There aren’t many coaches, if any, judged on a week-to-week basis more than Auburn’s Gus Malzhan.
With each week, however, it’s becoming less about Malzahn’s job security and more about how Auburn can impact the College Football Playoff picture. Whether that’s as spoiler or contender remains to be seen, but the Tigers reminded everyone what the in-between looks like in a convincing 28-20 victory at No. 17 Texas A&M on Saturday.
Auburn is in the top 10. Auburn is 4-0. Auburn looks like the team that could crack that six-team aristocracy of Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma at the top of college football. Well, at least we get to see the Tigers play half of the membership.
Auburn is the chaos team of 2019, and it’s time to embrace that every week.
Freshman quarterback Bo Nix (12 of 20, 100 yards, touchdown) is at the center of that with a box-of-chocolates-game full of the unexpected. He’s still progressing in Malzhan’s offense, but his long ball — for better or worse — has opened the offense because the threat of the deep shot is there.
Auburn had a 14-3 lead at halftime despite going 4 of 9 passing for 38 yards in the first half. Then Nix opened the second half with three completions, including a 9-yard touchdown to Seth Williams, to build a 21-3 lead.
When Texas A&M cut that lead to 21-10 in the fourth quarter, Nix led a 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that took 6:01 off the clock in response. That’s a veteran drive. Nix outplayed veteran quarterback Kellen Mond and continues to build on a legacy that started with the thrilling victory in the opener against Oregon.
Auburn has a defensive line that can alter offensive game plans. Texas A&M (2-2) had 13 rushing attempts for 12 yards at halftime, and their running backs had eight carries for minus-7 yards. The Aggies finished with 21 carries for 56 yards. Mond finished 31 of 49 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but that Kevin Steele defense kept everything in front on the road. The Aggies generated just two drives with double-digit plays, and those resulted in three points.
Of course, Texas A&M made it a one-score game, and that is just part of the deal for Auburn. Nix closed this one out with a zone-read pull for a 7-yard gain with 1:45 remaining. They are going to play more one-score games along the way. Some things never change with Malzahn.
Malzhan’s offense can still be unconventionally beautiful, and no play personified that more than Anthony Schwartz’s 57-yard touchdown run on a reverse for the game’s first touchdown. Auburn doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy quarterback, running back or a roster that is going to generate giant blowouts over the next eight weeks.
But we’re going to get to see Auburn play just about everybody they need to in order to take the next step. The Tigers’ remaining schedule is arguably the most intriguing in the FBS:
The Tigers alternate between unranked and top-10 opponents with two byes in between, and the tests at The Swamp and Death Valley in October will determine whether the possibility for a magical November on the Plains could happen again. That’s because Auburn gets Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and in the proper setting it’s one of the toughest — if not the toughest — place to play in the entire country.
Is that good enough to push lightning back into the bottle for the third time this decade? Malzhan made it happen in 2010 and again in 2013, and the Tigers will close in 2017. This team is good enough to pick off at least one of Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Can they get a split? Three? A sweep?
Malzahn’s job security will always be talked about in between as that schedule unfolds, but it’s clear the noise isn’t bothering the coach or his team.
“One week at a time” is working in the other direction instead.