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Is a Four-Loss Season Average Satisfactory at Auburn?

By on January 3rd, 2020 in Football 10 Comments »

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. 

10 Comments

  1. wde1988 wde1988 says:

    This is an interesting point of view.

    From my perspective I don't know of many AU fans that are satisfied with the trajectory of AU's football program. We have been status quo since the 2014 season. Like it or not, thanks to the last AU president, AU is stuck with Malzahn for the near term (at least through December 2020). AU cannot and will not fire Malzahn primarily because it cannot continue to afford to pay coaches to sit on the sofa.

    So until the end of his contract, I see Malzahn with two main flaws:

    First, he is stubborn. He hasn't changed his offensive strategy since coming to AU. Unlike other coaches who transition their strategy based on talent, Malzahn is fixed. Reality be damned.

    Malzahn is a run first coach. I bet if you re-watched AU's losses this year you would see the same offense run during the Florida game as you would against Minnesota in the bowl game. It's what he knows. It's all that he knows.

    There is some problems with this strategy as we have seen over the years. The most basic one is that to be a run first team, you have to have a great offensive line. AU hasn't won the line scrimmage in a significant way since 2013, which was Malzahn's first year where he played for the national championship. Yes, AU played for the SEC title in 2017 because of the combination of Stidham and Johnson. The problem in the championship game for AU was that UGA was able to neutralize both namely because it's defense won the line of scrimmage.

    You would think an Offensive Guru would know this.

    Last, if anything, Malzahn is extremely loyal. This is a mixed bag. And in my opinion, this is where Malzahn differentiates himself from say Tommy Tuberville.

    The goodness in being loyal is that Malzahn has enjoyed better recruiting. If you remember Tommy Tuberville's recruiting mantra the "hay was in the barn" by December and he and his staff went duck hunting in Arkansas. Because of Malzahn's commitment to his staff recruiting has consistently kept AU relevant. I think part of this success is because of he necessity in AU's acknowledgement of Nick Saban and his minion.

    Where Malzahn has failed is that he continues to produce subpar results. He has winning seasons for sure but it's obvious that AU can compete for championships every year. There can be no doubt looking at 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 that Malzahn's position coaches that have consistently failed to produce. How can it when you can't run the ball or catch it? JB Grimes and Kodi Burns are the coaches that I believe have significantly failed at their jobs… and in my opinion, they should have been shown the door after the SEC championship game in 2017. Malzahn, to his detriment and to AU's, has kept these guys on. In comparison to Tuberville, Tommy would change his coaches frequently. Almost like clock work if something didn’t work Tubby would roll in a new coordinator or position coach. He had very mixed results.

    Looking at the near term future, the good news is that this year, due to recent recruiting wins, once again AU will be flush with talent as we role in to 2020 season. Unfortunately, the bad news is that based on experience with observing this coach and his staff, unless AU starts coaching it's players to improve them significantly, 2020 will produce the same meaningless results as 2019.

    AU faithful should remain hopeful. As we watch the resurgence of the SEC East, if there is any good news for AU is that it has a young but experienced AD. Hopefully, he will be able to forge a new, winning path for AU if it decides to depart from Malzahn in 2021. The question is which coach will he get?

    If I got to vote, I'd pick the coach we saw in the outback bowl: PJ Fleck. I can row the boat!

    WDE

  2. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    All great points and I’ll add on. Gus recruits (by the stars) as well as anyone. There is no doubt the talent will come to Auburn. The flipside is that he has done less with more, more so than anyone in the country. Its great to have the talent but what good is it to lose to teams with less?

  3. zotus zotus says:

    Zach, first to reply to the (rhetorical ?) lede: Here’s by two cents, “Absolutely not!”

    But, let’s cut to chase here, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans what I think about 4-loss loss seasons, or $49mil coaches contracts.

    It’s what Jay Jacobs thought. But, more importantly it’s about what Jay Jacobs did. And it’s about what Jay Jacobs said about why he did it. Pure deception. Pure poppycock. Pure hogwash.

    Furthermore, by my lights, it’s pure malfeasance for public officials to spend public money the way some Auburn officials did, and then leave the the public institution (they worked for) with millions of dollars to be paid by contract to ex-coaches, and to ex-presidents, and to ex-ADs. Not to mention the potential upcoming million dollar settlements that will be paid to those ex-student athletes who are suing “powers that be” at Auburn for not protecting them from unlawful behavior (allegedly) perpetrated on them by Auburn Athletic Dept officials.

