A Texas-sized cloud of uncertainty looms over college football's biggest game of the season.
As No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Auburn prepare in Southern California to meet Monday in the last BCS championship game, the University of Texas is still looking for a new football coach. And until the Longhorns make a hire, just about every successful coach can be considered a candidate — including Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Auburn's Gus Malzahn.
"I've been amazed about how quiet this thing has been," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said earlier this week. "Because of that it leads me to speculate and believe that somebody still involved in coaching, whether it's the NFL or college, must be one of their primary candidates."
"I think the longer this goes on I think it's very, very clear that it's somebody who's still coaching. Who that might be, I have no idea."
Some leaks have sprung in the last couple of days, and it appears front-runners are emerging.
Published reports out of Texas stated the Longhorns were interested in Fisher, Baylor's Art Briles, Vanderbilt's James Franklin and Louisville's Charlie Strong. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio has also been mentioned as a coach Texas athletic director Steve Patterson is looking at. Patterson said he wants the search complete by Jan. 15.
"Texas, they're going to be calling on everybody they possibly can because they're going to try to get the best coach they possibly can," Florida State AD Stan Wilcox said. "Meanwhile, everybody's trying to keep their coaches because they all feel that the people that Texas is looking at are the best coaches out there."
Florida State hopes it has put all the speculation about Fisher's future to rest. The fourth-year head coach and Nick Saban disciple finally got around on Tuesday to signing a new contract that runs through the 2018 season and pays him about $4.1 million annually.
Auburn agreed to a new deal with Malzahn the day before the Southeastern Conference championship game last month. The six-year contract is worth $3.85 million annually to the first-year Tigers coach.
Briles got a 10-year deal in November from Baylor. Michigan State is working on a new deal for Dantonio that could double his $1.9 million salary.
The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesmen reported Patterson has met with Strong and that Briles, now that Baylor's season ended Tuesday night with a 52-42 loss to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, could be next to interview.
And, of course, Saban, the object of so many Longhorns desires, agreed to a new multiyear deal with Alabama that will pay him $7 million a year after months of stories and speculation connecting the four-time national championship winning coach and Texas.
But what do those extensions really mean? Are Fisher, Malzahn, Briles and even Saban truly off the market?
"A contract is written to be broken," said Kansas State athletic director John Currie, who doesn't have to worry about his football coach, 74-year-old Bill Snyder, going anywhere.
The trend in college sports, especially college football, is for schools to quickly lock up successful coaches and hand out raises.
Mississippi extended Hugh Freeze's contract after a 7-5 regular season and bumped his pay to $3 million per year. Washington State's Mike Leach got the Cougars back into a bowl by winning six games in his second season at Pullman. He got a two-year extension for his work.
Texas A&M made the boldest move of all this season with coach Kevin Sumlin, who was drawing interest from NFL teams last year. The Aggies made Sumlin (20-6 in two seasons at A&M) a $5 million-per-year coach with a new six-year deal.
Arizona AD Greg Byrne said the contract numbers that make headlines can often be deceiving.
"When you get down into the details the interesting numbers are what's guaranteed, both sides. If the coach were to leave, what's the buyout? And then if you were to dismiss your coach without cause what percent of the contract is guaranteed?" Byrne said. "Sometime you'll see someone with an eight-year contract, but half the contract is guaranteed, so in some ways it's a four-year contract instead."
Currie said the NFL has played a major role in changing the salary structure for college coaches, but ultimately a school needs to decide what works best for it.
"Everybody else is doing it is not a reason to make a bad decision for your institution," he said.
But market pressures can be strong and big openings — such as the one at Texas — can drive up that market.
"I'm sure there's been a time where a school's reacted too slowly, but I think there have been times where a school has jumped ahead a little more in hindsight to where they want to be," Byrne said. "It's a challenging situation. I think the market place has gotten to such that there will be agents out there that will try to parlay one school against another. And I think that's driven up some of the numbers we're seeing today."
Florida State and Auburn have made their moves to protect their interests, and can spend this week focusing on what it takes to win a national championship. But until the Longhorns introduce a new coach, fans of the Seminoles and Tigers — and Bears and Cardinals, etc. — have reason to be at least a little distracted by what's going on in Austin.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP