Circle the Wagons
(Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire via AP images)
The first three weeks of Auburn’s season have produced an alarming number of questions with no sign of any answers in sight. There’s really no debating it at this point—Gus Malzahn is on the hot seat. Questionable play calling, lack of consistency, and an apparent failure to develop talent has seemingly crippled Auburn’s chances of having a bounce-back year in 2016. But, at a glance, Auburn’s record on paper does not immediately raise an overwhelming array of red flags.
Close losses to two higher-ranked teams would not normally translate to doom and gloom among the fanbase—but it is the way those losses occurred that make Auburn’s situation so puzzling and frustrating. Auburn’s lone, convincing victory over Arkansas State, though it was an inferior opponent, only adds to the mystery surrounding the true identity of this team’s offense.
Auburn entered last weekend with a chance to put firmly behind it all of the concern over its performance two weeks prior against Clemson—a game that featured more quarterback rotations than most teams see in a single season. Instead, Auburn’s offense reverted slightly to the uncoordinated mess it was in week one. To be fair, the offensive line struggled to maintain a high level of play, but one can’t help but wonder if the return of off the wall play calling contributed heavily yet again to a disappointing offensive performance.
Auburn’s two losses are frustrating in that the scores were somewhat close but held the perception of being far out of reach. Against Arkansas State, it was proven that the offense benefits greatly from stretching the field vertically by passing the ball more often on first downs. Auburn’s inability to do that against Texas A&M seemed to put the coaches back into the position of avoiding big mistakes at all costs rather than taking chances downfield and giving players opportunities to make big plays.
One term I would like to see eliminated by this coaching staff is ‘packages’. Sean White has a package. John Franklin III has a package. Jeremy Johnson had a package, but apparently his has been taken away. Chandler Cox has a spinning package. Kerryon Johnson has a wildcat package. Even if it is simply coachspeak, it is a clear indication to me that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. I want Auburn to have a clear and concise offensive identity—a single, unified philosophy with which to move the ball up and down the field and not something with plug and play components that have to mesh together just right at the perfect moment in order to be effective.
Early struggles under Gus Malzahn-led offenses typically indicate a season-long pattern of those struggles continuing to varying degrees. I do not honestly believe that whatever is plaguing Auburn’s offense can or will be solved within a matter of a few games. The good news for Malzahn is that at this point, with Auburn’s President Jay Gogue retiring, he is likely to have the remainder of the 2016 season to turn things around no matter how dire the situation gets on the field for the Tigers. And the best possible outcome for the program is for Malzahn to do just that. Rebooting Auburn Football and starting over with yet another new head coach would likely add even more time to the typical rebuilding process of the next coaching staff if that were to occur.
Having said all of that, I do not think that this coaching staff has completely lost the fan base. An upset of LSU would certainly go a long way in bolstering confidence in Malzahn, but even a competent, competitive loss would be a welcome signal to those with concerns that he is capable of turning things around.