Gus Malzahn's 'hot seat' is oversimplified, but '16 is an intriguing year for Auburn
Reports are suggesting that Gus Malzahn is on the hot seat entering the 2016 season. And considering how much Auburn has struggled the past two seasons, perhaps he should be. But maybe things aren’t as bleak as they seem on the Plains these days, and it’s possible that Malzahn and the Tiger faithful have something to look forward to as spring ball and the rest of the season approach.
1. The schedule
Six of Auburn’s first seven 2016 games will be at home, including the Sept. 3 opener against Deshaun Watson and national finalist Clemson. The second half of the slate is heavily backloaded with road matchups against Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. But the Tigers have a shot to go 6-1 before that dangerous second-half stretch. It might be a lot to ask of a team that went 0-4 at home against SEC teams and 3-4 overall last season, but it’s obviously a start Auburn has to target if it has designs on at least going to another bowl.
2. The running game
Sure, Peyton Barber had a fine 2015 season when led the Tigers by rushing for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns, and losing him and offensive linemen Avery Young and Shon Coleman early to the NFL Draft will hurt. But it’s time to focus on the players who are returning. Jovon Robinson overcame injuries to average 5.5 yards a carry over his eight games. Roc Thomas was even better, with 6.1 yards per touch on his 43 rushes. Plus Kerryon Johnson was the fourth Auburn back last season to rush for more than 200 yards, so the Tigers definitely have depth in the backfield. In addition, starting guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith and center Austin Golson are coming back, so the Tigers’ tradition of a strong running game – at least under Malzahn – should continue.
3. The recruiting class
Nine of 17 members of the 2016 group are defensive players, which should help new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who replaced Will Muschamp, now the head coach at South Carolina. There are no five-star players in the class, which is led by Marlon Davidson, a 6-4, 260-pound defensive end from Greenville, Ala. Auburn – which dismissed D’haquille Williams early last season and is losing leading receiver Ricardo Louis to graduation – looks like it might be getting immediate help in that area with 6-foot-1, 218-pound wideout Kyle Davis out of Lawrenceville, Ga. According to 247Sports, even though Auburn’s haul is ranked only sixth in the SEC, it is considered the 11th-best in the FBS, which is not too shabby.
4. Key returnees
Two Auburn players who could have taken their talents to the NFL have instead decided to stay on the Plains for another year, and that’s good news for the Tigers. First, it was oft-injured defensive end Carl Lawson, who opted to come back for his redshirt junior season. Then Montravius Adams, who led Auburn’s defensive linemen with 44 tackles last season, followed suit. Despite missing six games in 2015 with a hip injury, Lawson finished with 17 tackles, 11 QB hurries and a sack. Having them back will certainly be a boost for Steele as he tries to clean up the mess left behind by Muschamp.
5. The great unknowns
It remains to be seen how well the Steele hiring will work, but after regressing on defense the past two seasons, the Tigers certainly can use a new voice. Questions regarding the returning QBs also persist: Will Sean White be more than the player who threw 2 INTs in Auburn’s 31-10 victory over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl? Will Jeremy Johnson be the guy who threw six picks over his first 72 passes or the signal-caller who threw just one over his final 85 attempts? Or will recruits John Franklin or Woody Barrett push them out of the mix altogether?
The biggest question as 2016 approaches is whether Malzahn is still the right guy to lead this Auburn team. On one hand, he is 2-10 over his past 12 SEC games; on the other, he has yet to lose three consecutive games in his three seasons at Auburn. Believe it or not, even Nick Saban lost four straight during his first year with Alabama in 2007. He obviously recovered well enough to win four national championships over the next seven seasons, but Muschamp and every other SEC West coach all realize that this is what they will be up against every year as long as Saban stays in Tuscaloosa.
Malzahn is 27-13 with Auburn, including a trip to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game that the Tigers probably should have won after blowing a 21-3 lead to Florida State. That averages out to a 9-4 record per season, which isn’t bad when you consider that Auburn hasn’t had consecutive 10-win seasons since 1988-89, when the Tigers finished 10-2 each year.
But it’s important to note that Malzahn’s three predecessors – Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik — all had at least one undefeated season with the Tigers before their tenures at Auburn went downhill.
Malzahn’s hot seat might not be as warm as LSU peer Les Miles’, but it would cool down considerably if the Tigers somehow shock Clemson on Sept. 3 and then build on things from there.
Of course, if Auburn gets off to a rough start, another Prayer at Jordan-Hare or another Kick Six might not be enough to save Malzahn. But at least he still has a chance to dictate his fate.