Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was expected to have the quickest path to success of all of the SEC’s new coaches. His “rebuilding” project would benefit from a fully-loaded roster, unlike the projects getting underway at Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
But Auburn’s roster isn’t just talented, it’s Malzahn-talented. It’s filled with players recruited to specifically run his hurry-up, spread attack. That fact has played a big role in Auburn winning more games than most of us would have expected.
It’s also further emphasized just how big a mistake Gene Chizik made last season in turning away from Malzahn’s brand of offense..
Chizik is a defensive-minded coach. He’d been a defensive coordinator before landing his first head coaching job at Iowa State. So it’s no wonder that he wasn’t a complete convert to Malzahn’s go-go ways. Up-tempo offenses don’t allow defensive teammates to get as much rest between series. As offenses speed up, typically a team’s defensive stats will go down. This year’s Auburn squad, for example, ranks 12th in the 14-team SEC in total defense (in SEC games).
There was a bit of friction between Chizik and Malzahn in 2011 as the head coach asked his offensive coordinator to slow things down a bit in an effort to protect the Tigers’ defense. At the conclusion of that season Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State and Chizik hired Scot Loeffler to install more of a pro-style, normal-paced offense. But with a team recruited to run Malzahn’s spread, Loeffler was doomed from the outset.
Under Malzahn, Auburn’s offense had finished second, first, and eighth in the SEC in total offense from 2009 through 2011. Last year, the Tigers finished dead last in that category, averaging just 305 yards per game under Loeffler.
AU fell to 3-9, the Tigers heave-ho’d Chizik just two years removed from a BCS crown, and brought back Malzahn. Instead of a rebuild, Auburn’s new coach is enjoying more of a “pick up where I left off” kind of season.
Auburn’s recruiting classes have ranked highly from 2009 (fifth-year seniors) to 2013 (true freshmen). With the exception of one signing class in 2012, Malzahn was present for all of those recruitments. And even with the February 2012 class, Malzahn had been working on those players before departing for Arkansas State.
According to Rivals.com, Auburn’s classes from ’09 through ’13 ranked 19th, 4th, 7th, 10th and 8th. Arkansas and Kentucky haven’t come close to that level of success. Tennessee had some top 20 classes, but they’ve had twice as much attrition as the other programs thanks to two coaching changes since 2009 (and three since 2008). Further, the coaches at Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee didn’t have a hand in any of the scouting or signing done prior to their arrival. Malzahn did.
This is not to take away from the job Malzahn has done. The only folks who would have predicted he’d enter the Iron Bowl at 10-1 would have been Tiger fans and they’d have been making their predictions based on hope and heart, not facts and figures.
But while Malzahn deserves credit, Chizik deserves blame. Or pity. He had a roster built to do one thing and he attempted to do something else. It wound up costing him and his assistants their jobs.
Now Malzahn has returned to simply pick up where he left off.