Auburn football: 5 biggest blunders the Tigers coaching staff made in 2020
Gus Malzahn has won two-thirds of the games he has coached at Auburn, a number that rates 24th nationally among active head coaches at their current school.
That’s a good number in a vacuum. Except, Malzahn rates 6th in the SEC in that metric among coaches with 3 or more seasons at their present school, behind Nick Saban, Dan Mullen, Kirby Smart, Ed Orgeron and Jimbo Fisher.
Here’s the rub, too: No other SEC coaches have been at their current school 3 seasons or more. That means Malzahn is the least winning head coach in the SEC with 3 or more seasons at the same institution.
Even a season ago, Malzahn’s buyout was prohibitive, ranking as the 5th largest in the country. As of this month, it has dropped to $21.5 million. That’s a huge number, to be sure, but it’s now only the 5th largest in the SEC and, for the 1st time in his Auburn tenure, outside of the 10 largest in the country.
Those numbers are worth thinking about as the Auburn administration ponders the future of its coach, who has now lost at least 4 games for the 7th consecutive season. Even the shine of 2017’s SEC Championship Game appearance seems a distant memory for Auburn fans, especially as Lane Kiffin’s innovative offense appears to be waking the sleeping giant of Ole Miss to the west and, down in Texas, Fisher is finally delivering the promise implied in his 10-year megacontract at Texas A&M. Life in the SEC West isn’t easy, but as Auburn shuts the door on a disappointing 2020 this week at Mississippi State, the question that needs to be asked is this: Would a coaching change make life a little bit easier on Auburn?
Malzahn remains ever the optimist, telling the media Monday that he’s excited for the future on the Plains.
“Next year, I think it’s really set up. I’m really excited about that. I think we are going to be right in the mix next year and end up being one of the most experienced teams coming back. That’s when we’ve had the special year, when we’ve had one of the more experienced teams,” Malzahn said.
He may be right. But Malzahn and his staff did enough things wrong this season to make the discussion of just how long Auburn should go forward without a change a necessary one at an administrative level, not just a dialogue happening around Alabama holiday fireplaces.
Here are the 5 biggest blunders Malzahnn and the Auburn staff made in 2020.
1. Hiring Chad Morris as offensive coordinator
At SEC Media Days in July 2019, Malzahn said that giving up play-calling duties was a “mistake.” He was excited to be calling plays again ahead of the 2019 season, and he said he wouldn’t go back again and that “giving up calling plays was the product of bad advice.”
Those comments are what made Malzahn’s decision to surrender play-calling duties less than half a year later so strange. Even weirder? Hiring his old pal, Chad Morris, to be the new play caller. Morris built a fine reputation as an offensive mind at Clemson, but back in 2011, when he took over as Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator, the hurry-up, tempo-based spread offense he was running was still relatively new to the sport.
The sport has changed, and Morris hasn’t adjusted. His Arkansas offenses ranked 110th in total offense in 2019 and 111th in yards per play, and his 2018 offense was even worse, ranking 118th in total offense and last in the Power 5 in yards per play at 121st.
If you have confidence in yourself as a play caller, why in the world would you bring in an offensive mind whose offenses of late have been, well, offensive?
Auburn ranks 69th in total offense and 65th in yards per play, well below the numbers posted with Malzahn calling plays a season ago (64th, 47th).
Hiring Morris was a failure, and the project should be abandoned in 2021.
2. No overhaul of recruiting staff and personnel
A good place to spend the money tossed at Morris would have been on recruiting analysis or new recruiting directors. Levorn Harbin has had 2 seasons to fix what ails Auburn in recruiting, and remember, Harbin has a background as a defensive line coach. When your director of recruiting has a background in the area that is crushing your team, that’s a problem. Now, as Auburn heads toward a 3rd full cycle under Harbin’s leadership, it risks becoming systemic.
