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  • Writer's pictureKevin Scarbinsky

No one vexes Gus like Kirby Smart

Of all the unsolved mysteries of the Auburn football universe, there is none more mysterious than this: Gus Malzahn has more trouble with Nick Saban Jr. - a k a Kirby Smart - than with Nick Saban himself.

Strange but true. It's a fact. You can look it up. Malzahn is 3-4 vs. Saban - enjoying more success against the GOAT than anyone - but 1-4 vs. Smart. This during an era in which Saban and Alabama have collected four SEC championships and two national titles while Smart and Georgia have captured one conference crown.

This truth makes less sense than Auburn and Georgia meeting on the first Saturday in October - say Amen Corner, somebody - and still Malzahn has won two of the last three against Saban while dropping three straight to Smart. How is this even possible? Why does Smart vex Gus more than Saban does?

It's a good week to consider the question, with No. 7 Auburn and No. 4 Georgia meeting earlier on the calendar than they have since their first clash in 1892. Based on their opening performances, it would appear the Tigers have an excellent chance to escape the Dawg Pound with a win for the first time since 2005 - until you contemplate Gus and his Kirby conundrum.

In seven skirmishes against Saban and Alabama, Malzahn and Auburn have averaged - averaged - 28.3 points a game. The Tigers' offense has scored three or more touchdowns in five of those seven encounters. That's crazy good over time against the Crimson Tide defense.

Against Smart and Georgia, Malzahn and Auburn have averaged - averaged - 15.6 points a game. The Tigers' offense has scored more than two touchdowns only once in their five meetings, in that 40-17 smackdown of No. 1 Georgia during the 2017 regular season. Overall, that's well below average for a Malzahn offense, no matter who's calling the plays.

Do you want to know what makes this discombobulating dichotomy even more diabolical? Smart coordinated Saban's Alabama defense three times against Malzahn as the Auburn head coach. In those three games, the Gus Bus went turbo, statistically speaking, averaging 30.3 points a game, although Alabama won two of those three meetings.

Auburn's point totals with Malzahn as head coach against Alabama with Smart as defensive coordinator: 34, 44, 13.

Auburn's point totals with Malzahn as head coach against Smart and Georgia: 7, 40, 7, 10 and 14.

Maybe, to expand on Malzahn's observation earlier this week that got under Smart's skin, Georgia is the most talented team Auburn has played in recent years, at least on defense. Which would mean, despite three straight SEC East titles, one SEC championship and one CFB Playoff second-and-26 near-miss, the Bulldogs may have underachieved. Which could explain why Smart got so peeved at Malzahn's coach-speak compliment.

Or maybe Smart carries a grudge and an edge into the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry because Auburn chose Malzahn over him as head coach after the 2012 season even though, during a search in which both were interviewed, no less an authority than Pat Dye thought hiring a longtime Alabama defensive assistant made an awful lot of sense.

Maybe none of this makes any sense at all in that endearing way college football has of sending the masses into a collective surrender cobra with a Prayer in Jordan-Hare, a Kick Six or a Pick Six Part Deux.

Imagine the consternation within the Auburn Family, which knows there really is no good explanation for rolling over against Uga on a regular basis, 12 times in the last 15 outings, six straight times between the hedges. Georgia hasn't been that good, Sanford Stadium isn't that intimidating and Auburn hasn't been that bad - except as a matter of routine when they meet, especially there.

Except this time, there will be a lot fewer barking Dawgs in the house and no pure white English bulldog at all. Auburn will have the only experienced SEC quarterback in uniform in Bo Nix and a new offensive coordinator coming off a promising debut in Chad Morris. Georgia's good top-to-bottom once again, and it owns the recent history in this rivalry, but it just might be time for Malzahn to stop making Smart look like the GOAT.

And once Gus solves that mystery, he can turn his attention to another personal oddity, his oh for Ed Orgeron.

Gus Malzahn at his Nov. 14, 2017 presser, three days after his last win over Georgia. (Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)



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