Hottest seat in the SEC? It belongs to Auburn's $49 million man, Gus Malzahn
Gus Malzahn coached the most talented team in Auburn history right out of the College Football Playoff. How did the school repay him for this service? They handed him the richest deal in school history — worth $49 million for the next seven seasons.
For those taking issue with that characterization of the 2017 Auburn team, Pat Dye would like to have a word with you.
Malzahn’s season played out much like a child enduring his first trip to Six Flags. He made it through the ups and downs of the rides only to be rewarded with some cotton candy that he proceeded to vomit back up on the walk to the car.
Despite the record-setting figures being thrown at Malzahn by Auburn, I submit he’s sitting on the hottest seat in the SEC this offseason. That seat is only going to get hotter if the Tigers don’t open with a sense of urgency in the Sept. 1 season opener and beat what will likely be a preseason top 10-15 opponent in Washington.
Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M all hired new coaches this offseason. Those guys can’t be anywhere close to a hot seat at their respective schools. Alabama and Georgia would beg their coaches to stay if either program caught wind that their man could be leaving. South Carolina just gave Will Muschamp an extension and a raise after his first two outstanding, all things considered, seasons in Columbia. Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt don’t care enough about football to get upset over the sport; those seats stay relatively cool regardless of who sits in the seat.
That leaves LSU and Ed Orgeron.
Sure, Coach O could be on a hotter seat in Baton Rouge than Malzahn is at Auburn, but if he is, that means LSU AD Joe Alleva is sitting there with him. Alleva was responsible for the Les Miles debacle at the end of 2015. If you remember, he had decided to fire Miles but word leaked and the support the Mad Hatter got that week from the media and during the pregame of the season finale from the LSU fans led to a change of heart. Beating an 8-5 Texas A&M team at home 19-7 was all Alleva needed to see to keep Miles. That didn’t last long, though, and Miles was out four games into the 2016 season, which allowed Alleva to botch LSU’s months-long coaching search. With Tom Herman on his way to Texas, Alleva went all in on Coach O.
At this point for Alleva, if Orgeron fails at LSU and has to shown the door, he’ll be taking his boss with him.
So the question is, how did we get here? How is it that Malzahn can be compensated so well, while at the same time be standing on such shaky ground?
Auburn faced five opponents last season with comparable talent to what Malzahn and his staff had to work with. The result in those five games? A 2-3 record (loss at Clemson, loss at LSU, win vs. Georgia at home, win vs. Alabama at home, loss vs. Georgia in Atlanta). Auburn then capped the roller coaster of a season by suffering its only defeat of the season against an opponent with inferior talent, of course, referencing the 34-27 loss in the Peach Bowl to UCF — the self-proclaimed champions of the universe.
It started with the 14-6 loss at Clemson. Auburn got a masterful performance from the defense, but it was wasted by the offense. The offensive line and Jarret Stidham both played skittish, giving up 11 sacks in the contest. Twice in the game, Auburn managed to get inside Clemson’s 10-yard-line, yet only came away with six points.
The Tigers rebounded nicely from that performance and soon had momentum on their side. By mid-October, Auburn was ranked No. 10 in the country and was in prime position to be in the middle of the Playoff discussion. Then the LSU game happened. As bad as the UCF loss was, the LSU game was so much worse.
You may recall Auburn made it look easy early in the game. The Tigers got up 20-0 on LSU by the second quarter before coaching malpractice took over. Auburn ran the ball 17 consecutive first downs, 17! The offensive game plan turned into Kerryon Johnson up the middle for little to no gain, followed by deep balls that fell incomplete time and again. The plays were even more egregious considering LSU had stopped defending the middle of the field after loading the box to stop Auburn’s run game. This is the innovation you get from an “offensive guru” in Malzahn?
Malzahn seemed to erase the memory of those previous coaching gaffes from the minds of the school’s leadership once Auburn beat its main rivals for the first time since 2013. After consecutive SEC wins at home over No. 1 ranked teams, all was good and well at Auburn. Apparently, as long as Malzahn manages to keep up that pace and record a single win over Georgia and Alabama by 2021, he has the support of the school’s leadership.
The decision from Arkansas to fire Bret Bielema and pursue the Auburn coach certainly aided the meteoric rise of Malzahn’s coaching stock. But if all it took for his stock to come back crashing down was consecutive defeats, his popularity on The Plains seems to have disappeared quicker than the fidget spinner trend.
After choking away wins against LSU and UCF and its hugely disappointing result from the team’s first trip to Atlanta against Georgia, the Tigers enter 2018 with a two-game losing streak inside the city. As luck would have it, Auburn opens the 2018 season in Atlanta against what will likely be the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 North.
Should the Tigers drop that game, Malzahn may soon need to start referring to the city as Hotlanta. The heat he’ll be catching from the results east of Alabama may turn out to be the beginning of his undoing at Auburn as the Tigers tread water in the league while Alabama and Georgia appear poised to control the SEC for the foreseeable future.