AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn’s ultimate goal at Auburn is the same goal for every top-tier head coach in college football — compete for a national championship.
But the only way Malzahn can do that is if he can beat the title-winning behemoth of Nick Saban’s Alabama. Only the most far-fetched of circumstances would allow for Auburn and Alabama to both play in the same College Football Playoff.
So, as long as Auburn sits in the SEC, it has to overcome the Crimson Tide in order to achieve its ultimate goal.
It’s extremely difficult, given Alabama’s run of No. 1 recruiting classes and seemingly unlimited resources. But it’s possible, as Malzahn and the rest of the nation saw Monday night in Tampa, when Clemson upset Alabama in a national championship for the ages.
Two days later, Malzahn was officially on the market for a new offensive coordinator. His protege Rhett Lashlee left for non-Power 5 program UConn in a surprising decision.
The timing of Clemson’s win over Alabama — what Auburn wants to have again — and Malzahn’s need for a new offensive coordinator couldn’t be any more perfect.
Malzahn got a close look at what it takes to beat Alabama on Monday. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson put up 420 passing yards and 4 total touchdowns against what was being called the best Alabama defense ever.
Watson and the Tigers didn’t get a ton of running room against the Crimson Tide, but they opened things up through the air. Future first-round pick Mike Williams, secondary star Deon Cain, dynamic tight end Jordan Leggett and former walk-on Hunter Renfrow all played their part in catching precise passes from Watson.
When Watson left the field as a national champion, he became the latest in a select club of quarterbacks to beat Saban’s Alabama. The teams that have done it recently have all been elite weapons — Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and even Auburn’s own Nick Marshall.
|NOTABLE RECENT PASSING PERFORMANCES VS. ALABAMA|
|2016||Clemson 35, Bama 31||Deshaun Watson||36-56 for 420 yards and 3 TD|
|2016||Bama 48, Ole Miss 43||Chad Kelly||26-40 for 421 yards and 3 TD|
|2015||Bama 45, Clemson 40||Deshaun Watson||30-47 for 405 yards and 4 TD|
|2015||Ole Miss 43, Bama 37||Chad Kelly||18-33 for 341 yards and 3 TD|
|2014||OSU 42, Bama 35||Cardale Jones||18-35 for 243 yards and 1 TD|
|2014||Bama 55, Auburn 44||Nick Marshall||27-43 for 456 yards and 3 TD|
|2014||Ole Miss 23, Bama 17||Bo Wallace||18-31 for 251 yards and 3 TD|
|2013||OU 45, Bama 31||Trevor Knight||32-44 for 348 yards and 4 TD|
|2013||Auburn 34, Bama 28||Nick Marshall||11-16 for 97 yards and 2 TD|
|2012||TAMU 29, Bama 24||Johnny Manziel||24-31 for 253 yards and 2 TD|
The prevailing thought is that dual-threat quarterbacks were Saban’s kryptonite. Having that mobility definitely helps, but Watson did much more damage with his arm than his legs in the title game. The same goes for Kelly and Jones. Marshall even put up 456 passing yards in a loss in the 2014 Iron Bowl.
It’s getting tougher to run on Alabama every season. The Crimson Tide are among the best at stopping the ground game year in and year out. Relying mostly on the rushing attack to beat Alabama just isn’t a viable strategy anymore.
That brings Malzahn back to his next big decision. Auburn’s ultimate downfall in 2016 was the lack of an elite passing attack, especially when Sean White went down with yet another injury. The biggest knock on Lashlee during his four seasons with Malzahn is that he didn’t develop quarterbacks well enough.
Heading into 2017, Auburn definitely upgraded at quarterback. Lashlee helped bring in Jarrett Stidham, the former Baylor quarterback who was an elite recruit and showed an incredible arm in his true freshman season in the Big 12.
But Auburn needs to develop Stidham, who just sat out an entire season, into a dynamic force who can challenge Alabama and other elite defenses. It needs to develop quarterbacks such as Woody Barrett or Malik Willis or even White into trustworthy backups if Stidham wins the job and goes down with injury.
The Tigers have had highly touted quarterback recruits such as Watson and Kelly in recent seasons. They just haven’t developed those players to that Alabama-slaying level.
Auburn needs a proven quarterback whisperer as its next offensive coordinator. The early list of potential candidates features several of them.
Chip Lindsey is known as a lifelong quarterback developer, and he did wonders with the position in his time at Southern Miss. Jake Spavital coached Geno Smith and Johnny Manziel into record-breakers. Kendal Briles was Stidham’s own quarterback coach at Baylor.
The Tigers can’t let their improved wealth at quarterback go to waste in 2017, especially with the young talent they have at receiver. They must have a new offensive coordinator — or at least a quarterbacks coach, if they stay in-house with the coordinator job — who can take Malzahn’s signal-callers to the next level.
It’s the level Auburn needs to be at in order to compete with Alabama, which has won three straight Iron Bowls since the miraculous Kick 6 game.
Lashlee did some great things during his time as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. But his departure opens the door for the Tigers to reset their passing game with a new set of eyes.
If Auburn wants to be where Clemson is this week, it has to get to a similar spot at the most important position on the field. That starts with Malzahn’s next move.