Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz are on a collision course, pushing their Southeastern Conference squads into the most important game of their respective coaching careers. The former mentor and pupil have yet to partake in a battle of wits as head coaches. Missouri and Auburn’s early Saturday clash will change that, with both sets of Tigers opening league play. The stakes are obviously winning at all costs and getting off to a good start in the deepest conference in America. The consequences of losing will put the defeated coach in deep shit, a little closer to being thrown overboard by the athletic departments that joyfully hired them less than three years ago.
Drinkwitz and Harsin are both in their second stops as head coaches, departing one of the Group of Five’s best programs for a chance to apply their craft in the prestigious SEC. The 39-year-old Drinkwitz was hired in December 2019, leaving then-Sun Belt champions Appalachian State for Mizzou. Following a 5-5 pandemic season and a 6-7 record last year, Missouri is 2-1, after a convincing victory over Louisiana Tech to open the season, followed by a dismantling at the hands of Kansas State, then a 17-point win over FCS-level Abilene Christian.
With Georgia and playing in The Swamp against Florida directly following the road trip to Auburn, Mizzou needs to avoid the free fall of heading into its bye week 2-4 with games against Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky still to go. It’s the bare minimum expecting to make a bowl game. Auburn is proving to be the most-winnable game of those six. While Drinkwitz’s job security hasn’t become a daily topic in Columbia, likely because of how well the Tigers have recruited under his leadership, are those blue-chip prospects enough to keep the sharks from circling if his staff can’t consistently turn them into legitimate SEC-caliber athletes?
While the temperature of Drinkwitz’s seat is a little ambiguous and may completely cool with a successful next month, when has Harsin’s seat not been scorching on The Plains over the last several months? This offseason was full of controversy at AU, with major questions about Harsin’s locker room culture. And all that existed 12 months after former head coach Gus Malzahn got the best job in America, fired FBS football coach, being paid $21.45 million by Auburn to leave, similar to the $15 million Scott Frost recently received from Nebraska to no longer be at the helm. Will Muschamp earned nearly $13 million in 2020 from South Carolina to go coach somewhere else.
After defeating FCS-level Mercer and skating by San Jose State, Harsin’s Tigers got dismantled by Penn State. Auburn has an even more difficult schedule than Mizzou to complete 2022. Due to the higher expectations for a program that last appeared in a national title game in 2013, the desire to return to the mountaintop as soon as possible when you share a state with Nick Saban becomes paramount every year. Harsin’s need to win on Saturday does top Drinkwitz even if both desperately want it. Look back to the last time the teams played in 2017. Kerryon Johnson ran for five touchdowns and Auburn trounced Mizzou. Nearly five years to the day, they’ll square off again in a huge sign of how far the mighty have fallen. It’s been even longer for Missouri’s drop from mighty status, as that Auburn-Mizzou SEC Championship game was nine years ago. The argument that Missouri made it back to Atlanta a year later only proves my point about the need for SEC teams to stay relevant or cascade down the conference’s hierarchy.
Both Drinkwitz and Harsin inked six-year deals to join the SEC, but have had history well beyond their current posts. Harsin’s first head coaching opportunity came at Arkansas State, and Drinkwitz was on his staff. As Boise State came calling to get Harsin out of Jonesboro, he brought Drinkwitz with him to the Mountain West. In 2016, Drinkwitz forged his own path and became the offensive coordinator at NC State. Before heading to Arkansas State, Drinkwitz got his start in college football under Gene Chizik at Auburn. The now-Mizzou coach hasn’t been back to where he got his collegiate start since 2013, when the Red Wolves traveled to play the Tigers.
On Tuesday, Drinkwitz said he’s indebted to Harsin for believing in him when not many did. He then pondered whether he’d still be in college football, much less with one of the coveted 64 Power Five Conference head coaching jobs, if not for Auburn’s current coach. In this ruthless gridiron business, combined with the win-now demands from AU boosters, Drinkwitz taking down his former mentor should put Harsin one foot out the door. They’ll give the former Boise State coach a huge amount to not be around their program anymore and back up another truckload of dough to bring in another coach to try and rectify the problems. That’s the circle of life in the SEC. You’ll get rich even if you do a shitty job. Winning on Saturday just prolongs the slippery poop slope for one of them. Only then they’ll have a chance to dig themselves out. I’ll go with Drinkwitz having a happy homecoming at Auburn. Keeping Harsin at the helm is only prolonging the inevitable.