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Identifying 5 top Texas A&M coaching candidates, including Mike Elko

The Texas A&M Aggies parted ways with head coach Jimbo Fisher on November 13, ending one of the most disastrous eras in program history and paying Fisher more than $70 million to head out the door. Now, it’s time for another coaching search and new Texas A&M coaching candidates.

Ordinarily, a $70-plus million buyout would’ve stood in the way of most schools firing their head football coach. Texas A&M is just different. As highlighted by Stewart Mandel of The Athletic, Aggies’ donors are covering nearly $20 million of the initial severance and Texas A&M University has a $7.2 billion budget, putting this athletic department in a unique position to handle some of the financial blow.

Related: Heisman Watch 2023

Aggies’ boosters and the athletic department will continue to pour everything they can into this football program, focused entirely on building a national powerhouse. That’s important to remember as money shouldn’t be a barrier during the Texas A&M coaching search.

5 best texas A&M coaching candidates

Mike Elko, Duke Blue Devils head coach

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Duke
Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Elko is one of the most obvious Texas A&M coaching candidates to replace Fisher. Unlike the former Aggies’ coach, Elko already has established ties to the region. Elko emerged as one of the top defensive coordinators in college football with the Aggies from 2018-’21. Those local ties should make him a favorite, especially when examining the rest of his track record.

After winning just five total games in the last two seasons under David Cutcliffe, the Duke Blue Devils made a coaching change. While the Blue Devils are a basketball powerhouse, achieving success on the football field is a daunting task. Since 2018, Duke has never cracked the top 50 of 247 Sports yearly recruiting rankings. It means the Blue Devils’ coach must be great at getting the most out of his players, with a staff that excels in player development and finding unheralded prospects.

  • Texas A&M Aggies defense under Mike Elko (2021): 17.1 points per game allowed (4th in FBS), 4.6 yards per play average allowed (10th in FBS), 32.54 percent third-down conversion rate (11th)

Duke improved from 3-9 under Cutcliffe in 2021 to 9-4 in Elko’s first year at the helm in 2022. The Blue Devils’ defense went from allowing 41.8 PPG (126th in FBS) and 7.2 yards per play (124th) to opponents in 2021 to just 5.3 yards per play (50th) and 22.3 PPG (25th) with Elko’s system implemented in the first year. Put Elko in a recruiting hot bed and he can build one of the nation’s best defenses with a coaching staff that will get more out of top recruits and make this a more consistent football team.

Kalen DeBoer, Washington Huskies

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Elko is an ideal choice for Texas A&M if the program wants to find a defensive-minded head coach who can build an elite defense in the SEC. If the Aggies instead want to go for firepower, getting into shootouts with the likes of the Tennessee Volunteers and Alabama Crimson Tide, Kalen DeBoer is a fantastic target.

  • Kalen DeBoer coaching record: 33-8, 21-2 with Washington Huskies

DeBoer landed his first head-coaching gig in 2020 at Fresno State, taking over after being the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordination at Indiana (2019) and with the Bulldogs (2017-’18). Replacing Jeff Tedford, DeBoer went 3-3 during the COVID season. It was the only adjustment year he needed, posting a 20-7 mark in the next two seasons before taking over at Washington.

The Huskies became a top-15 team by the end of the 2022 season, DeBoer’s first year at the helm. Now, Washington has the second-longest winning streak in college football and has a viable shot at making the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history. That quick turnaround, which pushed Washington ahead of the Lincoln Riley-led USC Trojans, is impressive enough.

We also have to mention what DeBoer has done with the Huskies’ offense. Transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. went from an above-average quarterback at Indiana to a Heisman Trophy favorite this year at Washington. After posting a 132 career QB rating in the Hoosiers’ offense, Penix Jr. has a 170.5 QB rating this year and nearly has a 160 career passer rating in 23 games with the Huskies. Plus, DeBoer beat fellow Texas A&M coaching candidate Dan Lanning earlier this year. One small drawback, DeBoer doesn’t have Texas ties.

Urban Meyer, college football analyst

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

There has to be a high level of desperation for a program to hire Urban Meyer. He’s now remembered for the most disastrous coaching stint in NFL history, including accusations of Meyer of kicking a player, constantly lashing out at everyone, constantly wanting to be appreciated and fostering a toxic environment. After he left Ohio State, he also faced accusations of treating players poorly.

Yet, Meyer’s track record of success in college football also speaks for itself. The 59-year-old has won three national champions and has won at least two conference titles apiece in the Big Ten, SEC and Mountain West Conference. Everywhere he goes, Meyer’s teams become a perennial contender.

The problem, of course, is that there’s an additional risk Meyer has completely lost the ability to connect with young players. Instead of remembering him for his championships with the Florida Gators, the next generation of recruits coming out of high school will see the coach who flamed out in the NFL and allegedly both verbally and physically abused his players. So, how bad does Texas A&M want to win?

Related: College Football Games Today

Dan Lanning, Oregon Ducks

Syndication: The Register Guard
Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Oregon Ducks have one of the best coaching jobs in the country. It’s part of the reason why Dan Lanning left a loaded Georgia Bulldogs defense that would go on to repeat as national champions. Yet, Texas A&M is simply a better job and the resources the Aggies’ athletic facilities and the support offered by boosters could at least make him consider a change.

Related: 2023 college football rankings

Oregon’s offense carried it to success in 2022 with Lanning’s defense proving to be the team’s Achilles Heel. However, many of the best defensive systems require an acclimation period and the positive improvements don’t start appearing until the second season. We’ve seen that in 2023 at Oregon.

  • Oregon Ducks defense (2022): 398.4 total yards per game allowed (76th), 5.8 yards per play allowed (100th), 39.3% third-down conversion rate allowed (67th)
  • Oregon Ducks defense (2022): 321.7 total yards per game allowed (22nd), 4.7 yards per play allowed (20th), 35.2% third-down conversion rate allowed (35th)

As for recruiting, Lanning pulled in the ninth-best recruiting class in 2023 and the Ducks’ 2024 recruiting class currently ranks sixth in the nation, headlined by five-star defensive linemen Aydin Breland and Elijah Rushing. He’d be able to recruit top talent to the Aggies and can turn the Texas A&M defense around. Plus, his most trusted coaches have done great work with the Ducks’ offense and Bo Nix.

Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Rebels

Syndication: Online Athens

If the Aggies want to make a realistic splash with their coaching search, Lane Kiffin might be one of the more attainable Texas A&M coaching candidates this winter. He flirted with Auburn last year before sticking by Ole Miss, but Texas A&M has everything he wants to at least try and challenge Alabama.

Kiffin has proven himself enough as a head coach at this point. He had to restart from the ground up, going 27-13 at Florida Atlantic. Then, Ole Miss took a chance on him and he’s poised to lead the Rebels to their second double-digit win season in the last three years. Texas A&M would have to offer Kiffin $9.5-plus million per year to leave Ole Miss and there’s a massive buyout, but Kiffin seems willing to leave for a better opportunity and he could be the best option if Elko, Lanning and DeBoer say no.