This week we're taking an early look at some of the SEC coaches who might be on the hot seat going into the 2017 season. First, it was Butch Jones at Tennessee. Then we discussed Kevin Sumlin’s future at Texas A&M.
Now it’s time to wrap up the series with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
How he gets off the hot seat: Clearly, eight wins and a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl last year wasn’t enough. At this point, it would probably take beating Alabama or winning the SEC for Malzahn to fully remove himself from the hot seat. If the past decade has proven anything, it’s that Auburn coaches are one bad season from looking for a new job.
To be fair, though, Malzahn’s seat isn’t nearly as warm now as it was this time a year ago. For a stretch in the middle of last season -- before the injuries began to pile up -- Auburn looked as good as any team in the SEC.
The question is, if the Tigers can stay healthy, will we see that team return in 2017? The arrival of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham should help. If there was one major question mark on last year’s team, it was at the quarterback spot. But many believe Stidham will be the solution to that problem and that he has all the tools to take Auburn back to an elite level.
However, with raised expectations comes added pressure. Seven or eight wins might not be enough when the missing piece (Stidham) is now on campus.
There’s also pressure on new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to deliver. This is the first time Malzahn has had anybody other than Rhett Lashlee as his offensive coordinator at the college level, and Lindsey is the guy Malzahn wanted as Lashlee’s replacement. If the offense struggles again this season, it would look bad on Lindsey. But it could ultimately fall back on Malzahn.
The hope is that Stidham emerges as one of the SEC’s top players and leads Auburn to a conference title, beating Alabama along the way. Then maybe Malzahn can finally feel safe about his future.
How his job ends up in jeopardy: It’s hard to believe that the head coach on a team ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s preseason FPI would be on the hot seat. But we’ve been here before, right? In 2015, Auburn had a potential breakout star in Jeremy Johnson and a team that some thought could win the SEC. The Tigers finished that season 6-6 before winning the bowl game.
To be clear, Malzahn can’t survive another 6-6 season in 2017 -- not with these types of expectations being put on his team.
Record aside, it might be the month of November that ultimately decides Malzahn’s fate. Since that magical first season in 2013, he’s lost three straight games to both Alabama and Georgia in the final month. Let’s say Auburn does win seven or even eight games like it did a year ago. It might not be enough if two of the losses come at the end of the season to its two top rivals. Fans are growing tired of losing to Alabama and Georgia every year.
The good news for Malzahn this season is that he has a team capable of dethroning Alabama and winning the SEC. The bad news is that there’s very little margin for error. Will Auburn rise to the occasion or will it wilt under the pressure again? Malzahn had better hope it’s the former.