Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley, Michigan State's Mel Tucker

From left: Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley, Michigan State's Mel Tucker

With three weeks remaining in the regular season — and presumably not much more time than that remaining in LSU's search for a football coach — a short list of top candidates has emerged.

The three names to watch: Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, Michigan State's Mel Tucker and Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley.

This doesn't mean that one of those three is guaranteed be the guy who's introduced at LSU sometime in December next to a beaming Scott Woodward. This is a coaching search, after all, and things change quickly. As of recently, LSU’s athletic director was considering at least five favorites. But Fisher, Tucker and Riley are the ones most likely to have to say yes — or no — first.

Let’s start with Fisher. There remains widespread belief that he is Woodward’s top choice. It’s easy to see why. They both came up together professionally at LSU 20 years ago, Woodward working under then-LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert as director of external affairs, Fisher serving as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban.

Fisher is one of five active coaches to have won a national championship along with Saban, Ed Orgeron, Dabo Swinney and Mack Brown. Besides Fisher, of those, the only one who even has a remote chance of being LSU’s coach in 2022 is Swinney, though it seems unlikely he would leave Clemson.

Why would Fisher leave Texas A&M? He has the Aggies rolling after a rocky 3-2 start, with a chance to still win the Southeastern Conference Western Division if Auburn upsets Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Since getting shellacked by LSU 50-7 at the end of the 2019 regular season, A&M is a solid 17-3 overall, including a win over Bama last month.

In September, Fisher signed an extension that will pay him $9 million next season with $95 million guaranteed over 10 years, surpassing the $75 million, 10-year deal Woodward signed him to when he was AD at Texas A&M.

Fisher still has no buyout. He can leave for any job at any time. That’s no small thing, considering LSU is paying nearly $17 million to Orgeron and could owe more than $8 million to his staff.

Fisher has no obvious reason to be as discontent in College Station, Texas, as he became at Florida State, where he led the Seminoles to the final BCS title in 2013. Recruiting and facilities at A&M are great.

But there is the specter of Big Brother — Texas — joining the SEC soon. Texas A&M will always be No. 2 in its home state to the Longhorns. At LSU, a place Fisher is obviously still fond of, he will always be No. 1.

Tucker was also on Saban’s first LSU staff back in 2000 as defensive backs coach. He has worked for Saban at two other stops (Michigan State and Alabama); worked in the NFL (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Chicago); and was defensive coordinator for fellow Saban disciple Kirby Smart at Georgia.

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The Spartans were No. 3 in the first CFP rankings but were upset 40-29 by Purdue last weekend, likely knocking Sparty out of the playoffs (No. 7 this week) without a slew of other upsets.

Like Saban, Tucker will likely want total control of his program. Would LSU give him that? Or would Woodward insist he keep someone like defensive backs coach Corey Raymond, or strength coach Tommy Moffitt? That could be a dealbreaker, and it could be what ranks Tucker behind Fisher.

Though he hasn’t been a head coach for long (he is 15-13 overall combined at Michigan State and Colorado), there are expectations that he is the next big thing in college coaching. Just like they said about Saban when LSU hired him away from Michigan State nearly 22 years ago.

Riley is the most intriguing figure, and by nature of his current job the biggest long shot.

He is a stellar 54-8 (.871 winning percentage) in four-plus seasons in Norman, having won the Big 12 each of his first four years. His first three OU teams made the College Football Playoff. And he’s set to average $7.535 million through 2025 in a new contract he got in 2020. LSU could beat that price, but Oklahoma would likely increase Riley's salary to keep him.

On balance, Oklahoma has even better football tradition than LSU, with seven legitimate national championships, 50 conference titles (yes, 50) and seven Heisman Trophy winners. But LSU has won three national titles since OU won its last in 2000, and the Tigers stomped on the Sooners 63-28 in their Peach Bowl CFP semifinal en route to the 2019 crown. The Sooners are 0-3 in the semis under Riley. With OU poised to join the SEC, Riley may look at his program and wonder if it has hit a ceiling.

Are there other options? Of course. Billy Napier has done a fine job in Lafayette — his Ragin' Cajuns are 36-12 since 2018, with a 25-5 conference record — and is name has been linked to the opening at TCU. Napier would seem to be an attractive candidate. And at the very least, I’d be surprised if LSU doesn't have some fondness for former defensive coordinator and Baylor coach Dave Aranda.

Maybe it’s someone else.

Some will say Woodward won’t be able to lure a “big name” to LSU. But those folks underestimate the scope of his imagination, not to mention the stack of cash LSU is willing to throw at the next coach. A deal worth $100 million would not be a shock. That kind of money, and the fact LSU’s last three coaches won national titles, is going to lure someone.

Will it be Fisher, Tucker or Riley? We still do not know. But the list starts there.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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