Football coaching is a copycat profession, just like the business world. When one organization has some kind of breakthrough that results in a competitive advantage, you can count on all of its rivals immediately swooping in to steal whatever they can to erase the imbalance.
As Urban Meyer was winning titles in Florida, Auburn brought offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn aboard from Tulsa and Arkansas snatched up Bobby Petrino from the NFL. The clear takeaway for those two programs was to get their own spread gurus installed so that they could taste similar success. This was right before Nick Saban and Alabama took over the league with a "run the dang ball and stop the dang run!" philosophy.
Auburn lost Malzahn to Arkansas State, where he became head coach. Gene Chizik then revealed who the power behind the throne in the 2010 War Eagle title was by flopping spectacularly with pro-style OC Scot Loeffler in place to imitate Alabama's strategy. Malzahn retook the reins in the wake of the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Arkansas has initiated its own pursuit of Saban-ball by bringing on the defensive-minded Bret Bielema, who has installed a power run game in Fayetteville.
In terms of earning SEC-wide recognition as a best practice, neither offense has totally won the day. Ultimately, the offenses executed by Auburn and Arkansas are both built around the classic principle of running the ball in order to set up easy opportunities to throw it over your opponent's head ... but don't tell Bielema that.
The Arkansas head coach seems to have made it his mission in life to be the scourge of hurry-up, no-huddle teams, with Auburn foremost on his list of targets. After seemingly conspiring with fellow man-ball proponent Saban to try and change the rules in the offseason, Bielema has likely made himself a particular target for Malzahn as well.
As it happens, Malzahn and Bielema face off in Week 1 of the 2014 season. Drama should ensue in short order.
It's a clash of ground-and-pound vs. HUNH. Pro-style vs option. The quest for recognition as one of three long-term major powers in the SEC West. How's it likely to come out?
One major difficulty for Bielema is that Malzahn was at Auburn for four seasons, then only apart for one before coming back. Consequently, he came back to find a roster that he'd had already been involved in shaping. Granted, he did an excellent job recruiting former cornerback Nick Marshall in and developing him as the trigger-man for his system, but much of his big turnaround of Auburn was a result of simply directing the players to run the scheme they had been brought in to run.
Another major difficulty for the Hogs is that Alabama > Arkansas as a source of high school football talent. By examining Paul Dalen's excellent interactive recruiting map, we can get a glimpse into what kind of talent Auburn and Arkansas football have access to. First, take a look at Arkansas' 2010-2014 recruiting classes:
Smaller logos represent lesser-rated recruits. Larger logos represent blue-chips.
There's a lot of three-star prospects in the mix. The Hogs are relying heavily on plucking from East Texas, DFW, and around Oklahoma City. They get may get the first crack at Arkansas talent, but there simply isn't that much in the state. Then, they are hardly the first dog to the bowl in Texas or Oklahoma.
Now take a look at Auburn's recruiting over that same period:
You'll notice the logos are both more concentrated and larger. Alabama's region is loaded with four- and five-star prospects. And greedy War Eagle has even swooped through Arkansas to snatch up some of the better prospects in that area as well.
Over the last four years, Auburn's 247 Sports Composite classes have averaged a national ranking of about ninth, good for fifth in the SEC. Arkansas' have finished about 25th nationally and 10th in the league.
So the question becomes: can Bielema's strategies and coaching overcome not only Malzahn's system, but Auburn's superior resources?
When Bielema's Hogs have the ball
Where Bielema has some particular catching up to do is along the offensive line. The good Wisconsin teams that earned him a spot as a Coach of the Year finalist and a pay raise in Arkansas were loaded with great road-graders.
Take a look at the 2010 Wisconsin OL:
- LT: Gabe Carimi. 6'7, 316. Senior. First-round draft pick.
- LG: John Moffitt. 6'4, 319. Senior. Third round.
- OC: Peter Konz. 6'5, 317. Sophomore. Second round.
- RG: Kevin Zeitler. 6'6, 310. Sophomore. First round.
- RT: Rick Wagner. 6'6, 310. Sophomore. Fifth round.
Add in utility man Bill Nagy, redshirt Travis Frederick, tight end Lance Kendricks, and fullback Bradie Ewing -- all of whom were eventually drafted -- and that's one of the deepest blocking units in recent memory.
When you have that kind of quality at every position across the line, opposing college teams that probably have only one, two, or zero NFL-caliber players in their defensive fronts are in for a rough day. The 2010 Wisconsin offense ranked 4th in rushing S&P, and the following year's OL ranked third in rushing and No. 1 overall.
Bielema's Hog line has not reached that level of dominance and consistency, obviously. But Arkansas is set to deploy a massive offensive front built around 6'5, 348-pound sophomore right guard Denver Kirkland and double-TE sets featuring promising sophomore Hunter Henry and talented transfer AJ Derby.
The pro-style offensive system in place in Fayetteville is not a carbon copy of what Bielema had available to him in Madison, where OC Paul Chryst (now head coach at Pittsburgh) ran the show.
His new OC, Jim Chaney, made his name coaching a spread offense with Drew Brees at Purdue, but adapted later in his career. He's now has built the Arkansas passing game around spread-style quick game concepts run from bigger formations, with a focus on getting the ball into the hands of the receivers rather than the less threatening tight ends. They are fairly clever in how they achieve that result.
