RUNNING THE POINT: What does Auburn football have to prove in 2019?

Running the Point is a weekly column written by Noah Gardner of RadioAlabama Sports, featuring opinion on Auburn Athletics and other relevant topics. Follow Noah on Twitter at @PointGuardner.

When is it not a crucial year for Gus Malzahn? Offseason discourse about Malzahn’s job security has become a yearly tradition since 2015, and this summer has been no different. Every season, it seems Auburn has something to prove.

If it weren’t for a difficult schedule with six teams in the top 13 of the preseason coaches poll, expectations would be through the roof for the 2019 Auburn Tigers. For once, the fan base appears to be giving a pass, considering the strength of schedule. Nonetheless, Auburn still has a standard that it has to meet if they are to appease the grumblings.

Regardless of the difficulty of the schedule, why is it unfair to expect Auburn to win 10 games? Why do fans already concede four losses? There are only two teams on Auburn’s schedule that are more talented than the Tigers: Alabama and Georgia. Of course, there are difficult road games against Florida, Texas A&M and LSU, but it is time for Auburn to beat these teams to take the next step.

If Auburn wants to truly be a contender, it cannot get caught up in the middle tier of SEC opponents. The time for talking about improvement is over; it’s time to expect to beat these teams.

While people might be quick to point out that in Auburn’s most successful seasons of this decade (2010, 2013 and 2017) the Tigers lost to LSU, but Auburn can’t afford to lose to LSU again. Not with this schedule. Not after the last two years against LSU. Not with a 20-year losing streak in Baton Rouge. In the thick of its schedule, Auburn has to prove it can beat teams like LSU and Florida on the road.

Auburn must prove its stability in every facet of the program. In the midst of an up and down period of Auburn football, the Tigers have still maintained consistent recruiting classes. Each of Malzahn’s seasons at the helm, he has hauled in top 12 recruiting classes, with four of his classes placing in the top 10.

Auburn is recruiting at a competitive level, but it hasn’t realized a level of success that is comparable to the recruiting rankings. The defense has posted three consecutive seasons of allowing fewer than 20 points, but the offense has hindered Auburn from reaching its potential.

With two offensive coordinators gone during the play-calling saga at Auburn, Malzahn is back in total control. Responsibility lies squarely on his shoulders for the offense’s success and failures.

With a senior-laden offensive line and returners at every position, excuses can’t be made about lack of talent. It’s not an easy task to break in a new quarterback, but fans won’t be forgiving considering this isn’t the first time there has been quarterback controversy at Auburn. Quarterback development has been a gripe about Malzahn, fair or unfair, since Jeremy Johnson’s days on the Plains. Malzahn needs to put a positive point on his quarterback development resume, and this year provides him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Key players returned to Auburn to complete unfinished business. Players passed up the NFL draft for another shot at a national championship. There is no shortage of talent at Auburn, and they all have something to prove.