Georgia has been playing football since 1892. It has had three unbeaten/untied seasons. One came in 1896, when Pop Warner’s team went 4-0; Charley Trippi and Herschel Walker figured in the other two.
Auburn has had three unbeaten/untied seasons over the past quarter-century. The first was in 1993 under Terry Bowden, who’d replaced Pat Dye, on whose watch the Tigers incurred a postseason ban that kept Bowden’s 11-0 team from winning the SEC or gracing a bowl. The second, under 2004 under Tommy Tuberville, likewise didn’t yield a national title; USC and Texas started the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 and didn’t waver, and the BCS only counted to two.
The third was in 2010 under Gene Chizik, who fell into the one-season gift of Cam Newton’s presence. That did bring a national title. It did not bring lasting glory. Chizik was fired in 2012 after going 3-9, 0-8 in SEC play. The BCS-winning coach has never again been a head coach. He was replaced at Auburn by Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator during Cam’s run, and his Year 1 came within 13 seconds of yielding another national championship.
Thirteen months ago, Malzahn’s continuing employment was open to question. As of Oct. 14, 2017, his teams had gone 28-18 (14-14 in SEC play) since Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin made his high-rise catch at 0:13 of the final BCS title game. On Nov. 3, athletic director Jay Jacobs – who’d hired Malzahn as head coach – announced his intention to resign. (Jacobs is now executive associate AD at Florida.)
Georgia, ranked No. 1 by the College Football Playoff committee, arrived in Auburn on Nov. 11, and there was thought that an Auburn loss could wreck the Gus Bus once and for all. (Among other things, it was said that he didn’t grasp the importance of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, having gone 0-3 against the Bulldogs since the Prayer at Jordan-Hare.) But Auburn won 40-17 after leading by 30, and two weeks later it upset Alabama, which was the CFP’s new No. 1, to win the SEC West.
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The day before the Tigers met Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC championship, Malzahn was being asked about reports that he wanted the Arkansas job. With Kerryon Johnson hobbled, the Tigers lost the rematch 28-7, which put them in a peculiar place: They’d beaten the teams that would play for the national championship, but they didn’t make the playoff themselves. They returned to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and lost to UCF, which proclaimed itself national champ.
Between the two losses at Mercedes-Benz, Malzahn re-upped with Auburn for $49 million over seven seasons. (Arkansas was reported to have offered $50 mil over seven. Hometown discount!) The Tigers began this season ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll and moved to No. 7 after beating Washington at MBS, their home away from home. They’re unranked by AP today. They’re No. 24 in the CFP ratings only because they mustered two touchdowns in the final six minutes against Texas A&M. They can’t repeat as West champs. They’re 14-point underdogs to Georgia.
Which again brings us to Auburn and peculiar places: Not a full year after handing Malzahn a new contract, Allen Greene – he became AD in January – was moved to offer the ol’ Vote Of Confidence. Greene called Malzahn “our coach of the future,” which for contractual reasons the Tigers had better hope he is. If they were to fire him after the season, his buyout would be $32.1 million.
As the world knows, Auburn has seen its share of odd coaching machinations: Bowden resigned in midseason because he ran afoul of the toxic booster Bobby Lowder; school bigwigs flew to Sellersburg, Ind., to interview Louisville’s Bobby Petrino for the job while Tuberville was still employed; Chizik was out two years after hoisting the BCS crystal football. Even by Tiger standards, this Gus stuff is weird. This time last year, Auburn wasn’t sure it wanted him. Today it’s not sure it wants him. In between it handed him a $49 million contract.
The Tigers will have to upset Georgia or Alabama to keep from finishing 7-5 and enjoying the Music City Bowl. They’re the only SEC team to have lost to Tennessee, and they did it at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Despite having a returning quarterback in Jarrett Stidham and despite Gus being a schemer of high repute, Auburn ranks 11th in the SEC (89th nationally) in total offense. Despite having Kevin Steele, a defensive coordinator making $2 million per annum, it’s seventh in the SEC in total defense.
Yes, it’s peculiar. It’s also Auburn, the wild mood swing of programs. The last time the Tigers had consecutive 10-win seasons was under Dye in 1988 and ’89. The last time they finished in the AP top 10 two years running was under Bowden in 1993 and ’94. And the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has pivoted to Georgia. Since the fourth-and-10 Devon Aromashodu catch/run/fumble of 2005, the Tigers are 3-10 against their neighbor. About to be 3-11, I’d guess.