranks to an SEC head spot in just eight years, waned last year, as the Tigers managed just 370.0 yards and 27.5 points per game. If you’re going to finish 7–6 and be boring, you won’t gain too much support.

“We didn’t get it done as a group offensively,” Malzahn says. “It’s one of the few teams in my career where it didn’t happen. We were young and inconsistent, but I feel we’re going to get better.”

Two other SEC coaches enter the 2016 season with a similar optimism, and both could use big improvement from their teams. LSU’s Les Miles and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin experienced surreal campaigns, with Miles going from fired to re-hired in less than a week, and Sumlin enduring the loss of two quarterbacks in the run-up to the Aggies’ bowl game. Both coaches’ teams share a West Division address with Auburn and — more important — Bama, and they understand that another season of unmet expectations could have them searching for new employment. Would it be fair to consign them to the bread line after they experienced success at their schools and Miles won the 2007 national title? Probably not. But nothing about life in the SEC is particularly just.

“The competition at this level is stiff,” Sumlin says. “It’s not for everybody. It just isn’t.

“It’s a combination of elite talent, elite coaching, big crowds and passionate fans. They create an atmosphere that’s the biggest time.”

To hear Sumlin explain it, the first four seasons of his reign in College Station have gone exactly according to schedule. The Aggies’ 36 wins during that time are tied for the most during any four-year period in the past 20 years. You have to go back to the heyday of R.C. Slocum’s “Wrecking Crew” defenses to find a more prosperous quartet of campaigns. (The 1992-95 A&M teams went 41–6–1.)

The Aggies currently have the school’s highest football graduation rate since the NCAA began recording the statistic. In 2014, 74 percent of the Aggies earned sheepskins, tied for fourth-best in the SEC. And Sumlin is extremely proud of A&M’s APR score (a robust 974, measured from 2010-14).

“That shows discipline,” Sumlin says about the academic accomplishments. “The things we did that increased graduation rate and APR are the first steps. Now, it’s time to take the next step.”

Aggie fans hope that the next step is SEC contention. While the 36 overall victories are impressive, especially considering the “success” rates of Sumlin’s two immediate successors — Dennis Franchione (32–29) and Mike Sherman (25–25) — three straight years without a winning mark in conference play aren’t too inspiring. Of course, the Aggies have been in the SEC for only four seasons, and stepping up from the Big 12 to the Big Time was going to involve some sort of struggle.

Sumlin understands that the biggest thing his team needs now is depth. He calls the SEC “a line-of-scrimmage league,” and that means successful teams have plenty of able bodies to commit to the trench warfare, especially on those brutally hot game days early in the season. Since 2013, the Aggies have had 10 players drafted, and five of them have been first-rounders. Sumlin is quite proud of the high-end A&M products — “I’ll take [wideout] Mike Evans back in a heartbeat,” he says — but he understands that the conference’s best have the kind of overall ability that produces multiple NFL picks, across all the rounds. “We want to have people drafted on days two and three,” Sumlin says. “We haven’t had that.”

The Aggies worked hard to create that depth this year with a top-20 recruiting class that replenished both lines and was heavy on blue-chip defensive talent. With 12 starters returning, Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight immediately eligible at quarterback and a schedule that features seven home games and the annual Jerryworld clash with Arkansas, there is hope for a step forward. Not that last year’s 8–5 finish was a disastrous. Aggies fans need to remember that South Carolina was 3–9 last year. Now that’s calamitous.

But A&M started the season 5–0 and staggered home from there. The QB shenanigans didn’t exactly instill confidence in the fan base, or the football community at large. People wondered why Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen left and whether the upheaval would influence the decision of Nevada prep quarterback Tate Martell, a five-star prospect who has already committed for 2017. This season will tell a lot about Sumlin’s progress in College Station. He insists that the foundation has been established, and it is time for life to begin among the SEC elite.

“We’ve accomplished more than people think, but we haven’t accomplished all we’ve wanted to or needed to,” says Sumlin, who arrived in College Station after a four-year stint at Houston. “We understand that.  I can only control the direction of this program, which is moving forward and will continue to move forward. The opinion and feeling inside the program may be a little different than what it is on the outside.”

Sumlin expects the two perspectives to move closer together this season. That would certainly help make his job easier.

This feature and more on Texas A&M are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.

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When it comes to big postseason news, defeating Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl doesn’t exactly rate bold-face headlines. Auburn smacked the Tigers 31–10 at the end of December to bring a smile to a year that featured too few celebrations but kept Malzahn’s personal streak of 22 winning seasons alive. Few outside of the 59,000-plus who journeyed to Legion Field paid much attention to the game, but for a program that needed a push heading into 2016, it didn’t matter who noticed. The win was quite welcome.

“Any time you win a bowl game, you have some momentum for the next year,” Malzahn says. “It helps with recruiting, spring ball and getting ready for the next season. We played pretty well in the bowl game.”

The Tigers had several “pretty good” efforts last year. The trouble was that many of them didn’t result in wins. Auburn lost four games by eight points or fewer last year, with the most debilitating a four-overtime defeat at Arkansas that came just as it appeared AU was steadying itself after a pair of early-season defeats against LSU and Mississippi State. “If we won that one [against the Hogs], I like to think our season would have been different,” Malzahn says.

