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Michael Niziolek: How long will good time Gus last?

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watches his team warm-up before facing Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan Hare Stadium.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watches his team warm-up before facing Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

A happy go-lucky Gus Malzahn.

It’s truly a new era of Auburn football.

Malzahn made waves with his recent press conferences, first, by blaming himself for the team’s extended SEC slump last week.

He caused an even greater stir handing over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee starting with Auburn’s 18-13 win over LSU, a decision he spent most of his weekly press conference discussing.

According to Malzahn, he spent the first three weeks of the season in a funk struggling to get a stagnant Auburn offense going. Malzahn went so far as to describe himself as an angry, negative presence on the sidelines.

Something needed to change.

“Sometimes reality hits you,” Malzahn said. “In this day and time in this league, to be the head coach and call an offense is not realistic, at least for me.”

Lashlee got called into action last year against Texas A&M, but that was described as a one-time experiment. Last week’s decision to hand over the play-calling responsibilities to Lashlee is a permanent one that Malzahn says is “100 percent best” for the team.

Or at least until it isn’t.

The true test for the redefined Malzahn-Lashlee partnership will come after a loss. Or two.

If the offense’s red zone failures continue at the current rate — Auburn’s touchdown conversion rate in the red zone is ranked 127th in the country (out of 128 teams) — will a coach who willingly admits he obsesses over the details really not grab the reigns again?

Lashlee offered a telling pause when he was asked if he ever thought he’d see the day when Gus Malzahn gave up play-calling duties.

“I don’t know,” Lashlee said.

Lashlee went on to describe Malzahn as one of college football’s best play callers over this past decade.

Why would one of the best offensive minds in the sport not want to determine his own fate? The cynical answer would be he wants to make sure there is someone else to blame if Auburn limps to the finish line.

It would help reconcile how a coach who said the team struggled last year because he was too much of a CEO just a couple months ago could go back to the approach less than a quarter of the way into the season.

Auburn’s upcoming three-week stretch is a favorable one. The team celebrates homecoming by hosting ULM this weekend, visits Mississippi State and has a bye week before hosting Arkansas.

Lashlee is calling plays Saturday at Jordan-Hare, but there’s nothing preventing another major shake-up down the line — especially if the goal line proves as elusive as it has been in recent weeks.

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