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Auburn has plenty of intriguing storylines to watch heading into 2016

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn reacts to a referee during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn reacts to a referee during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Auburn, Ala. AP Photo

Auburn isn't a program that tolerates mediocrity.

With the clock is ticking for coach Gus Malzahn, here are the storylines to watch for 2016...

Starting from scratch at quarterback… The uncertainty Auburn had at the quarterback position this season following Jeremy Johnson’s rough start isn’t clearing up anytime soon.

The Tigers’ decision on who to start in the Birmingham Bowl won’t change the fact the team is headed towards an open competition in the spring with Johnson, Sean White, junior college transfer John Franklin III and West Orange verbal commit Woody Barrett.

Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have dodged questions about their offseason plans at quarterback, but played their hand with a pitch to Franklin that was basically a plea for help.

Style points… Auburn’s decision at quarterback is only part of the uncertainty surrounding the team’s offense.

Malzahn has thrived as a coach and assistant with mobile quarterbacks. Before the season, the third-year coach insisted Jeremy Johnson would be just as effective in an offense that was one of the best in country under Nick Marshall.

Opposing defenses didn’t agree as they locked in on Auburn’s run game with both Johnson and Sean White under center.

Running back Peyton Barber went out of his way this season to stand behind the coaching staff’s various key football decisions, but wasn’t afraid to admit the offense lacked suffered without a true dual-threat quarterback. 

“It’s been two totally different quarterbacks that we’ve had in the past two years with Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson and Sean White,” Barber said. “Nick Marshall was basically another running back that allowed for everything else to open up.”

Auburn needs to fix it's offense by matching the right quarterback to the right system.

Will Auburn find the “best guy” for defensive coordinator position? Malzahn’s public stance on his search for a third defensive coordinator in four years is that he’s being patient.

The reason Auburn’s search is nearing the three-week mark for Will Muschamp’s replacement is because Malzahn wants the “best guy.”

Malzahn will spin whichever coach he brings in as the candidate that fits the description, but without a high-profile name he might not meet the fanbase’s growing expectations.

Auburn helped set the standard when it made Muschamp the highest assistant coach in all of football last year and lavished the former Florida coach with praise.

“He's one of the best in the business, if not the best in the business, and we really got all the above with what we were looking for,” Malzahn said.

Malzahn needs a candidate he can sell as strongly if he wants people to believe that Auburn didn’t strike out on bigger named targets during its prolonged search.

Will coach Gus Malzahn’s seat start to warm up? Malzahn banked some good will in taking Auburn to the national title game his first year as coach in 2013. A win in the Birmingham Bowl would keep Malzahn from having his first losing season as coach, but the team’s 6-10 record in the SEC the last two seasons is a huge red flag. If the Tigers take another step backwards next season he will have used all that currency up.

Former coach Gene Chizik won a title for Auburn and found out how quickly the tide shifts when he was fired two years later.

The Tigers open up 2016 with five home games before a challenging stretch of conference road games at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.

Auburn will need to get off to a hot start for Malzahn to avoid questions about his future.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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