It wasn’t long ago when the Gus Bus was full steam ahead. Fans couldn’t wait to jump on board as it plowed through the rest of the SEC.
That was Gus Malzahn’s first season at Auburn in a nutshell. The Tigers took the league by storm, winning 12 games, the SEC championship and they were a play or two away from winning a national championship. The first-year coach made his athletic director look like a genius for making the hire, and there were some who thought it was only a matter of time before the NFL came calling.
However, at some point over the last two seasons, the bus broke down.
After he began his career 10-1 in SEC games, Malzahn has only won four of his past 14 in league play. The overall win total went from 12 his first year to eight last year and this year Auburn barely made a bowl game with six wins.
The worst part? Nobody saw it coming.
Before this season, the Tigers were projected by many to win the SEC. It didn’t matter how many starters were lost. Everybody assumed Jeremy Johnson would be as good, if not better, than former quarterback Nick Marshall. And in 2014, scoring points was not the issue. It was stopping other teams from scoring points. Malzahn went out and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in college football to fix that.
Malzahn and Will Muschamp on the same staff together? No team in the SEC could compete with that, not even rival Alabama. So when this team -- ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll -- began to falter, it was as surprising as any storyline in college football.
Last Saturday’s Iron Bowl was the perfect example of how far this program has fallen in just two years. No, Auburn wasn’t blown out by Alabama. It was worse. Malzahn was given credit for keeping his team close, for keeping them in the game. If not for those back-to-back 15-yard penalties called against the Tigers in the fourth quarter, they might have won.
Is it now acceptable to simply play your rival close? Don’t get me wrong; beating Alabama is no easy task. Only two teams have done it in the past two seasons. But before Nick Saban arrived, Auburn had won five straight against the Crimson Tide.
And based on the last two weeks, beating your rival is pretty important if you want to keep your job as a coach in the SEC. If Mark Richt beats Florida, he’s likely still the coach at Georgia. Instead, he lost and was let go despite winning nine games. Les Miles was nearly run out of town because he, too, hasn’t figured out how to beat Saban since 2011.
What’s all this mean for Malzahn?
The Auburn coach is safe for now, but there’s a good chance he’ll be coaching for his job in 2016. Six wins simply won’t cut it. Eight wins might not even be enough, given the way the past couple weeks have gone for SEC coaches.
But the key will be progress. The Tigers have to show improvement. They have to prove that they can do more than just stay close to the top teams in the conference. They have to prove that they can beat the likes of Alabama, LSU and Georgia. Since Malzahn took over, Auburn is just 3-6 against those teams.
The good news for next year’s Auburn team is that they won’t be projected to win the league again. Instead, they’ll be picked in the middle of the pack in the SEC, and that’s typically when they have their best seasons, when the pressure is off.
Regardless of where Auburn is picked, the Gus Bus had better get back on track next season or Malzahn will be looking for a new job.