Campus Corner

Gus Malzahn will bring Auburn to Mizzou amidst pivotal season

Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Associated Press

Auburn has never finished worse than 7-6 under coach Gus Malzahn, who directed the Tigers to the BCS National Championship Game in 2013.

He’s also led Auburn to a top-25 finish in three of four seasons, but a 1-3 bowl record and 18-14 SEC record aren’t up to snuff for some of the program’s fans — especially given rival Alabama’s recent dominance.

It all adds up to a warm seat for Malzahn, one that officially will get scorching hot if his Tigers limp home Sept. 23 from Columbia with a loss against Missouri in tow.

Whether it’s fair to put Malzahn on the hot seat is irrelevant.

He inherited a depleted roster and unquestionably has improved Auburn football, but there’s pressure that comes with the job and its $4.725 million salary.

It’s more important for Auburn snap three-game losing streaks against the Crimson Tide and SEC East permanent cross-division rival Georgia, but a win against Mizzou is simply expected.

And for Malzahn’s squad to reach nine or 10 wins, a threshold at which he’s likely safe for another season (and maybe in line for an extension with his current contract set to expire in 2020), beating second-year coach Barry Odom probably is mandatory.

In other words, all the pressure for that matchup rests squarely on Auburn’s shoulders, and that could benefit Missouri under the right circumstances.

Here’s more on Auburn’s outlook for 2017 in our continuing series of MU opponent previews:

Week four — Auburn

Date/location: Sept. 23 at Memorial Stadium in Columbia

Kickoff time (TV): TBA

2016 season: 8-5 (5-3 SEC West)

Head coach: Gus Malzahn, fifth season at Auburn (35-18) and sixth overall (44-21)

All-time series: Tied 1-1

Last meeting: Auburn won 59-42 in the 2013 SEC Championship Game (Dec. 7, 2013, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta)

Top returning players: T Braden Smith, RB Kamryn Pettway, LB Deshaun Davis, LB Tré Williams, S Tray Matthews, K Daniel Carlson

Key departures: DT Montravius Adams, DE Carl Lawson, DB Johnathan Ford, G Alex Kozan, T Robert Leff

Five questions with Auburn beat writer James Crepea of AL.com:

1. It’s been widely assumed transfer Jarrett Stidham would claim the starting QB job, but it sounds like reports of Sean White’s demise may have been premature. Who’s behind center on Sept. 23?

Stidham will be the starter. There is no true contest here and everyone knows it. Sean White’s getting his opportunity to “compete” now, because he was limited in the spring but he’s simply not capable of doing what Stidham can do physically. Even if Stidham had a truly horrendous outing at Clemson, with Georgia Southern and Mercer home games before the trip to Missouri there is no way he doesn’t throw for a ton of yards.

2. Given Missouri’s potent passing game, how concerned should Auburn be about its lack of safety depth?

Auburn’s top line safeties are fine. Tray Matthews led the team in tackles and is one of the leaders of the team. Stephen Roberts is a returning starter as well. Nick Ruffin is the third senior of the group and he’s a more than serviceable backup. It’s the fourth and fifth spots where Auburn starts to see depth become a concern, though sophomore Daniel Thomas can play the position. Auburn’s defensive improvements came largely in the running game last season, though, so Missouri’s passing game should be a challenge.

3. Complete this sentence: Kamryn Pettway is the __________ running back in the SEC?

Most powerful. Pettway is a throwback to the brute force style runners of years ago. He’s not slow, but he’s not going to be breaking a lot of runs of 25-plus yards or looking to hit the edge. Between the tackles is where he lives. One could argue he’s the most underrated running back in the league considering he led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season but (LSU’s Derrius) Guice is a headliner, (Georgia’s Nick) Chubb is great and (Alabama’s Bo) Scarbrough is a force too.

4. With Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson off to the NFL, who will be Auburn’s emerging stars on the defensive line (because we know they’ve got some)?

Marlon Davidson had a great season as a true freshman and much is being asked of him. Derrick Brown and Andrew Williams are two tackles that could provide more by way of pass rush while Dontavius Russell will be a third-year starter and a run stopper. At Buck (linebacker), where Lawson played, it’ll be Jeff Holland and Paul James III who will try to fill that void.

5. You’ve got a Kansas City kid at Auburn, Olathe South grad Braden Smith. Do you have a fun or favorite Smith anecdote — preferably ones that’s slightly embarrassing — from the last three-plus years?

Smith has always been a soft-spoken and brief interviewee. His appearance at SEC Media Days was quite shocking from that perspective but he was much more enlightening in that setting. As a freshman, he was nicknamed Drago and it makes sense, though he didn’t particularly like it. Offensive-line coach Herb Hand has a story about when he is correcting something with Smith that his response, very seriously, is always, “Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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