The Auburn head-coaching job is universally considered to be a pretty good gig. It's been ranked by both ESPN and Athlon Sports as the 15th best job in the country. That makes sense, as the Tigers are a SEC program with a big fan following and one that sits in the very fertile recruiting grounds of the Deep South.
Despite all of those clear inherent advantages, however, Auburn has not been kind to the men who have coached there, particularly since 2008. That's the year Tommy Tuberville was fired after a 5-7 season, and since then, the two more coaches have come in, peaked early, and then fallen from grace in a hurry. Gene Chizik won a national championship with Cam Newton in 2010 and was fired by 2012. Gus Malzahn was subsequently hired and made the national title game in his first season. Now, with another non-spectacular year looming, Malzahn is likely to be an ex-coach by the end of the season.
It would be bad enough for Auburn fans to deal with the fact that their rival Alabama is the best program in the country, and that their team isn't relevant on the national scene. But perhaps worse is that Alabama—or, more accurately, Nick Saban—destroyed Auburn's ability to feel joy.
There are scattered bright spots, of course: the 2010 National Championship, presented by superhuman Cam Newton™, the Miracle at Jordan-Hare, and, of course, the Kick Six to beat Alabama and reach the national title game in 2013. But more often than not, life for these fans in Eastern Alabama has been troubling. The Tigers went 8-5 in 2014, but just 4-4 in the SEC. The next year was even worse, at 7-6 and 2-6 in the conference. The prognosis looks equally troubling this season, with Auburn picked to finish sixth in the SEC West.
After the season, Malzahn will be fired, and fans will attempt to determine what went wrong. They'll try to find someone who will stick, but nobody will as long as they have to compete with Nick Saban.
Ask an Auburn fan about this, and they will surely tell you they're more reasonable than that. They don't expect to top the AP rankings every season like Saban has. But when you dig deeper into it, that legitimately is what they expect. Imagine the conversation:
Do you expect your new coach to have a win over a top-ranked team every other year?
Of course not—not even the biggest powers in college football do that.
OK, well, do you expect to beat Alabama every other year, or at least one out of three?
Of course! We should be able to compete as well as they do! Gus has shown he can't. FIRE GUS!
Well, Gus has won one out of three, and has been competitive in losses, even when his team has struggled.
And consistently beating Alabama means consistently beating a top-ranked team.
Even setting aside the head-to-head pressure of beating Alabama, it's nearly impossible for Auburn to get enough talent to be consistently elite in the SEC West. That's because Alabama has its pick of the state. Auburn hasn't ranked ahead of Alabama in the 247Sports recruiting ratings since, you guessed it, before 2008.
Gus Malzahn is not a bad coach. He's a great offensive mind who has had some unfortunate recruiting luck the past two years, following an extraordinarily lucky 2013 season that was aided by two once-in-a-generation plays. Given the institutional challenges he faces—i.e., the existence of Alabama—he probably deserves more time with the Tigers. If he sticks around, he'll probably even deliver another top-five finish.
But he won't get that time, because life in the SEC West revolves around competing with Nick Saban, which is impossible to do. That's especially true for Auburn, which hasn't done it in three years.
Enjoy the season, Gus, and enjoy your time with that top-15 job. Maybe you'll go 8-4 in the toughest division in college football, but you'll still probably lose your job. Sounds like a lovely gig.