There’s strange, and then there’s Auburn. You knew that already. But what’s happening — or not happening, or just hasn’t happened yet — with Gus Malzahn leaves the merely odd in the dust. Forget the Gus Bus. The Tigers have, with apologies to Ozzy Osbourne and Chipper Jones, hopped aboard the crazy train.
A bit of history. On Nov. 11, 2017, the 7-2 Tigers — who were 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 over the three previous seasons — faced Georgia, which was No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. With another loss to the Bulldogs, and with Alabama looming two weeks later, Auburn was in peril of a fourth consecutive indifferent season under Malzahn, who came within 14 seconds of a national championship in January 2014. Note: Auburn fired Gene Chizik two years after he’d won a national championship.
Lo and behold, Auburn crushed Georgia, winning 40-17 after leading by 30. (“We beat the dog crap out of them,” gushed Malzahn, who’s not known for gloating or, for that matter, speaking above a monotone.) The Tigers then upset Alabama to win the SEC West. In the conference title game, Auburn took a 7-0 and was driving to take a two-score lead, whereupon Georgia’s Davin Bellamy strip-sacked Jarrett Stidham. Roquan Smith recovered.
From that moment on, almost nothing has gone right for the Tigers. They lost 28-7 that day to fall out of the playoff. (Alabama got in and won the thing, naturally.) The Tigers were relegated to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, where they were beaten by Central Florida, which itself claimed a national title. Between the two losses in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Auburn — which barely a month earlier wasn’t sure it wanted to keep Malzahn — reacted to a supposed overture made by Arkansas by extending Malzahn’s contract for $49 million over seven years.
As Lindsey Nelson used to say on the Notre Dame highlight show, we move to further action. Auburn began last season 4-3. Included were a 14-point road loss at Mississippi State and a 30-24 home defeat by tepid Tennessee, which didn’t qualify for a bowl. The Tigers then lost to Georgia and Alabama by an aggregate 48 points, making for another five-loss regular season, which didn’t sit well with some Auburn bigwigs.
In late November, rumors swirled that the school was prepared to fire Malzahn, even though that would mean paying him $32 million not to coach. Some well-sourced reporters believed Malzahn’s ouster to be a fait accompli. Then came reports suggesting that Auburn wanted the coach to accept a lesser buyout to keep coaching. (Nobody of sound mind would have agreed to that.)
For a bizarre few days, the world waited for some sort of announcement. When something finally came, it was Malzahn appearing as the Tigers began bowl practice and saying: “My contract has not changed one bit. I was never told I had to change my contract to keep my job. I have the support of our athletic director and president. There’s nobody hamstringing me from doing our job.”
Then the Tigers beat Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl. Then they managed, turmoil be hanged, to assemble the nation’s 11th-best recruiting class. And here they are, about to play a schedule that includes Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. All who believe Malzahn will be coaching Auburn this time next year, raise thy hands. Someone? Anyone?
Complicating matters — at Auburn, nothing is uncomplicated — is that the AD who hired him, Jay Jacobs, now works at Florida. Steven Leath, the president who agreed to the $49 million contract, was himself bought out. Of the many strident voices around the Loveliest Village, who stands for Gloomy Gus?
He’s again calling plays for the no-huddle, hurry-up offense he designed. At its best, as in 2010 with Cam Newton working wonders and Malzahn as Chizik’s offensive coordinator, or in 2013, with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason running wild, it can be nigh-unstoppable. The hurry-up aspect, alas, was compromised by college football’s adoption of a 10-second window allowing the defense to substitute.
As we know, any offense is only as good as its quarterback. Auburn’s choices include freshman Bo Nix and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. Malzahn’s critics take glee in noting that the great offensive mind has never won big with a quarterback he signed. (Newton, Marshall and Stidham were transfers.)
“I’m really excited about our team,” Malzahn said Thursday, speaking at SEC Media Days. He said he saw “some of those same championship characteristics” in the 2019 Tigers as in previous title-taking crews. He said, “We’ve got a chance. Not every team in our league can say that.”
The Tigers also have a chance to go 6-6 or 7-5, and even 8-4 mightn’t be enough for Malzahn. The first question to him involved job security. To his credit, he didn’t duck it. “I’ve a got a job that expects to win championships,” he said. “I expect to win championships. If you don’t, it’s ‘hot-seat this, hot-seat that.’ Of the (past) six years, four have been this same rodeo.”
Then: “Some places, eight wins they celebrate. That’s not Auburn.” Nope.
Only Auburn is Auburn. Only Auburn would re-up a guy for $49 million and, within months, fall ill with buyer’s remorse. There is, however, one bit of good news for the Gus-must-go gang. His buyout after this season would be a mere $26 million.
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