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How did Auburn football get worse?

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SB Nation's Bud Elliott and Steven Godfrey are trying to figure out the 2-2 Auburn Tigers, formerly the favorite to win the SEC in 2015.

Bud: Lots of people picked Auburn to win the SEC this year.

Godfrey: I was one of them.

Bud: Now the Tigers might have to fight to make a bowl game. And I don't think anyone thought they would be worse than 2014. After starting 0-2 in the league, Auburn is 7-7 in its last 14 games against Power 5 conference teams, outscored by 32 points in that span. Does any team with a record like that get the benefit of the doubt that Auburn does?

Godfrey: I think we now know that "Jeremy Johnson is a plug-and-win starting quarterback!" was the worst assumption of the offseason. College football has a nearly 10-month long offseason. We construct these ideas to fill that void. In that time period Johnson and Will Muschamp became the reason that Auburn was the favorite. Johnson's not that good, and Muschamp can't fix everything immediately.

Not to attempt revisionist history, but I was somewhat hesitant to say Johnson was such a sure thing. He was a backup last year for a reason right? That said, I saw him in person against Kansas State last season and I really didn't expect this. I thought they'd beat Georgia in Atlanta to go to the Playoff.

Bud: I think it's reasonable to start looking at the entire Malzahn era at Auburn as a whole and reevaluate.

Godfrey: My prediction is this -- when Auburn loses its next conference game, more attention will be paid to Malzahn's entire tenure, and on the fact that his three biggest wins have come attached with incredible luck in the final seconds.

Bud: So the 2013 tipped pass in the comeback against Georgia, and of course the Kick Six in the Iron Bowl the following week...

Godfrey: ...and I think it's fair to include last year's game at Ole Miss in that category. At the time, both teams were in the College Football Playoff's four-team bracket; it was essentially an elimination game. That game wasn't a comeback for Auburn, but Laquon Treadwell caught the winning touchdown for Ole Miss with a minute to go, landed and then broke his ankle in end zone, dropping the ball and basically ending the game.

Bud: So why do you think Auburn gets the benefit of the doubt in SEC country?

Godfrey: Well there's always the local theory: Alabama. Malzahn's arrival coincides with the shift in Bama's total dominance of the division.

Let me clarify, I'm not jumping on the Bama-dynasty-over thing because they've lost one game this year. What I'm saying is that Alabama hasn't been the same program in the last two-ish seasons and I've spoken with multiple coaches and players who agree. Other SEC players don't fear Alabama like they used to. So combine that with Auburn's success in recruiting and the fact that hey, luck or whatever, that ball did tip and that kick did go for six, and maybe that's why. Malzahn's tempo DOES give Saban's defense problems. Auburn IS recruiting well. If I had to scheme on building a program to counter Saban's Alabama, I would probably hire Malzahn.

Where do the Tigers go from here?

Bud: Your Alabama idea makes sense. I also think that the extreme nature of the 2012-13 turnaround made people very impressed with Malzahn. I still think he can be really successful at Auburn, but Auburn isn't exactly known for patience. And they just look sloppy, with mental error after mental error and no explosive plays to offset that. I'd bet that we will hear all sorts of stuff about the lack of chemistry and leadership by upperclassmen. A 1-6 record in their last seven against FBS teams doesn't just happen at Auburn without some bad mix of intangibles.

Godfrey: And there's no possible sacrifice to be made this year to placate angry fans. They've just hired the most expensive D.C. in the country and it's not like Malzahn is going to fire an offensive assistant and claim the problem is fixed. That means a really, really long period of angst for fans. How does that play in recruiting?

Bud: Not well, though I'd say Auburn is never going to slip to the bottom half of the conference in recruiting with this staff of elite recruiters. We talk sometimes about striking the right balance between recruiters and coaches on a coaching staff. I wonder if Auburn has the right balance right now?

Godfrey: OK, you walked us right into it then. Which SEC staffs have that balance? At the moment I'd say (in no order) Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and now Ole Miss. That's one tier, and maybe the Aggies and Rebels are a little presumptuous on my part based on their early performance in 2015.

Bud: Even though I cover this for a living, it is still really hard to speak on that with authority except in the most obvious situations, like Muschamp's offense at Florida. I think you really need to be around each program to know for sure, and I don't know if I want to go there yet just. Simply wondering if that is an issue. But I don't disagree with your list.

Godfrey: Maybe we're judging this solely on one bad month of football. I mean, we are talking about a coaching staff that turned a former defensive back into a successful quarterback for an SEC champion. To answer your original question, though: I don't know why or even if there's a benefit of the doubt on Malzahn. But I know for certain that if it does exist, it certainly won't if he has another month like this past one.

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