Maybe he’s right. The Tigers dropped two of their next three by a combined 15 points. Perhaps a triumph in Fayetteville would have boosted the confidence of a young team and propelled it to a better outcome. Despite Malzahn’s optimism — and what coach doesn’t point to a play here or there as the turning point in a mediocre season? — the Tigers’ inability to rebound from the disappointing loss demonstrated that they lacked an ingredient necessary to compete in the SEC. The team was young and wasn’t so good defensively, despite the high-profile (and high-salary) hiring of Will Muschamp to run the D. It’s hard to forget the sight of LSU’s Leonard Fournette shucking Auburn tacklers like his little brother’s friends en route to a 228-yard, three-TD performance in LSU’s 45–21 throttling of Auburn in mid-September. And even though the Tigers hung with Alabama for a while in a 29–13 Iron Bowl loss, they were still brutalized on the ground by the Tide’s Derrick Henry, who rushed for 271 yards on a whopping 46 carries, including what seemed to be every fourth-quarter play.

Muschamp has moved on to South Carolina, where he received a surprising second chance to be an SEC head coach. Enter Steele, the calm tactician whose pedigree and intimate knowledge of Saban and Miles are quite welcome at Auburn.

“Stability is a very big deal at the defensive coordinator position, and Kevin is a guy who will stabilize the defense,” Malzahn says. “He has done a wonderful job so far developing relationships with the players.”

Steele will make the Tigers more sound and productive defensively, and if Malzahn’s offense does its job, Steele won’t have to stifle opponents. He’ll just need to control them. But the head coach’s vaunted attack, which earned him the quick trip from the high school sideline to college football’s brightest lights, won’t thrive without stability under center. Last year, neither Jeremy Johnson nor Sean White was able to deliver consistent play, so Malzahn convinced junior college transfer John Franklin III, who began his college career at Florida State, to join the fold. If Franklin III can run the run-heavy spread attack, Auburn could climb the SEC West hierarchy quickly. A schedule that features five straight home games at the outset — though two are against Clemson and LSU — could help. A fast start will build momentum. Staggering from the chute could put Malzahn in jeopardy.

“That’s part of our league,” he says. “It’s the toughest league in college football, and the highs are high, and the lows are low. You have to stay consistent and keep working.

“I am definitely looking forward to this season. The recent history at Auburn has shown that anytime there is a tough season, the team bounces back. We’ll do that. I like where the program is at. I like where our staff is at.

“We should be able to rebound.”

This feature and more on Auburn are available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Preview available now on newsstands and in our online store.

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For two weeks last November, LSU football was transformed from a stable, successful program into a reality show. You think the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is crazy? Try “Les Miles is fired. Wait, no he’s not.”

From the moment Miles’ Tigers lost a 30–16 decision in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7, members of the school’s booster community started complaining about the head coach. Forget that the loss dropped LSU to a still-robust 7–1. (It would have been 8–1 if a season-opening game against McNeese State hadn’t been canceled due to bad weather.) Miles had to go, and the reports from “sources” emerged that the coach would indeed be ousted.

Losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss followed, and as the Tigers prepared for their season finale against A&M, the mood around the team was funereal. Crying supporters showed up at Miles’ weekly radio show. There was news that Miles had told an audience that the game against the Aggies would be his last. No one was digging a grave, but many believed the party was over.

And then it wasn’t. Fan support swung hard in Miles’ direction. In Tiger Stadium before the game, the crowd chanted that school AD Joe Alleva should be canned, not the coach. And after LSU whipped A&M, Miles emerged safe and victorious, having outflanked administrators and boosters, with a huge assist from fans.

As he prepares for the 2016 season — his 12th at the school — Miles isn’t reflecting on the past, even though he pulled off one of the most amazing escapes in recent college football history.

“I have to be very honest with you,” he says. “I have always enjoyed working with the young men on this team. They have always played with great effort, and working with these guys and representing LSU has been easy to do. I have never felt like anything on the perimeter that was derogatory has been a distraction.”

Even if Miles has a laser-like focus that allows him to eliminate any outside noise, he still doesn’t stand on the sturdiest ground. He outlasted the posse this time, but should the Tigers stumble again — and at LSU, three losses are considered a stumble — he will be in danger once more, and it’s unlikely he’ll prevail again. There are still those in the school community who want a change, and they will be more prepared to affect one the next time.

The best way for Miles to thwart any efforts by those aligned against him is simple: The Tigers must find a way back to the top of the SEC West. That means overcoming the Crimson Tide, who have beaten LSU five straight times, including in the BCS title game in January 2012. A strong collection of returnees on both sides of the ball, headlined by Fournette (1,953 yards rushing, 22 TDs), helps. But much of LSU’s success will depend on whether junior quarterback Brandon Harris becomes more productive. Thanks to his inconsistent passing (53.8 percent completion rate), opponents played the vast majority of their defenders inside the hashmarks, making it more difficult for Fournette to find room.

“Brandon has shown more poise and is more confident under center,” Miles says. “He has always been a talented thrower. Now, he’s much more of a quarterback than he has ever been.”

The arrival of highly regarded coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin should keep the defense strong, and the usual influx of fast, angry recruits will provide depth. The Tigers play seven home games — including one against the Tide — and have the potential for big things.

“I like our team,” Miles says. “If we can stay away from injuries, we’ll be in good shape.”

And so will the coach.

– By Michael Bradley