HOOVER, Ala. - If an Auburn coach somehow loses his mind and forgets the measuring stick of his job, all he would need to do is walk into the lobby at SEC Media Days deep in Crimson Tide country at a time when Alabama has won four national titles in seven years.
"Roll Tide!" an Alabama fan shouted at Auburn coach Gus Malzahn while he signed autographs Monday at the Wynfrey Hotel. "Congratulations on your [contract] extension. We are happy for you."
There are votes of confidence worth taking to heart. And then there are votes of confidence from Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, who this offseason gave Malzahn high praise and a one-year contract extension through 2020. Consider Jacobs' track record.
"I don't see anything changing. I'm looking forward to Tommy [Tuberville] being the coach at Auburn for a long, long time." -- Jacobs in November 2007, one year before Tuberville was forced out
"We will continue to provide Coach (Gene) Chizik and our football program the resources needed to build a strong foundation so that we can consistently compete for championships in the future. We look forward to Coach Chizik being our coach at Auburn for a long, long time." -- Jacobs in June 2011, one year before Chizik was fired
"[Gus Malzahn's] our coach. He's a brilliant offensive mind, took us to two national championships: once as a coordinator, once as a head coach. There's a bunch of schools in this league that would love to be in our position with a guy like him." -- Jacobs in June 2016
Translation: Watch your back, Gus.
Jacobs may believe every word he's saying about Malzahn. After all, Jacobs is likely tied to the hip to Malzahn more than any of his previous coaches. It would cost the Tigers about $9 million to fire Malzahn after this season, but Auburn has shown in the past it's willing to part with coaches with excessive buyouts.
It's possible Auburn will get a full and healthy year from star defensive end Carl Lawson. It's possible Auburn will find a quarterback again who's a running threat, which is a must for a Malzahn offense. It's possible Auburn wins close games again to make these questions about Malzahn's future a footnote in a long and successful Auburn career.
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It's also possible the Tigers are searching for a new coach after this season. Flip a coin and it could go either way. Because let's not kid ourselves: This is Auburn, where pulling the plug quickly is a ritual.
Jacobs may be confident in Malzahn, but he's not speaking for every major booster. Jacobs made this speech with Tuberville. He made it with Chizik. And now he's making it with Malzahn. It's called trying to keep recruits engaged until there's a definitive answer on whether Malzahn is the long-term answer as Nick Saban shows no signs of slowing down.
It's easy to forget that just three years ago Malzahn was 13 seconds away from winning the national championship in his rookie year as Auburn's coach. Just a year ago, Malzahn talked up Auburn, a trendy preseason playoff pick, at SEC Media Days like he rarely does. The Tigers ended 2015 as the first media preseason pick to win the SEC that finished all alone in last place of its division.
"We had high expectations, and we do every year, and we weren't able to reach our goals," Malzahn said Monday. "That was very frustrating and it was humbling to go through an experience like that."
Malzahn referenced Auburn's poor record in close games last year as something that must change. The Tigers were 3-4 in games decided by one possession in 2015 compared to 3-2 in 2014 and 6-1 in 2013, when the football Gods smiled on Auburn against Georgia and Alabama in the closing seconds.
It's possible White is Auburn's most reliable quarterback yet doesn't fit Malzahn's system. In Malzahn's career, his offense typically thrives if the quarterback can make plays with his legs. The quarterback doesn't have to be Cam Newton. Look what Nick Marshall did for two years; he immediately got turned into an NFL cornerback.
Malzahn hasn't suddenly gotten dumb as an offensive coach. But Malzahn's system, which relies heavily on the threat of a quarterback's legs and good blocking tight ends and H-backs, didn't match the players he had last year. Sometimes a coach doesn't grasp how delicate the pieces are to fit together and the cracks can't be filled if the assumptions are wrong.
"One thing that hit me pretty hard is that I've got to be more active with the daily X's and O's and coaching that goes with that," Malzahn said. "And that's what I look at as my strength. ... I'm looking forward to getting back in the middle of things and enjoying the actual coaching on the field."
Malzahn said Auburn may have one of its best defenses under his watch. Let's be honest: The bar is low. In 10 seasons as a college coach, Malzahn has been on a team with a top-50 scoring defense just once (Arkansas in 2006). Malzahn's scoring defense national rankings while a coach or offensive coordinator at Auburn: 54th (2015), 63rd (2014), 47th (2013), 78th (2011), 53rd (2010) and 76th (2009).
"Since I've been here, we've had one dominant game [on defense], that was my sophomore year," senior defensive lineman Montravius Adams said. "Other than that, we haven't really played the best we can on defense. Last year, that was horrible. I'm going to say it straight up. That was a bad time."
Auburn is on its fifth defensive coordinator in the past six years. Good luck finding stability with that kind of coaching turnover. The latest defensive coordinator is Kevin Steele, who hasn't had a top-40 defense in scoring since 2010. Steele's past two defenses: 24.3 points per game at LSU in 2015 (41st nationally) and 29.3 points at Clemson in 2011 (81st nationally).
Auburn's latest rebuild on defense is banking on a healthy Lawson, who suffered a hip injury in the season opener and missed six games. When he can stay on the field, Lawson looks like one of the best pass rushers in the country.
"When you have a guy like that, it changes everything," Malzahn said. "It really makes people hide some of your deficiencies. He's got that ability."
On paper, Auburn shouldhave that ability all around the team. Quick, name the only three schools with six straight top-10 recruiting classes. That would be Alabama, Florida State and Auburn. Quick, count how many NFL draft picks those three schools produced in the past three years: Alabama 22, Florida State 20 and Auburn 12.
Auburn's theme this year? Earn it. Malzahn and players said that means earning the respect of their teammates, coaches, fans, and yes, even the media after how badly reporters got Auburn wrong in 2015.
The schedule could be a major challenge. The good news for Auburn is it opens the season with five straight home games, though three of those are against Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU before September is out. The bad news: Three of Auburn's final five games are at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
In the cutthroat world of the SEC, the benefit of the doubt is disappearing for Malzahn. Votes of confidence in the summer by his AD won't impact Malzahn's future. Only wins will do that as Alabama fans revel in the rollercoaster program that is Auburn.