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.