A 27-10 loss to one of your biggest rivals in November always hurts. Auburn's abysmal performance Saturday dropped the team that had National Championship aspirations to 6-4 on the season. Gus Malzahn's tenure at Auburn is the definition of a roller coaster that doesn't know where it's going next.
And that by itself is unacceptable. For a program like Auburn, eight to nine wins a year shouldn't be too hard, yet fans never know which Auburn will show up. With the talent that comes to The Plains year in and year out, Auburn may not be able to compete with Alabama every year, but Auburn can be close.
But here's the reality of the situation: Auburn has always traditionally been a school that struggles with expectation. It's as much as a tradition as rolling Toomer's Corner. Different coaches have had smaller or bigger swings between their good seasons, but Gus Malzahn is on par with the best in Auburn's history, even if his current strategies raises eyebrows and his methods are rage inducing.
The truth is that Auburn fans want Alabama results and damn whatever Auburn has to do to get there, even if that means signing the checkbook and shelling out 32 million to a coach that got you to the SEC Championship almost a year ago. It's harsh, but it's a reality. Is it wrong? Not at all. Welcome to the SEC and Auburn football.
Yes, Malzahn has some problems that NEED fixing
That's not to say that there isn't problems that Malzahn needs to work on, because there are and the list isn't short. Malzahn will never recruit a offensive coordinator into his ranks that could light a spark that a spread offense needs because of the metaphorical handcuffs that Malzahn himself puts on his coordinators. Rhett Lashlee left Auburn to take a job at UConn and then move to SMU to flourish in his own rights. Chip Lindsey came to Auburn from Arizona State to make a name for himself. The trend for offensive coordinators is to come to a big program to eventually move on to be a head coach.
Look no further than Nick Saban to prove that trend. Mark Dantonio, Jimbo Fisher, Lane Kiffin, Mario Cristobal, Kirby Smart the list goes on. These coordinators under Saban moved on to major programs to lead them. But under Malzahn? While he hasn't had the time that Saban has to push coordinators through the glass ceiling to become head coaches, it doesn't help that your one coach, WIll Muschamp, only stayed one year before bouncing for South Carolina (Not to mention the fact that he is also connected to Nick Saban).
When Auburn's offense struggles, everyone's favorite game "Who's calling plays for Auburn anyways" is echoed. No one quite knows how much Malzahn controls plays, if at all. According to multiple reports, Malzahn has plays filtered through him, which is actually normal for a offensive minded coach leading a team.
But it can also be a crutch if Malzahn is controlling the offense through his coordinator. Malzahn, for his sake, has to find a offensive coordinator he can trust enough not only to call plays, but to implement a offensive with their own signature mark. Could the recent rumor of Hugh Freeze, Malzahn's friend, heading to Auburn be true? It could be a great fit, barring the luggage that Freeze brings with him and what kind of control Freeze will actually have as offensive coordinator.
And even then, Malzahn has shown that when he has specific players for his system that are up to snuff, the system of offensive Auburn runs works. But this year is an example that when Auburn loses a good bit of talent via the draft and graduation, the offensive becomes tougher to run each year.
The play calling has also become predictable. Just look at this example from the Tennessee game this year.
But player execution has been a problem this year
And you can argue that player execution comes back to the coach. I agree, it's about coaching and getting your players ready, but something is off this year.
Gus Malzahn is currently in his 6th year at Auburn and this is the first year that the offensive line has been the weakest point of the team. That's a tough, but expected pill to swallow. When you lose Braden Smith (guard), as well as perennial starters Austin Golson (left tackle), Casey Dunn (center), and Darius James (right tackle) all in one year, it would be hard to replace them.
The stats don't lie. Auburn's offensive struggles in some major categories: (Category - NCAA Rank - SEC Rank)
First Down Offense (174 Yds/Gm) - 95th - 12th
Rushing Offense (155.2 Yds/Gm) - 82nd - 12th
Sacks Allowed (2.11 Sacks/Gm) - 63rd - 11th
Time of Possession (26:31) - 124th - 13th
These stats are a reflection of a offense with poor execution and poor drives. To be fair, Auburn has the talent to create amazing offensive lines, but many of them this year lack experience. And for those with little experience, such as Prince Tega Wanogho, they need solid players around them and a scheme that isn't predictable to be successful.
You could also argue that Auburn has always been predictable on offense. It is a statement that holds much truth, even this year. Since moving away from the read option, Auburn's scheme has stayed the same for the last couple of years. But because of the level of talent Auburn had, whether the offensive was predictable or not didn't matter. A defense will always have a tough time against a team with solid players and great execution. Just like Alabama will always be good with serviceable quarterbacks with great execution.
