1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

The very notion that Gus Malzahn is staring at a make or break season at Auburn is utterly laughable.

This isn’t about wins and losses, it’s dollars and sense.

Or as one industry source told me last week, “Auburn has done a lot of questionable things in the past. Doing that would top them all.”

That is firing Malzahn after this season.

That is paying Malzahn an unthinkable $26.6 million buyout to make it happen.

It’s not that Malzahn hasn’t given Auburn reason to pause in its evaluation of the program. Since that inaugural, magical first team in 2013 came within a few plays of winning it all, Malzahn’s teams have underachieved for half a decade.
Since then, the Tigers are:

  • 11-17 vs. ranked teams.
  • 4-12 vs. rivals Alabama, Georgia and LSU.
  • 21-19 in SEC games.
  • 26-24 vs. Power 5 teams.

In any other Auburn time and any other Auburn place, it’s fait accompli. But this isn’t just any Auburn time – and these aren’t your typical Auburn actors (see: Bobby Lowder and his merry men).

This is about a former president (Steven Leath) in over his head and the best damn sports agent (Jimmy Sexton) in the business. Auburn took care of the former this summer; the latter isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Leath, who might go down as one of the worst presidents in SEC athletics history, was fired in June after 2 years of random and – here’s the key – reckless athletics leadership.

Leath was the man who decided after the joy of beating Alabama in 2017 and reaching the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2013, it was time to saddle up with Malzhan for the foreseeable future.

After all, the Arkansas job was open and the Hogs were calling Gus to come home, and the next thing you know, Leath is sitting across a negotiating table from Michael flipping Jordan. Who do you think wins there?

Sexton had a big, fat fish on the line, and did what he does best: got a king deal for a client who had leverage.

Here’s the genius of the $49 million contract extension Sexton bartered: if at any time Auburn decides to fire Malzahn, it owes him 75 percent of the remaining value of the entire deal.

Imagine Sexton vs. Leath at the negotiating table. A hideous bout you can’t turn away from. From that moment in time, Auburn had this hanging around the neck of its athletic department:

  • $26.625 to fire Malzahn after the 2019 season.
  • $21.45 million after 2020 season.
  • $16.2 million after 2021 season.
  • $10.87 after 2022 season.
  • $5.475 after 2023 season.

The largest buyout in college football history is the $18 million Notre Dame paid to fire Charlie Weis after the 2009 season. The next highest is believed to be the $12.275 million UCLA paid Jim Mora after the 2017 season.

Firing Malzahn after this season would move Auburn into an unimaginable stratosphere of poor decisions. To say nothing of coming up with the $26.6 million to make it happen.

2. A repeat performance

The records and the trends of late are bad enough for Malzahn at Auburn. As damaging: the lack of player development in the passing game.

At the top of the list: The staff’s development of former 4-star quarterback recruit Jarrett Stidham. Instead of changing his offense to fit Stidham and his pro-style, pocket passing skills, Malzahn and his staff forced Stidham into the run-oriented, spread offense Malzahn has used (successfully at times) throughout his career. The Tigers never reached their potential under Stidham.

Now, Round 2 arrives in 2019 with another elite recruit. This time it’s 5-star Bo Nix, a pro-style passer who won the starting job in fall camp and will begin this season (Saturday against Oregon) in the same offense Malzahn has used his entire coaching career.

The son of former Auburn star quarterback Patrick Nix, Bo Nix is a thrower. He has speed and can run, but he’s not a quarterback standing in the shotgun, using multiple play-fakes on a single play, before looking up at the defense to read and react before throwing.

Malzahn said in July Auburn will mold the offense around whichever quarterback (including Joey Gatewood) won the starting job, to put him in the best position to be successful.

That sounds like a solid plan, until you remember Malzahn said the same thing about Stidham – and he was miscast in Malzahn’s run-oriented offense for 2 years.

3. Keeping Gus, The Epilogue

Not long after Leath was fired in June, Auburn announced that former Auburn president Jay Gogue would serve as the interim president until a permanent replacement is hired.
Gogue was at Auburn from 2007-2017, and yes, Gogue spearheaded 3 of the more controversial football moves in the school’s history:

1. Firing Tommy Tuberville (Tubs officially “resigned”) after the 2008 season, despite his – are you ready for this? – 7-3 record vs. Alabama (1-1 vs. Nick Saban).

2. Hiring Gene Chizik from Iowa State — widely criticized as a reach until Chizik won the national title in Year 2, which led to …

3. Firing Gene Chizik 2 years after winning a national title, which led to … hiring Malzahn.

You don’t really think the guy who hired Malzahn, who gushed about that 2013 season and making the tough move on Chizik for the betterment of the program, is going to be the guy who fires Malzahn, do you?

Of course not.

Wait, this is Auburn. Anything is possible.

4. The truth on hitting

Got a text from an SEC coach during the Florida-Miami game Saturday night, and it summed up the shoddy play on the field.

“I’m scared to death of what’s going to happen next week. We’ve brought it upon ourselves.”

Many coaches all over the nation have bemoaned the lack of hitting in fall camp and point to the new practice designed to protect players from serious injury as performance restricting.

