On the Auburn football beat: Gus Malzahn needs to pass his next few eye tests
AUBURN, Ala. — Right now for Auburn football, talk is cheap. And points against an FCS opponent are even cheaper.
There should be a lot of both this week on the Plains. Auburn is coming off the worst offensive performance in Gus Malzahn’s college career, and Mercer — a lower-subdivision team in its fifth year back from a lengthy hiatus — is the homecoming opponent this weekend.
Auburn didn’t look great on offense in Week 1 and still hung 41 points on Georgia Southern. The Tigers should be able to at least match that Saturday afternoon.
Malzahn repeatedly said Saturday after the 14-6 loss to Clemson and again Tuesday in his weekly news conference that Auburn’s offense will be good in time. Bouncing back against an overmatched opponent this weekend is the first step in that process.
But the scoreboard shouldn’t matter that much for Malzahn, Chip Lindsey, Jarrett Stidham and everyone else involved in Auburn’s offense. The Tigers could stick to the same script from Week 1 and easily run all over Mercer.
Right now, execution matters more than anything — and that should be the case for at least the next two weeks.
Auburn could be sloppy on offense against Mercer and still win. It could play below its potential next week at Missouri, a team that has given up nearly 6 yards per play and 36 points per game to FCS Missouri State and Will Muschamp’s South Carolina, and still win.
That’s not what Auburn needs right now, though.
Malzahn is under heavy fire from fans for yet another offensive disaster against a quality defense. His own defense, now the unquestioned strength of the team, should keep the Tigers in every game this season.
But for Malzahn to get the season he needs to stay on the Plains for at least another year, change has to start happening quickly. Lindsey’s move to the box, where he coached for a majority of the time last season at Arizona State, might work. It’s too early to tell how that will change the Malzahn-Lindsey dynamic and, to a larger extent, an Auburn offense that has been suboptimal.
In the second half against Clemson, Auburn’s offensive play-calling chased the “one big play” that would get it right back into the game. Gone were the quick-hitting passes and varied running plays that gave Auburn success in 2016 and promise in the 2017 offseason under Lindsey.
Without any rhythm behind an offensive line that was in a losing matchup against a ferocious defensive front, Stidham wasn’t able to get comfortable in Death Valley. Skill players hyped as key pieces of the 2017 offense — Eli Stove, Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers and Sal Cannella, to name a few — fell further and further out of a game that simply got away from Auburn’s coaching staff.
So while it might not be the status quo for an Auburn team under Malzahn, the Tigers’ offense could benefit a lot from making a statement in a paycheck game. Stidham could use some consistent success with his new offensive teammates. Auburn should make it a point to highlight certain receivers throughout the game. The offensive line, whatever it may look like, needs a good game in pass protection.
Of course, frustrated Auburn fans won’t calm down because the Tigers light up Mercer. But how the offense looks on the field is far more important than what it says on the gigantic video board once the game finishes early Saturday evening. It’s time for Malzahn to make the changes he and his job security needs.
Doing it against Mercer would be a small step, but it would be some sort of positive momentum. Auburn’s offense could benefit greatly from that forward progress as it rolls to Missouri next Saturday and back home for two consecutive must-win games against the Mississippi schools.
And passing the next four offensive eye tests would be much more valuable to those inside Jordan-Hare Stadium than delayed promises and less-than-stellar scores.