Ultimately, it’s about Jeremy Johnson. Right?
If you believe that Johnson’s two-year tenure as Auburn’s part-time starting quarterback was no one-off fluke, but an accurate indication of Gus Malzahn’s future ability to recruit and groom his No. 1 signal-callers — and his inability to avoid an accompanying offensive implosion — then OK, sure, it makes sense to think Malzahn’s a mediocre head coach.
If you feel Johnson’s struggles are a better indicator for Malzahn’s quarterback play going forward than Marshall’s or Stidham’s or White’s (or even Todd’s or Newton’s) successes, by all means, tell me Auburn could do better.
If you remember the 2015 Jacksonville State escape or the 2016 Clemson disaster, and say “despite — or because of — Johnson’s involvement, those are the true expressions of Gus Malzahn’s coaching ability, and the back-to-back ass-whippings of Georgia and Alabama teams that would play for a national title are less representative of the sort of performances we should expect from the remainder of his Auburn career,” then I can see why you’d frown at signing Malzahn to a big-money extension.
If you’re an Auburn fan who doesn’t believe that/feel that/say that, though, I don’t have any clue why you’d ever complain about Gus Malzahn.
Putting aside his role in 2010, Malzahn has been head coach at Auburn for three seasons that did not prominently involve Jeremy Johnson. Those three seasons produced 30 wins; final S&P+ rankings of 5th, 3rd, and 10th; a record of 10-5 against ranked SEC opponents; a 2-1 record against Nick Saban and Alabama, in which both wins came over undefeated teams and the loss despite Malzahn’s offense gaining 630 yards in Bryant-Denny, the most any Alabama defense has ever allowed anywhere; two SEC West titles, despite sharing the division with the aforementioned Alabama teams, one of which would go on to win the national title; two BCS/New Year’s Six bowl berths; an SEC championship; and in 2013, not only the most thrilling Auburn football season of my lifetime, but I’d argue the most thrilling college football season of anyone’s lifetime*.
If you’re an Auburn fan who looks at that list of accomplishments for those three seasons and says “not enough” … well, that’s an odd thing to say.
But I know the clear majority of us wouldn’t say that. The question isn’t whether those three seasons are good enough (they are), or whether the other two aren’t (they’re not, though it was more of an emotional thing with 2016). The question is whether the better three or the worse two give us the more accurate glimpse into Gus Malzahn’s future.
So … ultimately, it’s about Jeremy Johnson. Personally — with all due respect for the by-all-accounts tremendous person Johnson was off the field — I have a hard time seeing Malzahn ever start a quarterback that ineffective again unless forced to by injury, and maybe not then. We’ve got three seasons of evidence to work with for what Auburn should look like in 2018 and beyond, then.
That evidence suggests Auburn should look like one of the best teams in college football.
Not that we even need the “whenever Gus has a quarterback, he’s fine” argument when you’ve got this defensive depth chart, mind:
Here is Auburn's official depth chart for Washington: pic.twitter.com/7r8bkqmlQL
— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) August 28, 2018
There’s a reason every preview of Auburn’s 2018 season focuses on a schedule that, yes, “demonic” is absolutely the word for it. The reason is that based purely on the depth chart alone, calling Auburn anything less than a national title contender would sell them short. To wit:
— A defensive line so absurdly loaded both a productive four-year player like Andrew Williams and a blue-chip terror like T.D. Moultry still have to bide their time on the second-string, a defensive line I’d expect to be nothing less than one of the best Auburn’s ever fielded
— Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams at linebacker, either one of which is capable of producing Auburn’s best linebacking season since Josh Bynes and his adamantium skeleton departed
— Athletic savant Noah Igbinoghene taking all of a few months to bump one of the SEC’s best corners to the nickel and adding an absolutely critical piece of depth-slash-quality
— a hell of a pair of guards
— Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers and Ryan Davis returning for their combined 8th, 9th and 10th seasons and catching passes from, oh yeah,
— a future NFL first-rounder in his second season in Chip Lindsey’s and Gus Malzahn’s offense.
Things aren’t perfect. Wanogho and Driscoll have to prove they can make the step up from 2017’s inconsistency/playing at UMass, respectively. One safety injury might mean starting a (gifted, but still) true freshman. The running back rotation might take a few weeks to figure out properly, and they play Washington tomorrow. Lindsey and Malzahn still have to prove their offense can remain their offense away from Jordan-Hare, at least against defenses better than, say, Arkansas’s.
But no one’s outlook is perfect, not even those guys’. Auburn’s a legitimate preseason top-10 team , and is a legitimate preseason top-10 team without one senior in the offensive line’s or defensive backfield’s two-deep, with studs biding their time in every unit on the roster (hey look, there’s KJ Britt!) and arguably the most airtight recruiting class of Malzahn’s tenure set to arrive this winter.
The schedule’s demonic. But in August 2018, in what other way could Auburn be in any meaningful better place than it is?
