Gus Malzahn began his head coaching tenure at Auburn in 2013, claiming an SEC Championship and leading the Tigers to the national championship game in his first season. Seemingly every year since, a portion of Tiger fans are fed up with the head coach’s actions – repeatedly calling for his job. They say, ‘He always plays down to his opponents. He’s too predictable on offense. His methods are outdated.’ Others, with whom Malzahn still finds favor, say, ‘He’s still a young coach. It’s unfair to compare him to Saban. If the players could just execute…’
Whichever side you’re on, there’s no denying that Malzahn has struggled to repeat the success he had in his first year on the Plains. Many Auburn fans ignore his unmatched record against Saban and are unconvinced that Malzahn measures up with the other highly touted coaches in the SEC; Kirby Smart at Georgia, Ed Orgeron at LSU and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Yes, Malzahn and his Tigers have had some great moments, but they’ve had about as many head-scratching gaffes too.
ESPN’s most recent projections had the Tigers going 7-3 this year, with a 5.3% chance to win the SEC. So, with the season only 24 days away, let us examine each of the Tigers’ fixtures to determine how Malzahn can outplay the numbers, outdo the competition and overcome his haters.
Sept 26: Home v. Kentucky – The last time Auburn played a SEC home opener was versus Arkansas in 2014. The Tigers won that game handily, 45-21. It would be nice to open with a similar blowout, but the Tigers have made a habit of close opening games in recent seasons – beating Washington by five in 2018 and Oregon by six in a last year’s thriller. If former Auburn – current Kentucky – quarterback Joey Gatewood gains eligibility, the Tigers could be in for another close one to open 2020.
Oct. 3: Away v. Georgia – The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will be played on its earliest calendar date since the teams’ first meeting in 1892. If could be beneficial to get the Bulldogs so early in the season. With a new starting QB and RB, Georgia will be lamenting from lost practice time and the Tigers could get a season defining win in week two. A loss doesn’t ruin the season, but leaves little room for error if Malzahn and the Tigers want to rematch the Dogs in Atlanta for the SEC Championship.
Oct 10: Home v. Arkansas – Chad Morris revenge game? The Tigers love to embarrass Arkansas and they will again; either riding the momentum from last week’s Georgia win, or taking out their frustration on the Razorbacks after a disappointing loss.
Oct. 17: Away v. South Carolina – Auburn should have little issue with the Gamecocks.
Oct 24: Away v. Ole Miss – First year Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin probably wishes this game was a week later on Halloween – maybe he could dress up as a good football coach. This should be part 1 of 2 in sweeping the Mississippi teams.
Oct. 31: Home v. LSU – What’s scarier than inviting the defending champions into Jordan-Hare Stadium on the spookiest day of the year? Probably the fact that the stadium will only be filled to 20% capacity to witness this heavyweight matchup. The Bayou Bengals return only four starters from their 2019 National Championship team. After coming the closest to defeating LSU last season – IN Death Valley – the Tigers should have a good chance against this significantly weaker LSU team.
Nov. 7: Bye
Nov. 14: Away v. Mississippi State – Part two of Auburn’s Mississippi sweep. Davis Wade Stadium wont be nearly as intimidating with a mitigated number of fans ringing their should-be-banned cowbells. Sorry Mike Leach, your marriage advice wont help you here, and Gus Malzahn is the trick play king of this conference.
Nov. 21: Home v. Tennessee – No one likes Tennessee. They cling to wins and claim to be contenders just to finish 6-6 every season. Upperclassmen on this Auburn team have as much a reason to dislike the Volunteers as anyone and should be plenty motivated for this game. Auburn lost at home versus Tennessee in their last matchup in 2018. Even if the Tigers slightly peek ahead to next week’s Iron Bowl, they should avenge the loss from two years ago against what is honestly a much improved Tennessee team.
Nov. 28: Away v. Alabama – Will Mac Jones or Bryce Young be Alabama’s starter by this point? Will the Auburn offensive line be improved enough to handle what Sports Illustrated declared as the Tide’s most improved position group – the defensive line? Will the Tigers defensive line be able to stop the always potent Alabama rushing attack? This game is too far into the future to predict, but simply put – I believe Bo Nix will never lose to Alabama as the starting quarterback for Auburn.
Dec. 5: Home v. Texas A&M – Auburn and A&M have played in close games virtually every year since 2013, with the largest margin of victory being 16. The two programs are jockeying for a place among the elites in the SEC. Fisher has yet to have the same success at A&M that he saw while coaching at Florida State. That still doesn’t make his team any less intimidating. If the Tigers are coming off an Iron Bowl loss, they may lack the motivation to finish the season strong. On the other hand, a victory in the Iron Bowl would probably mean Auburn are contending and will give them every motivation to finish the year with a win.
There it is; simple. A clean sweep of Kentucky, Arkansas, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee is the bare minimum –reasonably fair – expectation for Malzahn and the Tigers this season. Combine that with a win over one of Texas A&M or LSU; as always, avoid dropping both games against rivals Georgia and Alabama; and that would amount to a pretty solid year. But is good, really good enough anymore? Or do Auburn fans just have unrealistic expectations? 8-2, Malzahn’s job is safe. 7-3 with a win against a rival – probably safe. Anything else, and the Gus Bus may be low on gas. Still, the Tigers running the table and winning the SEC Championship – if we get there – doesn’t seem too far fetched. I’m starting to think that is the only way Malzahn will get the credit he deserves.