During the course of Auburn’s disastrous 2012 season, the cliché tagline that got thrown around about former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik was as follows: The man never did a damn thing as a head coach without Cam Newton as his quarterback. Between stops at Iowa State and Auburn, Chizik has a record of just 24-33 with anyone other than Newton playing quarterback for him. He was 14-0 with a National Championship when Killa Cam was under center.
Honestly though, I never really thought that argument was very fair. To say that Chizik never had success without Cam would be to imply that the 2009 and 2011 seasons never happened. They did. Auburn improved by three wins in Chizik’s first year on the Plains (from 5-7 before he got there to 8-5 in 2009) and won eight more games against college football’s toughest schedule in 2011 (all five of the Tigers’ losses were to teams which won at least nine games). That is a credit to Chizik and his staff.
And it’s that last part- where I mention his “staff”- which is why we are here today, and what I find most interesting about Chizik’s time at Auburn. Because while his ultimate legacy was defined by Cam Newton, his ultimate successes was defined by the three years from 2009-2011. And while the players changed and the coaches changed too during those three years and 30 wins, one thing was consistent: During the only point in Gene Chizik’s career where he had any success, Gus Malzahn was calling plays on offense. Chizik went 30-10 with Malzahn by his side. In two seasons at Iowa State and one at Auburn without him, Chizik went 8-28.
Now, whether Malzahn was the only reason for Auburn’s success from 2009-2011, I’ll leave up to you to decide. But what has already been decided is that Malzahn did enough in his three years as Auburn’s offensive coordinator to earn him a shot as the head coach at the school. On Tuesday Gus Malzahn was hired by Auburn to replace Gene Chizik, the man who brought him to the Plains in 2009, and helped turn him into a household name with the 2010 title run.
On paper, the decision makes about as much sense as any hire could in the 2012 off-season. Malzahn knows the program, knows the dynamics of Auburn as a whole, and knows the players on the roster better than anyone short of Chizik himself. Malzahn has already coached a handful of the players who will comprise the 2013 Auburn roster and recruited an even larger percentage of that, meaning that at least from a “culture” standpoint, the transition from Chizik to Malzahn should be about smooth as the top of Trooper Taylor’s bald head. For Auburn, this hire was a lot like breaking up with a girlfriend, ultimately looking around the scene and eventually deciding to date one of your best friends instead. Frankly, it makes so much sense I’m surprised Auburn would’ve considered anyone else.
Of course while it was an obvious choice, Malzahn’s arrival hardly guarantees success either. The roster Malzahn will inherit doesn’t look to be anything like you’d expect from a club which won the National Championship just two years ago and had Top 5 recruiting classes for the better part of Chizik’s tenure at the school. Heck, this doesn’t even look like the roster that was in place when Malzahn left to take the Arkansas State job last winter. It is one that will lose a number of really talented seniors (Emory Blake, Darren Bates, Philip Lutzenkirchen) and has been further depleted by the years of off-the-field issues which plagued the program while Chizik was the head-man in charge.
As a matter of fact, amongst the million little things that Malzahn has to do the new head coach, none (other than hiring a new defensive coordinator) is as important as simply holding together the 2013 recruiting class. For Malzahn, guys like Reuben Foster and Carl Lawson (two of the top players in high school football right now) aren’t just a luxury for the new coach. They’re a necessary infusion of talent and warm bodies to the depth chart.
Of course while both those things are important in the short term, we all know that in the big picture Auburn’s ultimate successes and failures under Malzahn will be tied to his offense. If he’s as good as he was in his three years as the offensive coordinator on the Plains, than Auburn will be fine. If he’s even better with full control of the team, then who knows, maybe the Tigers can eventually end up in the top half of the SEC West consistently. Only time will tell on those two things. But the good news is that at the very least, hey, Auburn can’t be any worse in 2013 than they were in 2012. Right?
Again though, we’re talking in the big-picture, and in that context I think we need to give Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs a little credit here: Whether he intended to or not, by hiring Malzahn Jacobs put Auburn in the best position to be competitive as quickly in the SEC as possible. Because while this will always be a defense and running game league, recent history has proven that the fastest way to wins is through a high-scoring offense. In searching for a new coach, Auburn’s best bet wasn’t to try and find someone who’d attempt to stop the other team defensively, but outscore them on offense instead.
