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Michael Niziolek: Apologetic tone may not be enough

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn walks out of the tunnel at Jordan-Hare Stadium before his teams game against Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn walks out of the tunnel at Jordan-Hare Stadium before his teams game against Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn isn’t a very good football team.

Losses are piling up — seven straight at home to power five teams, 2-10 record in the SEC going back to 2014 — as the team’s offensive identity has all but vanished.

None of this is news for people following the team, but coach Gus Malzahn had a hard time admitting it.

Until Tuesday.

Malzahn stepped to the podium for his weekly press conference with an uncharacteristically apologetic tone.

“The last two losses have probably hurt me worse than any of the others,” Malzahn said. “I fully understand our fan base is disappointed, and they should be. The bottom line is we've got to coach our players better, and that starts with me.”

It was a tentative step forward for a coach who rarely wishes to discuss anything of substance with the media.

For him to acknowledge Auburn’s significant failures — and take the blame for them — would have been an even bigger deal if much of the press conference wasn’t just a rehash of what Malzahn has said for the past 18 months.

After Auburn’s 41-7 loss to LSU last year, Malzahn hit many of the same points he did Tuesday — the coaching staff is evaluating personnel on both sides of the ball, they have confidence in (then-newly named) starter Sean White and must make better adjustments.

“We need to get better,” Malzahn said last September. “We’re in a position to do that, and that’s what I expect us to do.”

Not identical but pretty close to what the coach said this week.

“We are close, and when you really look at it, we played two really good teams and had opportunities,” Malzahn said. “We just have to take that next step. We are going to get this thing turned around.”

The same quarterback and tempo issues are still plaguing Auburn’s offense a year later. There’s now the added wrinkle of continued communication breakdowns on the offensive line.

Malzahn made a big deal this week about “mesh charging,” a specific tactic defenses are using upfront to disrupt Auburn’s offense, as if it plays a larger role in the team’s ongoing struggles.

It would help Auburn’s offense if it didn’t have as many negative plays, but the problems go beyond simple in-game adjustments.

Auburn has averaged 19.8 points per game in its last eight losses, a number that puts the Tigers among the worst offenses in the country.

Fixing minute details won’t address the underlying issues impacting Auburn’s offense. The fact that Auburn can’t reliably score 20 points at home is a sign of how far the program has fallen since 2013.

While Malzahn pointed to the close scores of Auburn’s two losses this fall to show the program is on the doorstep of a breakthrough, he’s not going to get another 18 months to figure it out.

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