Skywrite it with airplanes. Build a second Mothratron atop the first, and have them display it in all-caps. Cut it maze-style into a cornfield the size of Nebraska, so it can only be read from 747s and space shuttles.
The question before Auburn football cannot be written largely enough, cannot be asked too loudly:
What is Gus Malzahn’s ceiling as Auburn coach?
That Auburn fans have now spent almost three full seasons waiting for an answer goes a long way toward explaining why Saturday’s showdown with No. 1 Georgia is the program’s biggest game since playing Florida State for the 2013 national championship.
Yes, it’s the hated Bulldogs. Yes, Auburn’s dreams of an SEC West title — and perhaps even bigger prizes beyond — are on the line. Yes, defeating the College Football Playoff’s top-ranked team in Jordan-Hare Stadium would be a victory for the ages regardless of the coach’s status. But the stakes for this game start with nothing less than whether Malzahn can still produce performances worthy of remaining on Auburn’s sideline.
That might be unfair, since for the better part of two years the Tigers’ performances against all but the biggest-name opponents have been nothing short of spectacular.
Auburn's winning margin
Mercer by 14
Texas A&M 15
Ole Miss 21
Georgia Southern 34
Miss State 39
Losses by 8 & 4 pic.twitter.com/QQgilB9MVB
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) November 5, 2017
With Tommy Tuberville’s and Gene Chizik’s tendency to flirt with disaster against lesser competition still fresh in the memory, Malzahn deserves more credit than he’s gotten for whaling the unholy tar out of a consensus top-20 Mississippi State team, to pick one example.
But after his team’s collapse at LSU — a collapse in which Malzahn’s own conservatism played a pivotal role — whaling the unholy tar out of Mississippi State isn’t enough. Those victories can no longer raise the Tigers’ ceiling when every pratfall against more meaningful competition makes it both lower and permanent. Forget glass. Another embarrassment against the Bulldogs, and the ceiling may as well be set in concrete.
The good news for Malzahn is that if you’re feeling generous, not one of the reasons (or, if you’re not, the excuses) for his team’s previous failures will apply on Saturday. Jeremy Johnson’s unforeseen descent from the active FBS career leader in QB rating to a marginal backup won’t ruin things, as it did to start 2015. Sean White’s injury absence won’t have any impact, as it did to end 2015. Auburn won’t be sorting through its (self-inflicted) quarterback carousel, as it did to start 2016, or failing to account for another White injury, as it did to end 2016. And it won’t be playing on the road, as it did in each of its losses in 2017.
Auburn fans can hope for something different. They should hope for something different. But if that’s the good news, it’s the bad news, too: if Malzahn can’t avoid leaving Auburn fans in seething frustration again even with every factor possible in his favor — a healthy, experienced 5-star quarterback under center, Jordan-Hare at its most intense, the Steele Curtain fully armed and operational — why on earth should Auburn fans give into hope next time?
Barring any out-of-left field circumstances — like a Stidham injury, knock-on-every-piece-of-wood-you-own — there won’t be any good answers to that question. This game is as all-or-nothing, do-or-die, win-or-go-home* as it’s possible for a college football game to be.
That’s not to say Malzahn is a goner if Auburn loses a one-possession, back-and-forth epic in which his Tigers finally play a top-10 opponent like a top-10 team themselves and happen to come out on the losing side. Assuming the same on the back half of the Amen Corner, no one would be happy with 8-4 … but would an 8-4 in which three of the losses came in competitive fashion to playoff teams be a fireable offense?
There’s a good chance it would not be, especially given the current uncertainty in the athletic department. But the guess here is it would nonetheless erode Malzahn’s support among the Auburn faithful beyond the point of no return — that even if losing to Georgia (and Alabama) didn’t yield Malzahn’s departure in 2017, it might if 2018 is anything less than spectacular.
But let’s consider the other fork in this road. An Auburn victory over this Georgia team would be arguably the Tigers’ sweetest in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry since 2004. It would mean playing the Iron Bowl, at Jordan-Hare, for every last one of the SEC West marbles. It would mean a 9-3 regular season, at minimum, despite playing the potential ACC, SEC East and SEC West champions. It would mean Malzahn could return with a potentially even-more-loaded roster next year, with no Clemson on the schedule, with everyone on the Plains assured his offense could perform in the games that would define its season.
It would mean, at long, long, long last, feeling good about Auburn football again. The list of victories more glorious would be short indeed.
No. 1 Georgia at No. 10 Auburn would be a titanic matchup regardless. But those rankings indicate only what’s transpired this season — and for Auburn, the stakes for this Saturday have been steadily building ever since November 1, 2014, when the Tigers defeated Ole Miss for their most recent victory over any top-15 team.
The storm clouds have gathered, black and ominous. Does Auburn’s drought end, or does the suffering go on? What is the future of the Tigers’ program? What is Gus Malzahn’s ceiling as Auburn coach?
Build a laser and carve it in 100-mile-tall letters on the moon. The question can’t get any bigger. Saturday’s game can’t, either. Kickoff cannot get here soon enough.