It’s an absurd conversation starter at Southern-based parties … or family events where nearly every person in the room graduated from Auburn.
Should Gus Malzahn fear for his job as head coach in 2016, if the Tigers struggle again in conference play?
There were whispers of a pre-2016 dismissal a few weeks ago, had the Tigers lost to Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 30).
But cooler heads prevailed, at least in the short term, after Auburn’s defense held quarterback Paxton Lynch — a potential first-rounder in the upcoming NFL draft — to 106 yards passing and bolted town with a 31-10 victory over Memphis.
Finebaum: This bowl game is about Auburn having a winning or losing season. A losing season would put Malzahn squarely on the hot seat.
— Opening Drive (@openingdrive) December 7, 2015
The bowl win brought short-term sunshine to a gloomy 6-6 mark during the regular season, which included a 2-6 SEC record (last place in the West division) and a disaster-averted victory over Jacksonville State (FCS team) on Sept. 12. At the time, Auburn was being hailed as a top-10 program and a popular pick to usurp Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU for the SEC West title; but those expectations soon plummeted, once the Tigers’ deficiencies at quarterback became readily apparent.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson was poised to experience a major breakout in 2015, after paying dues behind Nick Marshall the previous two seasons. And at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, it was easy for the Auburn faithful to embrace the breakthrough hype, since Johnson possessed a prodigious arm and instinctive running abilities — athletic traits similar to the iconic Cam Newton (Auburn’s 2010 Heisman Trophy winner).
However, Johnson got off to a rocky start in his first year as the starter. In the first three outings, Johnson tallied six interceptions and didn’t pass for 240-plus yards. Consequently, he wasn’t able to keep his team in the game on Sept. 19, when Auburn got rocked by LSU.
After ceding the starter slot to freshman Sean White midway through the season, Johnson reclaimed a prominent slot in the Auburn game plan, and he responded with a cumulative completion rate above 65 percent for the final outings. The lone downer: Completing just 10 of 23 passes — while running for minus-18 yards — in Auburn’s 29-13 loss to Alabama.
Now, should Malzahn claim responsibility for the underwhelming play of Johnson (16 total touchdowns) and White (1,166 yards passing, one TD, four INTs)? Of course. But the Auburn quarterbacks were also playing from behind the proverbial 8-ball early on, protected by an inconsistent offensive line (1.46 sacks per game) and forced to proceed without star receiver D’haquille Williams (12 catches, 147 yards, 1 TD) for the final eight games.
(Williams, a potential high pick in this year’s NFL draft, was booted from the team after a drinking-establishment incident in October.)
As such, if we’ve learned anything about SEC football over the last six years … it’s that, minus notable exceptions like Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly (4,042 yards passing, 41 total TDs in 2015), Alabama’s Blake Sims (3,487 yards passing, 35 total TDs in 2014), Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (5,116 total yards, 47 TDs in 2012 — Heisman winner) and the aforementioned Newton (50 touchdowns in 2010), first-year starters rarely wreak consistent havoc in the nation’s toughest conference.
That aside, I’ll concede how 2016 represents a crucial season in Malzahn’s Auburn tenure — especially after two non-winning campaigns in SEC play (8-10 overall). But should that warrant his dismissal, if the Tigers aren’t competing for an SEC West title and a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff?
THE COLD REALITY OF SABAN
In his 10-year reign with Auburn (1999-2008), Tommy Tuberville won 85 games, enjoyed a 52-30 conference record and defeated Alabama seven times in the Iron Bowl. That’s a terrific resume for any SEC leader, let alone one so close to the Crimson Tide, in proximity.
But it’s also worth noting: Tuberville’s time with Auburn coincided with Alabama’s shaky period of adjustment, wading through less-than-dynamic coaches like Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price (fired before his first game) and Mike Shula — before staging the ultimate coup of stealing Nick Saban from the NFL.
And while Auburn defeated Saban in 2007 … the Tigers were summarily crushed 36-0 the following season — Tuberville’s last game as AU coach.
Looking back, it might have been the best thing for Tuberville’s Auburn legacy to leave the program so early in Saban’s tenure.
