Is Gus Malzahn at a crossroads at Auburn?
Auburn football is a little like a high school girl’s love life. Things are often dramatic, but rarely permanent.
This is not to say that Auburn has been unsuccessful; it clearly has achieved plenty. It won a national championship, played for another national championship and produced a Heisman trophy winner all in the last half-decade alone.
Unfortunately in that same span of time, Auburn has also fired a head coach, gone winless in the SEC and replaced a defensive coordinator or two.
In other words, making a bet on Auburn to win or lose is solely for the folks that think of a roulette wheel as a retirement plan.
Furthermore, this year’s team may be the most mysterious version of Auburn yet. It was almost universally praised for an entire off-season, culminating in being named preseason pick to win the SEC, but after only two weeks into the season found out it was barely good enough to beat lowly Jacksonville State and a week later found out it was nowhere near good enough to beat LSU.
Malzahn was apparently as surprised by his team’s poor play as anyone. How else could his response to quarterback Jeremy Johnson’s struggles be explained?
After a shaky first half against LSU for Johnson, Malzahn told CBS at halftime he would consider a quarterback switch in the second half, only to change his mind and stick with Johnson. Then in the days that followed the game in Baton Rouge, the Auburn coaching staff indicated that Jeremy Johnson remained the starter heading into the upcoming game against Mississippi State. Malzahn later changed his mind once again and replaced Johnson as the starter.
This is a series of events less coherent than True Detective Season 2.
The end result is that former backup Sean White is now the starting quarterback for the Auburn Tigers, and Malzahn’s handling of the quarterback situation and everything else involving his program will now make him a focal point of criticism if things do not improve soon.
And while it is fair to ask how a coach that won the SEC in just his first year on the job not all that long ago could be subject to any criticism, the weird history of Auburn football must be considered.
Since 2001, when Nick Saban won his first SEC title, every coach that has won the league has won it at least twice with the exception of three coaches. Those three coaches are Tommy Tuberville, Gene Chizik, and so far at least Gus Malzahn. Yes, the three Auburn coaches to win the SEC championship since the beginning of the last decade are the only ones who were unable to manage sticking around long enough to win it again.
The most ardent supporter of Malzahn would say it is unfair to lump him in with Tuberville and Chizik because it is widely believed by many Auburn fans that Malzahn is a much better coach than either of his predecessors at Auburn. How much evidence is there to support this belief though?
The positive vibe that surrounded Malzahn after he won the SEC in 2013 was not all that different from the vibe that surrounded Chizik in 2010 or the one that surrounded Tuberville in 2004. And both Tuberville and Chizik would be out of a job just a short time later.
Of course, this does not mean history has to repeat itself with Malzahn. He may very well prove to be superior to the coaches that came before him at Auburn. He may solve his quarterback problems and restore some sanity to his program, and by the end of the 2015 season its ugly beginning may feel like a distant memory.
But as Malzahn tries to fix what is currently broken at Auburn, he will have to do so knowing that he works within a football program that is unquestionably unique. Auburn’s impressive success and bizarre inability to repeat that success hangs like a dark shadow over Malzahn. And he can only hope that this time for Auburn will be different.