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Alabama Crimson Tide All-Access: Under fire, Gus Malzahn can’t play it conservatively any longer

It was one of the more embarrassing sequences of offense for the Auburn Tigers in a season filled with them.

Auburn has been trying to forget it ever happened. Alabama still can’t believe it.

Do you remember when the Tigers put their tails between their legs in the first half of the Iron Bowl and backpedaled to the locker room like scared kittens? It happened one month ago today. The Auburn Tigers trailed Alabama by just three points, and had the game’s momentum on their side.

A few minutes earlier, Auburn blocked a punt and scored a touchdown (on a daring trick-play no less) to cut Alabama’s lead to 17-14. Then, inspired by those plays, Auburn’s defense held Alabama to three plays and punt.

Do you know how hard it was this season to force Alabama’s offense to go three and out? Opponents punted 50 more times than the Tide this season. Alabama was second in the country (Army was first), and led the SEC in third-down conversion percentage (52.84).

Auburn’s defense delivered at one of the most important times of the season, though. With 2:31 left in the first half of the Iron Bowl, Auburn’s offense took over on its own 20-yard line. Under center for the Tigers was Jarrett Stidham, a quarterback seemingly designed for that pressure-packed moment.

Earlier in the season, he led electrifying two-minute drill touchdowns against Washington and Texas A&M. Now, framed in the moment as he trotted onto the field inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, was the potential for one of those historic memories only the Iron Bowl can deliver. And it did. Oh, man did it ever.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn chose to run out the clock. Stidham didn’t attempt a single pass.

Instead of fighting, Malzahn chose to retreat. Auburn was never the same again in that game, and the offensive coordinator left for Kansas a few weeks later.

The quarterback is leaving, too.

And, beginning on Friday with the Music City Bowl, Malzahn is now calling plays permanently for Auburn. What a month it has been for Malzahn since that cowardly decision against Alabama.

How Gus Malzahn saved Auburn’s Christmas

Say this for Malzahn, he sure knows how to build suspense for the bowl season. Auburn plays Purdue in Nashville in the Music City Bowl at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, and has a meaningless bowl game ever been so intriguing?

Purdue celebrated when coach Jeff Brohm decided to stay in West Lafayette, Ind., after the Boilermakers’ season. Around the same time, a subset of Auburn fans celebrated when a bogus report surfaced that Malzahn was going to renegotiate his contract to reduce his buyout.

Some people will believe anything.

Believe it or not, this bowl game is an important one for Malzahn after so much strife this month. He scored a great victory during the early signing period by locking up some of the best recruits in the country. He can win back some more confidence with a convincing victory against Purdue.

Think this Music City Bowl is an afterthought for Auburn? Think again. There are no more meaningless games for Malzahn. Whether it’s fair or not, he’s coaching to save to his job from this point forward. Consider how well he prepares his team for Purdue a possible preview of things to come.

Poor preparation and lack of discipline was the story for Auburn this season. They had the talent to go 10-2, but instead finished 7-5. LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee were all winnable games.

So is the Music City Bowl. Want more evidence of poor preparation under Malzahn? His teams are 1-4 in bowl games. The Tigers’ only bowl victory under Malzahn was the 2015 Birmingham Bowl against Memphis.

There’s no one left to blame now, and there’s nothing worse than a coach who calls it conservatively in a bowl game.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr. Joseph’s All-Access live chat begins at 10 a.m. every Monday.

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