A change should have been made last winter. Auburn has traditionally been a top-15 or -10 recruiting destination in the 247 composite rankings. Malzahn’s current class ranks 41st. Of special concern is both sides of the line of scrimmage. The Tigers lack physicality and difference-makers on the defensive line (the biggest reason the Tigers have struggled on defense at times, a year after being elite nationally) and on the offensive line, where Malzahn seems all too content to rely on transfers.
Forget Morris. Gus should have called his own plays and hired new recruiting people with the Morris money to fix that part of his operation.
3. Anthony Schwartz was abandoned in the 2nd half of the season
Anthony Schwartz was a big recruiting win for Malzahn, picking Auburn over a hard-pressing Florida. For 2 seasons, we’ve heard about how magical the athlete with world-class speed is with the ball in his hands. Capable in the short passing game and as a threat in the run game, Schwartz should be ideal for Malzahn’s offense. The junior out of Fort Lauderdale even cited “offensive fit” when he decided to go to Auburn. On occasion, you still see why that “fit” seems ideal:
Why, then, did the “perfect fit” touch the ball 30 times in Auburn’s first 4 games but only 23 in the next 5? Why has he carried the ball out of the backfield only 4 times this season? How is it possible that with the game on the line against Texas A&M, your fastest, most electric player was limited to 3 touches?
Again, this is a Morris problem — and that makes it a Malzahn problem.
4. Another inexplicable loss where the team wasn’t ready to play
When Auburn fans say they want a change, they aren’t talking about Iron Bowls, which Malzahn has won with enough regularity to be a thorn in Saban’s side. They probably aren’t talking about the LSU game, either, which Malzahn has consistently had his teams ready for, even when they come up short as they did in 2019.
What they tend to be referring to are the inexplicable losses, like this season’s baffling 30-22 egg at South Carolina. The Gamecocks would finish the season playing a different quarterback than the one who beat Auburn, and as a team would win only 1 other game. That’s bad stuff. It’s also a trend.
In 2016, Smart’s 1st season at Georgia, Auburn had won 6 straight games and was a better team than the Bulldogs. The Tigers scored on their 1st possession of the game and didn’t score again, losing 13-7 in a game Smart has pointed to as a game-changer for him in Athens.
In 2018, Auburn was a 20-point favorite at Tennessee, which had been blown out by West Virginia, Florida and Georgia. Auburn played awful and lost 30-24, handing Jeremy Pruitt his first SEC victory.
This is the type of thing that happens to Malzahn too often — and remember, but for some generous officiating Auburn absolutely should have lost to Arkansas and might have lost to Ole Miss. Both of those losses would have been to 1st-year head coaches engaged in potentially lengthy rebuilds. Yikes.
5. Why brag about a ‘deep QB room’ if you never sit a struggling quarterback?
Bo Nix has rallied to put together a season that statistically more-or-less matches his 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year campaign. Nix’s passer rating is up 2.5 points despite 1 more interception than last year (in fewer games and 100 fewer attempts), and his rushing numbers have improved slightly, from 3.2 a touch to 3.6, on nearly identical attempts. That’s fine, and Nix is still young and getting better.
But Malzahn boasted this offseason that he has “the deepest quarterback room since I’ve been here.” That’s great, but what’s the point of all that depth if you won’t sit a struggling quarterback?
Nix’s game log in the 3-game stretch from Georgia through South Carolina saw the Tigers go 1-2, with the lone victory a referee assist against Arkansas. Nix’s numbers in those games: 53.9 completion percentage at a woeful 5.5 yards per attempt, with 1 touchdown and 5 total turnovers. That’s miserable stuff, and Malzahn probably could have earned the respect of the players — and either taught Nix a valuable lesson or helped him preservce confidence (or both!) — by simply shifting gears for a few quarters, especially in the South Carolina game, where Nix’s mistakes cost the Tigers a game.
Instead, Malzahn pressed forward without using any of the depth he built, presumably because a bad Nix was still better than any of the other options. If that’s the case, you have to wonder how good the quarterback room is in the first place.