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Does Gus Malzahn Have the Toughest Job in the Country?

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A Closer Look at the Road from 2013-Present

Mississippi v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This isn’t a piece full of me making excuses for Gus Malzahn. I’ll get that out of the way. This is an examination of the road from the opening press conference in 2012 to Saturday evening, and all the bumps in between.

First, some ground rules. I looked at every football game that involved at least one FBS school since the start of 2013, Malzahn’s first year. My data runs through Saturday evening (11/16). This is about 5,700 games.

I decided to throw out bowl games. No, not because Malzahn has a 2-4 record, but because bowl games don’t matter. They don’t! They’re meaningless exhibition games and an opportunity to get in a little more practice time. Malzahn won’t be judged on his bowl record. He shouldn’t be, at least.

Yes, this includes throwing out New Year Six games as well as playoff games. “Uh, Josh, that seems a little bia-” Well, that’s kinda my brand, so you’ll have to get over that. No bowl games, no playoffs. The objective of this piece is to examine how difficult the Auburn job is, compared to other schools. Including random bowl matchups and specific matchups of Top 4 teams in the playoff does nothing to strengthen or weaken this argument. Ignoring these bowl games, here’s how Auburn’s regular season schedule has looked:

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 36 games against AP ranked teams. That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span.

36 games. 42.9%. That’s three out of every seven. Three out of every seven times Auburn runs onto the field, it is against a ranked opponent. This isn’t that crazy though. Eight FBS teams have played at least 30 ranked teams in this span, and 22 more have played at least 25.

I’ll be using a series of charts to help illustrate this data. The blue column above each team represents the number of games played against ranked opponents. The red indicates the number of wins in those games.

Games/Wins Against Top 25 Opponents

First of all, shout out to Kansas and Rutgers. Really taking the punishment like a champ, going a combined 0-49 against ranked opponents in nearly 7 years.

Moving on, most of the SEC is represented here in this chart. 12 out of 14, to be exact. Missouri (21 games) and Kentucky (18 games) are the only ones not appearing here. Ranked competition is expected in the SEC, especially in the West. After all, every single SEC team has been ranked at least once in this time frame. According to CollegePollArchive.com, the SEC has accounted for 24.2% of all AP poll appearances since the start of 2013.

Elephant in the room: Yes, Auburn is batting .500 in these games. That isn’t great (on the surface). More on that later.

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 20 games against teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span.

23.3% of Gus Malzahn’s games have been played against a team that the Associated Press considered a Top 10 team. Or, looking at it another way, top 10 opponents represent 56% of the ranked opponents Malzahn has coached against. Let’s compare that to, say, Stanford. Stanford has played the 8th most ranked opponents in this time frame. However, if we dig a bit deeper, you notice that only 12 of these games (40%) were against Top 10 teams. The remaining 18 games (60%) were against opponents ranked 11-25 in the AP poll.

Games/Wins Against Top 10 Opponents

Pour one out for Tennessee, Indiana, Wake Forest, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, NC State, and Kansas: each school has gotten blanked by Top 10 foes.

Only 10 schools have faced at least 15 Top 10 opponents in this time frame. Eight of these are SEC schools, and six of those are SEC West schools. I’m beginning to spot a trend here.

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 14 games against teams ranked in the top 5 in the AP poll. That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span.

14. Fourteen. FOURTEEN. Auburn’s head coach has squared off against a top 5 team (on average) twice a season, every season. As we restrict the graphs to higher ranked teams, this is really where the difficulty of the Auburn job starts to take shape:

Games/Wins Against Top 5 Teams

Look at that. The difference between the number of games Auburn has gotten against elite talent compared to the rest of the country is starting to become obvious. Auburn’s 14 games is most in the country by two. In fact, only 13 schools have eight or more Top 5 matchups in this duration. The remaining 90% of FBS has, at most, half the number of Top 5 games as Auburn has had.

You’ll also notice that more and more teams have yet to beat a Top 5 team.

Once again, the SEC West dominates the top of this chart. Look, it’s not just that Auburn is in the West. Auburn has drawn the most difficult schedule in the most difficult division in the most difficult conference.

This also gives us a chance to look a bit closer at some other teams. Georgia has the 24th most games against Top 10 teams (12 games, respectable). But as you can see, Georgia is nowhere to be found in the Top 5 chart. I had to scroll all the way down to find the Bulldogs. Turns out, Georgia has two measly games against Top 5 opponents (tied for 62nd most). Even Arkansas, in the SEC West, has only managed to draw six Top 5 opponents in seven years.

Reminder, Auburn has yet to play Alabama, who will likely be ranked in the top 5 at the time of the matchup.

(side note: the best evidence I can find for BYU being excluded from the “Power 5” discussion is they have yet to play a Top 5 opponent in this time frame. No Power 5 team had less than two matchups against Top 5 opponents since 2013).

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 11 games against teams ranked in the top 3 in the AP poll. That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span.

Games/Wins Against Top 3 Teams

The gap widens once again.

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 9 games against teams ranked in the top 2 in the AP poll. That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span.

Games/Wins Against Top 2 Teams

Auburn has drawn 9 opponents ranked either #1 or #2. Only 22 schools have three or more such matchups in nearly seven years.

You’ll also notice that Auburn’s three victories over #1/#2 opponents is more than any other FBS school as well.

Since the beginning of 2013, Auburn has played 5 games against teams ranked #1 in the AP poll.

That’s more than every other FBS team in that time span... except Texas A&M and Arkansas, who each have an 0-6 record against AP #1 teams. I’ll say that Texas A&M is about to play their third different #1 ranked opponent this season, the first time this has occurred in college football history.

Let’s look at the graph once again:

Games/Wins Against the #1 Team

I expanded this graph to include every team that has played a regular season game against an AP #1 team since the start of 2013. Auburn is 2-3 in such games. .400 against the team that a panel of 60 sportswriters decided was the best team in the country at that point in time. The rest of the country? 1-77. That’s right. 1-77. 1.3% win rate. #1 Mississippi State lost to Alabama in 2014. That’s the only other time the AP #1 lost.

(Note: before I get 100 messages about it, Georgia was not ranked #1 in the AP poll in 2017. They were ranked #1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings).

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Summary

So..Does Gus Malzahn have the toughest job in the country? Yes.

There isn’t a single school or coach that can compare their schedule to Auburn’s. Auburn has faced more elite talent than anyone in the country in the regular season. No matter what category of opponent you examine.

What can we realistically expect from a head coach that has and continues to face this level of competition on a weekly basis?

Additional Notes:

  • Auburn is 40-8 against unranked opponents in this time span. That’s tied for the 7th highest win percentage in the country. It isn’t often that Malzahn drops a game to an unranked foe.

This win percentage is higher than Washington, LSU, Penn State, Michigan, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame.

  • Exactly half of Auburn’s losses under Malzahn have been by a single score.