Is a Four Loss Season Average Satisfactory at Auburn?

Friday, January 3, 2020

Is a Four Loss Season Average Satisfactory at Auburn?

Following the Outback Bowl loss the same questions began to surface on social media between two factions. There were fans who wanted Gus Malzahn gone. The other group, which has seen its ranks shrink over time, aired the same responses they have leaned upon for almost half a decade. Those folks make some salient points. Malzahn IS the only coach to beat Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide three times. He DOES have an SEC championship, a second SEC championship appearance, a National Championship appearance, and two ten win seasons to his credit. That last credit ties him with Auburn’s Great Coaches triumvirate coaching of Shug Jordan, Pat Dye, and Tommy Tuberville. Furthermore, typically the closing argument by the fans still clinging to Gus is “one loss doesn’t define a coach’s career” followed by “Auburn is historically an 8-5 team” and finally closing with “who would Auburn hire that is better?”

A quick rundown of the important opposite notes in the Book of Malzahn: He’s never won the Iron Bowl and a bowl game in the same year. Sounds weird, right? If you have the momentum from beating the penultimate football program in the country, shouldn’t being ready to play through preparation and desire be an afterthought?  That’s not the case, especially following the last two Iron Bowl wins. In fact, Auburn teams under Malzahn are now 2-5 in bowl games with wins coming against Memphis and Purdue, two teams that shouldn’t have been on the field with Auburn to begin with, and not because of the talent disparity, but because Auburn underachieved those years to put themselves in a situation to play lowly bowl games against outmatched opponents. 

Sure, there have been some great moments with Malzahn that included beating Bama three times, something that is to be proud of even by anti-Malzahn fans. It’s everything else, the other twelve games a year, that should define a coach. It is true that Gus has looked like an offensive genius, as he has been hailed for a decade, in the Iron Bowl. But does looking the part of an offensive genius 1/13th of the time make you a genius or prove that you aren’t? In the end, underachieving is what Malzahn has done, by most any numerical metric used. That leads the crux of the matter and the questions asked by those still in Malzhan’s corner. 

Let’s start with the “Auburn is historically an 8-5 program” argument to justify the product on the field. It is one of the most over-used taglines you will read and it is one of the absolute worst. Look over college football, right now. Clemson was the epitome of the “8-5 program” when they hired Dabo Swiney. They are playing for their third National Championship in four years and have been in the playoffs essentially every year since the inception. Baylor was a Big 12 doormat and while the Art Briles fiasco looked to derail the up-and-coming program, the hire of Matt Rhule put them right back on track. Oregon may be 0-2 in National Championship games and frequently struggles on the big stage, but this was a program that was nothing a little more than a decade ago and look at their accession. The list goes on and on and yet it seems only Auburn fans are willing to accept their place in the world while everyone else is doing anything they can to win, even sometimes missing the mark.

College football has seen more than its fair share of misses than bull’s eyes on coaching hires,particularly the “up and coming” coaches like Malzahn was after the 2012 season. Not every school is going to hit the jackpot like some of the team’s listed, but the ones that have found success are those that accept their wrongs and move on. Just look at the aforementioned Oregon Ducks. When Mark Helfrich couldn’t get it done, they hocked him. Florida State, a perennial powerhouse in college football, just did the same thing in year two of Willie Taggert’s regime. Even inside the SEC West, teams aren’t willing to put up with mediocrity. Despite taking Ole Miss through some of the worst situations and still managing to find success, Matt Luke was replaced by Lane Kiffin. Auburn’s new offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, was thrown out of Arkansas just two years into taking over a listing Hogs program. Not only does it seem that Auburn’s administration sides with the “8-5 is fine enough” crowd, judging by the ridiculous contract they awarded Malzahn, it’s almost like they celebrate it. 

Does this year’s Outback Bowl loss define Gus Malzhan’s career? Of course not. Malzahn has now coached over 100 games for Auburn and an exhibition game doesn’t write the entire book, but it could certainly be the closing words. There is no debating the post-season record for Malzahn’s teams but the Outback bowl’s performance left all the eye-test evidence on Malzahn that anyone could ever need. Unprepared, unimaginative, unmotivated and most importantly, out-coached. It wasn’t the only game this season that looked just like this. Auburn lost to Florida, LSU, and Georgia in heart-breaking fashion and while it would be easy to point to the coaching decisions in those games for evidence, I submit that the defining moment was against Ole Miss. With a bye week coming up and Amen Corner around the bend, it was the perfect time to really work on preparing for Georgia. Instead, Auburn held an 10-7 halftime lead following a mind-numbing offensive gameplan. Following a ten point third quarter, Malzahn shut down the offense and seemed to think Ole Miss had no chance of winning. Except Ole Miss did have a chance to win following a Rebel touchdown and a missed fieldgoal by Auburn. An interception ended the game and the Tigers limped away with a 20-14 win against a 3-6 road team. 

To close, there is the conversation of, “Who is better than Gus Malzahn that might consider taking a job in the same state with Nick Saban?” That will be the subject of my next article as I’ll take an in-depth look at salary and recruiting in comparing the salaries of many of the top coaches. 

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