It sounds crazy, only it’s true. Because while everyone likes to tote the SEC as the biggest, fastest meanest league in college football (which it is, by the way) let’s also remember that there are only so many big, fast and mean guys to go around. Alabama gets them. LSU gets them. Georgia and Florida get them too. Those four schools (and to a smaller degree South Carolina too) have access to enough talented players to the point that they can win pretty much win football games any way they please. Those four schools don’t have to be creative or unique. They don’t need gimmicks. They don’t need a Hugh Freeze or Kevin Sumlin to revamp their offense. All they need to do is control the line of scrimmage and play defense, and they’re going to win almost every single time they take the field.
The problem is that everyone else can’t do that, and if you’re going to try and “out-Alabama, Alabama” in the trenches and on defense well, I’m sorry: You’re going to fail just about every time. Schools like Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, have to approach winning football games differently than Georgia, LSU and Florida do. Understand, that’s not an indictment on any of those programs, just the reality of college football.
If you don’t believe me well, the proof is in the pudding and in this case the “pudding” is modern SEC history. Remember, Bobby Petrino built Arkansas into a college football power thanks almost exclusively to his offense. Texas A&M won 10 games this year because they got a lot out of Johnny Manziel and their offense, and just enough from the defense too. Heck, Ole Miss went from 2-10 trying to run a conventional offense under Houston Nutt to bowl eligibility with Hugh Freeze letting his team air the ball out.
And what’s interesting, is that the best modern example of this offense-first approach actually came from Auburn in 2010.
Now, before Auburn fans jump down throat, please know that I watched those games and know how well the 2010 defense played at times that season. I know that the defense wasn’t elite but to their credit, they made the big plays week-in and week-out when they absolutely needed to. I know that while there wasn’t a ton of NFL talent on that roster, it was a sum-was-greater-than-the-parts unit, which got coached up pretty well by Chizik and Ted Roof (And if you’re wondering, no, I can’t believe I typed that last sentence either).
Then again, I also know that numbers never lie, and the numbers on that Auburn defense just weren’t that pretty. They allowed 24.1 points per game that year and 368 yards a game as well, which ranked them between 50th and 60th in both categories. I also know that without Cam Newton and that underrated offensive line, Auburn wouldn’t have even sniffed a title in a title in 2010. Although I don’t think you needed me to tell you that.
So while defense may win championships at places like Alabama, other schools around the SEC have proven that offense can win a crap-ton of games, if the right man is calling plays. In 2010 Auburn also proved that if all the stars align, it can even result in a title.
And whether Malzahn and Auburn win 10 games next year or two, at the very least we know that they will gain yards and put up points. For lack of a better term, “That’s just what Gus Malzahn does.” He did it in the SEC and Conference USA, with guys from Cam Newton ranging to Chris Todd as his quarterback, and as both an assistant and more recently at Arkansas State as a head coach. Heck, if there’s any one thing to remember about Gus Malzahn it’s this: In the single season Malzahn worked at Arkansas, the man made Houston Nutt look competent. Houston freakin’ Nutt! Then Malzahn left and one year later Nutt was fleeing Fayetteville behind him. Tell me that doesn’t mean something in the grand scheme of things? It does.
Now granted, I’m not saying that hiring Malzahn guarantee success. It doesn’t. Then again, there isn’t a single hire that would’ve. Even if Malzahn does succeed, it’s going to take time and patience for Malzahn to fix the crumbling foundation he inherited, and build a new one back up from scratch too.
But in the present, well, let’s give the Tigers a little bit credit. Auburn could’ve hired a bigger name or someone more experienced, but they went with the safer, smarter more logical hire.
More importantly, the school knew what it was looking for. At Auburn, the process of hiring a new football coach wasn’t about trying to recreate the blueprint that Alabama, Florida but instead creating a new blueprint altogether.
They did that with Gus Malzahn.
For this particular job at this particular time, he is the perfect fit.
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