Good news, Gus Malzahn! Those “How many wins does Auburn football need to take its coach off the hot seat?” questions that dogged you last summer have dwindled mightily this offseason.
Bad news, Malzahn: They’ve dwindled mightily because after adding Jarrett Stidham and the artillery piece attached to Stidham’s shoulder to the 2017 Sugar Bowl team, the assumption is that enough wins for a 2018 return is only the first hurdle to clear . Since watching Stidham’s scorched-earth performance at A-Day, more Auburn fans have asked themselves how many victories it might take to put the Tigers in the College Football Playoff than how many it would take to keep Malzahn employed.
It’s quite the turnaround from just last September, when the Tigers’ flailing home defeat to Texas A&M suggested they’d be lucky to make Shreveport, much less New Orleans. For a program that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — view merely treading SEC West water as enough, those bulked-up expectations are a good thing. For Malzahn himself, though, it’s more complicated.
Why? Because Auburn fans haven’t forgotten that while “runner-up SEC finish, Sugar Bowl berth” sounds awfully nice, “runner-up SEC finish, Sugar Bowl berth” also glosses over some of the most infuriating defeats in recent Auburn memory. The disastrous quarterback carousel that threw away what could have been a season-defining upset of the eventual national champions … the hopelessness of watching the Tigers’ Sean White-less ineptitude against Alabama and Oklahoma … and most brain searingly frustrating of all, a first-down-free second half en route to losing to a Georgia team that never scored an offensive touchdown … you’ll have to give Auburn fans just a sec here, y’all.
Given how fresh those wounds still are with the Tiger fan base, the time-honored question of “How many wins does Malzahn need to call it a successful season?” isn’t any easier to answer in August 2017 than “How many does he need to not get fired?” was in August 2016. Less so, in fact. I’d define success this Auburn football season the same way a Supreme Court justice once famously defined pornography: We’ll know it when we see it.
That’s not to say 6-6 could be anything less than catastrophic, 11-1 anything less than triumphant. But just as playing in the New Year’s Six doesn’t tell the entire story of 2016, so almost any record in-between could tell any number of stories about Auburn’s 2017 season. And if that story doesn’t include Auburn playing some of its best football in some of its biggest games, it’s not going to be one of success.
Consider: Have Auburn fans come out of any of their team’s highest-profile matchups feeling unambiguously good since the Tigers thumped LSU, 41-7, back in October 2014? Have they looked back on their team’s performance in any game that truly capital-M “Mattered” since then and said, “Wow, that was fun!”?
My answer is no. The only win over a top 15 team since that LSU victory came just three games later via — ugh — Laquon Treadwell’s broken leg. The less said about 2015, the better. Auburn’s 2016 season-saving, Les Miles-exiling win against No. 18 LSU was dramatic, satisfying, impressive in retrospect … but also featured some of the worst red zone execution imaginable. Auburn’s poleaxing of Arkansas last season was a sheer delight, yes, but a sheer delight with the caveat that the team being poleaxed was, well, Arkansas. The stakes could have been higher.
On the contrary, the stakes for Amen Corner are always near maximum height, and Auburn hasn’t risen to them in years. Without White, it’s seemed like the Tigers did well to stay semi-competitive with Alabama the past two seasons, but we didn’t see the herculean underdog efforts of 2009 or 1981, either. As for Georgia, in their three meetings with the Dawgs since the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, the Tigers haven’t scored one touchdown after the first quarter.
For a program that’s employed a grand total of seven head coaches over the past 66 years, Auburn’s reputation for impatience and unrealistic expectations among its fans (and administrators) is puzzling. Even with a roster that on paper is the most loaded of Malzahn’s tenure, 2017 won’t be viewed as championship or bust. The majority of Auburn fans can handle a potential loss at the home of the defending national champions. A majority can deal with not coming out of Death Valley with the Tigers’ first win since 1999. And even with the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare, a majority won’t lose sleep over their team failing to blow up the Tide’s 5-star-fueled Death Star.
Auburn doesn’t have to put a trophy in the cabinet for 2017 to be a success. It only has to do a few simple things: score some damn points in games that matter. Avoid any 2014-style defensive collapses. Don’t lay a 2006-vs.-Arkansas-caliber egg in a critical SEC game. For the love of everything holy, quit playing your worst game of the season against Georgia. In one sentence: make it fun to watch a big Auburn game again.
Lest this be misinterpreted: Even if Auburn doesn’t accomplish the above, Malzahn isn’t going anywhere. The bottom would have to fall out in a way nothing about Stidham, or Kevin Steele, or Auburn’s offensive line, or Kamryn Pettway, or various defenders surnamed Davis suggest it can. Another 2016 will be enough for a 2018.
But another 2016 is not the same as success, either. With this roster, this coaching staff, these past three seasons of frustration, success means something different. Will Auburn find it? We’ll know when we see it.
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