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 “whom 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 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 the 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 to put itself in a situation to play lowly bowl games against outmatched opponents.
Sure, there have been some great moments with Malzahn, including beating Bama three times, something 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 the offensive genius he has been hailed to be for a decade in the Iron Bowl. But does looking the part of an offensive genius 1/13th of the time make you a geniu or prove that you aren’t? In the end, underachieving is what Malzahn has done, by almost any numerical metric. That leads to the crux of the matter and the questions asked by those still in Malzahn’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, and it is one of the absolute worst. Look over college football, right now. Clemson was the epitome of the “8–5 program” when it hired Dabo Swiney. The Tigers are playing for their third National Championship in four years and have been in the playoffs essentially every year since inception. Baylor was a Big 12 doormat; while the Art Briles fiasco seemed to derail the up-and-coming program, Matt Rhule’s hiring put it right back on track. Oregon may be 0–2 in National Championship games and frequently struggles on the big stage, but this program that was nothing a little more than a decade ago. Look at its ,accession. The list goes on and on, but it seems only Auburn fans are willing to accept 8–5 as their place in the world.
College football has seen more than its fair share of misses, as opposed to bull’s eyes, on coaching hires, particularly when an “up and coming” coach like Malzahn was after the 2012 season is involved. Not every school is going to hit the jackpot, but those that have found success are those that accept their wrongs and move on. See 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 in the SEC West, teams aren’t willing to put up with mediocrity. Despite taking Ole Miss through some terrible situations but still finding some 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. Joe Moorhead is out at Mississippi State in year two after going .500 in a place where 8–5 used to be celebrated Despite records of 8–5 and 6-7, Moorhead lost his job. Not only does Auburn’s administration seem to side with the “8–5 is fine enough” crowd, judging by the ridiculous contract they awarded Malzahn two years ago, it’s almost as if it celebrates it.
Does this year’s Outback Bowl loss define Gus Malzhan’s career? Of course not. Malzahn has coached over 100 games for Auburn. An exhibition game doesn’t write the entire book, but it could certainly provide the closing words. There is no debating the postseason record of Malzahn’s teams, but the Outback bowl performance gave all the eye-test evidence on Malzahn anyone could want. The tea, was unprepared, unimaginative, unmotivated and, most importantly, out-coached.
It wasn’t the only game this season that looked just like that. Auburn lost to Florida, LSU, and Georgia in heart-breaking fashion. While it would be easy to point to the coaching decisions in those games as 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 work on preparing for Georgia. Instead, Auburn held a 10–7 halftime lead with a mind-numbing offensive game plan. Following a ten-point third quarter, Malzahn shut down the offense and seemed to think Ole Miss had no chance of winning. However, Ole Miss did have a chance to win following a Rebel touchdown and a missed field goal by Auburn. An interception ended the game, and the Tigers limped away with a 20–14 win against a 3–6 team.
To close, there is the issue 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 salaries and recruiting.