Mississippi State’s 51-10 loss at Texas A&M followed Zach Arnett back to Starkville and got him fired on Monday with two games left in his first season.
That was the second shot heard round college football to come after that game. On Sunday, the Aggies fired head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Maybe Jimbo would have survived if the Aggies had scored one more touchdown. Probably not. The decision to fire Fisher was likely made after the previous week’s loss to Ole Miss, a team that has had A&M’s number. Perhaps it takes the folks in College Station a week to secure financial pledges on a high eight-figure buyout.
Ironically, the third school affected by Texas A&M’s decision – and the second school in Mississippi – is Ole Miss.
Lane Kiffin’s name had long circulated on social media Sunday as a possible Jimbo replacement before Kiffin had time to stiff-arm the question in a conference call with local media that afternoon.
Arnett has $9 million left on a four-year, $12 million contract he signed a year ago. ESPN’s Pete Thamel reports the buyout is roughly $4 million.
State’s out-of-pocket expense to make this change will be less if Arnett gets another job. He was a successful defensive coordinator before this season and will likely have some attractive offers.
The injury to Will Rogers has been a big setback for Arnett, but didn’t rise to the level of mitigating circumstances to keep him employed. Arnett accepted responsibility for State’s roster – and its weekly preparation – when he became head coach.
Even before his injury, Rogers was asked to be the square peg in the round hole with new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbaby. That was one of the criticisms against Arnett, not waiting until Rogers was gone before installing an offensive system that didn’t play to the quarterback’s strengths.
The run game did become more of a factor, and Rogers had some moments pre-injury, but the program is trying to reach the Alabama and LSU level, not the South Carolina level, which was Rogers’ best game of the season.
The system questions began with LSU in the SEC opener.
The second strike against Arnett revolved around life after Rogers. It was Arnett’s job to have a better backup plan for State’s offense than the product that’s been produced by Vanderbilt transfer Mike Wright, and to a far lesser extent, freshman Chris Parson.
But the perplexing part of the meteoric plunge for a program that was gaining more footing under MIke Leach has been defense.
The loss of cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, a first-round draft pick, was big but should have been offset by experience returning at every position group.
Instead, this is a team that gets beaten over the top, can’t force turnovers and struggles in the red zone.
This is Arnett’s side of the ball.
There are several reasons to make the move now.
With Signing Day about a month away it brings clarity to a No. 44-ranked recruiting class. With Signing Day moved up, teams who want to made a switch are placed in a tough spot. Waiting until after the season is over disrupts a signing class with little to no time for a new staff to do damage control and recover.
But the departure of Arnett could also bring a spark for two remaining games. “Everybody’s against us” is an overused cliche for teams everywhere, but it won’t be a hard sell given the circumstances.
Finally, the decision lets Zac Selmon, a young AD, tell his base he understands the problem and is working to fix it.
Time will tell who the fix is, but if it turns out to be an up-and-comer, don’t be surprised if it’s former Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby. Lebby his alma mater, Oklahoma, in the top five in total offense, pass efficiency and scoring offense. Zac Selmon grew up and worked at Oklahoma before being hired at State in January.
Another name that has created internet fodder since Arnett’s departure is a blast from the past: Dan Mullen. Mullen led the Bulldogs to new heights before taking the Florida job in search of a national championship. In four seasons with the Gators he was 34-15, before being fired and becoming a commentator. Does he want back in? Would the Bulldogs take their ex back? Inquiring minds want to know.
Lebby’s name will also get some mention at Ole Miss if this becomes the year that Kiffin finally leaves.
Kiffin’s name has been the subject of job speculation every year since his arrival at Ole Miss in 2020.
The A&M search may never get to Kiffin. He appears to be a fallback candidate according to the early names floated in various reports since Fisher’s dismissal.
If Kiffin were to end up at Texas A&M, it would be about money. Not his salary money. He’s well compensated at nearly $10 million a year at Ole Miss. But Name, Image and Likeness money.
According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, A&M athletes have earned more than $8.5 million in the two-year existence of NIL. Kiffin has joked about the need for a “luxury tax” for A&M and incoming SEC member Texas. His jabs at Jimbo prompted a sometimes heated, sometimes comical feud between the two coaches.
But there is a hint of envy behind Kiffin’s taunts. When Ole Miss defensive coordinator DJ Durkin to the Aggies Kiffin said, “We tried to keep him. We got outbid. Kind of a common theme with that program.”
It’s not surprising that a school that can pay a coach $77 million to leave would also be a leader in NIL. A&M’s resources are no joke.
While needling Jimbo off the field, Kiffin was 3-0 against Jimbo on the field.
Ole Miss’ only two losses this season – both in dominant fashion – have come against SEC heavyweights Georgia and Alabama.
After losing 52-17 Saturday night in Athens, Kiffin compared his roster with one five-star player to Georgia’s with, by his count, “24 or something.” The subtext is that if he could get better players, he could compete with the heavyweights.
When Kiffin was asked Sunday about his name being attached to what’s next for A&M, his response was, “I’m not going there again. I should have been prepared for that question, I wasn’t. I’m not answering that.”
Kiffin “went there” or at least let Auburn speculation fester last year in a bizarre in-season courtship, one that no doubt contributed to a blowout loss at Arkansas just days before the Egg Bowl.
When the rivalry game came Kiffin couldn’t figure out Arnett’s defense, and State won 24-22 in Oxford.
Another beatdown at the hands of Texas Tech in the bowl game cemented a 1-5 finish after an 7-0 start.
The only Rebels win in that stretch was against Jimbo.
It was a bad look for Kiffin, and his allure took a hit.
Now with Louisiana-Monroe and struggling State left on the schedule, Kiffin has a great chance for a second 10-2 regular season in three seasons. That’s rare air for the Rebels.
He just needs to be locked in, make sure what happened in Athens stays in Athens, and not get sucked into another soap opera.
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