Not long ago, Gus Malzahn’s seat was more than a few degrees north of 100. The proud times on the Plains had passed him by, some said. The best days of Auburn’s program were more memory than possibility.
The Gus Bus was broken down, with smoke billowing from its hood on Oct. 14 in Baton Rouge after an embarrassing choke job at LSU that dropped the Tigers to 5-2. A promising season seemed headed south. A chance that Malzahn would be booted as Auburn’s coach this year appeared real.
Now this is very much a reality: Auburn, fresh off placing former College Football Playoff top dawg Georgia in a woodchipper, is looking like a team that will crush UL-Monroe and — yes — Alabama in the next two weeks.
When the dust settles, while that toilet paper dangles in Toomer’s Corner after another delirious Iron Bowl win, Malzahn should savor shutting up his critics. He’ll have earned that last, satisfying laugh and the silence that follows.
It’s time to believe in Auburn. The team that dropped 40 points and 488 yards on Georgia to vault to sixth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings was the group most expected to see all season. The team that took the Bulldogs’ undefeated record and treated it like a jackhammer does asphalt was the fulfillment of a vision formed when challengers to Alabama were considered in the build-up to the fall.
It took time, but Auburn has turned awesome. Kerryon Johnson, who has 1,035 yards rushing this season, has left burn marks on defenses throughout the SEC. Jarrett Stidham, who has 2,210 yards passing, has gained comfort in the Tigers’ system after some inconsistency.
Auburn’s defense has carried its weight as well. Only Alabama and Georgia in the SEC allow fewer than the 16.9 points per game the Tigers are allowing. Auburn is third in the conference against the run and sixth against the pass.
The Tigers have become a complete team at the right time.
Yes, Alabama should be scared.
There’s no way the group that showed up last Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium will lose to the Crimson Tide. Injuries, particularly at linebacker, have made Alabama’s defense vulnerable. The Tigers will pound the Crimson Tide’s defensive front with Johnson until the cracks shown against LSU (151 yards rushing) and Mississippi State (172) become breaks in a once-vaunted wall.
Auburn’s defense, meanwhile, will frustrate Jalen Hurts and do enough against Alabama’s rushing threat. The Crimson Tide will run out of the magic shown last Saturday in Starkville. Another big statement by the Tigers will be made.
Of course, the huge winner in all this will be Malzahn. Even with an SEC title and national championship game appearance to his name, he seemed another seven- or eight-win season from being punted out the door. The grumbles were growing louder.
Now after another SEC title game appearance, will some critical Tigers fans appreciate what they have?
It’s an interesting question, and Auburn could soon learn what life is like without Malzahn. Jeff Long’s firing as Arkansas athletic director on Wednesday means Bret Bielema likely will receive the same treatment. Malzahn has deep ties in the Natural State, and a move to Fayetteville would make a bunch of sense from a quality-of-life perspective.
Face it, Arkansas is no Auburn. It’s a Mississippi State-like program that should be thankful for a standout season every three or four years. If Malzahn leads the Razorbacks to SEC West contention, some fans might line up at his office door to wash his feet.
Is there any doubt Malzahn would be a giant upgrade over Bielema’s miserable underachievement the past five seasons?
At Arkansas, Malzahn would have the added benefit of placing greater space between him and Alabama’s program. Fair or not, he would find it easier to breathe with more miles separating him and Nick Saban. Who wouldn’t want that?
The Arkansas question will be approached in time. But for now, everyone around Auburn’s program should enjoy the carpet ride Malzahn has created, after another painful crash looked possible.
And critics, once ready to shovel dirt on Malzahn’s tenure with the Tigers, should prepare to eat crow.