J. Brady McCollough examines the 25 biggest storylines in college football heading into the season. The fifth installment looks at coaches on the hot seat.
Gus Malzahn took over an Auburn program coming off a 3-9 season in 2013 and led the Tigers straight to the BCS national championship game, where they came within minutes of their second national championship in four years before falling 34-31 to Florida State at the Rose Bowl.
At that moment, it was easy to conclude that any success Auburn was having on the national stage was due to the perceived genius of Malzahn, who was also the Tigers’ offensive coordinator when they won the 2010 national championship with Cam Newton at the helm. Malzahn appeared the perfect foil to Nick Saban at Alabama.
Fast-forward six years, and, despite having agreed to a 7-year, $49 million deal in 2017, Malzahn is considered to be firmly on the hot seat entering 2019.
Simply put, that is ridiculous. Even if Auburn loses the Iron Bowl again this year and doesn’t contend for a playoff spot, it would regret firing Malzahn and starting over from scratch.
Malzahn knows what it takes to win at Auburn, and he’s been a part of three wins over Saban. Sure, his offenses have been steadily trending in the wrong direction — the Tigers were as low as 94th in total offense in 2015 and finished 78th last season on the way to an 8-5 finish — and it’s hard to justify paying an offensive coach $7 million a year for a bum offense.
Malzahn has struggled most to bring in a dual-threat quarterback that can take advantage of what he does best, which is utilize the read-option attack. In 2013, he turned former cornerback Nick Marshall into one of the most explosive players in the country, but he could not take Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, more of a pocket passer, to that next level the last two seasons.
This year, Malzahn has two talented freshman quarterbacks to mold in redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix who should be able to run his system in the years to come. When Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is off to the NFL in 2020, Auburn will have a quarterback that could take control of the rivalry.
Auburn athletic director Allen Greene may not have hired Malzahn, but he would be wise to retain him for at least another season, no matter how this one goes.