Better players and better coaches? So then how do you explain this? If Alabama has a deeper, more talented roster and the best coach in college football — maybe of all time — and Gus Malzahn is just a high school coach living a Forrest Gump fantasy, then how do you explain what happened Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium?
This is what happened: Auburn 26, Alabama 14
Here’s the deal. Some things can’t be explained. Like how this Auburn team could look so sloppy against Mercer and could fall apart in the second half against LSU, then turn around and dominate Georgia and Alabama in back-to-back SEC home games.
Yet, that’s their reality. The month began with Malzahn supposedly coaching for his job. That second-half collapse in Baton Rouge was the Tigers’ second loss with Georgia and Alabama still to play. Malzahn’s margin for error was zero.
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Now, Auburn should feel lucky to have him. This win should push Malzahn into consideration for SEC Coach of the Year. The voting will be done after the SEC Championship Game. It would be hard to argue that the winning coach — Malzahn or Georgia’s Kirby Smart — shouldn’t win the award.
The Tigers are one win away from crashing the College Football Playoff party. Wait, that’s not quite right. That implies that these Tigers don’t belong playing with the nation’s elite.
They more than belong among the elite. They are elite. They didn’t win these games with smoke and mirrors, or even a once-in-a-lifetime last-second missed field goal return.
“We beat the second No. 1 team in three weeks,” Malzahn said. “That’s a huge challenge, and our team did it. We had to win five in a row to get here. After the LSU game we counted them down. We took them one week at a time. Tonight was number five. We’re SEC West champs, and we’re going to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship.”
And just was the case against Georgia, Auburn won because it’s the better team. The Tigers’ offensive line blew open holes against Alabama’s suffocating run defense. Yeah, the Crimson Tide has been gutted with injuries, especially at linebacker. But they still were the quickest and strongest defensive front that Auburn has faced, at least since the season opener against Clemson. The Tigers’ offensive line didn’t dominate to the degree that they did two weeks ago against Georgia. Bama had five tackles for loss and made Kerryon Johnson work hard for his 104 yards.
But they still pushed around Alabama at times and gave quarterback Jarrett Stidham enough time to complete 21 of 28 passes for 237 yards. Perhaps the most telling stat was that Auburn converted 9 of 18 third-down attempts. Stidham also showed his toughness with 60 rushing yards on 10 carries, not counting nine yards lost on a fumble and a sack.
“It’s one of those deals, you get to this point in the season, you do whatever you have to do to win a game,” Malzahn said. “This was a game, if we had to run him we were going to run him. When he runs it just enough it really opens things up for us.”
And the high school coach was often a step ahead of Nick Saban. Much credit for that should go to his new offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsay — especially that clever jump pass from Johnson to Nate Craig-Meyers for Auburn’s first touchdown. But credit Malzahn for suppressing his ego and hiring Lindsay last offseason.
“Chip was the perfect guy for the job. I think everybody sees that now,” Malzahn said. “He’s a great person, has a great mind. He’s real aggressive, which I like, and he’s got a great relationship with our quarterback Jarrett Stidham.”
Whether Auburn is the best team in the country or just the hottest is irrelevant. The Tigers are one win away from the playoffs. That’s a long way from their sluggish performance against Clemson the second week of the season.
“We’re a completely different team. I think that’s fair to say,” Malzahn said. “That’s not taking anything away from Clemson. They’re a great team. They were No. 2 in the country when we played them. We were still trying to figure out who we were, our identity. New quarterback, new coordinator. You saw us getting better and better.”
So it’s either talent or coaching that’s been underrated — or maybe both.