Gus Malzahn puts onus on Auburn as schools wrestle over coach after SEC title defeat

ATLANTA — Gus Malzahn toed the line of commitment Saturday night, but he didn’t cross it.

“I’m happy here at Auburn,” Malzahn said after his Tigers lost the Southeastern Conference championship game to Georgia in resounding fashion, 28-7.

That’s a nice statement, but not a firm statement. So the questions kept coming.

“I want to be the head coach at Auburn,” he said.

And you will be?

“I want to be.”

And there, in that slight but significant delineation between “will” and “want to” — between “all-in” and “how much?” — Gus Malzahn threw the burden on Auburn to keep him. The institutional response will be fascinating and revealing.

Arkansas will try to get him, very hard. It will throw piles of cash at a guy who played college football at Arkansas, was a high-school coaching legend in the state, was offensive coordinator of the Razorbacks in 2006 and the head coach of Arkansas State in 2012. Given what Southeastern Conference western division rival Texas A&M reportedly just bestowed on Jimbo Fisher — 10 years, $75 million — this is a good time to be a champion of that division.

Gus Malzahn has denied any speculation about reports about his future, but Arkansas is fixated on Malzahn. (AP)

In addition to massive money and appealing to loyalty, the school is likely to offer Malzahn plenty of power. He likely would be consulted heavily on the hiring of Arkansas’ next athletic director, a position vacated since Jeff Long was fired last month. Most of us would like to name our own boss, right?

In response to a lucrative homecoming offer, what will Auburn do? That could be the $75 million (or thereabouts) question.

Malzahn also chummed the water with several references to the bright future at Auburn, where just three defensive starters and four on offense Saturday were seniors.

“I believe we’re going to be back,” Malzahn said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back in this moment next year.”

The unspoken caveat there: if I’m the coach. If not, good luck.

Auburn is undoubtedly the better program at the moment, and has been almost without fail since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992. The Razorbacks have won the SEC West three times in 25 years and never won the overall league championship. Auburn has won the West nine times and the overall league title three times since the Hogs arrived. The Tigers won the national title in 2010 and played for it in ’13, heights the Hogs can scarcely dream of.

But Auburn also is a traditional breeding ground for dysfunction, and right now is no exception. Athletic director Jay Jacobs is on his way out after a steady drip of scandal on his watch, which means the leadership there is every bit as much in question as it is in Fayetteville.

And sharing a state with kingpin Alabama and Nick Saban can be exhausting. It’s one thing to play in the same division with the Crimson Tide and quite another to live with them on a daily basis, constantly battling for the same in-state recruits.

Historically, the best way to become an Auburn coaching legend has been to beat ‘Bama. The fact that Malzahn did that Nov. 25, for the second time in five seasons, should be enough to galvanize the base for any upcoming bidding war with Arkansas. As of this writing, no other active SEC coach has beaten Saban even once since he came to Tuscaloosa in 2007.

But Auburn might be the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately job, and the last thing Malzahn did was lose the SEC title game by three touchdowns to a team the Tigers beat by 23 on Nov. 11. Only a crazy fan base would grumble about a 10-3 season that includes a triumph over your hated rival, but if the tinfoil hat fits in the Loveliest Little Village on the Plains, wear it.

There aren’t many great excuses for losing by 21 points, but there is one factor that may have mattered most — and it reflects one of the more difficult parts of being the Auburn coach. Coming out of the Iron Bowl, the Tigers’ best player, running back Kerryon Johnson, was a shell of his usual self Saturday.

Johnson had 13 carries, 44 rushing yards and 45 all-purpose yards— all season lows in games in which he appeared. (Johnson missed two in September.) It was unsure if he would play at all after coming out of the Iron Bowl with shoulder and rib injuries.

He tried to go, but was largely ineffective and had a costly fumble. Johnson certainly didn’t resemble the guy who gouged Georgia for 167 yards on 32 carries in November, or the guy who had 30 rugged carries against Alabama.

“He gave us all he had,” Malzahn said of Johnson. “You could tell he wasn’t 100 percent.”

When the final game of the regular season is the Iron Bowl, there always is a chance that the winning team will not be 100 percent if it then must turn around and play in the SEC championship game. This is the tyranny of tradition, which has pitted Auburn and Alabama against each other to close the regular season since the early 1900s.

It’s football heresy, but the schools might ask the SEC to consider moving the game earlier in the schedule. For the sake of the winner.

Would moving it be a copout of sorts? Yeah, you could argue that. Especially if Ohio State and Michigan and other conference heavyweight rivals are still going to play on Thanksgiving weekend. But if the goal is to make the College Football Playoff, does it make sense to send a depleted team into your league championship game?

At Arkansas, the new tradition is to play Missouri to close the regular season. While that hasn’t been a recipe for success lately — Mizzou has won the last two meetings and three of the last four — it’s an easier path than butting heads with ‘Bama.

That’s just one more thing for Gus Malzahn to consider, as he waits to find out exactly how much Arkansas loves him. And, in response, how much Auburn loves him, too.