Thanks to those who submitted questions for this week's Plainsman Mailbag. Submissions for next week's will open Sunday.
From @JoshFisherPhoto on Twitter
1. What changes do you see coming to Auburn's coaching staff with things going the way they are?
Well, for starters, there's the obvious: Gus Malzahn's seat will be scorching if the Tigers fall to Ole Miss.
A large contingent of Auburn fans already want the sixth-year head coach gone. But with a buyout north of $32 million for his 7-year, $49 million contract, that's a tall task for Auburn to come up with that money, even with the team possibly facing a 6-6 season.
Auburn got itself into this jam with Malzahn's over-the-top deal. But my instincts tell me that as long as the team makes a bowl, he's safe.
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As it stands with the rest of the staff, it's not crazy to project a few changes. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey almost left last season for the South Alabama head coaching gig, and although the Tigers offense has regressed this year, he's still viewed in a positive light in coaching circles.
If Lindsey bounces, former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze would be my first guess for the replacement. After a scandalous exit in Oxford, Freeze, a friend of Malzahn's, is eyeing a return to coaching.
There have also been grumblings of running backs coach Tim Horton being in danger, as the Tigers rushing attack is experiencing one of its worst seasons in recent memory. That may be just a rumor for now, but if the offense can't turn it around, an overhaul on that side of the ball wouldn't exactly be surprising.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who is viewed as one of, if not the most talented coach on the staff for his turnaround of the Tiger 'D,' was reportedly courted by Tennessee for their head coach opening last season.
It's less likely Steele would leave his post on The Plains, as he's the eighth-highest-paid assistant in college football at $1.2 million a year.
2. How does the news that Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf is out for this Saturday's game factor into Auburn's chances for a W?
Metcalf is out for not just Saturday, but the remainder of the Rebels' season.
It's a huge loss. A top NFL prospect at receiver, Metcalf is third in the SEC in receiving yards and first in yards per catch.
But if there's an offense in the league that can recover from losing an offensive weapon, it's Ole Miss'.
Quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and the Rebels passing game tops the SEC. Even without Metcalf, two other Ole Miss receivers are in the top 5 in receiving in the conference (No. 2 A.J. Brown, No. 5 DaMarkus Lodge).
And they'll be attacking an Auburn secondary that has not only been susceptible to the deep ball as of late, but could also be short-handed.
Starting free safety Jeremiah Dinson will miss the first half after being ejected from the Tigers' loss to Tennessee last week, and cornerback Jamel Dean is still "day-to-day" after sustaining a shoulder injury against the Vols.
Metcalf being out helps what could be a depleted Auburn backend, but if Ta'amu can get in a rhythm like Jarrett Guarantano did, it could be another long day for Steele's defense.
3. What improvements if any did you see from Auburn in their loss Saturday?
Not much came from that one.
I saw more offensive improvements in the Mississippi State loss — when efficient second-half play-calling led to the team's most yards in a half since the Washington win. Auburn couldn't even get in a position to improve this week, as Stidham's turnovers shot down any pace or rhythm.
And when the Tigers held onto the ball, predictable formations led to a telegraphed scheme. As if Jordan Rodgers' stats weren't enough, a video surfaced later in the week of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt calling an Auburn play well before the snap.
Predictable play-calling has been a common knock against Malzahn-led teams, and for the offense to get back on track against a weak Ole Miss defense, it can't give the Rebels anything for free.
From @Trey_Bruce on Twitter
4. Do you think we will see heavier involvement by some of the freshmen (specifically Williams and Schwartz) down the stretch given how effective they have been in limited playing time?
When Auburn was 4-1 and needed offensive adjustments, Malzahn preached continuity, as the Tigers still had everything in front of them in terms of title contention.
Now it may be time to build for the future.
This week, Malzahn teased "tweaks," but didn't reveal the specifics as to not "incriminate" the team against Ole Miss. But reading between the lines, we may already know what those alterations may be.
When asked about Malik Willis starting at quarterback, Malzahn was quick to shoot it down and back Jarrett Stidham as the team's leader — obviously. But Willis in general may be a different story.
