As the college football regular season approaches the home stretch, the Auburn Tigers are sitting on the brink of yet another memorable season.
Or a miserable season.
Or maybe just … meh.
After escaping what would have been a disastrous home loss to Ole Miss — sealing the game with a late interception — the Tigers had a week off before the traditional SEC finish against Georgia and Alabama.
There will be no championship at stake. Any mathematical chance of Auburn winning the West would include LSU losing to Ole Miss, Arkansas or Texas A&M. Just not happening.
Still, that doesn’t mean this is a lost season. At 7-2 and with Samford sandwiched between the Georgia and Alabama games, the Tigers are virtually assured of at least an eight-win season.
That shouldn’t be acceptable at Auburn. But it could be worse. Ask Tennessee or Florida State.
How the Tigers play Saturday against Georgia could go a long way toward defining this season and shaping the future of the program — and the future of Gus Malzahn as head coach.
Malzahn sounded upbeat and relaxed last Tuesday when he held his weekly press conference. He addressed a variety of topics — a quick review of the Ole Miss game, the abrupt departure of quarterback Joey Gatewood, some injury updates, some cursory compliments of Georgia.
Malzahn planned to spend his free Saturday recruiting.
There was no speculation about his job status. And that, for right now, is fair enough. I mean, what’s he going to say about it at this juncture?
But here’s how important the Georgia game is to Malzahn:
A win over the Bulldogs (of Georgia, not Samford) would pretty much assure him of keeping his job at least for another year. It would make it hard to justify coming up with $26.625 million to buy out Malzahn’s contract, half of which would have to be paid by the end of the year. Even with a loss to Alabama, the Tigers would finish the regular season at 9-3, with two of those wins coming against teams (Oregon and Georgia) ranked in the top eight in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
To do that with a true freshman at quarterback and a below average running game would be as much as anyone could reasonably expect against a brutal schedule.
Then there’s the flip side.
Losses to your top conference and recruiting rivals would make it hard to justify not making a change, especially given that both games are at home.
Gatewood’s midseason departure didn’t help the optics. Nor did the recent criticism of Malzahn by Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive and scout who now has a podcast, The GM Shuffle.
“That’s the worst offense I’ve ever seen,” Lombardi said. “He has no idea how to throw the football. Zero. Zero. All he does is scream at the players. He has no idea how to throw the football. He has no passing game.”
Lombardi added, “He might have the best team in the country. He could go play Ohio State and match. That defense is legit. That defense played on Saturday in the Bayou, and they played hard to the bitter end. And yet they got no help from the offense. And you’re going to blame it on a rookie quarterback? No. He’s got a bad, bad offensive scheme. It’s horrible.”
Fairness compels me to note that Lombardi is more accustomed to evaluating NFL offenses than the college game. Also, his tenure as the Cleveland Browns’ GM in 2013-14 wasn’t exactly a rousing success.
A loss to Georgia would be the Tigers’ 14th in their last 19 games against the Bulldogs. That’s hard enough to accept when it’s Alabama and Nick Saban. But when it’s your oldest rival with a similar history, it’s hard to justify.
The next three weeks for Auburn could get very interesting. Then again, isn’t it always?