Zach Ponders 2019 Auburn Season

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Zach Ponders 2019 Auburn Season

Like a light switch was flipped, there was suddenly an urgency around the college football landscape in Alabama this week. Perhaps it is because the two flagship programs began their fall practice schedule. Perhaps it is because football is under a month away. Regardless the local radio shows and social media were suddenly alight this Monday morning.

During my daily ride to work, suddenly callers had real question and, more importantly, the radio personalities had real answers or at least a real problem in attempting to answer them. Auburn may not have the shear volume of fans and it certainly doesn’t have the nation’s attention the way Alabama has it, but there was enough interest in the Tigers season that some great conversations were had. More importantly, at least to me, it had my gray matter pondering these questions and it even had me contemplating this season in the now, instead of something far in the future that didn’t warrant too much brain power.

What is the magic number for Gus Malzahn to keep his job? We all get it, the head man was awarded a ridiculous $47 million dollar contract when he was coming off beating Alabama and Georgia. The situation there with the athletics director and university president presiding as they did (or did not) just made it baffling and it would seem financially unwise to even consider firing Gus this year with his buyout, no matter what the record says. But we all know that isn’t true. In truth we all believe, deep down, that the magic number is closer to ten than it is to zero. Obviously, the wins and losses will be due to much more complicated details, some of which we will discuss later, but just what is that number?

Many Auburn fans are conceding losses to Georgia and Alabama. While it would be “totally Auburn” to buck the trends, the numbers just don’t look good to win either of these games. Oregon is a toss-up game, but the one thing Auburn needs to win this game is the one thing no one knows: the quarterback situation. More on that later.

The Tigers have to travel to College Station and face the Aggies in their first SEC contest of the year. LSU has been an absolute bug-a-boo for Auburn under Malzahn. Florida is picked to challenge in the East and Auburn has to travel to The Swamp. All of these games are loseable games and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Auburn lost any of them. What if they lost all of them? Would that be enough? It would put Auburn at 6-6, assuming they win the remainder. No one expects Arkansas or Ole Miss to challenge the Tigers, but Mississippi State could. Regardless, like the great line from “The Big Lebowski,” “Mark it eight, dude.” Gus Malzahn has to win at least eight games, and I really think that has to be done in the regular season.

The biggest question going into the game against Oregon is the quarterback play. The Ducks have their man in Justin Herbert. Who will it be for the Tigers? Will they both play? There are so many questions on that front that we will reserve it for later. However, in listening to the talking heads concentrate on Auburn’s conundrum over and over, it made me think: how have dual-threat quarterbacks faired against Auburn in the past?

Obviously, there have been a bunch of them, many of them elite. While speculation flies on who will take snaps for Auburn, everyone just assumes that Oregon’s triggerman will “get his.” Yet under Kevin Steele, Auburn has been borderline phenomenal against elite dual-threat guys.

It started in his first game in 2016 against one of the best to ever play the game, Deshaun Watson. Watson went for under 250 passing yards with one TD and one INT while being held to just 21 rushing yards. Auburn, of course, lost that game 19-13 after playing six different men at quarterback. Clemson brought in highly-touted Kelly Bryant (now at Missouri), who was also stymied by the Auburn defense even more than Watson. Clemson escaped 14-6, again, due to another dreadful offensive performance.

Jake Browning was a four-year starter for Washington and a Heisman finalist. From his first offensive series against Auburn, he was running for his life after being a stat-stuffer in the Pac-12. There have been other borderline “dual-threat” QBs to have played Auburn, such as Baker Mayfield, Chad Kelley, and Trevor Knight, all of which found some success, but actually had one of their tougher days against Steele’s defense. Truly, only UCF’s McKenzie Milton had a stellar day against the Auburn defensive coordinator, compiling 242-2 in the air and 116-1 on the ground. A betting man would put money on Steele and the Tiger defense. After all, he may have the best defensive line he’s coached (and possibly the best in the country).

That brings us full-circle to the question that is on everyone’s mind but as you can see, it’s more than who will line up and takes snaps behind an all-upperclassman line. It’s another year and yet another time when Auburn fans ask: can Gus develop a quarterback? It’s safe to say that the second year of Jarrett Stidham followed the same trend Gus has always had, except that in Stidham’s case, he showed up a pretty good QB on day one. Stidham was no better in 2018 than he was in 2017, joining every other QB to have played under Malzahn. People may argue this point, but the NFL agrees. Stidham dropped in the draft before being selected by the Patriots, an organization that typically sees the ability to develop (and sell) players drafted below their ability.

In both seasons where Auburn has returned a quarterback for Gus Malzahn, the offense has taken a dive. Of course, all of the other years, Auburn’s offense has just been bad. This year, it’s up to two freshmen, but the real question is: will both play and if so, when? One of the more interesting conversations I’ve heard is who starts and how long will they get?

The fact is, history is set on what happens when Gus goes beyond QB1 and yet it is still discussed as a certainty to happen against Oregon. I think we can expect game one to be eye-opening for Auburn fans.

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