Seven weeks ago, I called for Auburn to fire head football coach Gus Malzahn, citing his inability to beat his rivals in big games. At the time, Malzahn was a combined 4-9 against LSU, Georgia and Alabama, and had won just one of his last eight games against those opponents.
Since then, all he’s done is convincingly defeat his two biggest rivals while both were ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, showing he’s worth every penny of his 7-year, $49 million contract extension.
The Tigers were left for dead after blowing a 20-point lead in Death Valley. Auburn’s subsequent five-game winning streak will forever be a lesson in resilience.
“Very few teams could do what this team did,” Malzahn said Saturday. “It was a very tough moment in LSU. We had to rally. We had to circle the wagons. [Jarrett Stidham and Tray Matthews], along with their teammates, got it done. I’m not sure very many teams could have done that.”
The doubters began to return after Auburn was steamrolled by Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, saying Malzahn had once again come up short when it mattered most, failing to acknowledge that the Tigers never stood a chance against the Bulldogs once Kerryon Johnson went down with a shoulder injury.
Those who still doubt Malzahn should ask themselves this: would any of the coaches who potentially could have replaced Malzahn have led Auburn to an SEC West title this year? Mike Leach? Kevin Sumlin? Jeff Brohm? Not a chance.
In five seasons at Auburn, Malzahn is 45-21 with one SEC Championship, two SEC West division titles, an appearance in the national championship game in 2013 and two New Year’s Six bowl appearances. He also won a national title as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010.
Leach, Sumlin and Brohm have zero conference championship appearances between them, and Sumlin was just fired after winning no more than eight games the last four seasons at Texas A&M.
While some compared Auburn’s run this season to 2013, when Auburn needed miracles to defeat Georgia and Alabama, Malzahn was quick to point out that this team is much more stable.
Auburn will lose some talent heading into next season, particularly along the offensive line and in the secondary, but the Tigers will return most of their core skill position players. Auburn could return as many as 17 starters.
After not playing for nearly two years entering this season, Stidham is just 173 yards from becoming Auburn’s first 3000-yard passer since 1997 and was named SEC Newcomer of the Year along with Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.
Johnson was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1320 yards and scoring 19 total touchdowns. He said Saturday that he was leaning toward returning to The Plains for his senior season.
Add in what should be another stellar recruiting class, and the Tigers are set up for success moving forward.
“I think our future is very bright,” Malzahn said. “I believe we’re going to be back.”
Malzahn said Saturday that he believes the best is yet to come, and after this latest run, I’m not sure many others would disagree.