This was never the game Auburn wanted to be in.
Before the season, Auburn was predicted to win the SEC and was considered to by many to be a legitimate national title contender. But the Tigers underachieved in 2015 more than any other team in college football. Instead of playing in a marquee bowl game or even the College Football Playoff, Auburn will take on the Memphis Tigers in the Birmingham Bowl after earning a 6-6 regular season record and finishing dead last in the SEC West.
With the way this season has gone for the Tigers, it can be tough to gauge what is really at stake today. In simplest terms, a win would mean Auburn avoids its first losing season since 2012, after which head coach Gene Chizik was shown the door. But there could be other implications of the result of the Birmingham Bowl, including the fate of head coach Gus Malzahn.
Two years ago, it would have been hard to believe that Malzahn’s departure from Auburn could even be thought of the way it is now. In Malzahn’s first year, he engineered one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in the last decade, taking Auburn from 3-9 in 2012 to the BCS National Championship Game in 2013. However, Malzahn’s two teams since then have grossly underperformed after being expected to compete for a national title in each of the last two seasons.
Hotter seat to start next year: Kevin Sumlin or Gus Malzahn. I say Malzahn by a little, not much.
— Brad (@Brad2524) December 17, 2015
For now, there is no indication that Malzahn’s job is in any legitimate danger for the moment, and he should be guaranteed at least one more season. But it is worth considering the possibility of that attitude changing if the Tigers suffer a bad loss in the Birmingham Bowl. After all, Malzahn has already lost his top assistant in Will Muschamp, and he’s struggled to find a replacement at the defensive coordinator position.
— David Jones (@djoneshoop) December 24, 2015
The outcome of this game won’t determine Malzahn’s future, but the Tigers can’t allow themselves to be embarrassed if they don’t want the grumblings surrounding Malzhan to get louder over the offseason.
Perhaps more than anything, the momentum, positive or negative, gained from this game will be of the utmost importance for the Auburn program. This bowl game comes at a crucial junction point for the foreseeable future of Auburn football.
Auburn is generally regarded as one of the most well-respected football programs in the southeast.
However, the Tigers are certainly trending downward at the moment after a pair of mediocre seasons. Because the SEC, and in particular the SEC West, is loaded with quality teams every year, a team that plays at a mere mediocre level can fall by the wayside behind the other historic programs in the division very quickly. Auburn is in serious danger of suffering that fate and needs literally anything to hang its hat on right now heading into 2016.
Nothing has gone as planned for the Tigers this season and a win in the Birmingham Bowl won’t wipe away any disappointment, but a strong performance from the Tigers could, at least, give Malzahn and Co. something to build on in the offseason. After all, Malzahn has proven capable of orchestrating a quick turnaround.
On the flip side, there might not be a worse exclamation point of disappointment to end a season than losing a bowl game to a Group of 5 team in what is essentially a home game for the Tigers.
For that reason, yes, Auburn needs a win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.