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STATE OF THE PROGRAM: Football

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Where does the program under Gus Malzahn stand?

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl - Purdue v Auburn Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images

As we head into the week of SEC Media Days, where Gus Malzahn heads to the ultra-uber posh, swanky, hoity-toity Wynfrey Hotel for questions in which he’ll insert a greater than zero number of ‘There’s no doubt’s, it’s time for us here at College and Magnolia to assess things across the board.

This week as we lead up to Thursday’s appearance of the Auburn Tigers just mere miles from enemy headquarters, we’re going to check in with what’s going on with the different athletic programs on campus. Obviously, today we’re starting with football. Later in the week, we’ll get a look at how the basketball and baseball programs are faring (spoiler alert: quite good, chaps), and we’ll even check in with the non-revenue olympic sports as well.

But today, the unofficial start of the 2019 college football season arrives. It doesn’t matter that it’s still hotter than hell, and it doesn’t matter that the legendary Fall Nip is still likely several weeks away at the earliest. When you get people with absolutely nothing else to do in the middle of a work day, you get the monster that’s become SEC Media Days.

Here’s the schedule of head coach appearances in Hoover this week, leading up to the Gus Bus on the event’s final day —

Monday, July 15

Barry Odom, Missouri

Dan Mullen, Florida

Ed Orgeron, LSU

Tuesday, July 16

Kirby Smart, Georgia

Matt Luke, Mississippi

Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Wednesday, July 17

Nick Saban, Alabama

Chad Morris, Arkansas

Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

Will Muschamp, South Carolina

Thursday, July 18

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

We’re fully aware that Wednesday will be the wildest day, due to the God-King’s divine arrival, and he’ll be in full prickly mode thanks to the thrashing they took back in January and the complete turnover in staff. It’s not important.

Even Gus’ appearance at the Wynfrey isn’t important. A season has never been made or broken by what was said at SEC Media Days. It’s an inarguable fact that we’ll get CoachSpeak galore this week, and you’re going to get 100 different versions of what Gus thinks about starting either one of the impending freshman quarterbacks that will start against Oregon in Arlington.

And so it brings us to the full assessment of the football program. Competition is high, talent is too, and we’re heading into a season where Gus will revert back to play-calling madman instead of reluctantly murky delegating offensive CEO.

What does it all mean?

ON-FIELD PERFORMANCE

What’s the most important metric for identifying how well things sit with the Auburn football program? It’s wins and losses. Thankfully football’s a pretty black and white sport, where you can quantify how well your team has done against other teams. When you boil it down, the subjective aspects of the sport are pretty limited to whether or not your team got voted high or made the College Football Playoff. Let’s give you some numbers.

Gus Malzahn Overall Record: 53-27 (66.3%)

Gus Malzahn Bowl Record: 2-4 (0-1 in the only one that mattered)

Gus Malzahn SEC Record: 28-20 (SEC Championships not counted against record)

Gus Malzahn Non-Conference Record: 23-6

Gus Malzahn Record Against Alabama and Georgia: 5-9

At a glance, those numbers aren’t great, and they’re not terrible either. When you dive in a little further, you may be able to sway your opinion one way or the other.

On one hand, Gus has played for two SEC Championships, won one, and played for a national championship. He’s had Auburn in three New Year’s Six/BCS bowl games, and at some point in every season on the Plains, the Tigers have been in the national conversation.

On the other hand, you can point to his mismanagement in certain areas. Both sides of the ball have been up and down at times, and with a supposed offensive guru, the offense should at least be able to score points. In the three most successful seasons since Gus has been at Auburn in some capacity, his offense has started a first-year quarterback. Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, and Jarrett Stidham’s first years culminated in a national title, two SEC titles, 36 wins, and a 6-1 record against Georgia and Alabama. When he’s had some experience running the offense, however, things have regressed.

Not all of that is the fault of the quarterback, because Nick Marshall didn’t have a Tre Mason in 2014, and Jarrett Stidham didn’t have a Kerryon Johnson or an offensive line in 2018. It’s still down to Gus to have talent waiting in the wings. Players leave, and plenty of teams are able to reload reliably.