They frequently get receivers like Keon Hatcher in position to attack weaker coverage in the middle of the field like here where their tight ends and fullbacks are stretching the defense vertically and horizontally. Although they don't typically put a lot of speed on the field they use the size of their TE targets and the fact that they can catch and can't be left uncovered to create stretches that open up space for their faster receivers.
The Arkansas run game is similar in scope and aim to what they do at Stanford, but without the same quality of OL program. However, of the two main backs for Arkansas, Jonathan Williams is the kind of power back that thrives as a workhorse in this system while partner Alex Collins has the kind of explosive speed that leads to points.
QB Brandon Allen has a strong arm and some athletic ability. But he's not very comfortable yet under pressure, and the Arkansas run game isn't threatening enough to afford him a lot of extra time or open targets. It's one thing to run a quick passing game with multiple receiver sets. It's another to do it with tight ends.
The latter system requires sharper reads in order to know when and how to throw to a TE who's covered by a smaller defender. Loading the field with quick slot receivers would make it easy to get people open, but harder to achieve run game excellence or overall balance.
The Hogs are approaching something good on offense, but they are far from the elite Bielema had in Wisconsin.
The Auburn defense they are facing is still athletic along the DL, as they were when they gave Florida State some trouble in the national title game. And the Tigers return most of their linebackers and two players in the secondary. As Jimbo Fisher would assure you, this is an underrated Auburn D. It's not likely to be bruised up by an offense that is still early in its journey.
When Malzahn's Tigers have the ball
The Tigers had a few particular traits in 2013 that made them so dominant down the stretch. First of all was tackle Greg Robinson, whose season got him chosen second overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. Behind Robinson and left guard Alex Kozan, the Tigers were able to absolutely maul opposing defensive fronts.
Additionally, Malzahn took advantage of being able to play the excellent blocking fullback Jay Prosch along with versatile tight end C.J. Uzomah to form five-man skill player lineups with a lot of size and blocking power. All this served to allow Malzahn to feature Nick Marshall and Tre Mason in zone and power read schemes. It was an elite feature, second only to the similar schemes run at Ohio State with Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, and few teams could hope to even slow this attack.
Prosch, Mason, and Robinson are all gone now. But it's possible that 2014 Auburn will be even better as an overall unit. Marshall was not a great passer in 2013, sometimes struggling even to seize the easy candy afforded by Malzahn play-action magic. Consequently, the brilliance of Tiger receiver Sammie Coates was obscured.
As a 6'1, 200-pound receiver who plays even bigger and runs a legit 4.4, Coates is a serious weapon that teams will have to account for more carefully if Marshall makes some improvement in the passing game. Slotback Corey Grant, or the "pitch man" in this offense, is even faster and affords Malzahn some additional flexibility. Uzomah and receiver D'haquille Williams are also capable receivers who could get in on the act if the throw game is expanded.
If Marshall can both master more plays in the Auburn passing game and improve his accuracy to the point where teams have to devote extra attention to guarding Coates, then the attack could become too multifaceted to manage.
As far as the running game, the Tigers return their interior OL and can supplement their core with former four-star RT Patrick Miller, a 6'7", 289-pound behemoth, or former five-star LT Shon Coleman. And 6'4" 258-pound blocking TE Brandon Fulse stands ready to take over for Prosch as a lead blocker. Also, Cameron Artis-Payne amazingly offers much of the same power and cutting ability as Tre Mason at the feature back position.
Many will make the mistake of describing Malzahn's upcoming 2014 success as a symptom of his simple, plug-and-play system, but Robinson and Mason were special players. Coates is likely to be another rare talent. While the option orientation of the offense makes it easy to maximize limited players, the fact is Auburn has simply recruited extraordinarily well. Many of the key players on this team would thrive in any number of different systems.
Against this potent attack is pitted the Hog defense. While Bielema has struggled to build as strong an offense as he enjoyed in Madison, it was the Arkansas defense that was particularly blameworthy for the Hogs' failure to win a single SEC game.
On the bright side, the Hogs have some solid players along the line, including a pair of good-sized defensive ends in Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. Strong safety Alan Turner has the range to impact the running game from a two-deep position.
New DC Robb Smith, the architect of some very good Rutgers defenses in recent seasons, will make heavy use of Turner in the box to shut down opposing run games. He'll also bring disguise and some cover 2, man under schemes that will ask the Hog linebackers to make deep drops in the middle of the field.
If the large Hog corners can hold up on the sidelines when Turner is dropping down in the box, then this could prove to be a flexible Arkansas defense that will make the Tigers work for everything they get.
Sammie Coates is one of the keys to Auburn's season. Shanna Lockwood, USA Today
Ultimately, it's likely that Arkansas will be a speed bump, but one that demonstrates the Auburn offensive ceiling. If Marshall and Coates shred the Hogs' eight-man fronts, then we may start thinking about Auburn in the Playoff. If Auburn has to struggle for its points, running clock while Turner racks up 10 tackles, then we may be looking at a team that struggles to distance itself from the SEC pack.
And Auburn's defense is another control test for how far along the Bielema man-ball install is. We know that the War Eagle D will be at least SEC-average good, so a big offensive game from Arkansas would portend a rebound season.
As much as these two coaches seem to dislike each other, and as passionate as this rivalry is liable to get, this is a game of poker in which Malzahn was dealt a far better hand. Unless Bielema can bluff better than he blusters about unsafe play and successfully overplays his hand, this rivalry will remain lopsided in Malzahn's favor.