AUBURN, Ala. — In his book, In The Arena, former Auburn football coach Pat Dye explained a term he once coined for the Tigers’ three-game stretch to close the SEC schedule.
I don’t know when I first started calling [our last three games] ‘Amen Corner.’ You know I’m from Augusta, home of the Masters golf tournament. And they call holes No. 11, 12 and 13, ‘Amen Corner.’ Many a tournament has been won or lost on those three holes. Well, we had to finish our season every year with Florida, Georgia and Alabama. If that’s not the ‘Amen Corner,’ there ain’t one.
Auburn doesn’t face Florida late in the regular season anymore, but it normally draws a tough assignment to open Amen Corner. This year, the Tigers will face Texas A&M. Then Auburn faces the traditional pairing of Georgia and Alabama, with a breather between holes against Louisiana-Monroe.
It’s still a daunting Amen Corner, and Dye’s words ring true for current Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Many a tournament has been won or lost on those three holes at Augusta National, and many a coaching career has been won or lost late in the season at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Malzahn has that scenario in front of him.
Auburn is coming off a much-needed bye week with a 6-2 record. The Tigers’ biggest goal — competing for an SEC championship — is still within reasonable reach if Alabama can take care of business against LSU this Saturday. A playoff berth might be a long shot, as no team has done it with two losses.
But the path is there for Auburn to make a statement in November. Auburn’s offense has been balanced and explosive for a good chunk of the 2017 season thanks to the new life brought by coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Combine that with an elite defense, and the Tigers won’t be an easy out for anyone.
That same offense, though, was Auburn’s downfall in its two frustrating and close losses at Clemson and LSU. Malzahn retreated into a familiar shell after halftime in those two disasters, not putting any second half points on the board in games when his defense did more than enough to get the big win.
This Saturday, Auburn will travel to Texas A&M, another daunting road environment. While the Aggies haven’t been overly impressive this season — and the road team has won every game in this SEC series — they can be a tough matchup.
If Auburn avoids a letdown in College Station, it’ll face undefeated Georgia and Alabama in the span of three weeks. They could easily be No. 2 and No. 1, respectively. Auburn hasn’t had a bad game at home since a fumble-filled, 2-touchdown win over Mercer in September. The advantage at Jordan-Hare Stadium should make some sort of difference.
And if Auburn can’t at least go 3-1 in November, it will be looking at a fourth consecutive season under Malzahn with at least four losses. Two losses in the final two SEC games would mean four years in a row — an entire class — without a win against either Georgia or Alabama, its two biggest rivals.
If Auburn ends another promising season with at least four losses and no chance at double-digit wins, it’s hard to imagine Malzahn keeping his job.
Auburn’s athletic department is neck-deep in issues that span several sports. A change in leadership from embattled director Jay Jacobs is bound to happen before the calendar flips to 2018. A reset there would make it much easier for Auburn to part ways with Malzahn after another run-of-the-mill season.
Auburn won’t be expected to win the SEC year in and year out as long as Nick Saban is at Alabama, and that powerhouse should keep rolling after he retires. However, Auburn invests too many resources for a team that recruits at a top-10 level to stay at a four-loss plateau and go 0-for against its biggest rivals.
Life is tough in the SEC West, and expectations from fans might be out of whack after the successes of 2010 and 2013. But Auburn can, and should, expect more than what it’s had in the last three seasons.
And Auburn could get that with Malzahn if November goes his way. Winning at least three of his last four would break at least one rivalry losing streak — against a top playoff contender, no less — and set up the Tigers to potentially clinch a 10-win season at a good bowl game.
Auburn has shown this season under Malzahn that it has what it takes to be a top-10 team. A majority of its starters should be back for a bigger 2018. Malzahn’s staff has recruited at a high level, showed plenty of potential on offense, and returned Auburn to its past glory on defense. The ingredients are there for championship contention.
That’s better than a lot of Power 5 teams — and almost every team in the SEC not named Alabama or Georgia — can say right now.
But Malzahn arguably hasn’t won a big game since that 2013 season. And even though the Tigers can rout several teams in a weakened SEC, they have to at least beat one of the contenders in order to prove they can hang with them long term under Malzahn.
The problems with Auburn’s offense are fixable, if the coaching staff makes the right adjustments. Its defense should keep its offense in every game down the stretch, especially after a bye week of rest and recovery.
It’s all on Malzahn. He said after that collapse at LSU there was no more margin for error. If he can make the necessary decisions to get his team to play at its full potential against the likes of Georgia and Alabama, there’s a future for him on the Plains.
Amen Corner can either swallow competitors or define them forever. And after three consecutive rounds of treading water, Malzahn can only go in one of those two directions in the biggest month of his career.