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Where to Next?

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Let’s take another look at this bizarre week in the Gus Malzahn saga.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, nobody really knows what’s happening with the football program at Auburn.

“Who’s the commanding officer here?”

“Ain’t you??”

Earlier this week, word got out that the school was trying to get out of its contract with Gus Malzahn through a number of ways (pretty much everything except the Imperius Curse was mentioned), and that a “high-level” coach was going to be named as the replacement by the end of the week.

Then it was reported that Gus met with President Leath, who tried to lay out some new terms that would make life on the Plains difficult for the head coach. His bluff was called, because Gus essentially bet on himself and believes that the 2019 edition of the team is going to be what we thought the 2018 edition was supposed to be.

Right now, Malzahn is out recruiting, and so are his assistants. You’ve got beat writers putting everything under the sun out there, but nobody really knows what’s true and what’s fiction. So it’s down to us to look at the possibilities, and get into the guessing game of how things will go in 2019.

Remember, none of this has been confirmed and we’re just prognosticating.

  • SITUATION: AUBURN NEEDS A NEW OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR

One of the hot topics of debate is currently centering around whether or not Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is either a) asked to leave, or b) gets hired away. Currently there are rumors abuzz that Tennessee is looking at him for their open position since Tyson Helton left to head up Western Kentucky’s program.

  • ANSWER: HUGH FREEZE? OR GUS DOUBLES DOWN ON HIMSELF!

There are certainly some qualified offensive coordinator candidates out there, and maybe there are none more interesting than Hugh Freeze. The ex-head coach at Ole Miss has spent two seasons out of the game after his controversial exit from Oxford, but there’s no doubt that the man knows offense, and the man knows Gus. It’s true, his scheme with the Rebels was a little more pass-heavy than we’re used to at Auburn, but it was nonetheless effective in marching around the SEC when they had a capable quarterback leading the way.

However, one of the things that we’ve been hearing about these new terms for Gus is that any assistant coach moves must be “revenue-neutral”, which essentially means he won’t have the ability to pony up cash to get someone else in here. Or, at the very least, it’ll need to be a hiring that doesn’t add anything to the current budget.

That’s where we get to the next possibility... Gus just does it himself.

There are plenty of reasons why this should happen. It’s fairly well-documented that Gus called his own plays in 2013 (when we went to the national championship, in case you don’t remember), and he definitely did in 2010 when he was just the offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik. We know what a true Gus Malzahn offense looks like when he’s got a quarterback he likes, which brings us to the next issue...

  • SITUATION: AUBURN NEEDS A QUARTERBACK IN 2019

Look, Jarrett Stidham is only a junior, but in the eyes of many, the upcoming bowl game is his last stint in the backfield for Auburn. He’s either going to declare for the NFL Draft to try and take advantage of a weak quarterback class, or transfer somewhere closer to home and his fiancee. Despite no actual hard evidence to this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he won’t be around for spring ball. It’s more of a feeling that he’ll be leaving one way or another. Let’s look at what we’ve got waiting in the wings for Gus to play with in 2019:

  1. Malik Willis - this year’s current backup. We’ve only really ever seen him run the read option, and this year it’s come with varying success in garbage time. He’s never really been allowed to throw when he’s in the game, and who knows whether or not he’ll actually become the kind of quarterback that leads Auburn.
  2. Cord Sandberg - he’s operating on just a few months’ worth of football experience. Sandberg is a little older (23 years old) and he’s at Auburn because he played in the Phillies’ minor league organization after getting drafted in 2013. He got very little time in mop-up duty this year, but there were no signs of him getting a serious look at the starting or even backup job.
  3. Joey Gatewood - we’re waiting on Joey. He’s got the size (6’5, 240) to compare favorably to another great Auburn quarterback of recent memory. There have been reports that he was in Gus’ doghouse earlier this year, and having broken a thumb won’t help him win any practice battles either. We’d love to see him run that read option and light defenses up the way others have before him, but at this point he hasn’t shown anything to make us think that’s a reality.
  4. Bo Nix - may be the best quarterback recruit in the upcoming class. He’s a true legacy (how could he not be with Patrick Nix being his dad), and he can do all the things on the football field that you need in a quarterback. He’s decently mobile, makes all the throws, and has plenty of experience with one of Auburn’s incoming receivers in George Pickens. He could be the quarterback of the future, but Gus needs to win NOW to keep the heat off of his back. That means that there’s one choice that can step in, and help the 2019 Auburn Tigers do some serious damage with an offense that they know will work in the SEC...
  • ANSWER: KELLY BRYANT

Kelly Bryant.

He’s beaten Auburn once already, and after getting supplanted by Trevor Lawrence at Clemson this past year, decided to take a redshirt year and transfer away. That’ll give him one year to make good on the decision to leave Dabo’s program. Why not come in and spend that time with a coach that’ll use his skills like he used Cam Newton and Nick Marshall’s before him? If the offensive line play in the Iron Bowl is any indication, then Auburn has improved over the course of the year, and will get extra work as a result of the bowl game. Turn it into the zone read monster from 2010/2013, and things could get interesting with a quarterback of Bryant’s size (6’4, 220) and speed.

He also commits on December 4th, so we’ll see if his recent visits to the Plains have paid off.

These are just a couple of the different topics at play right now for Gus Malzahn’s future at Auburn, but they could end up being the most important when you look at what changes need to be made. I think most people are in agreement that the offense was the issue this year, and if things improve in that regard in 2019, Auburn will have a chance to get back to the ten-win plateau. It’ll take something special to beat Georgia and Alabama, but... they’re both at home once again.

We’ll see if we get a true public resolution to this week’s circus, or if we end up walking through the darkness to scrounge for nuggets of information. Either way, War Eagle.