Auburn fans have had their patience tested recently. Head coach Gus Malzahn has gone into the previous two off-seasons on a hot seat. This season, Malzahn used leverage against his school as Arkansas seriously looked to woo him home. The Auburn head coach banked a near $50 million contract at $7 million per year, while earning the backing of Auburn administrators in a time rife with turnover and controversy at the athletic department.
If Malzahn felt a strong urge to return home, and the temptation seems understandable, staying at Auburn is more logical. While some Auburn fans have raised concerns that Malzahn is merely an eight or nine-win coach, with an occasional uptick every few years, there is good reason to believe Malzahn is the best coach in the SEC behind Nick Saban.
In fact, he is currently the only head coach in the league who has been able to beat Saban. While Malzahn is 2-3 as a head coach against Alabama, he has managed to defeat Saban; a feat many coaches never experience. Excluding 2015, the Tigers’ lead man has had his team in position every November to strike for an SEC Championship.
With the hires of Chip Lindsey, and the subsequent development of Jarrett Stidham and Auburn’s once forgotten receiving corps, alongside Kevin Steele’s impressive turnaround, Auburn appears to be one of three teams atop the SEC with Alabama and Georgia.
While the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs both made it to the 2017 College Football Playoffs, Auburn handed both teams their only loss of the season. Silencing, for now, the cries that Malzahn could not beat his biggest rivals.
With Steele interviewing for Tennessee, but returning to Auburn, it appears, the defensive coordinator is locked in. One might argue Steele is the most popular coach on the plains. Nonetheless, Lindsey, after being linked to the South Alabama opening, also appears poised for a strong second season. Stidham is rumored to return with Kerryon Johnson. While these decisions are not final, if both players return next to a healthy Kamryn Pettway, it’s logical to think the offense will continue to take big strides during the offseason with its core intact and its offensive coordinator more familiar with his teams strengths.
Furthermore, Stidham clearly gained momentum as the year went on. Especially as the passing game became a viable option. Don’t be surprised to see a few names in Auburn’s backfield creeping into dark horse Heisman predictions this offseason.
Auburn fans should prepare to support Malzahn. His tenure has been filled with peaks and valleys, but many Auburn fans forget Malzahn has been a head coach for merely six seasons with five of those coming at a Power-Five school. Saban’s record through his first six seasons before arriving in Baton Rouge: 43-26 one season at Toledo and another five at Michigan State.
When Malzahn was hired by Gene Chizik as offensive coordinator in 2009, he was a slightly proven commodity. His brief success at Arkansas with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones was well documented, but doubts remained.
An oft-cited complaint is that Malzahn’s offense is built on gimmicks not substance.
He promptly left Arkansas after reported clashes with Houston Nutt about the offensive philosophy necessary for success.
After two seasons with gaudy statistics at Tulsa, Auburn gave Malzahn a chance. It is, perhaps, his time as offensive coordinator coupled with his five years as head coach that lead some Auburn fans to believe the grass may be greener elsewhere.
Malzahn has shown some willingness to adapt. His stubborn play calling and game strategy can be wildly successful or mind-numbingly inefficient. With Lindsey’s influence, the development of a strong backfield, a blossoming receiving corps behind an experienced, albeit sometimes inconsistent offensive line, Auburn’s offense looked more like the revered squads that elevated Malzahn to popularity at Arkansas and eventually throughout the coaching ranks of college football.
Auburn was wise to secure Malzahn with a new contract. He has stressed the depth established on their roster and as one glances across the SEC landscape, it is apparent that atrophy has hit schools who were trigger happy to fire their coaches in attempt to catch up with Alabama. While coaching changes are necessary, stability and depth alongside the resources available at Auburn create an atmosphere where winning and winning consistently is possible. Now it is up to Malzahn and his staff to build on the second half of their 2017 campaign.
Auburn is 1-3 in bowls with Malzahn at the helm. The Tigers will play three straight games in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Peach Bowl against UCF is a game the Tigers need to win to take momentum into 2018 and establish itself as a true contender yet again.