It’s decision time for Auburn with Gus Malzahn. Be careful what you wish for

Doug Segrest
Special to the Advertiser

What next?

Auburn closed out an unremarkable 2020 season Saturday night, defeating Mississippi State 24-10 in a field goal and Tank Bigsby fest.

Now it’s decision time, and it’s not an easy one. Yes, Auburn fans are frustrated. Yes, Gus Malzahn is making a habit of four-loss seasons, and recruiting isn’t going well. But, but, but … he has Nick Saban’s number when no one outside of Dabo Swinney can say that.

That’s the biggest positive, because Auburn measures itself against Alabama. Not a fair comparison when Saban is on a historic run well into its second decade.

More:Auburn 24, Mississippi State 10: 3 things we learned as Tigers offense finally shows up

Step back and look at the bigger picture. Auburn is the third-best program in the SEC West, perennially the toughest division across the Power 5 landscape. Yes, Bama is hunting another national title and Texas A&M is ascending.

Dec 12, 2020; Starkville, Mississippi, USA;  Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn shouts during the first quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

But defending national champion LSU, despite its stunning win in The Swamp on Saturday, faces a dire prognosis on and off the field. Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are in rebuilding mode, but will be better soon.

Is that good enough for another year?

The risk is that you go from what you can count on to the unknown. If you make the move, with money from donors, you’d better know you’re making an upgrade. Call Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops. Then get serious. Hugh Freeze? With the Auburn basketball program already in the NCAA’s crosshairs? That would be institutional malpractice.

Everyone else is a roll of a dice. And all you have to do is look across the country — or even the SEC — and see once storied programs that have floundered for years due to bad hires.

You know what you’ve got with Malzahn: good, bad and growing indifference. You know he’s not going to lose the locker room. You know every third or fourth year he’ll challenge for a title.

That brings us back to Starkville.

Report card:Grading Auburn football's offense, defense, coaching in win at Mississippi State

Auburn rediscovered the running game early with freshman (and the Tigers' future) Bigsby breaking off chunks of runs, then abandoned success only to ice the game with him late. The Tigers didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter, but did that really matter with Anders Carlson automatic from 50 yards in?

Dec 12, 2020; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Tank Bigsby (4) runs the ball defended by Mississippi State Bulldogs safety Shawn Preston Jr. (12) during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

This was an old school, physical win, clinched by a defense that hit the road in search of redemption. It got chippy, but Auburn never lost its cool.

A 6-4 season isn’t solid, but it’s respectable against an unprecedented 10-game all-SEC schedule. Auburn’s slate was more rugged than most — the nation’s third toughest, according to Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings. Auburn lost 10 days at the height of preseason drills — and an entire spring — to the pandemic. Snake bit from the start.

Now it is time to make a move or stay put for another year.

Just be careful what you wish for.

Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser.