Auburn came into the season as the defending SEC West champions with a top-15 ranking and hopes of building off last season's success with redshirt junior Jarrett Stidham back to take the snaps. Instead, the fall from grace on the Plains has been as quick as lemonade is downed at Toomer's Corner.
Citing sources close to the program, Brandon Marcello of 247Sports went on "The Paul Finebaum Show" earlier this week and noted that the new seven-year, $49 million contract that Gus Malzahn signed in the offseason won't be hard for the program to get past -- should it decide to do so -- despite the hefty price tag.
"I'm not ruling out a change at the end of the season even though he (Malzahn) has a contract that has at least 38 million dollars in buyout money...from what I've been told, there's not much concern there when it comes to the money" - @bmarcello pic.twitter.com/jjhYUemqxz— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) October 16, 2018
On the surface, that's eye-opening and sounds incredible considering this guy just beat Nick Saban and Kirby Smart a year ago. That buyout figure seems like it would cause permanent damage not only to a football program but an entire athletic department. But Auburn was the nation's eighth-most valuable college football program in 2017-18, according to Forbes, raking in $112 million in revenue and $61 million in profit.
A $38 million buyout is expensive, but it is also doable considering the paychecks television networks and the SEC cut each school at the end of the school year. The bottom line is that it might be necessary no matter the price tag.
Malzahn got the job for being an offensive genius, but you wouldn't know it based on this season's results. SEC Network analyst Jordan Rodgers showed on Twitter just how vanilla this offense has been.
Auburn is predictable on Offense based on personel.— Jordan Rodgers (@JRodgers11) October 15, 2018
vs Tenn when a TE/FB (predominantly Chandler Cox) is on the field vs off the field:
On — 35/47 Rush or Screen: 74%
Off — 30/33 Pass: 91%
Teams play coverage vs 4 wide, load the box vs heavy sets. Can’t win like this.
That predictability became even more apparent last week in the 30-24 home loss to Tennessee when Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt was heard off camera.
From the moment toe met leather in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Washington, it was clear that the Tigers offense was going to be a liability -- not a strength -- in 2018. The offensive line has struggled against every FBS program that it has faced, giving up 15 sacks this season (11th in the SEC), and the rushing attack -- typically a strength for Auburn -- is 12th in the conference with 158.43 yards per game. In its three of its last four games, the Tigers haven't even eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground.
Stidham has regressed, which isn't helping matters. Some of those sacks are squarely on his indecisiveness in the pocket; he has thrown four picks and has been careless with the football. On top of that, he consistently hasn't even seen wide open receivers deep downfield -- even in the season-opening win over Washington when he threw for 273 yards. He is 59th in the country in passing plays of 30 or more yards with just six on the year. For comparison's sake, Ole Miss signal-caller Jordan Ta'amu leads the nation with 27.
That offensive ineptitude has put Auburn in a very tough spot. If it doesn't beat Ole Miss this weekend, it's hard to imagine Malzahn leading the program to a bowl game in 2018. Liberty is the only sure-fire win on the schedule; the Tigers have Alabama and Georgia on the road and Texas A&M is the only home conference game left on the slate. But the road team in the Auburn-Texas A&M series has won every game since conference expansion in 2018.
If a team like Auburn -- that has legitimate national championship caliber talent -- can't even make a bowl game, you could probably pass a hat around the next home tailgate and raise enough money to cover that cost. After all, it's clear that the program isn't getting its proper return on investment.