Mississippi State football coaching candidates to watch: Who could replace Zach Arnette?

Although he didn’t even last a full season, it was no surprise that Mississippi State fired Zach Arnette on Monday. As we reported a week ago, new athletic director Zach Salmon wasn’t happy with the direction of things and wanted his man to run the football program. Obviously, Mississippi State isn’t a big-name brand like Texas A&M, which fired Jimbo Fisher about 24 hours before Arnett’s move, but we think the Bulldogs will have some very good options and might be better off: They could just hire a really good football coach; Instead of needing to hire a guy who will lead them to a national title or fail.

Strength coach 5 to watch

Lance Leipold He’s one factor in a host of open coaching searches this fall, and we’re hearing Mississippi State would be interested as well. When he arrived in Lawrence, Kan., it was the most dismal program in college football, with no more than three wins in a season in the previous 11 years, and by his second year on the job, Leipold had the Jayhawks ranked in the top 20. The 59-year-old from Wisconsin won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, then led Buffalo to a No. 25 finish. We doubt it if Leipold was willing to leave Kansas, and it probably wouldn’t be for another program in the bottom third of the league in terms of resources.

Group of 5 trainers

Tulane Willie Fritz He is a proven winner and did a great job not far away at Tulane. He posted double-digit winning seasons at every level of college football, going 97-47 at Central Missouri, 40-15 at Sam Houston and 17-7 at Georgia Southern. Last year, the 63-year-old led the Green Wave to a 12-2 season that included a Cotton Bowl win over USC and a ninth-place finish in the AP Poll. This year, they are 9-1, giving them a 21-3 record the past two seasons. This would be a very safe and good rental.

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Troy John Sumrall It may be the most famous name in the group of five. Sumrall, 41, has been outstanding at Troy. He’s 20-4, including a 12-2 debut last year and a top-20 finish at a place that hasn’t won more than five games in the last three years. He is an outstanding recruiter, with a great ability to connect with people and a leadership presence. As noted in our Texas A&M coaching search story, we believe the former Ole Miss and Kentucky assistant will be a top coach in the SEC very soon.

The big thing we heard from coaches who spent time in Starkville is that you really need to be different if you want to be successful at Mississippi State. One candidate who might be an ideal fit along these lines is Liberty Jimmy Chadwell. He has a creative offense, and has Liberty rolling at 10-0 in his debut season after being hired away from Coastal Carolina. The 45-year-old former East Tennessee State QB is 40-6 in the last four years. He probably should have taken a job at the SEC a few years ago, but was passed over because he and his staff had no Power 5 experience. He’s paid well at Liberty, but we don’t think he could turn down a job at the SEC. Expect him to get a lot of attention for this.

SMU’s Rhett Lashley He made a great start taking over for Sonny Dykes; The Mustangs are now 8-2 in his second season. The 40-year-old from Arkansas has a good job in Dallas, but he has solid SEC experience having coached at Arkansas and Auburn, and is a good offensive coach.

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Familiar faces

Patriots assistant Joe Judge, a former Mississippi State player, is highly regarded within the Bulldogs community. The 41-year-old spent the past decade as an NFL coach, including two rough seasons as head coach of the Giants, where he went 10-23. Before that, he was a special teams assistant at Nick Saban’s Alabama. If he is interested in returning to college, we could see him joining the vacancy.

The runaway candidate for Mississippi would be Former Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. He went 69-46 during his nearly decade there, with three top-25 finishes before leaving for Florida and fading out in Gainesville within four years. Mullen moved to television as an analyst for ESPN, and by all accounts he fit in well there. At 51, would he like to return to a college coaching career?

(Photo: Brian Bishop/USA Today)

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