Best5Zach’s Best Five Questions for Gus Malzahn
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SEC Media Days kicked off Monday, and every team in the SEC will have questions that the fans really want to get the answer to but most likely won’t. Will Jalen Hurts hold Alabama’s starting job? Can Jarrett Stidham win it at Auburn, or has it been won? Are both Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb 100 percent? Will Missouri have the SEC’s only 1,000-yard receiver?
Outside of some choice Brett Bielema moments, Media Days have been downright boring since Lane Kiffin took the podium in his lone appearance. The chances of having any questions answered that have any real value for a fan or fantasy footballer are slim to none.
Auburn’s own Gus Malzahn will bring an eclectic group of representatives to the podium on Thursday. He has been one of the most boring coaches at the podium, using one of about three lines each and every year to answer every question. At no point will he give any inkling of real insight into Auburn football. But what if he would actually field some of those questions? Let’s play a game and pretend.
Why Not Sean White?
Despite the coachspeak, we know Jarrett Stidham is the starting quarterback. Media Days is where you bring the face of your program. While I have no problem with Braden Smith, Tray Mathews, and Daniel Carlson, even liking the symmetry of offensive, defensive and special teams players, who represent Auburn in a great way However, no one has represented the Auburn Spirit better than Sean White.
White has battled like no one I can remember, and he has done it nearly thanklessly. It started against UGA in 2015 when he hobbled onto the field in the second half to replace an ineffective Jeremy Johnson and left on crutches, despite the coaching staff selling him as 100%. His story likely ended when he tried to play through a broken arm in the Sugar Bowl. White may not be a game breaker, but he is a gamer. He loves Auburn, and he has given everything he has to his school.
Were you ready to be Auburn’s coach?
Malzahn spent one year at Arkansas State where he went 10–3 and won the Sun Belt Conference. While anyone would take ten wins and a conference championship, every coach at Arkansas State has been able to win at that level since the Red Wolves became an FBS team. Hugh Freeze won 10 games and the Sun Belt Title in 2012. Brian Harsin was 7–5 and won the Sun Belt in 2013. Blake Anderson went 9–4 and won the Sun Belt in 2015.
So far, Malzahn has brought stability to Auburn, but it has taken the form of 8–5 records with many losses being less about play on the field than coaching, development and preparation. These are not the kind of problems you see from coaches ready for big-time jobs.
How many games do you have to win this season?
Nine regular season games. Auburn should pick up three easy wins in their four nonconference games. Almost everyone on the planet is conceding a freebie to Clemson in Death Valley week two, but they shouldn’t. Auburn had a chance to win the 2016 game on the last play against the eventual national champions despite one of the worst offensive game plans since Scott Loeffler called plays on the Plains. Clemson will not be the team it was last year and for more reasons than Deshaun Watson. The other Tigers lost their 1,000-yard rusher and three receivers to the NFL. So, truly, Auburn should go 4–0 in nonconference games.
Auburn gets a fairly easy draw in SEC play until season’s end. Missouri isn’t an SEC-caliber team, both the Mississippi schools are down, and both come to Auburn. The Tigers travel to Arkansas and Texas A&M in consecutive weeks, and while neither team is expected to be really good, it’s still tough to pull off wins in those stadiums. Even though Auburn gets a week off before the two-week road trip, a loss is possible, which would put the Tigers at 8–1.
This leaves games at LSU and against UGA and Bama. Playing in Baton Rouge is one of the toughest places for Auburn, and UGA and Bama are slated by most pundits to meet in Atlanta.
Consider this: Auburn hasn’t won in Death Valley in this millennium. It’s been 18 years since the Tigers won in Baton Rouge.
Since the miracle wins in 2013, Auburn is 0–3 against both Georgia and Alabama, and Malzahn has virtually no chance of keeping his job if he goes to 0–4 against both.
Auburn must win two of these games (though one could argue that beating Bama despite two other losses would suffice).
What is Hugh Freeze doing right against Alabama?
Both Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn are legends of high-school football. The two coaches share a lot of past history and are known for their offensive prowess. Interestingly enough, Malzahn’s name as an offensive innovator and play caller is much better known than Freeze’s. Yet, it is Freeze who did the unthinkable and beat Nick Saban in back-to-back games in 2014 and 2015. Ole Miss would have won three in a row, but the Rebel’s Akeem Judd was ruled short of the end zone on a first-down run. There was not enough video evidence to overturn the call, and the Rebels were held to a field goal. Alabama struck back for a touchdown on the next series, and that was the difference in the game.
In the last three years, Ole Miss scored 23 points in 2014, and 43 points in both 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, Malzahn scored just 25 combined points in the last two Iron Bowls after a 34-and 44-p oint performance in 2013 and ’14. Still, one has to remember that the kick-six play represents six of the 34 2013points, and Auburn lost by double digits in ’14 despite putting up 44. That begs the question: what is Hugh Freeze doing right against Bama?
I think Malzahn would say the answer is “not playing a Bama game against Bama.” The running game has been non-existent at Ole Miss, who took to the air to beat the Tide. Auburn did a fantastic job running the ball against Bama in 2013, but it was Nick Marshall’s passing that broke the games open in 2013 and 2014. Since then, Auburn has been unable to do anything in a a run-first offense.
Malzahn may also say that the hiring of Chip Lindsey may be the answer. If a wide-open passing attack is Nick Saban’s weakness, Auburn hired the right man for the job.
What’s up with identifying and developing talent?
This is really a multi-part question that revolves around Peyton Barber, Jeremy Johnson, John Franklin III, Sean White and Kam Pettway. Obviously, Johnson is the biggest miss in recent memory, but Johnson’s struggles overshadowed Peyton Barber’s story. Barber entered 2015 third on the depth chart and exited as Auburn’s leading rusher by a wide margin.
Obviously, injuries had a lot to do with playing time, but Barber was never considered an elite talent such as Jovon Robinson or Roc Thomas. However, Barber is in the NFL, and the other two have largely disappeared. A similar situation happened again last season as Kam Pettway was a little used fullback in the spring behind Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson. Even to a casual fan, his performance in the 2016 spring game (Robinson and Johnson didn’t play) revealed obvious talent. During the season, he exploded on the scene and went over 1,000 yards despite not receiving a touch against Clemson and missing several games.
Back to Johnson, Sean White and JFIII: even a casual observer could see that JFIII had no business playing quarterback in the spring game. This just compounded the situation with Sean White. Even though White outplayed Jeremy Johnson in 2015 and both Johnson and JFIII in 2016, his hook came early and often, while the other two were given very long leashes.
So, what’s up with identifying and developing players? The past couple of years, it seems Malzahn and Co, can’t seem to put the right players on the field.