When you can’t simulate hitting and tackling and blocking against live targets in practice, it translates to missed assignments, missed tackles, blown blocks and mistakes on the field.

There’s a big difference between hitting a tackling dummy and trying to tackle dynamic players like DeeJay Dallas or Kadarius Toney or Khalil Tate. This leads to more penalties (23 for 218 yards in Miami vs. Florida; 17 for 142 in Arizona vs. Hawaii) and turnovers (combined 13 in the two games).

“If you thought mistakes in those two games were bad, wait until you see this weekend,” one SEC coach told me.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread.

  • Ole Miss at Memphis (+5.5)
  • South Carolina (-7.5) vs. North Carolina
  • Oregon (+3.5) vs. Auburn
  • Missouri at Wyoming (-17.5)
  • Georgia (-21) at Vanderbilt

Last week: 0-1.
Season: 0-1.

6. The tape is your résumé

Each week and NFL scout breaks down an SEC player.

This week: LSU S Grant Delpit.

Scout’s take: “He’s unreal. Might be the first defensive player taken, depending on the end from Ohio State (Chase Young) and how he develops. This kid (Delpit) does everything. He’s a big hitter and he can run. He can cover the slot, and he’s a presence back there in the middle of the field. He has that hip fluidity like a corner, but, boy, when he hits, that’s a linebacker delivering the blow. Everything about his game is clean; I just don’t see any downside. As safe a player to pick (in the draft) as you’re going to get.”

7. Powered up

This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one key thing):

1. Alabama: Looking for a breakout season? Here’s your guy: WR Jaylen Waddle.

2. Georgia: Demetris Robertson couldn’t get on the field in 2018, and didn’t catch one ball. Now he’s critical to UGA’s passing game.

3. LSU: We get a glimpse of OC Joe Brady’s new offense against Georgia Southern. How much will really be shown to Week 2 heavyweight Texas?

4. Texas A&M: RB Trayveon Williams a big loss from 2018; can Jashaun Corbin carry the load?

5. Florida: Offensive line showed ability in pass protection; still needs work in the run game.

6. Auburn: Tigers must pressure Oregon QB Justin Herbert, force uncomfortable throws.

7. Missouri: A dangerous spot on the road against Wyoming, with a new quarterback (Kelly Bryant) transitioning into a new role with a new team.

8. South Carolina: Will Muschamp’s defense vs. UNC freshman QB Sam Howell in his first start.

9. Mississippi State: QB Tommy Stevens is important, but this team needs RB Kylin Hill to carry the load early on.

10. Tennessee: Season begins with home games against Georgia State, BYU and Chattanooga. Anything less than 3-0 heading into Florida game is disappointing.

11. Kentucky: Toledo won’t be a cakewalk – especially with a rebuilt UK defense dealing a dangerous Rockets offense.

12. Vanderbilt: The goal for the Commodores: Make UGA and its revamped receiving corps uncomfortable in the passing game with loads of press coverage.

13. Ole Miss: Welcome to starting in the SEC, Matt Corral. A talented Memphis team on the road, in a game Ole Miss is expected to win.

14. Arkansas: It’s FCS Portland State: a great time to get both QBs — Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel – 20 or more throws to figure out who starts Week 2 at Ole Miss.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: You’re just like every other SEC homer, buying into the (Feleipe) Franks is a changed player crap. He’s the same guy, may as well bench him right now and play for the future with a young guy. I can’t watch anymore of this stuff.

Evan F.

Evan: I wouldn’t be so quick to file away Franks. It’s a long season, and he showed last year that he could figure out how to rebound from an awful game and finish strong. He’s far from a finished product, and he needs to get better. That said, here were my biggest complaints:

1. He left clean pickets numerous times against Miami. If you’re a 4th-year junior – in Year 2 under an accomplished QB coach like Dan Mullen – you absolutely can’t do this. The worst thing you can say about a quarterback is he has no feel for the game and what’s going on around him. That’s a bad place to be.

2. He wasn’t helped by some odd play calls. This is strange because play-calling is one of Mullen’s biggest strengths. There are few like him in the game. Florida threw it deep 4 times in the game: incomplete on the first play of the game, 2 pass interference calls and a perfectly thrown deep ball for 65 yards to Josh Hammond.

Florida’s receivers are the strength of the offense. Use them. It’s just that simple. Force defenses to react to your receivers and their ability to get open and create space (which they did often vs. Miami). Week 3 at Kentucky – against a young UK secondary – is the first step to making the central part of the offense.

9. Numbers game

78. The number of career carries for new Duke QB Quentin Harris, as opposed to his 81 career pass attempts. Needless to say, this isn’t Daniel Jones Alabama will face Saturday. Harris is, however, a dual-threat quarterback that could give the Tide defense problems for a quarter or two. He’s 2-0 as a starter, and his TD/INT ratio (7/1) is strong.

10. Quote board

South Carolina QB Jake Bentley: “There’s no reason to think you have to show up in big games. You should show up big in every game. Whether we’re playing my little brother’s 9th-grade team or North Carolina, I want to be consistent. I want to show up every game.”