In a most basic sense, you’ve got to judge your team’s success against the competition. It sucks, but it’s natural to compare Auburn to Alabama. They’ve won two national titles since Gus arrived, as well as four SEC Championships. Auburn is 2-4 against the Tide in that time, which puts Gus into a group with Dabo Swinney as the only coaches since 2013 with multiple wins against Nick Saban. I’ll pump a little sunshine and say that there’s no telling what Auburn could’ve done with a healthy starting quarterback in 2015 and 2016. Those games weren’t particular runaways, and it’s possible that Gus steals one. Who knows?

The biggest negative against the football program during this time isn’t the competition with Alabama. They’ve fared better than anyone not named Clemson in the last six years. The biggest problem with Auburn football over recent seasons is the inability to take advantage of other teams’ poor situations.

You know numbers that shouldn’t exist? 2-5 against Georgia and 2-4 against LSU. Auburn should have had no trouble taking care of business against the Dawgs in 2015 and 2016, and blew double-digit leads against LSU each of the last two years. Flipping those games and having a combined 8-5 record against the two would work wonders for the overall success of the program since Gus arrived.

In terms of non-conference competition, the only losses that really mattered came against Clemson in 2016 and 2017. There are two sides to those losses, as well. The Tigers went to the Playoff both years, winning the 2016 championship, but Auburn came tantalizingly close to winning both games. Auburn was throwing into the end zone for the win in 2016 as time expired, and the sack game along with poor goal line play prevented a huge road upset in 2017. The quarterback whirlybird operation in 2016 was a complete failure by Gus Malzahn, and although we never saw that again, there were still questionable offensive strategies that cost games.

Other than those Clemson losses, there’s one big non-conference failure — Pasadena. Six years down the road it’s tough to quantify how much a national title would pay off for Gus. It only got Gene Chizik two more years, but Gus has been much more consistent. He’s never had a losing season, and he’s made pretty good changes when necessary.

We do have solid wins over Washington State in his first game, Louisville in 2015, and Washington last year. Opening up 2019 with a win over Oregon would be a huge boost for a team with a freshman quarterback, and it would show that Auburn’s keeping up with everyone not named Clemson and Alabama.

In the grand scheme of things, Auburn’s the only non-Alabama school to represent the West in Atlanta since Gus came on board. For the head-scratching losses and questionable decisions, the end result has been better than literally everyone else in our division.

RECRUITING

I’m no AU Nerd, but here’s another area where you can see the raw numbers of the level of talent that Auburn’s brought in yearly. Here’s where Auburn’s classes stood each season according to 247 —

2013: 10th overall (6th SEC)

2014: 6th overall (4th SEC)

2015: 8th overall (5th SEC)

2016: 9th overall (5th SEC)

2017: 9th overall (4th SEC)

2018: 12th overall (3rd SEC)

2019: 11th overall (6th SEC)

There are a few names that pop up in Auburn’s division ahead of the Tigers in most of those classes: Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M. Add in Georgia from the East, and half of Auburn’s SEC slate is more talented than they are. The highest-rated classes in the above span combined to form the upperclassmen for Auburn’s 2017 Western Division title. That’s not a coincidence, and Auburn should still have plenty of talent for this season.

We can look at some big misses, such as the apparent lack of offensive lineman after this year, and the thin quarterback rosters from 2015-2016, but overall the talent is there. It’s what allows Auburn to stand up and play with the top teams in the country and not wilt immediately.

Besides, recruiting isn’t everything. We know that. Clemson has only had two top ten classes since 2013, and finished behind Auburn many of those seasons. Development is a huge piece of the puzzle, and there are good and bad examples from the current staff in that regard. You can blame Jeremy Johnson’s failure on him wilting in the bright lights, but it’s still ultimately the staff’s fault. They let Sean White play injured despite the fact that he was clearly hurting the team in Athens in 2016, and Auburn might have won the 2017 SEC title and made the Playoff if not for Kerryon Johnson shouldering too much of a load down the stretch.

STAFF MANAGEMENT

I was extremely impressed with the original staff that Gus Malzahn put together when he was hired, and I’ve been impressed with the coaching moves that he’s made since then as well.

Kevin Steele’s hiring has maybe been the most important, since the defense improved and became a strength upon his arrival. The 2013-14 Ellis Johnson defenses were porous (although opportunistic at times), and the 2015 Will Muschamp defense was ultimately short-lived with the head coaching opportunities that he drew. But when Steele came to town, he performed really well in the first test of his tenure.

