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Auburn Football: Gus Malzahn Enters Critical Year on The Plains

Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers Football

Gus Malzahn, Auburn Tigers Football

Is 2019 really the end of Gus Malzahn?

Only at Auburn can a head coach with two SEC West titles in six seasons and a national title appearance, one who's coming off 10- and eight-win seasons, be so embattled.

And yet...

"You can never discount the volatility of college football in the state of Alabama," SEC Network analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic says. "And if it wasn't for Nick Saban right now, that would include Alabama as well. A lot of what happened last year behind the scenes with Gus and Auburn was very real. And if those power brokers were that serious last year, you have to wonder what their limit is this year."

This latest round of unease on The Plains actually started with something that fans and boosters of this program love more than anything — a win over Alabama. In 2017, the Tigers upset then-No. 1 Alabama at home to win the SEC West and vault themselves into playoff contention.

The win also created a sudden spike in Malzahn's value. Arkansas, Malzahn's home state, had just fired Bret Bielema and was aggressively pursuing its native son with a contract rumored to be in the range of $50 million. Since taking the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game in his first season as head coach, Malzahn had slumped to seven- and eight-win seasons. But in the course of a month, Auburn had upset both of their hated rivals — the No. 1 Tide and No. 2 Georgia.

For a very hot minute, Gus Malzahn was the hottest name in coaching, and Auburn blinked: Malzahn's contract was extended to seven years, $49 million, including a clause that guaranteed Malzahn 75 percent of his remaining contract at any point of his termination. With an incredibly hostile booster culture like Auburn's — Gene Chizik went from national champion to unemployed in three years — Malzahn's buyout jumped from $7 million to $32 million.

So of course, it immediately fell apart. The 2018 Tigers started 4–3 and finished 8–5, winning only three conference games and regressing significantly on offense despite returning quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left, first for the Kansas offensive coordinator job and then to become head coach at Troy. Malzahn resumed his role as play caller, long his signature feature as an offensive guru, and the Tigers routed Purdue in the Music City Bowl.

Behind the scenes, factions arrayed against Malzahn threw a fit. After one spike of a successful season, the coach was able to increase his buyout five times, leaving the school virtually powerless. And Lindsey had to leave and not be fired, as reports surfaced that Auburn would refuse to pay the buyout of any assistant fired by Malzahn.

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So now what? Despite his accolades as an offensive innovator, Malzahn's Tigers have fielded a sloppy, inconsistent offense. And while the defense has thrived thanks in part to aggressive recruiting and consistent development under coordinator Kevin Steele, the Tigers have fallen further behind their in-state rivals, who are also the sport's gold standard. More alarming, they've been lapped by Georgia — which hired Kirby Smart, once a candidate at Auburn before Malzahn was hired — and could very well lag behind LSU both in on-field wins and recruiting.

"The talent is always good enough at Auburn; it's just also in that range where you can find holes in the roster, or develop holes if it's not managed correctly," 247Sports recruiting analyst Barton Simmons says. "Auburn's recruiting is always understated because of who they're competing against. They're not bringing in what Bama is, and they're not quite on the LSU level of national fanfare, but year in and year out they just bring in tough, athletic classes that are right there in that top-10 range, that sort of ninth to 12th tier where the class is good enough to elevate to the next level on the field and also in a range where it could underachieve."

At almost any other FBS program in the country, Malzahn's achievements since 2013 would earn virtual lifetime security, especially considering that his nadir was a single seven-win season. And entering 2019, the blueprint for a very good Auburn team is apparent — except it likely won't be realized until 2020. The Tigers will break in a brand new quarterback against Oregon to open the year. Regardless of who wins the three-way race for the job — Joey Gatewood, Bo Nix, or Cord Sandberg (Mailk Willis decided to enter the transfer portal) — rival SEC coaches are doubtful that Auburn's offense will be effective enough to build a playoff contender this year, which means the hot seat talk is very real.

"There are some lumps coming at QB no matter who it is or how it goes," Cubelic says. "But the defense could be as good or better as they were last year, and there are skill guys on offense who could help. But the schedule is brutal. It's hard for me to say they're going to win 10 or 11 with that schedule."

If there's a single game circled for impatient fans and boosters, it's most likely Oct. 26 at LSU. Normally a game that falls earlier in the season, the LSU-Auburn game got Les Miles fired in 2016; was Malzahn's only regular-season SEC loss in 2017; and was a conversation starter for the hot-seat talk when the Bayou Bengals won again, 22–21, on The Plains in 2018. If Auburn fans openly acknowledge that their program is behind Bama and Georgia, behind closed doors they're worried most about losing ground to LSU.

"I think if you compared the two rosters right now it would come down to position by position and it's somewhat even. I think the advantage goes to LSU because of the support and energy behind Ed Orgeron right now," Cubelic says.

Still, don't look for Malzahn to panic.

"Gus is well aware of the expectations, but I don't think it's going to push him to press the wrong quarterback," a rival SEC coach says.  "If he thinks the freshman [Gatewood] is the best, he'll start him immediately and ride out the bad play. He doesn't flip-flop starters. What this means for him long term is anyone's guess at Auburn. They could finish the year around eight wins and be in a great position for 2020 and still get fired. But Gus knows that. He knew that when he decided to stay and not go to Arkansas."

Malzahn's estimated buyout would only drop to around $26 million at the end of the 2019 season. If that number isn't enough to cool the anger of Auburn boosters, then the defense might be good enough do the trick. The Tigers finished sixth nationally in Defensive S&P+ last year, and Steele — who was not a popular hire when Malzahn brought him on board in 2016 — has overseen a ruthless, athletic unit that doesn't get enough recognition.

"It's criminal. That defense should be the focus of the team, they're that good," says the rival SEC coach. "Whatever mistakes they've made on offense, they're doing everything right on the other side, especially in the front seven."

Much like Auburn's divided fan base, there's little consensus in the industry as to how hot Malzahn's seat should be, but most coaches and industry insiders believe that there's a single way out: dynamic, exciting quarterback play authored by Malzahn's in-game play-calling ability.

"It's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Gus calling plays. We've seen it work so well in the past, and we've seen him relinquish it, too," Cubelic says. "It's definitely better for him to do it all than to do it some of the time in a game. And has his offense morphed correctly to find success right now? Chip Kelly didn't rip it up at UCLA last year. These offenses have to find ways to morph and change. Defenses are going to catch up with you, especially in the SEC, where defenders have speed to run with your skill positions."

If there's discernible progress on offense and a quarterback who shows flashes of potentially elite play, there shouldn't be much of an argument about Malzahn's value or the long-term forecast for Auburn: The recruiting has been solid, the defense has been elite, and even if the Tigers limp to 6–6 or 7–5, there's still a whopping price tag the size of a normal coaching contract just to fire Malzahn, let alone hire the next guy. So is Auburn crazy enough to make such a move? Have the Tigers really become undone in the Saban Era?

"I think they've absolutely earned it," Cubelic says of that reputation. "Take JetGate, take how quickly Gene Chizik was run out of town after a national championship, take what's happened with Gus Malzahn. ... I was there when Terry Bowden was forced out at midseason. If the university is doing right by its student-athletes, they don't let a coach go at midseason.

"It's unfair for Gus Malzahn that so many people in so many positions of power have already made up their mind. There's a real chance things are going to be good, and common sense says that if there's some success this season, next year will be really good."

— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for Athlon Sports for the 2019 SEC Football Preview