HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn is counting on his play-calling ability to save his job.
Malzahn is the coach most likely to be fired in the Southeastern Conference West following this season. He takes over the spot formerly held by LSU’s Ed Orgeron, who received at least a one-year stay coming off the program’s first 10-win season since 2013. Malzahn is back on the plank after an 8-5 season. It’s the fourth time in five seasons he’s won eight or less games, which is a fireable offense for a guy making $7 million a year.
“Some places eight wins, they celebrate,” Malzahn said Thursday as the SEC Media Days concluded. “That’s just not part of Auburn. We expect to win championships, and we’ve done that, and we’re going to have more championships in the future here, too.”
The question is will they be with Malzahn in charge or with someone else.
Malzahn probably has two years to right the ship because of a huge buyout that’s part of the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed two years ago when Auburn was worried he might go home to coach Arkansas. Giving Malzahn a new contract is a decision many Auburn fans regret.
Malzahn starts the season in much the same situation as former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin did in 2017. We all remember those fun days. Things gradually got worse under Sumlin as the 8-5 seasons mounted until former athletic director Scott Woodward mercifully pulled the plug, leaving Sumlin a Belk Bowl victory short of a fourth straight 8-5 season as his 20-6 start was a distant memory.
Malzahn’s fond memories have been pushed to the background as he’s spent the majority of the last six seasons on the proverbial hot seat. The offensive coordinator on the 2010 national championship team was hailed as a savior in 2013 by going 12-2 in his first season as the Tigers’ head coach. Malzahn came within a play of winning the national championship as Florida State rallied for a 34-31 victory.
But Auburn slipped to 8-5 last season and other than a 10-4 season two years ago that included an SEC championship, there’s been unrest as Malzahn’s been 21-19 in conference play since his first season.
The bottom line is Malzahn has beaten rival Alabama only twice in six seasons, which coincides with his two SEC titles.
“I knew [the expectations] when I signed up,” Malzahn said. “In the years that we win championships, it’s good. The years we don’t, it’s hot seat this, hot seat that. And I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo, and it’s just part of the job description.”
Malzahn’s seat could get much hotter this season considering Auburn is facing the toughest schedule of his tenure. Along with playing SEC West foes Alabama, LSU and A&M, the Tigers play Florida and Georgia from the East. That’s four teams likely to be ranked in the Top 10 with A&M probably in the Top 15. Auburn could play well and lose all five games. Auburn hasn’t won at LSU since 1999, and Florida made Auburn its homecoming game.
“We have not been too many people’s homecoming [opponent],” Malzahn said.
And if that’s not enough, Auburn also will open the season against Oregon with two freshman quarterbacks vying for the staring job.
“The first part of our schedule is a man schedule, so we need to grow up in a hurry,” Malzahn.
Malzahn will help his young quarterbacks with his play-calling. He called plays for Cam Newton on the 2010 national title team and for Nick Marshall in 2013, teams that featured dynamic offenses in part because both quarterbacks could run. But responding to criticism, Malzahn gave up play-calling duties after a slow start in 2015 that included a loss to Jacksonville State. It was a popular trend at the time to delegate authority and for the head coach to be a CEO more than a hands-on manager. The offensive coordinators Malzahn had call plays — Rhett Lashlee and Chip Lindsey — were OK but not in Malzahn’s league. It had to pain Malzahn to watch Auburn’s offense sputter as the so-so seasons mounted.
“When I decided to go back and call plays, that’s really who I am,” Malzahn said. “I’m an offensive guy. That’s what got me where I’m at.”
You could argue that listening to the noise got Malzahn in the spot he’s in.
“Through the years, you get advice and all of that,” Malzahn said. “And of course I made a mistake.”
Malzahn sounded refreshed Thursday, as if he made a right decision.
“I just decided to get back to being me and call plays,” Malzahn said. “I’m back in the swing of things, the day-in and day-out coaching on the field. What happens is the whole team takes on my personality. It just feels natural. I wasn’t really good at standing back and watching.”
Putting a little kick in Malzahn’s step is the fact that his freshmen quarterbacks, Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix, can run. Gatewood is 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds. Nix is 6-2, 207.
“Both can run,” Malzahn said. “And that makes play-calling easier.”
If Malzahn isn’t able to dial up a nine- or 10-win season with his latest mobile quarterbacks, he might be the one on the move.