$49 Million Man Gus Malzahn's Job Is Safe, but His Reputation Is Not

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2018

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 15:  Head coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers looks on during the game against the LSU Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gus Malzahn isn't on the hot seat. His job isn't in jeopardy.

Unless the effectiveness of his offense improves rapidly, though, Auburn is at risk of becoming an afterthought in the SEC West.

Six games into the 2018 campaign, the Tigers own a 4-2 record. It's not a doom-and-gloom scenario on the Plains, but the program has steadily raised its expectations over the last two decades. If Auburn isn't competing for SEC and national titles, it's a problem.

And that's not going to happen with a 1-2 conference mark.

The disappointing start to SEC play is a result of the struggles by Malzahn's run-based, fast-paced offense to own the ground. During his five previous seasons, the Tigers have ranked no worse than 35th nationally in rushing yards per game. This year, they're 78th.

Prior to 2018, Auburn recorded fewer than 150 rushing yards in no more than four games in any season. This year's offense already has five.

Even some of Auburn's best runs have ended in disaster.
Even some of Auburn's best runs have ended in disaster.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Even more distressing, Auburn ranks 82nd in the country with 4.2 yards per carryand that isn't the worst part. Remove any program's games against lower-division programs, and the Tigers plummet to 111th in yards and 116th in efficiency.

The primary issue is apparent.

"I think we've just went stagnant, because we might not have been able to get that initial first down, that initial big play, to get us rolling," said receiver Darius Slayton after the loss to Mississippi State, per Josh Vitale of the Montgomery Advertiser. "We've just got to find a way to get more of those."

At first glance, Auburn's 5.0 yards per first-down carry is tolerable.

But again, the average is skewed because of the team's painless victory over Alabama State. Remove that FCS outing, and the number plunges to 3.8. Instead of ranking 47th nationally on first-down rushes, the Tigers would be 106th.

Ineffective first-down plays lead to moreand tougherpassing situations. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham hasn't performed well in those.

According to Football Study Hall, Auburn ranks 100th nationally in efficiency on passing downs, which are classified as 2nd-and-8, 3rd-and-5 and 4th-and-5 or more. Last year, the offense was 46th.

Despite the calls for a quarterback changeill-conceived as those may beStidham is the guy moving forward. Who he is, is what they've got.

Malzahn's system isn't designed to promote NFL-worthy development at quarterback, but Stidham's ball placement is not improving. Poor offensive line play hasn't helped, yet he often panics and bounces out of clean pockets.

The offense can't run consistently and can't make up for it with passing. No wonder the Tigers are 118th with a 32.5 third-down conversion ratea category in which Malzahn's previous single-season lows were 53rd and 41.0, respectively.

This is the worst Auburn offense in his tenure, and it's not close.

Given all these issues, should Malzahn's job be on the line? Based on performance, sure. However, he's not going anywhere unless somebody donates a couple dozen million to offset the seven-year, $49 million contract Malzahn signed last December.

According to Tom Schad of USA Today, Malzahn's buyout is currently north of $32 million. Since he's due 75 percent of the remaining value of his contract at any given moment, that number won't be trimmed in half until after the 2021 season.

2021.

But this isn't a referendum on his style. While less resistance to change from Malzahn would be beneficial, no overhaul is needed.

Even following this disappointing year, the Tigers will have two SEC West titles, one conference crown and a national championship appearance in six years under Malzahn. With an effective offense complemented by an elite defenseand Auburn absolutely has one nowthe team can thrive and has done so.

Yes, the issues are real. You can blame Stidham. You can criticize the offensive line. You can be frustrated with play-calling. With a remaining schedule that includes Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, there's potential for this to get a whole lot worse in 2018, too. The roster better grow up in a hurry.

"The reality is, after six games, the young guys aren't inexperienced anymore," Malzahn said. "We've got to start showing improvement."

Otherwise, the stumbling Tigers will disappear from the national conversation. Until the offense regains supremacy on the ground and can build a respected aerial attack off that success, they'll be wasting an elite defense.

That improvement would be stunning in 2018. It might not happen in 2019, barring huge growth up front. And with any decrease in defensive excellence, Auburn's status as an SEC contender will weaken.

But Malzahn? Well, he's not going anywhere regardless.

         

Stats from NCAA.comcfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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