“Auburn is a basketball school.”

November 24, 2018 By Skye Underwood

Yes, today is the 83rd edition of the Iron Bowl, the best rivalry in college football, especially when Auburn pulls their weight and holds up their end of the deal, which has hardly been the case this season.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t followed Auburn Football this year, the title of this story might better explain the disappointing season the Tigers have had on the gridiron.

Today in Tuscaloosa at 2:30 p.m. cst, Auburn (7-4, SEC 3-4) clashes with heavily favored, No. 1 Alabama (11-0, SEC 7-0).

“Auburn is a basketball school.” The sentiment has been shared far and wide across the social media landscape as a coping mechanism by Auburn fans in peril, frustrated that their football team has fallen flat on its face yet again under Gus Malzahn, but thankful that Bruce Pearl has created a championship culture with Auburn Basketball.

Auburn Football has long been the face of Auburn athletics, but simply put, that face just ain’t pretty anymore. If Auburn Football had a profile on an online dating app, you’d quickly swipe left, while super-liking Auburn Basketball.

And what’s so infuriating for Tiger fans is the fact that it’s much more difficult to succeed in basketball at a place like Auburn when compared to football.

If there’s one thing that Jay Jacobs done right, other than building the monstrosity that is Jordan-Hare’s new press box which limits Marcello’s view of the game leading him to vent on Twitter providing entertainment for us all, the former Auburn athletic director made one of the best decisions in Auburn athletics history by hiring Bruce Pearl to become the 20th head coach of Auburn Basketball.

Pearl took over a program at its worst with very little tradition, but he did inherit a relatively new Auburn Arena, even if fans lacked reasons to fill it. The Tigers were coming off the Tony Barbee era (2010-2014) that saw Auburn finish with a conference winning percentage of .265 (18-50) in his four seasons as head coach.

To better appreciate the job that Bruce Pearl has done in transforming Auburn Basketball into an elite Top 10 program and the Auburn Arena into one of the best home court advantages in all of college basketball, you first have to acknowledge the condition that Barbee left the program in.

After Barbee practically imploded Auburn Basketball, it literally had to be rebuilt from scratch by Pearl. Auburn fans were patient as the energetic head coach’s first two seasons at Auburn (2014-15: 15-20, SEC 4-14; 2015-16: 11-20, SEC 5-13) were the worst two seasons of his then twenty-two-year head coaching career.

Before arriving to The Plains, Pearl had never had a losing season in his 20 years as a college head basketball coach from Southern Indiana to Milwaukee and on to the banks of the Tennessee River when he led the Volunteers for six seasons.

Just to put things in perspective of how tough the Auburn job was, Pearl had a combined overall winning percentage of .761 (462-145) prior to coming to Auburn, but in his first two years on The Plains, both losing seasons yielded a combined winning percentage of .399 (26-40), far below the success that Pearl was accustomed to in every season of his past.

Bruce Pearl continued to grind and work and in his third season, Auburn Basketball started showing signs of life as the Tigers finished with an overall 18-14 winning record.

Auburn’s SEC wins have improved each year under Pearl from claiming 4 conference wins in his first season, 5 in his second, 7 in his third year, to a whopping 13 last season, Pearl’s fourth year on The Plains and even more surprising, or not considering Pearl is such an amazing coach and it was only a matter of time, but Auburn Basketball won the 2017-18 regular season SEC Championship, along with Tennessee (pffft, AU won head to head meeting by double-digits).

Bruce Pearl has worked wonders at Auburn and created something special with the basketball program that the university, its students and fans are so very proud of. The start of Pearl’s fifth season at Auburn has his Tigers ranked in the Top 10 at No. 8 with a 5-1 record, the lone blemish – a six point loss to No. 1 Duke in the Maui Classic where the Tigers fought their hearts out till the very end.

Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn is on the verge of finishing his sixth regular season on The Plains and his Tigers are 7-4 and unranked. Auburn Football was supposed to compete for a College Football Playoff birth this year, but instead are competing for a spot in the Belk Bowl.

