Did Auburn football underachieve in 2017?
It’s a peculiar assertion for a season that ended with the program’s sixth SEC Championship Game appearance and a New Year’s Six bowl berth, but it’s one an anonymous SEC coach argued in this year’s Lindy’s Sports college football preview magazine. “Auburn is paying Gus Malzahn $50 million, and he underachieved again,” the coach said. “[$50 million] for what? Mediocrity?”
The argument is something of a paradox. If Malzahn has recruited, hired and coached well enough at Auburn that 10 wins, the SEC West title and an emphatic sweep of both national title game participants is still underachieving, then by definition Malzahn is not, in fact, underachieving. But when the Ledger-Enquirer posted a brief story on the Lindy’s comments, there were no shortage of Auburn fans willing to agree with the coach’s sentiments:
He made the point Malzahn underachieves and his offense disappears at unfortunate times. He ain’t lying
— Charlie (@notcharchar) May 25, 2018
Not much wrong there. Gus is not the offensive genius he thinks he is.
— Michael Skotnicki (@MSkotnicki) May 25, 2018
I agree with the coach who said this. Auburn deserves better! War Eagle!
— Julie Wettstein (@julie_wettstein) May 26, 2018
Auburn fan here. That coach nailed it.
— Chip Etheridge (@ChipEtheridge) May 26, 2018
As with any group of unhappy people on the Internet — whether Yelp restaurant reviewers or Nextdoor homeowners or college football fans — these likely represent a vocal minority of Auburn fans. A quieter majority would probably call themselves happy with the Tigers’ 2017 (and with Malzahn coaching the Tigers into 2018 and beyond). But after Auburn’s Peach Bowl defeat to Central Florida, there’s more than enough Internet anger out there to assume the satisfied majority isn’t as large as it has been after other 10-win seasons.
For instance: 2006. Tommy Tuberville’s eighth season finished with an 11-2 record, and in typical Tuberville fashion included several memorable highlights along the way:
That victory marked the only defeat of the season for Florida, the eventual national champions (sound familiar?). But the Tigers also survived an epic slugfest with No. 6 LSU, won their “Fear the Thumb” grudge match against Alabama in Mike Shula’s final Iron Bowl, and held off Nebraska 17-14 for a Cotton Bowl championship.
But even after 11 wins, it’s hard to argue Auburn lived up to its full potential that season. After finishing 2005 as the hottest team in the SEC and with stars such as Kenny Irons and Will Herring returning, the Tigers entered 2006 as the clear-cut league favorite and the AP preseason poll’s No. 4 team. Schedule-wise, Auburn played only three ranked opponents all season, and all three — LSU, Arkansas and Florida — came to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The only nonconference opponent of note was a 6-6 Washington State team.
In other words, between the quality of Auburn’s roster and the smoothness of its path to Atlanta, the Tigers have perhaps never had a more gilt-edged opportunity to claim a division title. But they didn’t take advantage, first laying a prototypical Tuberville egg at home against Houston Nutt’s Arkansas. A Hog loss let Auburn retake control of the West, though, and they hosted Georgia ranked No. 5 in the country with both SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game berths still on the table. Not that any of the stakes seemed to matter to Tubby’s Tigers: they suffered an embarrassing 37-15 pratfall against the Bulldogs that eliminated them from any championship contention.
Yes, 11-2 is a better record than 10-4.
No matter: 2017 was a more successful season for Malzahn than 2006 was for Tuberville, and, frankly, it shouldn’t be considered a close call.
The 2017 Tigers whipped not one but two top-ranked, undefeated teams. They suffered three of their four losses to better teams than the two that defeated the 2006 Tigers. The fourth loss was by 4 points against a 9-win LSU team in Baton Rouge. They set new benchmarks for both points scored and margin-of-victory in SEC play, while the 2006 team scraped to wins against also-rans such as South Carolina, Ole Miss and (ahem) Alabama. They won the SEC West.
Given how much the Tigers accomplished in 2017 against their schedule, contrasted with what the 2006 team didn’t accomplish against its schedule, you might expect Auburn fans to feel equally satisfied after each of those seasons — if not a little happier after 2017. That hasn’t been the case, at all. Twitter didn’t exist in 2006, but there was nonetheless enough Internet in those days to grasp the general vibe was something alone the lines of “that definitely could have been better, but we beat Florida, won 11 games, Tubbs isn’t going anywhere, we’ll get ’em next year.” 2006 made such little dent in Tuberville’s popularity that he lost 11 games over his next two seasons and still had campus protests on his behalf after his departure.
That Tuberville had more support after 2006 than Malzahn after 2017 isn’t a surprise, of course. 2006 wrapped up a three-season run in which Tuberville went 22-3 in the SEC; Malzahn’s record over his last three seasons stands at 14-10. In 2006, 2004 was only two seasons in the rearview mirror; in 2017, 2013 was four.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Malzahn has now won as many SEC honors in his five seasons as Tuberville accomplished in his 10. Both claim two trips to Atlanta and one league championship — and Malzahn won his in the face of a crimson Death Star of an opponent that did not exist in Tuberville’s heyday.
That’s not to argue Tuberville deserved less support after 2006. “11 wins is more than enough to be satisfied” should be the approach from Auburn fans, unless they want to feel unsatisfied after nearly every season Auburn plays. But it forces us to ask why Malzahn didn’t regain more support after an even better season and with the program poised for an equally bright future. Is it Tuberville’s superior charisma? The lingering anger over the offensive meltdowns suffered in Malzahn’s recent losses? That while successful, 2017 wasn’t enough to put aside the memory of 2015 the way 2004 did 2003?
Or has something fundamental changed between 2006 and 2017 that has nothing to do with the two coaches? Have Auburn fans’ expectations been raised another notch over the Tuberville era? If so, is that the Nick Saban effect? The Internet pushing fans in a crankier direction? A natural consequence of Power 5 coaches’ skyrocketing salaries?
Without some comprehensive survey of Auburn fans, the most logical answer to these questions is yes to all of the above. It’s all of those things. Which makes drawing any single conclusion difficult, aside from this one: Since none of those factors will change in Malzahn’s favor, the only thing he can do is keep winning.
That 2017 wasn’t enough for a meaningful portion of the fan base might not be fair. But fair or not, if the reasons can’t be changed — and they can’t — it will only become more appreciated if Malzahn proves it’s no fluke. We’re not in 2006 anymore. Which is why Auburn’s 2018 can’t be 2007.