Monday Morning QB Column: Making A Change

A coaching change and Auburn's performance in the Iron Bowl are featured in Jason Caldwell's latest column.

Sometimes coaches have to make tough decisions in order to move a program forward. That was exactly the situation for Gus Malzahn when he fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on Sunday following the 55-44 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. There is no question Johnson knows football, but sometimes a change is needed to go in a different and better direction and that was the case for the Tigers.

It reminded me of a time nearly 30 years ago when Pat Dye was faced with a similar situation. After picking the program up off the mat in 1981, Dye’s Tigers responded with a bowl win the following year and then an 11-1 season in 1983. One of the favorites to win the SEC and possibly a national championship the next two seasons, Auburn instead struggled to get over the hump. At a crossroads, Dye chose to make changes at both coordinator positions and the results were immediate and impressive. Over the next four seasons Auburn won 39 games and became the dominant team in the SEC.

Steve Spurrier did something similar following the 1995 season. While the Gators were doing just fine in the SEC, the Head Ball Coach knew he needed to take things to the next level defensively if he wanted his program to win it all. What made up his mind was giving up 62 to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl in a matchup of the top two teams in the country. Bringing in Bob Stoops helped the Gators over the hump the next season and cemented Spurrier’s legacy forever in Gainesville.

Auburn doesn’t need a miracle worker. There is nothing that says the Tigers have to improve to a top five defense in the country next season. With Malzahn’s offensive success just having a defense that can slow opposing offenes may be enough. It worked for the Gators in 1996. That season Florida allowed more than 20 points seven times, but just 30 or more one time. With Auburn’s offense that is a recipe for success.

Almost In The Nick Of Time

I’m not sure what more Nick Marshall could have done to help the Tigers win Saturday night unless he had pulled double-duty in the secondary at some point. Playing against one of the top defenses in the country Marshall and the Auburn offense lit the Crimson Tide up like a Christmas tree. There is no question that Auburn should have converted more in the red zone, but it’s hard to fault an offense that scores 44 points and totals 630 yards against an FCS opponent, much less in the Iron Bowl.

For Marshall it was another showing for a player who deserves to be ranked among the best to ever play the position in an Auburn uniform. When you combine his ability to run the football, his big-play skills in the passing game and his toughness, Marshall has proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt he’s one of the all-time greats for the Tigers.

Defining Moment

Even though Saturday didn’t turn out like Auburn hoped, it may be one of those games people look back on years later as a defining moment for the program because of the way it happened. For the third time this season the Tigers fumbled on their opening offensive play. The first time was a disastrous loss at Mississippi State where Auburn just fell apart. The second time came at home in a loss to Texas A&M, a game that should never have been close without a multitude of mistakes from the Tigers. This time, however, Auburn didn’t let the mistake define the game. Instead they answered the ball and came out swinging in round number two.

The fight and determination was something Auburn fans wanted to see from their team in the Iron Bowl and that’s what they got. There is no such thing as a moral victory, but the look and hurt on the faces of the players after the game reminded me a lot of LSU in 2013. That’s a look I had not seen this season and is a good sign for the bowl game and beyond.

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