This will be Malzahn’s third Auburn team that was ranked in the AP Top 10 to start the season only to fall flat on its face and not meet preseason expectations. Ouch, that’s 3 out of 6 seasons under Malzahn that Auburn Football has underperformed resulting in an empty Gus Bus burning through seven million dollars worth of fuel every year.

2014: Ranked No. 6 to start the season; finished (8-5, SEC 4-4) ranked No. 22

2015: Ranked No. 6 to start the season; finished (7-6, SEC 2-6) unranked to end the season, last place in the SEC West

2018: Ranked No. 9 to start the season; currently (7-4, SEC 3-4) unranked and 5th in the SEC West with Iron Bowl awaiting

The product that Malzahn is producing is no longer entertaining. Many fans believe he coaches scared and he’s lost his edge. He and his pal, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s offensive concepts have grown stale. I don’t think Lindsey should shoulder the blame, but he’ll be the scapegoat.

Malzahn was supposed to “turn Stidham loose this season” but that’s hardly been the case. If anything, Stidham has regressed as a quarterback under Malzahn and it’s not necessarily fun to type those words, but the truth hurts.

And your heart has to go out to the Auburn defense led by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and guys like linebacker Deshaun Davis, the anchor of the team. The Auburn defense started out the season as one of the country’s most elite units, but due to its offense’s ineptness and inability to run the ball and sustain drives, the defense has had to spend an inordinate amount of time on the field, so as the end of the regular season draws near, the wear and tear are starting to show as Auburn’s defense gave up an embarrassing 300+ yards on the ground in each of its last two SEC games.

Let’s be honest here, 2018 Auburn Football has been one big shit show and quite frankly it’s been hard to watch at times.

Malzahn’s sixth Auburn team was supposed to compete with Alabama and Georgia for SEC and college football supremacy, but instead Auburn is looking like David rolling up into the Iron Bowl as a 24-point underdog against Goliath, the well-oiled machine better known as Alabama.

Auburn Football’s loss to Tennessee (5-6, SEC 2-6) was insufferable and inexcusable, especially since it happened inside Jordan-Hare. The Vols had lost 15 straight games to the SEC West dating back eight years to 2010. In fact, Tennessee hadn’t won an SEC game since 2016 but Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee Vols defeated Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers, 30-24.

The loss to Tennessee was the lowest point of the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn and the horrible feeling still lingers among the Auburn Family.

Before the season, Malzahn tried to convince everyone that the future of the program was bright under his direction and played up his Top 10 team who featured a returning starting NFL-caliber quarterback in Jarrett Stidham and one of the best defensive lines in college football. Many experts tabbed Auburn as a ten-win team in 2018 with projected losses coming on the road to Georgia and Alabama, not losing to a cellar-dweller like Tennessee, yet here we are.

Most folks have already made up their minds about Malzahn’s ability or inability to lead the Auburn football program on a consistent basis, but surely the Auburn head football coach can earn back some good will with the fanbase by beating Alabama for the second consecutive season. However, in order to do that he has to pull off the biggest upset in college football this year. It would likely save his offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s job.

On the other hand, if Alabama demolishes Auburn like they’re projected to do, the writing could be on the wall for Malzahn despite the lip service previously offered up by the university president and athletic director.

Then again, I can see a hypothetical scenario play out in an attempt to instill confidence back into the program, where Lindsey is made the scapegoat and Hugh Freeze is brought in as the offensive coordinator. Combine Freeze with the possibilities of Auburn getting graduate transfer, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant and Auburn fans are feeling a little better about the future.

Gus Malzahn’s approval rating has never been lower while Bruce Pearl’s has never been higher. Pearl produces a quality, entertaining product, while Malzahn has produced a frustrating, cringe-worthy product this year. Auburn Basketball is ascending while Auburn Football is descending. The two programs appear to be going in opposite directions and that reason more than any other is why Auburn is now a basketball school.