Zach Ponders 2019 Auburn Season
Derrick Brown and Big Kat Bryant will lead Kevin Steele's defense in 2020 (photo: Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Like a light switch was flipped, there was suddenly an urgency around the college football landscape in Alabama this week. Perhaps it is because the two flagship programs began their fall practice schedule. Perhaps it is because football is less than a month away. Regardless, the local radio shows and social media were suddenly alight this Monday morning.
During my daily ride to work, callers suddenly had real questions and, more importantly, radio personalities had real answers or, at least, a real problem coming up with answers. Auburn may not have Alabama’s sheer fan volume, and it certainly doesn’t have the nation’s attention as Alabama does, but there was enough interest in the Tigers’ season for some great conversations. More importantly, at least to me, it had my gray matter pondering these questions, and it even had me contemplating this season in the now, instead of something far in the future that didn’t warrant using a lot of brain power.
What is the magic number for Gus Malzahn to keep his job? We all get it, the head man was awarded a ridiculous 47-million-dollar contract when he came off of beating Alabama and Georgia consecutively. The situation with the athletics director and university president presiding as they did (or did not) just made it baffling, and it would seem financially unwise even to consider firing Gus this year with his buyout, no matter what the record says. But we all know that isn’t true. In truth we all believe, deep down, that wins do count, and the magic number is closer to ten than it is to zero. Obviously, acceptable wins and losses will be determined by complicated details, some of which we will discuss later, but just what are the numbers?
Many Auburn fans are conceding losses to Georgia and Alabama. While it would be “totally Auburn” to buck the trends, the numbers just don’t look good for winning either of those games. Oregon is a toss-up, but the one thing Auburn needs to win is the one thing no one knows: the resolution of the quarterback situation. More on that later.
The Tigers have to travel to College Station to face the Aggies in their first SEC contest of the year. LSU has been an absolute bug-a-boo for Auburn under Malzahn. Florida is picked to challenge in the East, and Auburn travels to The Swamp. All of these games are losable, and no one would be surprised by one or more Auburn losses. What if the Tigers lost all of them? Would that be enough? It would put Auburn at 6–6, assuming it wins the remainder. No one expects Arkansas or Ole Miss to challenge the Tigers, but Mississippi State could. Regardless, like the great line from The Big Lebowski, “Mark it eight, dude.” Gus Malzahn must win at least eight games, and I really think it has to be done in the regular season.
The biggest question going into the game against Oregon is the quarterback play. The Ducks have their man in Justin Herbert. Who will it be for the Tigers? Will both Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix play? There are so many questions on that front that we will reserve it for later. However, in listening to the talking heads discuss Auburn’s conundrum over and over, it made me think: how have dual-threat quarterbacks fared against Auburn in the past?
Obviously, there have been a bunch of them, many of them elite. While speculation flies on who will take snaps for Auburn, everyone just assumes that Oregon’s triggerman will “get his.” Yet, under Kevin Steele Auburn has been borderline phenomenal against elite dual-threat guys.
It started in Steele’s first game in 2016 against one of the best to ever play the game, Deshaun Watson. Watson went for under 250 passing yards with one TD and one INT while being held to just 21 rushing yards. Auburn, of course, lost that game 19–13 after playing six different men at quarterback. Clemson brought in highly-touted Kelly Bryant (now at Missouri), who was stymied by the Auburn defense even more than Watson. Clemson escaped 14–6, due to a dreadful offensive performance by Auburn.
Jake Browning was a four-year starter for Washington and a Heisman finalist. From his first offensive series against Auburn, he was running for his life after being a stat-stuffer in the Pac-12. Other borderline “dual-threat” QB’s, such as Baker Mayfield, Chad Kelley, and Trevor Knight, played Auburn; all found some success but actually had one of their tougher days against Steele’s defense. Truly, only UCF’s McKenzie Milton had a stellar day against the Auburn defensive coordinator, compiling 242 yards for two touchdowns in the air and 116 yards and a touchdown on the ground. A betting man would put money on Steele and the Tiger defense. After all, he may have the best defensive line he’s coached (and possibly the best in the country).
That brings us full circle to the question on everyone’s mind. As you can see, it’s more than who will line up and take snaps behind an all-upperclassman line. In this new year, Auburn fans are still asking the old question: can Gus develop a quarterback? It’s safe to say that Jarrett Stidham’s second year followed Gus’ trend, except that in Stidham’s case, he showed up as a pretty good QB on day one. However, he was no better in 2018 than in 2017, showing no more development than any QB who played under Malzahn. People may argue this point, but the NFL agrees. Stidham dropped in the draft before being selected by the Patriots, an organization that typically sees the ability to develop (and sell) players drafted below their potential.
In both the seasons that Auburn had a returning quarterback for Gus Malzahn, the offense took a dive. This year, it’s up to two freshmen. Will both play and when? One of the more interesting conversations I’ve heard is who starts and how long will he get?
The fact is, history is set on what happens when Gus goes beyond QB1. Yet it is still discussed as a certainty to happen against Oregon. I think we can expect game one to be eye-opening for Auburn fans.