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Talk of a Reduced Buyout Reflects Gus Malzahn and Auburn's Unique Situation

This week's mailbag looks at Gus Malzahn contract situation with Auburn, a quartet of former elite programs and the college football overtime format.

Auburn stays weird when it comes to coaches, and you have questions…

From Phillip: With the reports of Lovie Smith’s extension at Illinois including a reduced buyout, and reports of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn accepting one also. Can you explain how that works? What leverage/incentive can a university offer when the losing coach's contract is so strong?

We look at the leverage issue in these situations strictly in terms of dollars. The second I read the report from Phillip Marshall and Brandon Marcello of about the possibility of Malzahn agreeing to take a reduced buyout—which still isn’t done, by the way—I imagined what I’d do if I was Malzahn. That fantasy went something like this…

Auburn trustee: Gus, we’d like you to take a reduced buyout, and we’re going to freeze your assistant coach salary pool so you can’t fire anybody we’d owe a buyout to. (Cough, cough, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey*, cough, cough.)

Me (as Malzahn): You can keep me under the current deal or you can pay me the $32 million you owe me. I’ll be at the Waffle House awaiting your decision.

But that’s not what Malzahn said, and it’s tough for most of us to understand because we aren’t Malzahn. We haven’t already made millions of dollars doing a job that we never expected would pay more than five figures. (Remember, Malzahn started as a high school coach. He probably never imagined this was possible in his 20s.) Perhaps it isn’t about the money for Malzahn. Perhaps he’d rather prove he can do the job that his administration and booster base now seems to think he can’t do. Remember, he still makes millions if Auburn fires him after next season. But he’d probably rather win than get paid those millions, because, like most people who ascend to Power 5 head coaching jobs, he’s a hypercompetitive workaholic who wants to win more than anything.

*That doesn’t mean Malzahn can’t make staff changes. If, say, Lindsey got another offensive coordinator job, Auburn could forgive any buyout Lindsey would owe for leaving.

He’s won the SEC as Auburn’s head coach. He has been a minute from a national title as Auburn’s head coach. He still probably has a better chance to win a national title at Auburn than he would at Texas Tech or Colorado or Louisville. Remember, Malzahn is 2–4 against Alabama coach Nick Saban. That doesn’t sound so great until you remember that the other 12 SEC head coaches are 0–Everything against Saban.

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The fact that Auburn is trying to swipe back some of Malzahn’s leverage a year after handing him a massive extension probably will scare the bejeezus out of the better head coaching candidates should Auburn fire Malzahn after next season—a move it certainly seems to be setting up now. But this is Auburn. We’ve come to expect wild emotional swings involving football coaches from the Tigers’ administration and boosters.

All these machinations seem to be setting up Malzahn to fail in 2019, but remember, this is Auburn. When you think the Tigers are about to go 11–1, they go 7–5. When you think they’re going to go 5–7, they go 11–1. Watch Malzahn land Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant—who seems perfect for his offense—and stick it in the eye of the people trying to oust him just like Tommy Tuberville did a year after JetGate.

As for Illinois, Smith hasn’t accepted a lower buyout. He just has a large buyout that turns into a much more manageable buyout this time next year. Firing Smith now would cost the illini $12 million plus the prorated amount of his salary between now and Jan. 31 (about $667,000). On Feb. 1, that buyout drops to $4 million plus a prorated portion of his salary through Jan. 31, 2020. That doesn’t mean Illinois is going to fire Smith on Feb. 1. That would still cost $8 million, because he’d be owed $4 million in salary for the contract year.

If Smith doesn’t turn around the Illini next season—and don’t count that out as a possibility, because his young team did improve this year even though it went 4–8—he’d be owed about $4.7 million if Illinois decided to fire him.

From Tim: Four programs that were always elite when I was growing up are no longer elite: Nebraska, USC, Florida State and Texas. Which one finishes first in the top five, and when?

The closest one is playing for a conference title this weekend. Texas may not be able to finish in the top five, but if the Longhorns beat Oklahoma and win the Big 12 title and then beat one of the SEC’s best teams in the Sugar Bowl, then they’d be awfully near the top five.

Nebraska should get better in Scott Frost’s second year, but the Cornhuskers need to worry about contending in the Big Ten West before worrying about cracking the top five. USC could rebound fairly quickly with a good offensive coordinator hire. Part of Clay Helton’s pitch to stay was that with the right moves, he could turn around USC the way Brian Kelly turned around Notre Dame after going 4–8 in 2016. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, either. There are some quality offensive minds out there now. Kliff Kingsbury will be the most sought-after, but he also will have interest from NFL teams who want him to run their offenses. Larry Fedora, who was recently fired as North Carolina’s head coach, was a great offensive coordinator before becoming a CEO. If Helton finds the right coach for that spot—and for the offensive line coach job—the Trojans could get very good very quickly.

As bad as it seems in Tallahassee after a 41–14 loss to Florida, Florida State probably isn’t that far away from returning to success, either. Willie Taggart and his staff will have to climb out of a hole, though. The perception right now is awful, and they can’t change that unless they win next year. Doing that will require getting much better on the offensive line.

Texas, meanwhile, seems best positioned to reach that lofty level fastest. Sam Ehlinger has developed into one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks, and the Longhorns’ recruiting has been better under Tom Herman. No matter what happens against Oklahoma on Saturday, if Texas can build on this season, success seems sustainable.

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From Sam (via text): With the recent seven-overtime game what is your take on CFB overtime? Would you be for teams starting on the 40-yard line instead of 25 to make it tougher or any other changes you would enact?

I wouldn’t change a thing. The seven overtimes between LSU and Texas A&M included some of the most dramatic football played all season. No other sport has an overtime this dramatic that involves the teams playing the actual game in all overtime scenarios. (Penalty kicks are a part of soccer, but they are not soccer.)

The old NFL overtime was dramatic, but it hinged too much on luck. The team that won the coin toss could get in field goal range with two or three successful plays. The league changed the rule to take luck out of the equation. Now, if the team that gets the ball first scores a field goal, the other team gets a possession to match or beat that score. That’s confusing and inelegant.

I do enjoy the idea of single combat as a way to settle games. In lacrosse, they have something called a Braveheart overtime which involves the best player on each team facing off with the goalies in goal. If football wanted to do something like this, an Oklahoma drill to break a tie would be awesome. You could take an offensive lineman and a running back versus a defensive lineman and a linebacker. Mark a line to gain four yards from the line of scrimmage and place the outer boundaries of the field of play five yards apart. If the back crosses the line to gain with the ball, the offense wins. If the back is tackled, goes out of bounds or fumbles, the defense wins.

I’d watch that. But that isn’t the actual game of football.

The current college overtime is, and it remains the most awesome overtime in sports.