January 26, 2021

SEC Unbiased: The Gus Malzahn era at Auburn should be over

Gus Malzahn helped steer Auburn’s magical 2013 season, but has since disappointed. In this week’s installment of SEC Unbiased, David Bradford says that the Malzahn era in Auburn is over.

Photo obtained via creativecommons.org. No changes made.

There’s no easy way to say this my War Eagle compadres — it’s time for Gus Malzahn to board the bus back on home, truly making him Gus Bus, which is simultaneously the greatest insult of all time and a badge of honor.

It’d be foolish to ignore the fact that Auburn has clearly exceeded expectations this season. They’re 7-3 with a resumé that includes a 53-point win over Arkansas, an 11-point road win over Ole Miss, a thrilling victory over LSU — which resulted in the firing of longtime head coach Les Miles — and a “quality,” six-point loss to Clemson at the start of the season.

But after losing to a rebuilding Georgia team 13-7 on Saturday, it’s officially time for Auburn to move on from the Gus Malzahn era. Because while the Tigers controlled their own destiny in the SEC West race heading into Saturday’s contest against the Bulldogs, the program is in the midst of a steep regression since its miracle 2013 campaign.

For Auburn fans — and fans of college football for that matter — 2013 was an unforgettable season. The Tigers possessed an exciting dual-threat quarterback in Nick Marshall, a Heisman contender in the backfield in Tre Mason and enough miracles to convince everyone that they were a team of destiny, that there was some form of divine intervention involved.

The magic ran out against Florida State in a classic National Championship, but the narrative was already written in stone — Malzahn was an offensive guru.

It’s true, the offense was exceptional —they averaged nearly 40 points per game in 2013 — and capturing the SEC crown during the conference’s peak form in his first season as Auburn’s head coach, and only second overall, is worthy of praise. But, it’s important to remain skeptical, especially in a season as wacky as 2013.

Without miraculous wins over Georgia and Alabama, the Tigers were overachieving anyway, but does Malzahn deserve credit for a fourth-and-18 heave against Georgia that was misplayed by two Bulldog defenders and promptly tipped into the hands of Ricardo Louis? Does Malzahn deserve credit for Nick Saban falling victim to a rare moment of overthinking?

Luck is a necessary ingredient for championship teams, but it shouldn’t deliver the goods either. Malzahn hasn’t delivered the goods over the past three seasons, whether in recruiting, executing a proper offensive gameplan or fielding a competent defense. And the particularly frustrating aspect of each deficiency is that they’ve played out in separate seasons, rather than altogether at once.

In 2014, Auburn began the season 7-1 and were in the thick of the inaugural College Football Playoff race. Then, the defense decided it was the proper time to allow 41 points to Texas A&M, 34 points to Georgia, 55 points to Alabama and another 34 points to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. The Tigers lost all four games and stumbled to an 8-5 record.

But the War Eagle faithful allegedly had nothing to fear, as the ensuing offseason gave birth to the Jeremy Johnson hype train. Johnson — who barely played — was inexplicably dubbed a Heisman candidate simply because of his athletic ability. Because of him, Auburn was the preseason No. 6 team in the country, which was an embarrassment to preseason rankings everywhere. Not only was Johnson trash, but the team was an abomination — barely nudging past Jacksonville State and finishing the season 7-6.

Winning in the SEC is not for the faint of heart, but there is an offensive formula that has proven to be successful — run the football effectively and have a quarterback who can make enough plays to deliver the goods and avoids making the critical mistakes. The Crimson Tide have created a dynasty with that formula. On that front, Malzahn has been hit and (largely) miss.

It has exposed itself even further this season — Auburn is a vastly improved on the defensive side of the ball and feature a lethal rushing attack, but the team’s hiccup the entire season has been at quarterback.

Whether it’s Sean White, John Franklin III or Jeremy Johnson, the Tigers’ inability to compliment its dominant ground game with serviceable quarterback play has prevented them from becoming a team that can threaten Alabama and win the SEC West.

The unfortunate part is that Malzahn failed to realize this predicament earlier in the season. Against Clemson, Auburn ran the ball 41 times, but threw the ball 30 times between three quarterbacks. Meanwhile, the defense played the game of its life and held an explosive Clemson offense to 19 points, but because Malzahn decided to opt for balance over what was working, Auburn lost by six points.

The same problem arose against Texas A&M, where Malzahn again engaged in a futile attempt at offensive balance (54 rushes to 35 passes) in a 29-16 loss.

Finally, a light bulb flashed in the offensive guru’s supposed genius: Let’s ditch the passing game and start milking the clock by calling run play after run play.

It worked miracles against Arkansas (57 rushes to 12 passes) in a 56-3 romp and against Ole Miss (52 rushes to 22 passes) in a 40-29 victory.

So with the team riding high at 7-2 and a sweet No. 9 ranking in the College Football Playoff, what did Malzahn pull against Georgia? The worst coaching performance of his career.

White — who was playing pedestrian at best, but was good enough to support the ground game — wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent health wise, and it showed on the stat sheet against the Bulldogs (6-of-20, 27 yards, INT). It’s not White’s fault that the Tigers dropped a game they should’ve easily won. Rather, it was Malzahn’s decision to not only play White — as if there wasn’t a way the offensive wizard could construct a gameplan that allowed Franklin III to potentially get an additional touchdown — but resort to tactics that resulted in losses earlier in the season:

32 rushes…to 22 passes.

Auburn isn’t winning the Iron Bowl. To beat the Crimson Tide, an offense can’t be one dimensional. The Tigers are the exact definition of a one-dimensional offense.

Malzahn hasn’t been an awful coach, but he hasn’t found success in recruiting at the quarterback position, nor has he ever fielded a complete team. If Auburn ever wants to compete with Alabama on a consistent level — which is essentially what the SEC has become — then they’ll have to do it with another coach on the sideline.

Edited by Dalton King

Featured image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

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