What a difference a month can make.
For the second time in two weeks, the Auburn Tigers knocked off the No.1 team in the nation.
First came Georgia, and all eyes were on Pat Dye Field for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, and as head coach Gus Malzahn put it, Auburn “whipped the dog crap” out of the top-ranked Bulldogs.
Next came Alabama in the 82nd edition of the Iron Bowl, and as Charles Barkley put it, it wasn’t the “Kick Six”, it was the “Kick Ass."
Auburn beat its two biggest rivals in the two biggest games of the year, something Malzahn had been criticized for not being able to do the past three years, crushing Georgia 40-17, and handling Alabama 26-14. No miracles were needed this year; Auburn was just the better team.
Something clicked after the LSU loss, you could see it in Malzahn and you could see it in his team.
To say that these were must-wins for Malzahn would be an understatement. Entering the Georgia game, the fifth-year head coach was one bad loss away from losing his job, due in large part to a 1-7 record against top 10 teams since 2014. In addition, he had been winless against the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide since 2013, where he needed the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six to escape with wins.
Things were different this year.
Auburn dominated every aspect of the Georgia game in a convincing 40-17 blowout win, in which the Tigers held Georgia to only 46 rushing yards. On offense, Malzahn’s team returned to its roots against the Bulldogs: they were physical in the trenches, they ran the ball for over 200 yards, and they played with tempo.
Against Alabama, they stayed hot. They pulled the upset, knocking off the Crimson Tide 26-14 in Jordan-Hare thanks to clutch performances by Kerryon Johnson, Jarrett Stidham, and how could we forget, Ryan Davis, who set an Auburn single-season reception record.
When Malzahn has a talented quarterback, his system has worked. The past two years he has had Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, not what you would call SEC-caliber talent. Fans were quick to judge the system and, yes, Malzahn could’ve done a better job with those teams, but when the system has worked like it did with Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, and this year with Jarrett Stidham, fans sing Malzahn’s praises.
I guess that is just life as a head coach in the SEC.
After a disappointing loss to LSU earlier in the season, in which Auburn blew a 20-point lead, the majority of fans and boosters were calling for Malzahn to be fired. The offense ran the ball 17 straight times on first down and failed to adjust to the LSU defense in the second half. Auburn lost 27-23 and Malzahn took full responsibility, but maintained to critics that this loss wasn’t the “end of the world."
It turns out that he was right. Auburn is now 10-2 overall, 7-1 in the conference, and are ranked 2nd in the College Football Playoff rankings, with an opportunity to earn their spot in the College Football Playoff if they can defeat Georgia for the second time this year in the SEC championship game.
Just a few weeks removed from being on the hot seat, Malzahn has salvaged his job from the fire and now has the Tigers playing for the SEC Championship and a playoff berth.