Is Auburn's extension a show of faith in Malzahn?

The phone lines on Paul Finebaum’s radio program lit up Monday afternoon when the news hit that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had been given an extension on the heels of a 7-6 season.

“More Alabama fans were excited by the extension than Auburn fans,” Finebaum deadpanned as he concluded his show. “That isn’t a good look.”

Finebaum went on to say that he doesn’t think Malzahn deserved the extension, even if it was only one additional year to take him through 2020.

Heck, even if it were a $1 raise, people would hear “extension” and perceive that Malzahn is being rewarded. That’s a tough pill for Auburn to swallow after watching the team go 15-11 -- and 6-10 in the SEC -- since coming within seconds of the 2013 national title.

And that’s going to stick to Malzahn, particularly if the Tigers come out slow in 2016. The chances of a 2-2 start, or perhaps worse, are good.

Malzahn begins Insider’s look at critical schedule stretches for hot-seat coaches.

Auburn's critical stretch: the month of September. It's already a touchdown underdog in the opener against Clemson, the national runner-up from a year ago. Arkansas State, Malzahn’s old program, is the Week 2 opponent; the Wolves are no pushovers.

The Tigers then host Texas A&M and LSU in Weeks 3 and 4. Even a split there could send the team into October at .500.

Already feeling mounting pressure now, how would that extension go over then?

On the bright side, coaches have told Insider that they expect an improved product on the field. They like the depth and quality of the pass rush, and they anticipate that Sean White will win the QB job and provide the stability that was desperately missing in 2015.

“If [Gus] has a quarterback, they’ll be fine,” a Power 5 assistant coach told Insider this spring. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

Still, that early-season schedule is a problem.

It isn’t much better for Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, another embattled coach in the division. That Week 3 head-to-head game against Malzahn’s team at Jordan-Hare Stadium is of vital importance. With what's ahead, the teams' SEC opener might as well be an elimination game in the division race.

The Aggies are slight home favorites in their opener against UCLA. Following the Auburn trip, they head to Dallas for the annual game in Jerry World against Arkansas.

Note that even Sumlin’s middling 8-5 teams the past two seasons have started 5-0, so it stands to wonder what the reaction would be to a 1-3 or 2-2 first month. (Spoiler: probably not great.)

Here are some other important schedule stretches for hot-seat coaches in 2016.