Auburn football’s 2010s weren’t actually bookended by Outback Bowls. The 38-35 victory over Northwestern 10 years ago rightfully belongs to the 2009 season; if you count that as part of the just-concluded decade, you have to logically shift the Tigers’ recent 31-24 defeat to Minnesota to the 2020s.
But who cares about logic in the face of a narrative contrast like this? 10 years ago, Auburn went to Tampa with a 7-5 record, no top-25 ranking, and an SEC mark that left them sharing the West cellar with Arkansas and Mississippi State. But Gus Malzahn’s exciting offense, cathartic wins over West Virginia and Ole Miss, and a stirring challenge of undefeated Alabama had Auburn fans buzzing enough for the Outback folks to take the Tigers over several equally qualified SEC candidates. Against the Wildcats, Auburn didn’t play well at all — Northwestern racked up 34 first downs and outgained the Tigers by 196 yards — but squeaked out an OT win thanks to a bevy of Wildcat turnovers, missed field goals and general lack of explosiveness. With a five-star JUCO quarterback signee tailor-made for Malzahn’s attack already on his way, Auburn fans entered the offseason universally thrilled about the direction of the program.
A few weeks ago, Auburn went to Tampa with a 9-3 record, a No. 12 ranking in the polls (and a top-5 resume according to SP+), and the glory of another riveting, emotional Jordan-Hare victory over Alabama. But 10-win seasons for four other SEC teams meant an Outback bid nonetheless, against a Gophers team that had gone 10-2 itself. The Auburn defense struggled for much of the first half, the offense for much of the second half, and in the end the Tigers were outgained by 262 yards in a game that wasn’t as close as the 31-24 final. With major questions to answer along both lines of scrimmage and the offense’s continued habit of collapsing for long stretches against quality opponents, even Auburn fans who still support Malzahn enter the offseason ambivalent about the direction of the program.
Two seasons, two Auburn teams, one of which was easily better, one of which accomplished more, one of which represented a stronger and more stable Auburn program. But the other got a much easier opponent in its bowl, an opponent who played much worse. So that’s that team who gave Tiger fans the better feelings entering the offseason.
Two Outback Bowls, 10 years apart. The 2020 edition didn’t leave Auburn fans less happy because these Tigers weren’t as good. In fact, they were much better. The competition just got much harder.
There’s your decade.
Let’s briefly list Auburn’s accomplishments over the past 10 seasons:
— The program’s only national championship since 1957
— Two conference championships, tying with LSU for the most of any SEC team other than Alabama in that span
— Three SEC West titles, more than any team other than Alabama in that span. Among all SEC teams, only the Tide and Georgia claimed more division titles
— Four BCS or New Year’s Six bowl berths, tying Florida for the most in that span among SEC teams other than Alabama
— Four wins over Alabama, with the Tide ranked No. 9, No. 1, No. 1 and No. 5 at the time of Auburn’s victories. Those wins represented 36 percent of all SEC wins over Alabama during the decade, with the rest of the conference going a combined 7-70 against the Tide
— Defeated unbeaten No. 1 Georgia and unbeaten No. 1 Alabama in the space of three weeks in November 2017
Given the ruggedness of the current SEC and the depth of Auburn’s accomplishments, the 2010s were Auburn football’s greatest postwar decade aside from the 1980s. If you give extra weight to what we might call the program’s extracurriculars — a Heisman trophy winner and an all-time college football legend in Cam Newton, the most unexpected and exhilarating regular season in recent college football memory in 2013, the wonder of November 2017, the catharsis of beating Bama for Rod and Paula, nothing less than the greatest play in the history of college football — you could argue the 2010s were Auburn football’s greatest postwar decade, the end.
Either way, the person far and away most responsible for that decade is Gus Malzahn.
It’s the rancor I don’t get.