    But, if we want to make this about ol’ Gus a couple days after his latest exhibition of coaching incompetence when matched up against coaching competence, let’s talk about ol’ Gus. Ol’ Gus has a body of work as a SEC HC. Let’s go to the numbers.
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    As of Wednesday, January 1st, 2020, Gus Malzahn is:
    3-4 vs. Alabama
    2-6 vs. Georgia
    2-5 vs. LSU
    2-5 in bowl games
    1-4 in bowl games vs. major conference teams
    0-10 in Baton Rouge, Athens and Tuscaloosa
    32-23 vs. SEC opponents
    13-13 vs. SEC opponents on the road
    6-6 vs. non-conference Power 5 teams
    2 NY6 bowl appearances (0-2 in them)
    6 straight seasons (and counting) with at least four losses
    1st loss to a non-major conference team in 27 years
    1st loss to Tennessee in 19 years (20 years at home)
    0 playoff appearances
    0 National titles
    0 first-round NFL draft picks in the last 5 seasons

    Under Gus Malzahn’s new contract, signed at the end of the 2017 season, every loss during the 2019 season costs Auburn $566,000.

    Since the “Kick Six” victory in the 2013 Iron Bowl, Malzahn is 31-29 against Power 5 opponents.

    Gus Malzahn is a combined 7-15 against Alabama, Georgia and LSU. He has yet to win a road game against any of them.

    Auburn has a 21-19 record in SEC games [since 2014]
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    Zach, here’s the question that would have been (IMHO) a better lede: Should these be the numbers of the 5th highest paid coach in college football?

    Here’s by two cents, “Absolutely not!”
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    P.S. I woke up this morning with the thought that Joe Moorhead and Gus Malzahn would fight it out in 2020 to see which one would be declared the undisputed worst HC in the SEC West.

    Looks like MSU took ol’ Joe out of the running. It’s clear sailing for Auburn’s 49-Million-Dollar-Man. Keep Hope Alive

  4. neonbets says:

    This post has a ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ vibe about it. I’m not sure what you’re really trying to say. Of course nobody’s happy with a 4 loss seasons. But do you advocate a Malzahn firing or not? The rest is noise.

    Like you, I’m disappointed with the season and frustrated with Gus. I think (and hope) that Gus is frustrated with Gus.

    But do I want him fired? No way. The program is actually is pretty good shape. There’s lots of talent coming in. And, by not firing Malzahn, Auburn is well on its way towards funding an impressive athletic facility–which was crucial to the Clemson turn around.

    Dust 2019 off, enjoy the BBall, and get ready for a Big 2020, and 2021.

  5. friedca friedca says:

    Let’s just call a spade a spade here folks this conversation wouldn’t be happening every DAMN year if Nick Saban wasn’t coaching across the state. Gus has performed as well or better than any coach in the last twenty years for Auburn. He has ran a clean program and actually makes STUDENT athletes unlike Saban who runs his football farm. His players consistently perform at a higher level in the NFL than Sabans. The Auburn fan base has developed a SCARY little brother syndrome it has long been accused, but avoided, having.

    I’m over talking about should Gus be fired on social media. Here’s the bottom line folks, unless he wins 5 games next year there is NO WAY IN HELL he’ll be fired. 2021 is the first time Gus will be in the hot seat and honestly you guys who hate him better pray Saban is gone by then or we are going to become the next Tennessee. War Eagle on to Basketball, Baseball, and softball.

  6. zotus zotus says:

    According to a recent report, Walt and Ginger Woltosz have committed $10 million, the largest gift in Auburn Athletics history, for the new football performance center.

    Including the Woltoszes’ gift, Tigers Unlimited has now received $31.5 million in gifts and commitments for the football performance center.

    For the record, Tigers Unlimited failed to mention the size of Gus Malzahn’s gift for the new football performance center. In fact, they failed to mention a gift from Malzahn at all. So, if Gus Malzahn is crucial to Auburn being well on its way towards funding an impressive athletic facility, Gus Malzahn’s contribution must not be a financial one. Or, it may have been made anonymously. Some people do that. But, who knows? I, for one, do not know what Gus Malzahn’s contribution toward the funding of the proposed athletic facility has been. For all I know ol’ Gus may have matched Woltoszes’ gift.

    But, I do know this: Afflicted with the so-called “SCARY little brother syndrome” or not, good Auburn folks like Walt and Ginger Woltosz have always supported Auburn University and I believe good Auburn folks, deep pockets or not, will always support Auburn University … and, their support and loyalty doesn’t have a damn thing to do with who is the current football coach of the Auburn Tigers or who is the current football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

    P.S. All this is just one Auburn graduate’s opinion, of course. WDE!

  7. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    I'm sorry, but saying "auburns players perform at a level higher than alabama players in the nfl" proves that you dont, in fact, know anything about the nfl.

    That statement is patently false.

    In terms of raising great men, I guess I would agree. They stay out of trouble. That's great, and its about the only thing we can all agree that Gus does well.

  8. uglyjoe says:

    Zach, I think your title is a valid question. There are certainly points to make on each side of the argument, but at the end of the day it’s a contractual relationship; one side is $49MM, the other side is a very average record. We could pay someone a lot less to only recruit good character….the trick is recruiting good character and performing. I suppose if we prioritized our requirements then a judgement could be made as to whether Malzahn is performing up to his compensation – hopefully someone is the administration is evaluating that concept.

  9. […] few days ago, we discussed whether the current average losses per year under head coach Gus Malzahn were acceptable. Auburn […]

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