Since it may very well self-destruct in under 36 hours, consider that question written on Inspector Gadget stationery. If Auburn loses to Washington — particularly if Auburn loses to Washington as its offense flails in Clemson-style mud for four quarters — these orange-and-blue Internets will be ablaze with “What way?!? The way where we’re not paying $7 million a year for THAT.”
Nevermind that the Huskies are an exceptionally well-coached team who might be every bit the equal of last year’s Clemson. Nevermind that we know already, win or lose, the defense is going to do its Steele Curtain thing, and that as head coach Malzahn deserves just as much credit for its success and he does demerits for the offense’s struggles. Nevermind that we’re all of one season removed from Auburn losing a competitive nonconference game to a national power and still coming within one bad quarter** of a playoff berth.
Lose in Atlanta, and anyone who’s been online these past couple of years knows what’s coming. (From a minority, yes, but a loud one, and not a tiny one, either.) And unfortunately, no matter how good Auburn might be, losing in Atlanta is a distinct possibility. Even great teams lose to other great teams sometimes. Hell, they lose to not-great teams every damn year. But it’ll be coming all the same.
I’m so tired of it, y’all. Are you as tired of it as I am? So, so tired. Chandler Cox took wildcat snaps against Clemson on Sept. 3, 2016, and save for those blessed few weeks last November, it hasn’t stopped since.
That’s not to say Gus doesn’t deserve some measure of blame for the ongoing intra-fanbase blarglefargle. Again: even after a Birmingham Bowl appearance, the blarglefargle didn’t really pick up speed until Gus decided CoxCat was the best way to attack one of the nation’s best defenses. Sean White injury or no Sean White injury, that was Gus’s offense scoring a net zero points in the world’s most winnable game in Athens later that season. Last year’s visit to Baton Rouge was the meltiest meltdown in the history of Auburn meltdowns, and that’s 100 percent on Gus’s shoulders, too.
Still: we’ve reached a point where I’m convinced a handful of Auburn fans would be more happy right now if Gus had lost a close game to Alabama last fall. Consider that he’d have still snapped the streak against top-ranked, playoff-caliber Georgia; suffered two of his three losses in competitive fashion to playoff teams; gone on to (for argument’s sake) win the Citrus Bowl; finished 10-3. There’s no SEC Championship Game disappointment, no UCF wound-licking, no Mercedes-Benz Stadium jinx (or even half of one), no going into the offseason on the back of two defeats.
Let’s remind ourselves now that it’s completely, utterly insane to think Auburn could have a better season without an emphatic Iron Bowl win over an undefeated eventual-national-champion Alabama than with it. But so fervent is the willingness to seize on Gus’s failures in some Auburn quarters that I think that 10-3-is-greater-than-10-4 insanity is where those quarters have arrived.
What do I want for Auburn football in 2018? Same as every season, I want sweet, glorious victory for no motive beyond sweet, glorious victory. That first, that foremost.
But I also want to not be so tired anymore. I want to end the feeling that every game is another referendum on Auburn’s coach. I want to stop pretending every week is another thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a contract extension Auburn never truly had the option of not offering. I want so badly to go back to 2006, when everybody held hands, sang songs, and agreed that a season with several gigantic wins could still be satisfactory despite a handful of deflating losses.
It’s been nine years, and again and again I return to Bill Simmons writing — before Twitter, before First Take, before the world had been formed — “I just want to watch sports.” It’s so dumb, so obvious, but … y’all, I just want to watch Auburn football.
I just want to watch Nick Coe flatten heads. I just want to watch Jarrett Stidham throw deep balls along parabolas I couldn’t have drawn with any more perfection on my 10th-grade TI-86. I just want to watch Kam Martin or Boobie Whitlow or Asa Martin or whoever become the next great Auburn running back like Hot Rod seizing the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. I just want to watch Jamel Dean continue to make Urban Meyer look like a fool. I just want to watch Marlon Davidson and Big Kat Bryant and Derrick Brown and TD Moultry also flatten heads. I want to watch Ryan Davis turn 2 yards into 24 with one juke.
I just want to watch my favorite be-vested, be-spectacled Southern Christian nerd who inexplicably wound up one of the nation’s better football coaches smile at the end of a game and say a word more polite than “shit” or “damn.”
I just want the referendums ended. I just want to watch Auburn win. War Eagle.
*Yes, I contend the 2013 season gave Auburn fans the privilege of enjoying the most exciting, most enjoyable regular season campaign modern college football has produced anywhere. Show me another season where the team went from 3-9, 0-8 to heading to a national championship game at 12-1 after wins like Auburn’s over Georgia and Alabama (and hell, Missouri). Can you?
**Auburn was outplayed overall, and the final score wasn’t too misleading. Nonetheless, it feels like the SEC Championship Game is already recalled as far less competitive than it was — at the start of the 4th the Tigers were down just 13-7 with the ball two yards shy of midfield. That quarter was awful beyond imagining, but it didn’t retroactively make the first three a Georgia romp.