Despite the quadruple-headed quarterback monster of the 2016 Clemson game, Auburn’s defense held the eventual national champs to 19 points. The next year, they held eventual Playoff attender Clemson to 14 points. Steele’s coordinated three top-fifteen scoring defenses in his three years. He’s been a great hire.

What’s even better is that Gus has brought in some very interesting assistants, and continued to hold a large Auburn family contingent among his employees. Rodney Garner, Travis Williams, Kodi Burns, and Carnell Williams are all now on staff, and all played at Auburn. All are great recruiters as well, and Travis Williams is likely in line for a defensive coordinator job before too long.

The only real question comes with the offensive coordinator position. Rhett Lashlee was just Gus’ right-hand man for years, and sort of ended up with the job early on. Chip Lindsey was brought in to help out and change things a bit with the passing game (screen passes), but his 2017 offense was the best since Nick Marshall. This year will tell a lot thanks to Kenny Dillingham’s help coordinating the attack, but Gus is calling plays. Thankfully we’ll have more of a handle on the competency of the head man here after a few games with a freshman quarterback.

FACILITIES

Listen, I love Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s great, but it needs some help. Auburn is falling behind in the nuclear proliferation of facilities, and there are a ton of different areas where improvements could be made.

Starting with the stadium, I don’t know how many years people have talked about wanting to brick in the exterior a la Doak Campbell Stadium. The steel girders are unsightly, and improvements like the new video board (less than a decade after the last large one was put in) and the new press box seem arbitrary and unnecessary.

No thanks.

We’ll also be honest... without constant ten-win seasons, it’s unlikely that Auburn could support a stadium expansion as far as attendance goes. Adding a north endzone upper deck would probably result in a ton of empty seats for all home games except the biggies. It’s just a fact. What the decision makers need to do it improve the stadium in all other areas, equivalent to what’s been done for basketball.

The hoop teams has a cozy, small, AND INTIMIDATING AS HELL venue in Auburn Arena. It’s comfortable, modern, and quality from top to bottom. Jordan-Hare Stadium can be the most intimidating place to play when Auburn’s playing well (see November 2017). Make it a more attractive environment, and GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT and build the team a football-only facility.

When the staff has pledged money toward construction, it’s time. Thankfully, Steven Leath is no longer in charge of slowing those decisions in favor of fancy mansion renovations, and we’ll almost assuredly get that facility coming before too long. Once that’s built, and once we give Jordan-Hare a bit of an aesthetic facelift, Auburn will be right back in the thick of the facilities race.

ACADEMICS

There’s one thing that can be said for Auburn’s football team under Gus Malzahn — it appears that the players are going to class and graduating from school. With the APR rate (explained here) that the NCAA uses to measure schools’ academic success, Auburn has improved greatly since the Chizik years. From a low of 935 in 2008-2009, Auburn has risen to a 993 this year. Whatever the courses that players are taking, and whatever their actual grades, Auburn has had players passing classes.

We could open up a whole can of worms on college student-athletes and how much of their time in school is devoted to the ‘student’ or the ‘athlete’ identifier, but based on the metrics provided to us, Auburn is keeping up with the other teams deemed successful.

OVERALL

There are going to be positives and negatives with every program. The fact of the matter is that the football program under the current regime has won two-thirds of its games (barely behind the Tuberville program) against a much, much more difficult schedule. The SEC, and more specifically the West, has never been tougher, and Auburn has navigated it just as well as they did when the main rivals were more down than they are now.

With a couple of specific wins here and there, the feeling toward what’s being accomplished is much more positive, and the correct steps are being taken toward off-field success in facilities. Players are graduating, Auburn is recruiting well, but it needs to be translated to more consistent wins. In the end, the success of the program comes from wins, and that success or failure hangs on the head coach.

You’ll get to hear the guys talk about it on the Orange and True Podcast, but this season is a make or break for Gus Malzahn. There are a ton of factors pointing to a classic Stealth Success season for Auburn — seniors in the trenches, home schedule, etc. — but a freshman quarterback and a tough slate no matter who we get at home or on the road will always be there to mess things up. At a basic point, it comes down to one question —

“DO YOU SUPPORT HAVING GUS MALZAHN AS THE HEAD COACH AT AUBURN?”

For right now, this site says yes.