Which brings us to this: Only three head coaches have defeated Saban twice since 2008 — Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze (2014/15), LSU’s Les Miles (2010/2011) and Urban Meyer (2008 with Florida/2014 with Ohio State); and while Auburn boasts two victories against Alabama during that period (2010 with Chizik, 2013 with Malzahn), both victories occurred under extraordinary circumstances — with Newton rallying the Tigers from a 24-0 deficit (2010) and Auburn needing the famous ‘Kick Six’ to swipe the SEC West championship from Alabama (2013).
The message here: Very few programs have been able to stay with Alabama in recent years. It’s why the Crimson Tide are the only FBS school to post 10 or more victories every year since 2008; it also helps explain how Saban has accrued top-four recruiting classes for seven straight years … and captured four national titles in the last seven seasons (five since 2003 — one with LSU).
THE CHIZIK RATIONALIZATION
When Chizik was fired after a wretched 3-9 campaign in 2012, a number of Auburn fans rationalized the move by attributing the Tigers’ success from 2009-11 — highlighted by the BCS national championship in 2010 — to the dual greatness of Cam Newton and Malzahn (formerly Auburn’s offensive coordinator).
(Full disclosure: I married into an Auburn-only family … and they were relatively happy to see Chizik get his walking papers.)
Subsequently, once Newton left for the pros (No. 1 overall pick in 2011) and Malzahn accepted the head-coaching vacancy at Arkansas State (2012 — Sun Belt Conference champs), Chizik had been exposed as a head coach who might have been over his head at Auburn. And with an 0-8 conference mark in 2012 — including scoreless blowouts against Alabama and UGA, along with a loss to Vanderbilt — perhaps that might have been the case.
However, Chizik and his staff must have done something right, given how Malzahn transformed the Tigers from ‘duds’ to ‘studs’ in his first season as head coach — with Chizik’s recruits.
(Fun fact: In three seasons with Auburn, Malzahn has never lost three straight games. In 2007, Saban suffered through a four-game losing slide with Alabama.)
In 2013, Auburn incurred an early loss to LSU before reeling off nine consecutive victories — including wins over UGA, Alabama and Missouri (SEC title game). This momentum swing was enough to vault the Tigers into the final BCS National Championship … where they dropped a 34-31 heartbreaker to Florida State.
That title-game defeat was disheartening on multiple levels, with Auburn squandering a 21-3 lead early on and then finishing 13 painful seconds away from the national championship. At the time, Auburn’s amazing season had seemingly cemented Malzhan as the coach for the next 10 years; but in hindsight, he might have unwittingly erred in raising the expectations of the Tigers faithful.
As in, too much … too soon.
(Not-so-fun fact: In 2014, Auburn became the first program of the modern era to fall to multiple teams which lost 59-0 during that same season — Texas A&M and Wisconsin.)
PRELUDE TO A BOUNCE-BACK SEASON
It was surprising to see defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams — two down-the-road stars at the NFL level — renew their commitments to Auburn for the 2016 season. Obviously, the draft-eligible juniors-to-be enjoy the perks of college life, but there has to be a similarly substantial reason (or reasons) for shirking the pros one more year.
Perhaps Lawson and Adams foresee big things for Auburn this fall.
Perhaps they’re confident that Johnson and White — as the Tigers’ quarterbacking tandem — will take monumental steps forward in 2016.
Perhaps they know a season-opening home win over Clemson (Sept. 3) — a possible candidate for preseason No. 1 — could be the perfect springboard to a signature campaign.
Perhaps they’re relishing how Auburn has only one road game in the first nine weeks (at Mississippi State on Oct. 8) — allowing the Tigers to gather steam for the second half of the schedule.
Perhaps they believe that Ole Miss (which lost juniors Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche to the pros) and UGA (new head coach, possible freshman QB as the starter) will endure growing pains in 2016.
Perhaps Lawson and Adams want one more crack at Alabama — knowing an Iron Bowl victory might also mean a berth in the SEC title game and College Football Playoff.
Or perhaps they’re coming back out of sheer loyalty to the coaching staff and Malzahn, who has dutifully restored order to Auburn’s recruiting machine.
Citing the 247 Sports rankings of the last four years (including next month’s still-fluid National Signing Day), Auburn boasts four top-11 recruiting classes nationally — while never finishing lower than sixth place among SEC powers.
That’s a four-year average of ninth place overall, trailing vaunted programs such as Alabama, LSU, UGA, Ohio State, Clemson and Florida State.
It also indicates this: The Auburn powers-that-be shouldn’t have to worry about a return trip to the Birmingham Bowl next December.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.