Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hired a new offensive coordinator. He recruited a 5-star transfer quarterback with Power 5-level starting experience. He watched his crew of blue-chip freshmen receivers mature into sophomores.
Malzahn retained the tailbacks that made last season’s running game a meaningful threat, added important transfer pieces to an offensive line that already boasted reasonable depth, and enjoyed a paycheck game to work out the kinks. Put simply, Gus Malzahn had no excuses for his offense to repeat its disastrous showing against Clemson in 2016 when the two teams got back together Saturday night.
A repeat? Nope, because its showing Saturday night in Memorial Stadium was even more disastrous than the 2016 version.
Remember the horror of Auburn fielding three different quarterbacks and two additional Wildcat quarterbacks in the 2016 opener? Those five players still combined to throw for 5.8 yards an attempt. In 2017, Jarrett Stidham threw for 3.3 yards per attempt. In 2o16, Auburn ran for 2.1 yards an attempt against the Tigers. In 2017, behind an incomprehensible 11 Clemson sacks, Auburn ran for 0.9 yards.
In 2016, for all their incompetence, Auburn drove on the Clemson defense for two field goals and a touchdown. In 2017, Auburn netted a field goal on their opening possession, then never scored without starting inside the opponents’ 15-yard line again. Total yards, first downs, red zone success: In nearly every way, Auburn’s offense was better against Clemson in 2016 than 2017.
Now, take a moment to remember the face-melting frustration of the 2016 loss to Dabo Swinney’s team, and consider what it might mean for 2017.
Yes, Clemson’s defense is phenomenal, stacked with future NFL players along the defensive line and coached by Brent Venables, arguably the best defensive coordinator in college football. But even Clemson doesn’t do what it to did to Auburn Saturday against everyone. Auburn’s 3.3 yards per-pass-attempt would have been the worst mark posted against the Tigers by any Power 5 offense in 2016 save Georgia Tech’s. No 2016 Clemson opponent, not even FCS South Carolina State in a 59-0 loss, rushed for under 1.5 yards a carry. And of course, no Clemson opponent ever has yielded 11 sacks before.
Auburn ranks 57 places above Boston College in 247Sports’ College Team Talent Composite, 58 places above Wake Forest. So why is Gus Malzahn’s team putting up numbers against Clemson even the Eagles and Demon Deacons would be embarrassed by?
Blame among Auburn fans on Twitter during the game was spread in every direction. They blamed Stidham for his wobbly pocket presence, toward the wide receivers for failing to come open, and toward the offensive line for its repeated failures to keep Stidham clean.
But ultimately, the responsibility is one man and one man’s alone. USA Today’s Dan Wolken asked a thought-provoking question before the game that made sense … if you’re not an Auburn fan who lived through his or her team’s various 2016 debacles:
I keep hearing tomorrow is a big game for Gus Malzahn. How? They're not supposed to win at Clemson. If they do, it's a big bonus.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) September 8, 2017
Clemson was a big game for Gus Malzahn because, win or lose, it was his chance to prove the adjustments to his offense this offseason weren’t for show. It was his chance to show he’s still capable of overseeing an offense that can challenge a defense like Clemson’s. It was his chance to reassure Auburn fans exhausted by two seasons’ worth of futility in its biggest games that even if they didn’t come away with a victory at the home of the defending national champions, they might against LSU, or Georgia, or Alabama.
Gus Malzahn did not take that chance. Nothing about what his offense accomplished against Clemson argued that 2017 will be any different from 2016. For all the things that changed before the season began, nothing had changed on Saturday.
Yes, it’s one game. But until Malzahn demonstrates that he can win a game like that one again, more and more Auburn fans will be convinced their football program needs a very different kind of change.