Auburn football: Oh, Gus. Why do your Tigers leave us scratching our head so often?
TAMPA, Fla. — Gus Malzahn just can’t seem to keep himself off the hot seat. He jumps off with a big victory one game, only to fall back on it with a disappointing loss in the next one. It’s an on-again-off-again relationship that keeps us wondering which way this program is headed.
An opportunity for a 2nd 10-win season in 3 years, something that only the elite of Auburn coaches have been able to accomplish, eluded Malzahn on New Year’s Day as Minnesota’s Golden Gophers rowed its way to a 31-24 victory in the Outback Bowl.
Malzahn missed a chance to put his face on the Mount Rushmore of Auburn coaches, whose teams won 10 games twice within a 3-year period. Tommy Tuberville was the last to accomplish the fete (2004, 2006). Pat Dye teams went back-to-back (1988-89), and Shug Jordan (1972, 1974) was the first to lead the Tigers to multiple 10-win seasons within a 3-year span.
It’s frustrating to say the least when Malzahn’s Tigers win the game that matters most in any season. An Iron Bowl victory just about erases any misgivings that might precede it. But then in the very next game, his troops forget how to tackle, while his offense can’t seem to get out of its own way in a battle lost in the trenches.
Sure the Tigers missed Nick Coe, but an Auburn defense that ranked 3rd in the SEC against the run yielded 141 in the first half alone. And when the Gophers did break into the open field, Auburn’s secondary employed a matador defense and chose not to cover Tyler Johnson, who torched that secondary for 204 yards and 2 TDs on 12 catches.
The offense wasn’t much to speak of, either. The offensive line could not hold back an aggressive Minnesota defense, leaving Bo Nix to fend for himself for much of the afternoon in his bowl game debut.
Even the Pat Sullivan inspired helmets didn’t help this offense. The Tigers rushed for 5 yards and managed just 4 first downs in the first half. They tallied 17 points because of a turnover and a kick return for a touchdown. They had one drive of more than 5 plays in the first half and briefly the Tigers looked like the team that beat Alabama in their previously game, driving 64 yards in 7 plays.
Oh, we thought things would change when the Tigers went 86 yards in 13 plays to tie the game at 24 midway through the 3rd quarter. But that served simply as temporary relief with the Gophers coming out on top when a wide open Johnson caught a pass and completed a 73-yard scoring play that proved to be the game-winner.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Auburn has never won a major bowl game under Malzahn. The Tigers are 2-5 overall in the postseason since he took the reins, with wins over Memphis (31-10) in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl, and last year’s Music City Bowl, a 63-14 thrashing of Purdue. (Malzahn has more wins over Nick Saban, 3, than bowl wins.)
It’s Auburn’s second Outback Bowl loss under Malzahn after dropping a 34-31 decision to Wisconsin on Jan. 1, 2015, in its other appearance.
Malzahn’s teams do keep us on our toes, however. We just never know what we’re going to get from one game to the next.