Why Is Gus Malzahn Always on the Hot Seat?

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2020

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn during the first half of the Outback Bowl NCAA college football game against Minnesota Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Job security is a temperamental topic in college football. Some coaches have become synonymous with the program, but most are at the mercy of their team's performance in a given season.

For Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, it seems the perception of his future can waver depending on the week.

That ever-changing nature was on full display in 2019.

Malzahn entered the campaign on a moderately hot seat, but a 5-0 start that featured Top 25 wins over Oregon and Texas A&M quieted the muttering. The Tigers then dropped games to Florida, LSU and Georgia, cranking up the hot-seat talk as Malzahn found himself connected to Arkansas again.

But when Auburn won the Iron Bowl, Malzahn improved to 3-4 against rival Alabama. That may not seem particularly great, but it's better than any other SEC coach's record against Nick Saban.

However, a loss to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl promptly ended Malzahn's 30-day hot-seat vacation.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

This process is all too familiar in his time at Auburna seven-year run of hope and letdowns, promise and disappointment.

Since 2013, the Tigers have owned a Top 10 ranking at some point in every season, earned a pair of SEC West titles and celebrated an SEC championship. Yet they've also finished the year unranked twice and outside of the Top 20 twice more. While Auburn has been at least 7-6 in each of his seven years, it has only a pair of 10-win seasons.

Auburn is a great example of the challenge of moving from nationally respected to perennial title threat.

That difference is razor-thin. Yet the variance in results can be dramatic.

Every year, Auburn has both the opportunity and challenge of playing Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Given the conference's normal regular-season structure, it's impossible for another SEC team to face that particular gauntlet. It's a nasty trifecta to encounter, yet defeating any of them can provide a considerable boost in Malzahn's favor.

So far under Malzahn, Auburn is 2-6 against Georgia, 2-5 against LSU and 3-4 against Alabama. Overall, that won't cut it.

Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

But if Auburn wins any of those rivalry games, good things usually follow. There's the BCS Championship Game appearance in 2013, the Sugar Bowl to close 2016, an SEC West title in 2017. And last season, the Alabama win hushed rumors of a coaching change.

The timing of those peaks is the primary reason Malzahn has side-stepped a dismissal.

After his scorching 12-2 start in 2013, the Tigers dipped to 8-5 in 2014 and 7-6 in 2015. Since it was early in his tenure, Malzahn had a chance to redeem himself in 2016. That happened with a mid-year six-game winning streak that started with a victory over LSU. Auburn ended the season in the Sugar Bowl, then followed it up with an SEC West crown in 2017.

Although the 2018 regular season ended on a sour note with a blowout loss against Alabama, Auburn thoroughly smashed Purdue in the Music City Bowl. And we've already covered the roller coaster of 2019.

Malzahn has never consistently won the biggest games, but he's won enough of them to merit respect. Simultaneously, he hasn't lost enough of them consecutively to necessitate a firing. While that could've been the case if the Iron Bowl went Alabama's way last season, Auburn pulled out that win.

Shown another way, Auburn has only one winning record against opponents that finished in the Top 25. Whether the Tigers can do so consistently under Malzahn is a fair question, yet they also have multiple wins over end-of-season Top 25 teams in five of his seven years on the Plains.

The evidence points to a distinct "maybe." Helpful, right?

Even beyond the financial implications of his enormous buyout, moving on from Malzahn would be risky. Making the wrong decision could set the program back a half-decade or more. Auburn isn't winning as much as it would like, but the program has never fallen off the SEC or national radar, either.

To his credit, Malzahn has stated Auburn holds a higher standard.

Last summer, he acknowledged that competing for a national championship is an inherent expectation of the Auburn job, per Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

"I've got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships. I knew that when I signed up for that. ... In the years that we win championships, it's good. The years we don't, it's hot seat this, hot seat that. I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo. It's just part of the job description."

Following the up-and-down 2019 season, make it five out of seven.

If the 2020 season can be played, it'll probably be six in eight years. But that doesn't mean Auburn won't win just enoughor at the perfect momentto give Malzahn a chance at another hot-seat season.

             

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.