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Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn: What a difference a week makes

Think back for a moment, if you will. Think back to the middle of last week, where all was right in Tuscaloosa and all was, well, on edge in Auburn.

Crimson Tide fans were confident about their team taking care of business in the Iron Bowl and once again watching their beloved head coach lead Bama into the College Football Playoffs. Auburn fans were hoping for the best — after all, the Iron Bowl was at Jordan-Hare Stadium and the Tigers were facing an Alabama team with a back-up quarterback. Still, many of the Auburn faithful had their head coach in mind — a coach, they thought, who could be a goner if he lost to the Tide.

Fast forward to today … whoa!

The coach they call “The GOAT” has been taking heat from national pundits, while Gus Malzahn is off the hot seat and relishing in the fact that he has beaten Nick Saban two of the last three years. Malzahn should be proud, as he’s the only active coach in the SEC who has beaten Saban more than once — in fact, Malzahn is 3-4 overall against the Alabama coach.

Why the criticism of the man thought by millions to be the greatest coach in college football history?

Some national media talking heads feel the Nick Saban dynasty is starting to crumble. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum has been very critical of the coach on the network’s many platforms this week. Now, before you scream to yourself, “Who cares what that scrawny pencil-necked geek who has never played a down of football thinks?” I’m here to tell you that skinny Finebaum carries a lot of weight. His opinions are often peppered with inside info and truths that indeed pan out.

So, buy into Paul’s statements or discard them completely if you must, but here is what Finebaum said on ESPN: “We’re not saying that Saban is done, but we’re saying that this dynasty’s window is closing. It’s been a really disappointing season. He’s lost two of the last three to Clemson and now he’s lost two of the last three to Auburn. … He promised after a 28-point loss to Clemson that the Alabama factor would be re-established. Has anyone seen it? There’s no discipline … defense is where the problem is. The team against the last three top-20 opponents has given up 44, 46 and 48 points. That’s not the Alabama team I’m accustomed to.”

Paul certainly raises some good points. Perhaps you can liken the situation to fishing: when I catch a fish, I consider it luck; when I catch two fish very quickly, I consider it a pattern. Is there a pattern to Alabama’s recent setbacks? One pattern? To Paul’s point: against the last four top-20 opponents, the Crimson Tide defense has surrendered 34 points (Oklahoma), 44 points (Clemson), 46 points (LSU) and 48 points (Auburn). Does this mean the Bama dynasty is ending? Well, not so fast, Paul!

In our “what have you done for me lately?” world, let’s discuss what Nick Saban has done lately — say, over the last five years. Over that span, Saban is 65-6 — he’s played in four national championship games and won two of them. In fact, he’s won five of the last 10. This season is actually the first time since the playoffs began six years ago that Bama has failed to make the playoffs. It’s also the first time in six years that Bama has lost more than one game. Like I told a Bama fan the other day: “Man, you people lose two games and you want to drive your car into a ditch.”

Where Finebaum sees a pattern, I see a single football season that saw the Crimson Tide lose two games by a total of eight points — that as injuries plagued the team, from the pre-season departure of Dylan Moses to the departure a few weeks ago of Tua Tagovailoa. Are you a Bama fan? Sleep well tonight, because your team, and your coach, are just fine.

Now on to Gus Malzahn, a man who falling asleep doesn’t count sheep but rather counts X’s and O’s. The coach’s mind is full of more knowledge than you can imagine: a self-professed football nerd, if this man was your 8th-grade classmate, you’d be asking him if he could take your algebra test for you.

So how does this quiet and at times aloof head coach keep getting off the mat just when you think his days are numbered? With drive, with brilliance and with some Jordan-Hare Stadium magic, where he has beaten Saban in three of the last four meetings at home. When the Iron Bowl is played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, anything can, and usually does, happen. Example: 2013? The Prayer in Jordan-Hare followed by the Kick Six. 2017? Just when the heat was on, Malzahn beat Georgia and then Bama to grab a spot in the SEC Championship Game. And 2019? How about a pair of pick-sixes, an effective offense that we have not seen this season and a spot-on field goal kicker?

For all of Gus Malzahn’s critics, the blue-collar, “us against the world coach” comes up big just when he needs it most. And while those critics point to Malzahn’s predictable play-calling, his refusal to change his offensive philosophy and his smoke and mirror formations which they say mask a talent base that is not up to snuff, Malzahn continues to walk his fans back from the ledge with clutch victories.

Auburn fans will tell you that watching football can be harmful to the heart because the team’s ups and downs certainly mess with the blood pressure. But after a win like Tiger fans witnessed last weekend, they’ll take it, and look forward to the next game that the Tigers play. And their coach? Let Saban eat at Ruth’s Chris, Gus eats at Waffle House.

Who’da thunk it? Nick Saban knocked off his throne, while Gus Malzahn wears the Iron Bowl crown. What’s next? Bowl games for both teams and then preparations for the 2020 college football season. What’s on tap for next season? If you root for Bama, I wouldn’t count on the team’s success drying up. And if you root for Auburn? That team’s success is not drying up, but rather warming up.

I’m not sure what we will see from these coaches next season, but I do know this about 2019: what a difference a week makes!

Rick Karle is a 24-time Emmy winning broadcaster and a special sports contributor to Yellowhammer News. He is also the host of the Huts and Nuts podcast.