In the last six seasons, Gus Malzahn played a key role in leading Auburn to the second national championship in school history, as offensive coordinator, and coming within 13 seconds of winning another, as head coach.
Auburn has won three SEC national championships since 1989, and Malzahn has had a hand in two of them. He was the lead assistant for the third Heisman Trophy winner in school history. He has been an offensive coordinator at Auburn for three years (2009-11) and head coach for three years (2013-15), with a one-year break in between in which the Tigers went 3-9 without him, their worst season in decades.
This is not typically the resume of someone on the hot seat.
And yet it seems as if Malzahn is in danger of suffering a fate similar to Gene Chizik, his former boss and predecessor as head coach, who was fired two years after winning a national championship. For Malzahn, it's something that previously seemed unthinkable, as he was recently viewed as a rising star widely seen as one of the brightest minds in football.
Now, entering the 2016 season, no coach in college football will have more to prove than Malzahn in trying to rebuild his reputation after a collapse over the last season and a half in which Auburn is 2-11 in SEC games. Few coaches have ever seen the conversation about them change so quickly.
For as high as the highs have been for the Malzahn/Auburn marriage, it's easy to poke holes in the resume too -- even in the best seasons. It's always hard to hand out divide credit for memorable seasons, but it's clear that the man most responsible for Auburn's 2010 run to the BCS national championship was neither Chizik nor Malzahn. It was quarterback Cam Newton, who spent only one year at Auburn after leaving Florida and playing a season of juco ball. Newton was a force of nature that season, with one of the most dominant performances in college football history en route to the Heisman and the championship win vs. Oregon.
In 2013, after a one-year stint as head coach at Arkansas State, Malzahn returned to lead Auburn to the national title game, going from 3-9 to 12-2 in one of the biggest turnarounds ever. The Tigers went 11-1 in the regular season, losing by 14 at LSU in September, and they proceeded to score 59 points against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game and lose 34-31 in a gut-wrenching BCS title game against Florida State. They boasted a terrific offense and a middle-of-the-road defense, and they were also undeniably lucky. Prior to the Florida State loss, they went 5-0 in games decided by eight points or less, including two of the flukiest finishes ever: The Miracle at Jordan-Hare against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama. It was a great season, but a few bad breaks the other way could have easily resulted in an eight- or nine-win season. Perhaps the next season's regression should have been expected.
They opened 2014 ranked No. 6 in the preseason, only to fall apart down the stretch against a difficult schedule and finish 8-5 without getting much help from a broken defense. In 2015, thanks in part to high expectations for new quarterback Jeremy Johnson, Auburn again opened at No. 6 in the AP poll, only to stumble to a mediocre 7-6 season in which the offense struggled mightily with Johnson getting benched, and the defense made some progress under new coordinator Will Muschamp but not enough.
Auburn over the last eight years, with records plus national rankings in yards per play, scoring offense, Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System offensive numbers and Football Outsiders' S&P+ offensive ratings.
Muschamp is already gone, leaving for the South Carolina head coach job. He's part of a rash of assistant coach departures over the last few months. Defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson went with him as South Carolina's new defensive coordinator, as did linebackers coach Lance Thompson, who will be Muschamp's defensive line coach. Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes left for the same job at Cincinnati, with Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand -- a friend and former colleague of Malzahn at Tulsa -- replacing him.
The biggest surprise among the staff overhaul is this week's departure of wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig.
Losing an assistant to a lateral move is painful. It's more painful when it happens within the same division. It's especially painful when it's one of the nation's best recruiters. It's the most painful when it's a famous former player leaving his alma mater for a rival.
Craig leaving for the wide receivers coach job at LSU covers all of the above. While the jury is still out on Craig's ability as a receivers coach -- the unit was a significant weakness for Auburn in 2015 -- he's an energetic recruiter who played a big role in the Tigers signing a top-10 class despite turning back-to-back preseason No. 6 rankings into a 15-11 record over the last two seasons. This is one of the most consequential assistant coach moves of the offseason, with Craig jumping from one place where the coaching staff is on increasingly thin ice to another, a move that could have a significant impact on the recruiting trail.
Malzahn tapped Arizona State running backs coach and former Auburn quarterback/receiver Kodi Burns to replace Craig, and Burns will be charged with quickly developing a young, inexperienced receiving corps to aid whomever is playing quaterback. That might be Johnson, who lost his job already; Sean White, who threw one touchdown pass in seven games; or former Florida State QB and juco transfer John Franklin III, a more mobile quarterback closer to the mold of Nick Marshall, who started for Malzahn in 2013-14.
Malzahn has yet to field a great defense as a head coach, and in adding journeyman Kevin Steele, he'll be on his third coordinator in four years. Meanwhile, each of his third years at Auburn -- first as an assistant and now as head coach -- has resulted in a substantial decline on offense, which has been met with a mediocre record. Four years will be his longest stay at a college job since arriving at Arkansas in 2006 after five years as head coach of Springdale High School, and it is without question the most pressure-packed season he'll have faced in his career. We have not seen Malzahn in a Year 4 before.
It's not that he's alone in feeling heat, even in his own division. Les Miles was nearly fired in November, and he'll be on the hot seat in 2016 despite LSU's status as a likely preseason top-five team. Texas A&M has become a post-Johnny Manziel disaster, with two five-star quarterbacks transferring out in December as Kevin Sumlin goes from rising star -- seemingly capable of upsetting the balance of power in the SEC -- to the hot seat, in a situation that feels similar to Malzahn.
Any slip-up at these schools, but especially Auburn, is magnified by what continues to happen in Tuscaloosa. The whole SEC suffers from the problem of measuring itself against what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama, which just happens to be one of the greatest coaching jobs in sports history.
Georgia just fired Mark Richt after a 9-3 season. LSU nearly fired Miles during a 9-3 season. Three of the most recent hires in the SEC East are former Saban assistants (Kirby Smart, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain). More than any individual, Saban is responsible for soaring SEC coaching salaries, increased impatience among fans and administrators and the never-ending SEC Network cash infused athletics arms race.
Auburn may have won a national title and played for another, but since Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama is a national-best 100-18, while Auburn is 29th at 74-43. Alabama has won six of the last eight Iron Bowls, and while Saban has won at least 10 games in eight straight seasons, Auburn has won more than eight games only twice in that span. Alabama is an impossible standard for anyone to hold themselves too, but it's not going to stop everyone else from trying anyway.
For a time, it looked like Malzahn might be the coach who could change the SEC, whose hurry-up, no-huddle system would drive Saban crazy and shift the approach of the entire conference. Instead, Alabama is coming off another national title and a sixth straight No.1 recruiting class, and most of the new coaches being hired in the conference are defensive-minded and/or Saban disciples. Malzahn appeared to be the best worthy adversary, a coach with a clashing but more modern vision for how to play football that threatened Saban's belief system. Saban has fought back and successfully found ways to adapt, while Malzahn is left scrambling to improve his defense, develop a quarterback and regain confidence on offense, where success seemed like a foregone conclusion before the 2015 debacle because of Malzahn's reputation. He'll have to do this after a ton of turnover on his staff and with few standout players returning.
Expectations have plummeted, with Auburn likely to begin the 2016 season outside the top 25. The last time that happened, the Tigers nearly won a national title. This time, however, it's still unclear who will emerge at quarterback, who that quarterback will throw to and whether the defense can take another step forward. There won't be too much time to figure things out either, as both Clemson and LSU, possible top-five teams, come to Jordan-Hare Stadium in September.
It would be reasonable to preach patience, given what Malzahn has accomplished, but the current college football climate -- especially in the SEC -- appears to have no use for patience. It's been especially true at Auburn. Given his recent history of success at Auburn and his rapid rise in college coaching, nobody faces a more suprising make-or-break season for his reputation quite like Malzahn, who's on the type of roller coaster ride that very few coaches have ever experienced.