The bloom is definitely off the rose for Gus Malzahn.
The same man who is credited with turning Nick Marshall from a defensive back to the point man of Auburn’s “Hurry-Up, No-Huddle” offense is under fire on The Plains.
Auburn, which is a five-touchdown favorite in this Saturday’s home game against Idaho, will become bowl-eligible with a victory. But even if the Tigers win and reach the postseason, it won’t temper how disappointing this season has become. After all, at SEC Media Days, Auburn was picked to win the conference championship, and the preseason hype surrounding Jeremy Johnson was as loud as the cowbells in Starkville on game day.
There are numerous reasons why this year’s Tigers are just a 5-5 team. To begin with, Johnson isn’t nearly as good as most of the media — this writer included — thought he would be. Despite the return of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, the Tigers are still finding their way on that side of the ball. Plus, Duke Williams’ dismissal from the team certainly didn’t help, but at least Ricardo Louis has stepped up to have the best season of his career.
More excuses can be made for why Malzahn and Auburn have struggled this year, but they would ring hollow. There are certain aspects of this year’s team that can’t be ignored, starting with the fact that the Tigers are scoring nearly 10 fewer points in 2015 than they did last season (25.7 compared to 35.5). Plus, going into this season, who would have thought that kicker Daniel Carlson would be Auburn’s most productive offensive player?
Behind Carlson, the Tigers lead the SEC with 20 field goals, but they’re only 10th in the conference with just 28 touchdowns. Last year, those numbers were 18 and 58 respectively, meaning that Auburn would need to score 30 touchdowns over its last three games — including a bowl matchup — to match its 2014 output.
So why has Auburn regressed on offense? Johnson’s struggles with throwing the ball have been well-documented, and juggling him with Sean White at quarterback certainly hasn’t helped. Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne are no longer in the backfield, but Peyton Barber — and Jovon Robinson of late — haven’t been bad. The most telling development this season is that Malzahn’s play-calling, especially in the Tigers’ 27-19 loss to Ole Miss on Halloween, has been second-guessed.
Left with little choice, Malzahn has taken responsibility for some of his decision-making.
“The bottom line is when we don’t do well offensively, that’s on me,” the third-year Auburn coach said. “That’s just the way it goes. We did the same thing against Texas A&M, and we got in a rhythm, did a good job. We didn’t do a good job Saturday, and that’s on me. I’ve got to find a way to fix that, and that’s what we’re working to do, to finish this thing the right way offensively.”
He was referring to Auburn’s 20-13 loss to Georgia last week, in which he once again made some dubious decisions with both the running game and passing game, which brings us back to this week’s matchup against Idaho, a team the Tigers should beat rather handily. But even if Auburn prevails, a couple of negative realities can’t be dismissed.
The Tigers’ only home wins this season will have been against non-SEC teams — including victories over Jacksonville State and San Jose State. Plus, Malzahn is only 2-8 in his last 10 SEC games, a far cry from 2013, when he finished 7-1 in the league and won the conference title before losing to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
So despite what Johnson felt about his mentor earlier this year, it’s time to stop using the words “Gus Malzahn” and “offensive genius” in the same sentence. If the Tigers’ malaise continues, Malzahn’s next moniker might become “unemployed head coach.”