Gus Malzahn returns competency, identity to Auburn

USA TODAY Sports

Following their 2010 national title, the Auburn Tigers kept landing star recruits, but completely misplaced their identity in the process. Hiring Gus Malzahn restores the identity, but is that alone enough to rebound in the SEC West?

Two years ago, with a perfect confluence of talent and experience up front, Auburn made a dramatic, unexpected run to a national title. The Tigers operated out of a powerful, downhill spread attack, with a five-star, future Heisman winner at quarterback (Cam Newton), a five-star freshman at running back (Michael Dyer), and four four-star offensive linemen (three of whom were seniors) paving the way.

When virtually the entire starting offense departed after 2010, however, head coach Gene Chizik seemed to choose the stars over the system. He allegedly reined in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn a bit and, a year later, replaced him altogether with more of a pro-style coordinator.

According to the narrative, after all, you can draw more blue-chippers with a "pro-style" system. Strong recruiting continued apace; Auburn's 2011 class ranked seventh according to Rivals.com, its 2012 class ranked 10th, and its 2013 class currently ranks 10th despite some defections following Chizik's firing. But the identity vanished. Auburn seemingly had no idea what it wanted to be offensively, and in the two years since Newton's departure, the Tigers ranked 57th in Off. F/+ in 2011 (Malzahn's final season) and 111th in 2012.


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(In-state mate UAB, meanwhile, ranked 96th this fall. With Jacksonville State averaging 400 yards per game in FCS, you could make the case that Auburn's was the fourth-best offense in the state of Alabama in 2012. The defense was pretty awful, too, but the offense was inexcusably bad.)

So following an unprecedented collapse -- just as you aren't supposed to come out of nowhere to win a national title, you aren't supposed to win a title and fall to 3-9 two years later -- Auburn basically issued a mea culpa of sorts, replacing Chizik with the guy he marginalized following the national title. What can we expect from the Malzahn era, knowing we can only make broad judgments thus far without any knowledge of his coaching staff?

An Offense With An Identity

Here's a look at Auburn's final offensive two-deep of 2012 (PDF), with seniors filtered out of the picture (2013 year of eligibility listed below):

First of all, you'll notice that there are quite a few names here. That's because, of the 26 different players on Auburn's two-deep from the Alabama game, only four were seniors. Auburn lacked an identity in 2012, but it also lacked experience. Malzahn will be expected to take care of the former while the latter takes care of itself.

The line returns 64 career starts, Tre Mason rushed for 1,002 yards (5.9 per carry) in 2012, and while quarterback Jonathan Wallace experienced plenty of issues while thrown into the fire as a freshman, he still brought a hair of stability to the position, averaging 7.9 yards per pass attempt, completing 58 percent of his passes and averaging 4.2 yards per carry in parts of nine games.

It is worth a reminder, by the way, that Malzahn does not exactly employ the "Throw 60 times per game" spread attack. Auburn was quite run-heavy in 2010 (and with Newton and Dyer in the backfield, why not?), and his first (and only) Arkansas State offense was similar in that regard. Employing one running back, three wideouts and an H-Back/tight end, the Red Wolves were run-heavy on standard downs (they ran 64.7 percent of the time, 33rd-most in the country) and told the quarterback to go make a play on passing downs (they ran just 29.8 percent of the time on passing downs, 83rd-most in the country). Running backs David Oku, Frankie Jackson and Rocky Hayes combined to average about 29 carries per game, and quarterback Ryan Aplin threw in about seven carries (and 32 passes) per game.

Both Auburn and ASU ran the ball relatively well (and frequently) in 2012, but the major difference between the two schools was that ASU actually had an interesting receiving corps. The Red Wolves were nicely balanced between possession receivers (J.D. McKissic and Josh Jarboe combined to catch 139 passes at 7.7 yards per target) and big-play threats (Taylor Stockemer and Julian Jones caught 42 passes at 12.7 yards per target), and after a September adjustment period, the offense clicked at a nice, high level.

In theory, Malzahn will have plenty of nice pieces to play with in 2012, but he will need to unearth some of the blue-chip potential that allegedly resides in players like Trovon Reed and Quan Bray (23 catches, 6.2 per target in 2012) and hope that an experienced line can open even bigger holes for Mason and Mike Blakeley.

An Experienced Defense

We have no idea who Malzahn will hire as his defensive coordinator yet. For all we know, he is going to employ a 3-3-5 defense next year (no he won't), but we do know that, barring major defections, a defense that was terribly young in 2012 will be a lot less green in 2012. Here's the defensive depth chart from the Alabama game, with seniors once again filtered out:

Once again, the senior leadership was minimal in 2012; only four of the 27 members of the two-deep were seniors in 2012.

We could see a player like end Corey Lemonier leave early for the pros, but without defection the only real losses for this defense are weakside linebacker Daren Bates and corner T'Sharvan Bell. Auburn ranked 87th in Def. F/+ in coordinator Brian VanGorder's first (and, presumably, only) season in charge of the defense, and with this level of youth, it isn't difficult to understand why. The Tigers were strong at finishing drives (23rd in Passing Downs S&P+) but were far too leaky and inefficient on standard downs to succeed. Depending on who returns, there is plenty of athletic potential here to exploit, but we'll see how quickly you can turn around a defense that got pretty bad, pretty quickly.

Sanctions

As we all know by now, if you commit NCAA violations under a certain coach, the sanctions don't go away when the coach does. On November 21, Yahoo! Sports confirmed reports out of Memphis that the NCAA was indeed looking into potential violations at Auburn.

Sources told Yahoo! Sports in September that the NCAA has been investigating the recruitment of 2012 Auburn signee Jovon Robinson, whose Memphis Wooddale High School academic transcript was found to be forged and was subsequently declared ineligible in August to play this year at the school. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported in August that a guidance counselor at Wooddale admitted creating a fraudulent transcript and resigned. […]

We do not yet know the severity of the sanctions Auburn might face (or when they might face them), but Malzahn does inherit a program that could face a scholarship reduction or a similar punishment in coming months or years. Recovering from a 3-9 season in the SEC West is difficult enough with 85 scholarships.

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Malzahn was a good hire. He has a wealth of SEC experience at this point, and after a bumpy September he acquitted himself quite well at Arkansas State, rallying his squad to a second straight Sun Belt title. (And with the current, impressive level of coaching and play in the Sun Belt, that is indeed an accomplishment.) His offensive identity is strong enough that he should have the Tigers playing competent, competitive football pretty quickly, even if we don't yet know about the height of the program's ceiling under his watch. The problem, of course, is that Auburn is still in the SEC West, a division which has produced three of the last four BCS title game participants (and five of the last eight), added a suddenly elite-looking Texas A&M squad and features schools like Arkansas (21-5 in 2010-11), Mississippi State (three straight bowl campaigns) and Ole Miss (seemingly rebounding quickly -- and recruiting like crazy -- under Hugh Freeze). If Auburn rebounds, that means somebody else has to fall. Who exactly is that going to be?

As Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel said yesterday, Auburn's hire of Malzahn is a bit of an acknowledgement that the program backed the wrong horse when it let Malzahn leave for Arkansas State in 2011. With Malzahn in charge, the Tigers can reassume the identity they had misplaced. Whether or not that will make a difference anytime soon, however, remains to be seen.

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