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Bowl Game Could Decide Gus Malzahn’s Fate at Auburn

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

This time two years ago, Auburn was riding a nine-game winning streak amidst a magical season that led to a highly improbable victory over then-No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, an SEC Championship ring, and an opportunity to play undefeated Florida State in the final BCS national title game.

First-year head coach Gus Malzahn had returned that preseason after a one-year haitus with Arkansas State, replacing Gene Chizik, who went 8-5 and then 3-9 in the two years following a 14-0, championship-winning season with Cam Newton under center. Malzahn took over and turned the Tigers into the most improved team in the country, finishing 12-2 (7-1 SEC) in what was just his second year as a head coach in the college ranks.

He was Auburn’s savior; the man that installed a snail-paced offense that went from 695 total snaps in 2012 (122nd out of 124 FBS teams) and 18.7 points per game (114th) to an innovative, up-tempo scheme that ran 1,014 plays (20th) and lit up the scoreboard for an average of 39.5 points (12th) in his first season.

Fast forward to now, and Malzahn is No. 1 in the CoachesHotSeat.com rankings.

Since losing to Florida State (34-31) in the final seconds of the 2013-14 BCS National Championship Game, both of Malzahn’s teams have fallen far below preseason expectations. Last season, the Tigers entered the year as the AP Top 25 poll’s No. 6 team in the country. They finished their title game hangover by going 8-5 (4-4), losing four of their final five games to end the season, with its one win during that stretch coming against FCS Samford.

Like 2014, preseason expectations were sky high for Auburn, as it again entered at No. 6 and was one of the sexy favorites to win the SEC and play in the College Football Playoff. Despite having just one career start to his name, junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson was receiving national attention as a potential Heisman Trophy dark horse, drawing lofty comparisons to Cam Newton due to his size (6-foot-5, 240 lbs.), athleticism, and arm strength.

However, by Week 2, it was clear that the Tigers were far from being a contender.

After struggling to hold off Louisville in the season opener, 31-24, Auburn nearly fell victim to what would have arguably been, at the time, the biggest upset in college football history. It needed a last-second fourth-quarter comeback to even the score at 20-apiece before avoiding what seemed like an inevitable loss to the FCS foe in overtime, winning the game 27-20.

But even though the Tigers escaped with a victory, it was no secret that they weren’t going to be the high-caliber team everyone had thought them to be. Still, no one knew it was going to be this bad.

After starting 2-0, Auburn proceeded to drop six of its next 10 games, losing to LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia, and, of course, Alabama, by the end of November. Even its wins were less-than-impressive; beating San Jose State (35-21), Kentucky (30-27), and Idaho (56-34) — opponents with a combined 14-22 record — the way that they did was shocking for Tigers fans, who were hoping for another SEC title run in 2015.

Things got so bad offensively that the once highly acclaimed Johnson was benched for redshirt freshman Sean White by the fourth game of the season. Though he’d later reclaim his starting position, it wasn’t due to enhanced performance or slow progression throughout the year; it was because he proved to be the shiniest of two turds, for lack of a better term.

Johnson enters the postseason completing 94-of-156 (60.3 percent) pass attempts for 1,043 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions — with zero impact in the running game, contradicting previous popular belief as a possible dual-threat option — and Auburn’s once unstoppable offense has lost all momentum, scoring 27.2 points per game (78th nationally) while slowing down its pace to 821 plays in 12 games, despite much more familiarity and experience for players within the system.

Instead of moving into the direction as a rising SEC West — as many figured would happen under Malzhan’s tenure, due to his significant Year 1 sample size — Auburn has fallen into the latter half of the division standings, needing to scratch and claw against should-be inferior competition just in order to reach a bowl game. And while the Tigers continue to trend downhill, in-division rivals such as Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Mississippi State have redirected their paths and stolen the spotlight as programs with a bright future.

Why has this happened? It’s difficult to tell. Malzahn claimed three straight top-10 recruiting classes from 2013-15 and is currently working on another promising group that features a number of sought after four- and five-star prospects. And according to 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite rankings, Auburn (even with the tremendous struggles) owns the No. 8 most talented roster in the entire FBS.

Yet, instead of competing in the College Football Playoff or even a New Year’s Six bowl, Auburn (6-6, 2-6) will play Memphis (9-3, 5-3 American) in the not-nearly-as-cool-as-pretty-much-every-other-offered-destination Birmingham Bowl, a whole two hours away from home.

October 31, 2015: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

October 31, 2015: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during an NCAA football game between the Auburn Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, AL. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

And unfortunately for the Tigers, it’s a complete lose-lose situation; if you beat Memphis, well, congratulations — you, the preseason No. 6 team in college football, beat a Group of Five team in the Birmingham BowlAnd if you lose … you just lost to Memphis.

For Malzahn, though, it’s possible that a win against Memphis would do much more than just increase his overall win-loss record. It would most likely keep him from joining the ridiculous coaching carousel, giving him one last chance to take his loaded roster and make things right with a breakout 2016 campaign.

A loss, though, could be enough to send him packing after falling off the face of the earth over the last two seasons. Athletic director Jay Jacobs did it before with Chizik; what would hold him back from doing the same with Malzahn, who by and large has suffered a similar collapse as his predecessor?

Malzahn will need to bring the heat and leave nothing off the playbook when Auburn kicks off against Memphis on December 30. If not, he might find himself in a position much like SEC West rival did earlier this season; on the wrong side of the scoreboard against an above-average team from the American.

And on December 31, he might be looking for a new job.

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