Malzahn said on Tiger Talk last night, when asked about Willis, that the team will do whatever it takes to improve on offense.
Malzahn also mentioned Tuesday that the competition on the offensive line is heating up, and backups are gaining ground. Expect one or two of the front five to be swapped out this week.
But back to the original inquiry about the freshmen. Without Anthony Schwartz, Seth Williams and JaTarvious Whitlow, who knows where Auburn's offense would be at this point.
That trio has accounted for 41 percent of the team's total offense through seven games, with Schwartz and Williams seemingly improving weekly. Getting the ball in Schwartz's hands seems to also be on Malzahn's checklist, as the world-class speedster is averaging just 3.1 touches per game.
When talking about his evaluations from the Tennessee game, Malzahn said Schwartz popped off the page.
"I think that’s part of the evaluation process that I said after the game... you look at everything, and I’m really excited about Anthony Schwartz," Malzahn said. "You’re talking about a guy that’s not playing like a freshman, making big plays, and not just when you hand him the football but just the route he ran and turned upfield and broke a tackle, and of course he’s super fast."
Williams' lack of targets and Schwartz's lack of touches with the offensive struggles worsening raised even more questions about the coaches' stubbornness in the past few weeks. A gameplan designed to get the freshies in space against an often porous Ole Miss defense would be a welcome sight for Auburn fans, and it's one I'm expecting to see Saturday.
From @stan_try on Twitter
5. Do you think Gus will try to open up the playbook more and pull out all the stops—trick plays and all—to get a second conference win?
Think back to the 2009 Iron Bowl. A 7-4 Tigers team hosted undefeated No. 2 Alabama with, obviously, nothing to lose. So Auburn scored twice early off an opening-drive trick play followed by an onside kick to spot the Crimson Tide a 14-0 deficit.
Malzahn almost brutally pointed out Tuesday that there's no championships left to play for this season. So why not get crazy when the Tigers face likely top 5 Georgia and Alabama?
Against Ole Miss and Texas A&M — two very winnable games — I expect Malzahn to keep things tame aside from the aforementioned "tweaks." We've seen how trick plays have worked in the past two weeks...
From McClain Baxley:
6. As an outsider, it seems like Malzahn has always had a rocky start, but a late victory against UGA or Alabama has saved his job. If he doesn't get a win against one of those teams in November, is he gone?
Also, how much different would this team look if there was more of a dual-threat quarterback as oppose to a clear pocketpasser?
That was definitely the case last season.
As is the mid-October trend, everyone wanted Gus Malzahn's head after the LSU loss. He went on to beat the No. 1 team in the nation twice in Georgia and Alabama.
Because Auburn's schedule is set up with either both UGA and 'Bama both at home or away, the Tigers have been dealt a poor hand this season, having to play both the Dawgs and Tide on the road. So I don't think Auburn fans are expecting much out of back corner of the season.
In my opinion, if Malzahn gets the team to a bowl game, he stays. The buyout is much too big. If the Tigers finish at 5-7, we may be looking at a coaching search, however.
To the second question: Auburn has shown it can run the ball well without a dual-threat QB.
In 2009, 2016 and 2017, Auburn didn't have a dynamic athlete under center, but it was still able to produce on the ground. It's nice to have a guy like a Nick Marshall or a Cam Newton, yes, but that hasn't been necessary for rushing success.
The problems with Auburn's offense are three-fold right now: Stidham has regressed, the offensive line can't protect him and the healthy running backs aren't producing.
If backup quarterback Malik Willis were to be tossed into the mix for Stidham, like many fans are clamoring for, there's not much evidence that shows he would have any more success. He's looked much less impressive this season than his true freshman year. Plus, the O-line already can't run-block for the backs, so why would a running quarterback be any different?
Malzahn didn't rule out the possibility of Willis entering the game this week, however. My best guess is that it will be in specific packages designed to harness his quickness in the zone-read game, rather than an outright quarterback role.
At this point, Auburn's offense can't do much worse.
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