Wanting Gus let go: that I do, sure. Despite the midseason run in 2016 and the records set in 2017, for six seasons now Gus’s offense has shown all the steady reliability of a teenage TCBY employee. Those offensive collapses have meant a long string of soul-pummeling defeats far more frustrating to experience than they appear to be on paper. (Given that LSU just cemented themselves as one of the best college football teams ever assembled, “LSU 23, Auburn 20” reads as the sort of score Tiger fans could look back on with fondness for a valiant effort. Nope!) That simultaneously keeping up with Saban’s Alabama, Smart’s Georgia and now Coach O’s LSU is a herculean task doesn’t mean it’s not the task assigned to Auburn’s head coach. If Gus can’t perform it — and as the Minnesota game reminded us, the offense’s vanishing act doesn’t seem like a problem he’s yet learned how to resolve — Auburn should try to find someone who can. In theory, that person would only have to maintain what’s already a more-than-capable defense while building an offense that simply has to avoid melting down like so much grilled cheese vs. the teams that matter. Shouldn’t be so hard, right?
I can’t bring myself to agree with that argument. But if you want to make it, be my guest. There’s a logic to it.
What there’s no logic to is looking at Auburn’s 2010s and snarling about how Gus sucks. There’s no thinking behind looking at everything Malzahn has brought to this program — as both coordinator and head coach, on the field and off — and yowling like a hurt cat that he needs to be fired yesterday. There’s nothing rational about being more angry over bowl losses to UCF or Minnesota than you are happy over Iron Bowl victories over Alabama.
College football fandom is an inherently irrational enterprise, I know, and I can’t sit here and guarantee that no other coach would have achieved what Malzahn did at Auburn these past 10 seasons. But I can guarantee an unholy crapton of coaches would not have. Many, many coaches would have lost that game on Nov. 30, would have let Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson and Kam Martin and a whole lot of other good Auburn Tigers walk off Pat Dye Field for the final time as losers.
He didn’t. For goodness’ sake, some of you, show some damn gratitude.
I wrote before the Georgia game that Auburn football couldn’t stay in the same place. It needed to beat Georgia and Alabama and move forward with confidence under Gus, or lose to Georgia and Alabama and move forward under someone else, or split and watch Gus ride off into an Arkansas sunset.
The moment the Tide fell for Gus’s punt team shenanigans, none of those scenarios had a chance. Auburn wasn’t ever firing a coach that had gone 9-3 against that schedule with that win over Alabama. Gus wasn’t ever leaving a job where he can win a national title for one where he can’t if his seat isn’t white-hot.
So it turns out Auburn could enter the new decade in the same place after all. Gus will take another stab at stopping his offense from falling down a flight of stairs four times a year; the defense and recruiting will push ahead as their usual high-caliber selves; the fans will keep bickering in endless circles, trying and failing to make sense of a program that should be good enough to make us unambiguously happy but doesn’t.
Personally, y’all, I don’t know. I’ve given up on knowing. “I don’t want Gus fired, but I want a new coach, but there’s no new coach I want” is, obviously, gobbledygook. Nonetheless, it’s all true: I don’t want Gus fired. But I want a new coach. But there’s no new coach I want.
Gus hasn’t been nearly poor enough that I ought to want a new head coach. I know this. I remember all of the above. But for my entire Auburn life, a Tigers decade has been defined by a single coach: the ’80s by Dye, the ’90s by Bowden (mostly), the Aughts by Tubby, the 2010s by Gus. After 2018, after Florida and LSU and Georgia and Minnesota, I struggle to believe Gus still has enough of his offensive fastball to get Auburn off the train platform and onto somewhere better. The 2020s seem likely to belong to someone else.
I would like to find out who that might be. I would like an end to the endless arguments about Gus in my Twitter mentions. I would like to quit writing pieces addressing whether he should remain head coach. I would like to express my opinions about Auburn’s coaching position and have them not be gobbledygook.
But that’s not happening yet, and that’s OK, too. Another year of life in the muddled gray area won’t kill us (probably). Maybe having an experienced coordinator aboard Gus knows and trusts makes a difference. Maybe Tank Bigsby gives Auburn a Kerryon-esque anchor at running back, and that makes a difference. Maybe the lighter schedule makes a difference. It’s college football; there’s a hundred things we can’t see that could make a difference.
Another thing we can’t see: who on earth Auburn could hire who we’d confidently say would do better.
I’m ready for whatever the next stage of Auburn football might be. But considering what Gus Malzahn has given us — and that it’s unclear if anyone else could give us anything more in the near future than he will — I can wait for that stage a little while longer.