There is no push up front and the penetration of the line stops the running game in it's track. It also doesn't help that teams will stack and run nine to ten guys at the line to stop you. Take a look at LSU's linebackers in the game this year. They never think pass, only run. It was a trend all throughout the game. You can argue that play calling is predictable. You can argue that players aren't executing. Either way, Auburn has struggled mightily to run the ball this year, the first time in the Malzahn era many can say that.
The feeling around Malzahn is too night and day
I get it. As long as you win the games you are suppose to, you'll be ok. The fact that Gus Malzahn is still here shows that he's already done an impressive job in the SEC. Look around and you'll notice Malzahn is one of the longest tenured coaches. It's hard to do that with Alabama breathing down your neck each year.
Has Gus Malzahn lost games that he was suppose to win? Absolutely. Has he lost games against rivals? Yes he has.
But has he also proved that he can compete with Alabama? He has. Malzahn is 2-3 vs Alabama since being at Auburn. 3-3 if you want to count being offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2010. No other coaches has a much success as Malzahn against Saban. Since 2010, Alabama has 12 losses and Malzahn, depending how you look at it, accounts for 25% of them.
It's hard to win consistently when you share the state with the most dominant team in college football history, but Malzahn has proven to have better success than many coaches, even with players that may not be on the same level.
It's ok to be frustrated by this year. Auburn is not where it should be with the level of talent that it has recruited. Speaking of recruiting, Malzahn has proven to be one of the better recruiters in the nation. Every year, Auburn brings in a Top 15 recruiting class, the lowest being the 2017 recruiting class at 12th. What's the scariest part of this stat? That's usually good for 4th or 5th best in the SEC.
You're right. Malzahn also has to deal with the toughest conference in the nation. Since 2006, the SEC has won nine National Championships and has played in a total of 11. Auburn won in 2010 with Malzahn as offensive coordinator and reached the championship in 2013 before falling to Florida State in his first year.
Although that success seems like long ago, it also is rare. Alabama, since 2010, has reached the championship 5 times. Who is behind them? Auburn and Clemson at two apiece.
When Malzahn wins, the feeling is great. But in a season like this, the pitchforks and checkbooks are out. Is it ok to be angry? To criticize? To critique? Absolutely. Every fan base has that right. But the culture that has been created around Gus Malzahn has actually made it harder on the next eventual coach. Why?
What coach wants to come to a program where the fans expect to match one of the greatest dynasties? What coach would want to come to a fan base that calls for the coach to be fired so frequently? Even after the success this coach has had in the shadow of Alabama. The fact is, Auburn has done more this decade than teams like Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan, Miami, USC, Texas, name a team and Auburn has had more recent success.
And for those teams? They lose games they aren't suppose to either. Texas has lost to Kansas twice. Ohio State was embarrassed by Purdue. Miami is a shell of it's former self along with USC, who just lost to California for the first time in 14 years and fell to 5-5 this season. Wisconsin just lost their division to a Northwestern team that couldn't beat Akron. These teams are about as consistent as Auburn is when it comes to winning. But how many of them are actively calling for their coach to be fired so adamantly that their Athletic Director as to tell the media that he will be back next year?
Should Malzahn feel pressure to win? Of course. He's the head coach of a top program in the nation, no matter how you look at it. All coaches have pressure on them at this position.
Based on the numbers, Malzahn is one of the better coaches in Auburn's history
Numbers don't lie. Gus Malzahn, the 21st coach in Auburn's history, has had his downs, sure. A 1-4 bowl record, and your only win coming in the Birmingham Bowl, is not a good look. Not only that, but the numbers show that the offense is way too predictable and is starting to trend backwards. Both of these HAVE to turn around quick if Malzahn wants the pressure off of him.
But Malzahn will make it to another bowl this year, making his 6th, which will be good enough for 4th most bowl appearances in Auburn history. He has made a bowl every year, something no other Auburn coach can say that they have done.
Malzahn is also 5th all-time in wins at Auburn. That's an amazing stat when looking at the fact that the coaches in front of him (Tubberville, Dye, Donahue and Jordan) where at Auburn for 10+ years. Malzahn (61 wins) has a bit of a climb to reach Tubberville at 85 wins, but he is on pace to break it by the end of year 10. Malzahn could easily move into second with Dye and Donahue tied at 99.
Historically, Auburn has been around a nine win team. Since 2000, Auburn is 164-78 (.677). Malzahn is 51-25 (.671), on par with what Auburn has been accustomed to this century. That's not to say give him a break, but what did you exactly expect? Gus Malzahn is doing what Auburn has done since 2000.
What Tommy Tubbeville has done, however, was defeat Alabama regularly. But Tubberville coached in a time without Nick Saban at Alabama. It wasn't uncommon for teams to beat Alabama back then.
Lastly, Malzahn has been able to get Auburn into the AP Top 10 at some point in the season each year he has been at Auburn. Granted, it's how you finish that anyone really remembers. But only one coach has done that in Auburn's history, that being Pat Dye eight years in a row from 1983-90.
