Six programs in the SEC are rolling along in the right direction. Seven more are progressing at the level most fans expected. Then there’s Auburn.
Auburn opened the season ranked No. 9 in the country and actually moved up in the polls early in the season. A win over top-team Washington was the biggest of the season for any team on opening weekend. Even after a home loss to LSU, the Tigers were still No. 8 in the country just two weeks ago. Then came losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Today the Tigers stand at 4-3 overall, with six losses a real possibility this season. Auburn is a field-goal favorite at Ole Miss this weekend, and the future odds for the following game against Texas A&M has the Tigers as a 1.5-point favorite. If the Tigers win both of those game, plus add a sure win over Liberty, that’s a 7-5 season. That, of course, assumes road losses at Georgia and Alabama.
But if the Tigers lose one of the next two — or even both — then the bottom is going to fall out, not just for this Auburn team but for the Auburn program.
The logical next step would be to find a new leader to turn around the program. The problem with that plan is that last winter Jimmy Sexton treated Auburn President Steven Leath like a patsy willing to pay top dollar for Cabbage Patch Dolls long after the craze had ended.
Sexton is the agent for Gus Malzahn. He’s a genius negotiator. Leath is not.
Sexton used two impressive wins over No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama, planted some rumors about Arkansas being willing to pay top dollar to lure Malzahn away and turned it into a complete fleecing of Auburn.
Leath, who was new on the job and already in the process of getting rid of Athletics Director Jay Jacobs and dealing with the fallout from controversies in the basketball and softball programs, was all too happy to be Sexton’s prey.
Since agreeing to that deal, Auburn has won only four of nine games. After losing the SEC Championship Game to Georgia and the Chick-fil-A Bowl to Central Florida, the Tigers have won this season over Washington, Alabama State, Arkansas and Southern Miss.
It was one thing for Leath to agree to a contract that made Malzahn one of the five highest paid coaches in the country. After all, at the time the contract was agreed upon Malzahn had his team ranked in the Top 5 and was one win away from making the college football playoff.
Where Sexton treated Leath like a rank amateur was in the buyout. The short of it is this: If Auburn decides to fire Malzahn after this season they will owe him $32 million. Half of that will be due right away. The other half will be paid in installments.
Stand up and take a bow, Jimmy Sexton. You negotiated an ironclad contract for your client even if his program completely fell apart, which it apparently is now doing.
The problem for Auburn is not just that this team has not lived up to expectation. The real issue is what the future looks like, specifically when it comes to recruiting.
Everybody knows Auburn is bracketed by Alabama and Georgia, two rivals who played for the national championship last season and are now battling for the top spot in recruiting.
Beyond those two heavyweights, it’s hard to convince a prospect Auburn’s program is on the rise compared to LSU, Florida, Texas A&M or even Kentucky.
In the last two weeks, Malzahn has lost to first-year coaches at Mississippi State and Tennessee. What’s the feasible argument that Auburn is on a better trajectory than those two programs?
Auburn doesn’t recruit much against Missouri, Vanderbilt, Arkansas or South Carolina.
Up next is Ole Miss, a program that would have been a three-touchdown underdog to the Tigers if this game had been played just three weeks ago. Today, that certainly isn’t the case.
Auburn could put it all together this weekend and win in Oxford against a team that features three of the six leading receivers in the conference but also has a defense that can help any offense get well.
Whether Auburn wins or loses will have a major impact on Auburn this season. But it won’t change where Auburn finds itself as a program. For that, Auburn fans can thank Sexton and a president who was taken to the cleaners by a better negotiator.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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