3 weekends for the future of Auburn baseball

Todd Van Emst photo

For Auburn, the postseason, the program's future and Coach John Pawlowski's job, it all comes down to three weekends in May.

It's simple, really, for Auburn baseball. To make the season a success, the Tigers need to not only make the SEC Tournament, but also qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Even at the start of the season, the only way I would write off this year as a positive was if Auburn actually went to a regional.

Can that happen? Sure.

Will it happen? We'll get to that later.

Let's look at where Auburn stands right now. The NCAA considers three outstanding factors when determining NCAA bids for baseball: RPI, strength of schedule and last 10 games entering the postseason. Other minor factors can come into play, such as history (time since last bid), conference prestige, non-conference schedule, road wins, etc. However, the three main factors remain RPI, SOS and record.

The elephant in the room right now is overall record. It's the factor that kept Auburn out the past two years. The Tigers are sitting at 25-18 overall with 12 games remaining. Mathematically, Auburn could play just .500 baseball (6-6) over that stretch and still finish with a winning record (31-24). However, 31-24 isn't going to cut it for a regional. It also leaves little room for error. Yes, technically, Auburn could lose (but not get swept) in its final SEC series, and it would still keep the Tigers above .500, but that would put them limping toward the finish line and not ideal postseason candidates.

Does Auburn even have to worry about making it to Hoover? Yes and no. The Tigers are currently alone in 12th place in the league -- technically, tied with Missouri, but those Tigers hold the tiebreaker -- two games out ninth place, and three games out of eighth. Auburn has only a game lead on 13th-place Tennessee and a three-game lead on 14th-place Georgia. For Auburn to feel good about its NCAA chances, it needs to be in the eighth-place position. For the Tigers to make Hoover? They need to be better than just two other teams in the league. One game isn't a huge margin of error from 12th to 13th. If the season ended today, Auburn would essentially be stuck in the opening-round game at Hoover. Get into eighth slot, and the possibility of a miracle run into the title game gets a bit easier.

The schedule doesn't favor Auburn, as the remaining three SEC opponents (Ole Miss, Florida, Arkansas) are all ranked, all have winning records in the league and are all formidable. Yes, Auburn has two of those three at Plainsman Park, but it remains to be seen which Auburn team will show up for those weekends. Will it be the Auburn team that played with passion and took two of three from Texas A&M on the road? Or will it be the team that seems to show up on Sundays: listless, bland, beatable.

Here's the main issue now: RPI. Auburn dropping two of three to Missouri really hurt the good Tigers' chances. There are no two ways about that. They had a comfortable spot at No. 37 (according to WarrenNolan.com) and have now dropped 21 spots to No. 58. That happens when you lose -- twice -- to a team whose RPI is over 100. If you want a silver lining, then here it is: If Auburn wins down the stretch in the SEC, the RPI will take care of itself. Ole Miss (20), Florida (19) and Arkansas (55) would represent some of the best wins on the schedule for the Tigers, especially Ole Miss and Florida. Add in some bonus games in the SEC Tournament, and Auburn could finish in the top 30 in RPI. That would be fantastic and would help a league that some are predicting to get 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Let's be brutally honest here: Auburn can win these next three series. Ole Miss has struggled recently, and the Tigers are catching the Rebels in a bit of tailspin. The record doesn't reflect it, but Ole Miss is beatable. The trick is simple. Keep the Rebel offense down. When Ole Miss is held to two or fewer runs, the Rebs are 3-10.

Florida is so unpredictable that you can't even begin to guess how that series will go. The Gators have been playing some of their best baseball lately, and the Auburn series will be in Gainesville. Still, they can be beaten. The Tigers just have to get to their bullpen.

Arkansas is beatable, as well. It's hard to believe that a preseason No. 1 team has holes, but the Hogs have struggled on offense. The pitching will be some of the best Auburn has seen this year, but this will be the end of the regular season for Auburn, and it could very well be a three-game series with the Tigers' season and head coach John Pawlowski's future on the line.

After the Tigers were swept in a Sunday doubleheader at Missouri, a poll of Twitter and emails made it clear there is only one thing on the minds of Auburn fans: What's the future of Pawlowski?

I don't think I've ever put fingers to keys and given a hard answer about CJP. Honestly, I've never had to. I've had an answer for a long time, an answer I've thought about and normally share with friends when they ask me after I've had few beers. It always comes with a caveat. I'm not normally critical of baseball coaches, especially college baseball coaches, because baseball (in general) comes down to having the players actually play and not the coaches. A football coach can call the right play. A basketball coach can diagram the right set. For baseball though? It comes down to the actual player performing, performing on their own.

Still, enough people have asked, and it's time to answer.

Will Pawlowski be Auburn's coach in 2014? I can't answer that for certain because I'm not Jay Jacobs. I'm not an insider, but I would say that there is only a 25 percent chance he is retained. It really depends on how Auburn finishes 2013. The Tigers rally and make a regional? His job is safe. He's back in 2014. There is a better question to ask, though:

Should Pawlowski be Auburn's coach in 2014? No.

Here is where my attitude has changed. Over the past few years, I've been extremely supportive CJP. This year, watching the team struggle has been eye-opening. It has physically hurt. I see a team with all the potential in the world. I also see a team that struggles with consistency. I see a team that lacks fundamentals. That goes back to coaching.

I also see a team that lacks development. That's been one of the most surprising things, to me. I've seen players actually regress (statistically speaking) from year to year. That shouldn't happen. That goes back to coaching.

In Auburn, under Pawlowski, I've seen a team that has gone away from actually developing players over a three-year period and instead focuses on filling holes via the JUCO route. That works -- up to a point -- and gives Auburn guys like Garrett Cooper and Michael O'Neal. However, that's not a long-term formula for success.

Auburn can recruit. It can bring some of the best in-state players to the Plains. Keeping them here, developing them, and transforming them into a formidable team is something else. It's something that CJP just honestly hasn't done while he has been in Auburn. How disheartening is it to see guys just leave -- en masse -- from the program in the fall? That happens more than it should, and I'm actually surprised Auburn even has a decent APR score with the amount of attrition that happens year after year.

The bottom line is this: Auburn is not a good baseball team, but the Tigers should be. We should have been able to build off of the success of 2010. However, we haven't. We have made the SEC Tournament, but that can no longer be a measure of success for the Tigers. Auburn should be a team that measures success by NCAA Tournaments, and making SEC Tournaments should be a given.

Again, I'm asked: Should John Pawlowski be Auburn's baseball coach in 2014? My answer, right now, is no.

Why? Simply put, because Auburn has not developed players, has not recruited well enough, has overcorrected offensively (way too much small ball after the move to the new, deadened bats) and has just tread water in the SEC. If you are treading water, then you might as well be drowning. It's hard to even say this, but Auburn is only the fourth-best team in the state right now. South Alabama, Troy and Alabama are better. That should never happen. It has.

Am I calling for a change? Not right now, and I won't until the season is officially over.

For now, here is my mindset: If -- and this a big "if" -- Auburn can make it to a regional, then I will give Pawlowski a free pass, and it will buy another year in 2014. However, if Auburn is again sitting at home on Memorial Day weekend, then that should be the ultimate end of the Pawlowski era. It's unfair to the program, it's unfair to the players and it's unfair to the fans. Auburn deserves a good baseball team. CJP had his chance. He has been given more than enough time to develop and institute "his program." He has been given longer than Steve Renfroe, longer than Tom Slater and will leave -- whenever he does -- as No. 3 all time on the Auburn baseball wins list.

So there it is. Three SEC series will determine the fate and future of head coach John Pawlowski and Auburn baseball.

If he can't rally the Tigers, and Pawlowski is fired, who should be on the shortlist for replacements? I have a few criteria. I want someone young, someone from a power conference (or a power baseball school), a solid recruiter, someone with SEC experience and someone who has a background as a hitting instructor.

My short list is Gary Gilmore (Coastal Carolina), Brian O'Connor (Virginia), Josh Holliday (Oklahoma State), Erik Bakich (Michigan) and Dan Heefner (Dallas Baptist).

If you're an Auburn fan, you'll probably notice that Casey Dunn is missing from that list. Honestly, if the Tigers were looking for a coach right now, they would probably throw everything at Dunn. I'm not saying he's a bad coach, I'm saying that Auburn should at least make a run at a power-conference guy first. Still, Dunn will likely be the choice and will remain the choice until he leaves Samford. It's a safe hire. It's a Jay Jacobs hire.

All of this is speculation. CJP can turn it around. He has three weekends to do it, and it starts Friday against Ole Miss. I'll be watching and hoping and pulling for Auburn.

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