Let's not forget also being the first coach to beat two No. 1 teams in three weeks in 2017. Just another day at the office, right?
The negative talk around Malzahn makes Auburn an unattractive job
This is the biggest problem. Who else? Who else could come into Auburn and "turn the program around"? Is someone out there? Yes, there are plenty of diamonds in the rough that Auburn could find. But if there is one thing Auburn nation has shown, it's that they want to win now. If that is true, then Malzahn is the best you have.
No top tier program coach will leave for Auburn. If Auburn fires Malzahn, it shows that there is no security, even through a heavy buyout. No coach ever performs well for long while under pressure like that and for Auburn, it seems like as long as Alabama and Nick Saban are still a pair, that pressure will always be on.
Les Miles? Maybe Auburn can get a big name to come to The Plains. But why Les Miles? Miles has a better winning percentage while at LSU (.770) than Malzahn has at Auburn. But Les Miles was fired because of his inability to produce a good offense. Miles would not fix Auburn's offense, the side of the ball that needs the most work. He would have to give control of the offense to someone he trusts. Miles has also been linked to the opening at Kansas. Crazy right?
What about Clemson defensive coordinator Brett Venables? Venables has created a scary good defense at Clemson and could easily turn the offense over to a capable offensive coordinator to lead the offense. All of that is true and I would actually be in favor for it if Malzahn does run his course and Venables becomes interested. But never underestimate what home means to coaches. Venables went to Kansas State and Bill Snyder's days seem to be coming to a close. Venables choosing Auburn over his alma mater? Hard to see that happening.
Realistically, the biggest name Auburn could get is retired coach Bob Stoops and that is because he isn't linked to any schools right now. Stoops is also defensive minded, but has proven to control high powered offenses like the ones he has had at Oklahoma. Stoops could bring the right pieces, but it could be a process that takes time. David Shaw at Stanford may also want a restart as his team has failed to reach their expectations this year. Auburn has shown in the past it doesn't take a lot of time for administration to fall out of love with you when the winning is sparse. Isn't that right Tommy and Gene?
Auburn could go the smaller school route. Bill Clark at UAB has risen the program from the dead and is leading UAB to the Conference USA Championship for the first time. Clark may be looking to cash out his chips while his stock is high. Matt Wells at Utah State is also making a name for himself as the Aggies look like one of the strongest teams outside the Power 5 conferences. Jeff Brohm at Purdue could be a nice grab, but he is linked to the potential opening at his alma mater Louisville. Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern has also proved that he can compete with big programs with less talent.
Let's not forget about the Iowa State connection with Dr. Steven Leath. Matt Campbell has turned around Iowa State in just three years. from 3-9 to 6-3 this season and winning 5 straight so far, the cyclones are creeping up the Big 12. But how will Auburn fans feel about a coach with a overall record at Iowa State of 17-17? And will Campbell dip out of Ames after signing a six-year, $22.5 million extension with the school on November 27, 2017?
Either way, will these coaches leave their programs for Auburn? Not if they don't have job security. These coaches have thrived at locations where they can slowly build their players and programs. They can't afford that time at Auburn and Auburn can apparently afford their buyout if they decide to cut them lose early. If boosters pockets are deep enough to get rid of Malzahn for such a hefty price, why not wait for another program with better job security?
So what does Auburn do?
If you are Auburn, you have to ride this one out for now. Auburn may be one of the hardest top tier jobs right now with all three rivals being top 10 teams, playing in the toughest conference and having the fans expectations set to match one of the best dynasties in college football history. A lot of coaches won't do well in this situation. Gus Malzahn is a good coach. Not many coaches can replicate what he has done.
Has he been consistent enough? No and I think Malzahn would be the first to admit when things go sideways. He knows what fans are saying right now. But what can you do? Sure, fire Malzahn and get... who exactly? You have to ask yourself if you are ready for a rebuild. Malzahn's system is so unique that some players won't fit into different schemes or if they do, may have a hard time adjusting to it. Recruiting wouldn't be a problem, or it shouldn't, but you also don't know how good the next coach will be at recruiting.
All I ask is that, for one moment, take off the Auburn glasses and look around. What coaches are out there? Then ask yourself this question: Would they take this job? Will they be better than Malzahn at recruiting, winning or beating Alabama? If you can answer all three of those questions with certainty, then you found Auburn's next head coach.
If not, then you realize that the situation is not as simple as it seems. There are too many unknowns and risks that you would have to take as an administration to make that jump. And that's not a bad thing. Auburn fans expect so much out of their coach because of what they want their program to grow into. That's respectable and commendable.
Just make sure there is a plan behind the method, behind the madness. Because once you open the floodgates to the Auburn coaching carousel, that will be bigger than any roller coaster Gus Malzahn has put fans through in his tenure. Well, second biggest roller coaster.
Looking at you 2013.