New Faces, New Places: Gus Malzahn returns to the Plains

USA TODAY Sports

The brains behind Auburn's 2010 national championship becomes the top Tiger, but can he recapture the magic?

Gus Malzahn has returned to Auburn. He was there once before. You might have heard about it.

Malzahn was one of the nation's top high school coaches when Houston Nutt hired him to coordinate Arkansas' 2006 offense. The Razorbacks won an SEC West championship with Malzahn's offense, but disagreements between Malzahn and Nutt on offensive philosophy pushed Malzahn to Tulsa. He promptly led the nation in total yards in two consecutive seasons, and the newly-hired Gene Chizik came calling.

Malzahn, as has been frequently mentioned, was the offensive coordinator for Auburn's 2010 BCS National Championship team, the squad led by Cam Newton. His offense led the SEC in total offense, scoring offense, rushing offense, pass efficiency, and first downs. Malzahn's inverted veer option offense fit Newton perfectly, and the results made Gene Chizik a lot of money. But much like Nutt had done with Malzahn at Arkansas (and much like Chizik's predecessor had done in the year he was fired), Chizik sought to slow down the Auburn offense and give his defense some breathing room. Malzahn, whose entire offense is premised on going no-huddle and staying up-tempo, chafed against the restrictions. The Auburn offense, with the extremely immobile Barrett Trotter at quarterback, slowed to a halt. The Tigers were 100th nationally in total offense, by far the worst ranking of Malzahn's brief career.

Malzahn, reportedly unhappy with Chizik's restrictions on his offense, took the head coach position at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves finished 24th nationally in total offense and 26th in scoring, both in line with what predecessor Hugh Freeze had done in 2011. More importantly, Arkansas State won nine regular season games and a Sun Belt championship. With Chizik's final, full-on pro-style experiment a miserable failure, he was out. Malzahn, the now-accepted mind behind Auburn's improbable 2010 run, was in the big chair.

Auburn's personnel fits Malzahn's scheme well -- most of them were recruited while he was offensive coordinator, after all -- but Gus is not beholden to one particular type of player. Cam Newton won the Heisman running the veer option for Malzahn, but his most statistically impressive offenses -- those where he was offensive coordiantor to Todd Graham at Tulsa -- were headlined by dropback passers Paul Smith and David Johnson, who combined for 315 yards on 203 carries in those two seasons. He does return the experienced-if-ineffective Kiehl Frazier and underclassman Jonathan Wallace at quarterback. Malzahn personally recruited Frazier to Auburn in 2011, though he has not yet indicated which quarterback will start.

Personnel apparently has less to do with Malzahn's success on offense than stylistic freedom. When Malzahn has been left to his own devices, or encouraged to push the envelope as he was by Graham at Tulsa, his offenses work with ruthless efficiency. He immediately improved Tulsa, he turned Auburn around overnight before escalating to a new level in his second season, and even his Arkansas State offense was extremely effective in his first season as a head coach. On the other hand, when a head coach has meddled in his system -- Chizik's defensive emphasis in 2011, Nutt's running game demands in 2006 -- his offenses have sputtered. Malzahn fits a wide variety of offense within the rubric of "up-tempo" play, but the up-tempo is the sole requirement of anyone who wants to win with him.

There is nobody at Auburn to stop Malzahn from going up-tempo in 2013, just as he had in 2010 and 2011. But there is an entire conference that is not to fond of it. Alabama, Georgia, and Florida ranked among the fewest snaps taken per game in 2012, with much of the SEC not far behind. It is a defensive league, and offenses are geared to limit turnovers and easy points to an opponent's defense. