SEC Unfiltered: UCF's Gus Malzahn gets the last laugh over Auburn football

Sep 17, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; UCF Knights head coach Gus Malzahn reacts during the second half against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to SEC Unfiltered, the USA TODAY NETWORK's newsletter on SEC sports. Look for this newsletter in your inbox every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Today, SEC columnist Blake Toppmeyer takes over:

Auburn football is ranked the equivalent of No. 29 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA coaches poll released this week. The Tigers are one spot ahead of UCF.

The coach of one of those programs enters his second season on the hot seat, while the second-year coach of the other enjoys a comfortable situation.

The disparity of their situations is evidence that, when Auburn finally spat out Gus Malzahn after eight consecutive winning seasons, it did him a favor. AU paid Malzahn more than $21 million to remove him from a job that ranks among the nation's hottest pressure cookers. Malzahn's contract included no duty to mitigate AU's damages, and he coupled his sweet severance with a $2.3 million annual salary at UCF. Even amid Disney's rising prices, Malzahn can afford to buy a lot of Dole Whips.

As a cherry on top, UCF will climb from the Group of Five ranks and into the Big 12 in 2023.

Depending on the future format of the College Football Playoff, a day may come within a few years where the Knights have a more realistic path to the playoff than Auburn.

The biggest preseason storyline surrounding UCF is centered on who will be the Knights' starting quarterback. Incumbent Mikey Keene is in competition with Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee.

By comparison, Bryan Harsin, who replaced Malzahn at Auburn, used his opening remarks at SEC Media Days to address his tenure surviving an offseason internal investigation that became became a public kangaroo court.

Harsin is 13 games into his tenure, and already he's tiptoeing around the hot seat after going 6-7 in his debut, marking AU's first losing record since 2012.

Not only is Harsin battling to build a locker-room culture and generate recruiting momentum, but he also had to stare down his employer.

"There was an inquiry. It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded," Harsin said at media days. "It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family, and also our program."

Malzahn can empathize with Harsin. Despite winning the Iron Bowl three times in eight years and finishing in the top 25 five times, Malzahn never managed to get far from the hot seat.

In an almost satirical moment during Malzahn's introductory news conference at UCF, a reporter asked him about the "pressure cooker" of coaching the Knights.

Malzahn went speechless for a few seconds.

"I love expectations," Malzahn said finally.

Now, Malzahn doesn't face the expectation of beating Alabama. Meanwhile, Harsin must navigate a perilous path to even reach coaching in his second Iron Bowl.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: UCF's Gus Malzahn gets the last laugh over Auburn football