When Gus Malzahn danced his heart out Saturday night after knocking off Mississippi State, he surely had no idea. On second thought, maybe he did. Maybe Malzahn, who has been on the hot seat for the better part of a decade, danced not because he clinched what he’d call a “solid” season, but because he knew that worst-case scenario, he was walking away with $21 million to not work. By the way, half of that would be due in 30 days.

Either way, Auburn finally pulled the trigger. If Malzahn was the Tigers’ on-again, off-again significant other, Sunday’s news of his hiring was finally a clean break.

No more hot seat. No more extensions. Malzahn is gone, and not even a pandemic could slow down the powers at Auburn from making a decision many have expected the second that massive post-2017 extension started to turn south … in 2018.

And now that Malzahn is gone, it’s fair to wonder — was this all about hiring Hugh Freeze?

You know, the guy who beat Nick Saban in consecutive years at Ole Miss and turned Liberty into an offensive juggernaut with, ironically enough, former Auburn quarterback Malik Willis. You know, the guy who is only not in the SEC because of recruiting violations and an escort service scandal. You know, the guy who beat Saban in consecutive years at Ole Miss. Did I say that already? Oops. It was probably worth bringing up twice.

Why else would Auburn be willing to make a financial commitment so steep? Surely it couldn’t have been the simple fact that Malzahn suffered a 4th loss for the 7th consecutive season. It couldn’t have been that his quarterback once again struggled to develop in his system.

Well, it’s Auburn. Who are we kidding. It could’ve been all of that stuff.

This is the same place where “JetGate” became a thing with Tommy Tuberville. This is the place where a coach 2 years removed from a BCS National Championship was fired. Perhaps it’s only fitting that Malzahn was fired in this bizarre fashion.

The coaching carousel is indeed spinning with now 5 coaches at the Power 5 level gone. Of course, Malzahn is the 3rd from the SEC … during a pandemic.

Did I say that already? Oops. It was probably worth bringing up twice.

Auburn athletic director Allen Greene wasn’t the one who gave Malzahn that 7-year, $49 million extension with 75% of the contract fully guaranteed. That was signed by Malzahn, Auburn President Steven Leath and then-athletic director Jay Jacobs. Surely they didn’t see Malzahn going 14-12 in SEC play with that type of money. The goal, of course, was to do what Malzahn did in 2017 — beat Alabama, win division titles and make Auburn nationally relevant in December.

Instead, Malzahn’s final game as Auburn’s coach was a rock fight in which his prized quarterback prospect threw for 3.9 yards per attempt.

Who knows if that was the last straw. Who knows if Auburn’s brass had long since made up its mind that Freeze’s offense had more potential than any sort of Malzahn/Chad Morris offense. That’s not really saying much. Here are Auburn’s offensive ranks since that magical 2013 season:

  • 2014 — No. 27
  • 2015 — No. 75
  • 2016 — No. 49
  • 2017 — No. 27
  • 2018 — No. 48
  • 2019 — No. 28
  • 2020 — No. 87

So in a 7-year stretch following his first season as Auburn’s head coach, Malzahn never:

  • A) Had a top-25 offense
  • B) Had consecutive top-40 offenses
  • C) Had a quarterback with more than 20 TD passes
  • D) Scored 24 points in consecutive Iron Bowls
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

When you make $7 million, you have to be better than that. You just do. This isn’t just about beating Alabama. The irony of a potential Malzahn-Freeze swap is that it’s Malzahn who has more wins against the Crimson Tide. Freeze has done that twice compared to 3 for Malzahn, though obviously the former had a little more than half as many seasons (5) as the latter (8).

Oh! There’s more irony about a potential Malzahn-Freeze swap. Obviously, it was Freeze who spent a year at Arkansas State before Malzahn succeeded him and then also stayed for a year. The old friends have a lot in common as guys who worked their way through the high school ranks before landing in the SEC.

Freeze could have another crack at landing in the conference he spent the vast majority of his life surrounded by. His name surfaced in the South Carolina search, but that ultimately wasn’t deemed a fit. Could Auburn — a place that has resources that entail paying a $21 million buyout — be the ultimate scenario for Freeze’s SEC rebirth? Nobody should be surprised by that.

On Sunday, we got a surprise that Malzahn’s days on the Plains were done. Though perhaps we shouldn’t say that. Auburn is a unique place. It’s a place where Gene Chizik remained even after he was fired on the heels of a winless SEC season in 2012. For all we know, Malzahn will stick around and live on his $21 million, enjoying his time away from one of the most high-pressure jobs in the sport.

It’s because of that investment to cut bait on Malzahn that there’s now even more pressure for Auburn to get it right. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which that doesn’t include a major attempt to bring Freeze back to the SEC, baggage and all. The candidate list, at least so far, isn’t plentiful. You don’t fork over that rich of a buyout without a strong sense of urgency to win immediately.

Time will tell if Freeze succeeds his buddy. If he does, you can bet plenty of people on the Plains will be dancing like Malzahn.