Malzahn, playoff at the center of Iron Bowl intrigue

By: Harry King
Published: Friday, November 24, 2017
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against Georgia on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn walks on the field before an NCAA college football game against Georgia on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

— Fixated on the big picture, Arkansans convinced that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is the right man for a job not yet vacant can root against Malzahn this week with a clear conscience.

An Auburn loss to Alabama on Saturday and Malzahn is more likely to be available to replace Bret Bielema at Arkansas than he is if the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide.

If Auburn does prevail Saturday, the Tigers will need only a second victory over Georgia to get into the College Football Playoff. If that happens, would Malzahn walk away from an established program with solid recruiting classes already on campus to take on reviving a home-state team with average recruiting and an 11-28 SEC record under Bielema?

Whether or not Malzahn is a viable candidate, his name has been the one most discussed since the Razorbacks lost to South Carolina, Alabama, and Auburn by a total of 141-51. Last week a Sports Illustrated staffer reported “big-money boosters at Arkansas” and members of the UA Board of Trustees have been pushing to hire Malzahn. In response, Malzahn said he ignores rumors about other jobs.

If Auburn loses to Alabama or Georgia, Malzahn could get canned. It sounds ridiculous that the coach of a team with only three losses would be in jeopardy, but Auburn axed Gene Chizik two years removed from 14-0 and a national championship.

Barely a month ago, after Auburn led LSU 20-0 and lost 27-23, a website that specializes in hot seat speculation had Malzahn at or near the top of its list.

Now, the Tigers are No. 6 in the country. Still, rumors persist.

Auburn is an integral part of my not so far-fetched scenario in which two conferences provide all four playoff teams, including two from one state.

With victories over Alabama and Georgia, Auburn would be the first two-loss team to participate in the four years of the playoff. If Auburn became SEC champion with victories over two of the teams the CFP Selection Committee ranked No. 1 during November and a nonconference loss to No. 3 Clemson, it could not be denied.

Here’s my path to SEC vs. ACC:

—Pac-12. Maybe the conference’s best, Southern Cal has two losses, including 49-14 to Notre Dame. On the other side of the league bracket, all contenders have lost two conference games. Forget the Pac-12 champion.

—Big Ten. Two-loss Ohio State hands Wisconsin its first loss in the championship game, but the Buckeyes won’t qualify for the Final Four because of a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma in Columbus.

—Big 12. Creation of a convoluted championship game this year could cost the league a spot in the playoff. During the regular season, Oklahoma scored 38 in the first half against TCU and coasted to an 18-point victory. Unless Baylor upsets TCU, the Sooners will play the Horned Frogs again. Pencil in a TCU victory.

—ACC. Clemson, beaten by Syracuse when quarterback Kelly Bryant was knocked unconscious and missed the second half, plays unbeaten Miami next week for the championship. Make it Clemson in a close game. Such results leave an 11-2 Auburn, plus 12-1 Clemson and 11-1 Miami needing a fourth. Why not an 11-1 Alabama that lost only to the SEC champion?

Amend the results to include Alabama defeating Auburn, Georgia over a 12-0 Alabama in Atlanta, and two 12-1 teams would represent the SEC.

Either way, the result is two ACC teams and two SEC teams.

By the way, the latest from Bovada.lv sports book lists the three SEC schools, the two ACC schools, Oklahoma and Wisconsin as the seven teams with the best odds of making the playoff.

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