Gus Malzahn: From national title game to the hot seat in two years

"I think you’ve got to evaluate everything. You’ve got to figure out a way to improve," says Malzahn on fixing what ails Auburn. (Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports)

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HOOVER, Ala. — A year ago this week, voters at SEC Media Days tabbed Auburn as the preseason favorite to win the conference. A year later, Gus Malzahn and his players here Monday fielded questions about the coach’s job security.

How did this happen?

“It was complacency,” Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson said. “We let it creep into the program.”

Just three years ago, Malzahn, the former offensive coordinator for Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship team, led the Tigers to within 13 seconds of another trophy in his first season back as head coach. He turned a former Georgia defensive back, Nick Marshall, into an SEC championship quarterback, and previously unsung tailback Tre Mason into a Heisman finalist. He won every national coach of the year honor.

Conversely, on Monday, he spent much of his session in the massive Hyatt Regency ballroom fielding questions as to how the 2015 season — in which Auburn plummeted to a seventh-place SEC West finish and 6-6 regular season — went so terribly wrong.

“It was very frustrating and very humbling to go through an experience like that,” Malzahn said. “I think you’ve got to evaluate everything. You’ve got to figure out a way to improve.”

After a dream first season, the accolades have tapered off for Gus Malzahn. Can he turn it around in Year Four at Auburn? (Michael Chang/Getty Images)

If he doesn’t figure it out quickly, he might be out of a job. It sounds crazy to anyone with a memory span longer than a year, but Auburn has a long history of turning on coaches. Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik all led the Tigers to undefeated seasons. None left of their own accord.

Malzahn, like all those before him, will forever operate one bad season away from hot-seat status. Could he really survive two back-to-back? Even after Auburn AD Jay Jacobs said last month that Malzahn will “be our coach for a long, long time"?

“His resume speaks for itself,” Tigers receiver Marcus Davis said. “He’s a guy who can win games. It’s all about everybody buying into what he’s got planned for us.”

For longtime followers of Malzahn, an acclaimed no-huddle guru dating to his days as an Arkansas high school coach, Auburn’s offensive ineptitude last season was a head-scratcher. It started at quarterback, where heavily hyped Jeremy Johnson threw six interceptions in his first three games and lost both his confidence and his job. A rushing attack that ranked in the top 15 nationally in Malzahn’s first two seasons failed to crack 200 yards per game.

“From an offensive standpoint, it really was the first time since I’ve been coaching college that we didn’t execute at, what I say, a high level consistently,” Malzahn said. “And that goes back on me.”

Looking back during the offseason, Malzahn — the de facto CEO of his program — felt he drifted too far from his roots.

After a 12-1 2013 season, Gus Malzahn and the Tigers took a 21-13 lead into the fourth quarter of the BCS National Championship Game before ultimately losing 34-31 to Florida State. (Harry How/Getty Images)

“At the end of the day, I’m a football coach,” he said. “That’s my strength, being on the field and coaching an offense. After you get done with the season and you’re not as successful as you’d like, you evaluate things. One thing that really hit me pretty hard is that I got to be more active with the daily X’s and O’s and coaching that goes with that.”

Auburn’s players noticed that approach on the practice field this spring.

“I most definitely see a difference,” Davis said. “Being the head coach, sometimes head coaches sit back and watch things happening, but now he’s taking more in charge and being more involved and more vocal — not just to the players, but to the coaches as well.”

But Malzahn enters preseason camp with the same question that plagued the Tigers all of last season: Who is their quarterback? Incumbents Johnson and Sean White are dueling with newcomer John Franklin III, a JUCO transfer whose speed as a runner could give him an edge. Auburn’s most lethal offenses under Malzahn centered on dual-threat quarterbacks Cam Newton and Marshall.

In the meantime, dare we say Auburn might win with … defense? Will Muschamp couldn’t deliver during his one season as coordinator in 2015 and gives way to the well-traveled Kevin Steele. He unquestionably has talent to work with, most notably up front with studs Lawson, Montravius Adams and Byron Cowart.

“There’s a lot of carryover, as far as our defense last year and defense this year, which is important,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got a chance to have one of the best, if not the best, defenses we’ve had at my time at Auburn.”

Happier times at Auburn: Chris Davis’ infamous Kick Six shocked No. 1 Alabama and helped pave the way for the Tiger’s BCS title game bid. (David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)

Most of all, though, the Tigers might need to recapture the late-game magic that permeated their run to the BCS championship game after the 2013 season. There’s not likely to be another Kick Six or Miracle at Jordan-Hare in their future, but after going a remarkable 6-1 in one-score games that season, Auburn regressed to 3-2 in 2014 and 3-4 last year.

Malzahn brought up the close losses multiple times during his session Monday, and it’s clear he’s passed along that message to his players. In the ultra-competitive SEC West, a couple of last-minute swings could mean the difference between Malzahn finishing the season on the right or wrong side of the hot seat.

“If we win those games, these [hot seat] questions wouldn’t be brought up,” Davis said. “As players, we have to take advantage of those opportunities.”

The good news for both Malzahn and Auburn: There will be no burden of expectations like there were last season. The preseason SEC West predictions will likely peg the Tigers closer to seventh than first. And the Tigers will surely be underdogs come Week 1 against 2015 national championship participant Clemson.

In that sense, it’s a lot more like 2013, when Auburn was coming off a 3-9 debacle. Of course, back then Malzahn was enjoying a first-year honeymoon. It’s amazing how quickly that period becomes ancient history as the coach of Auburn.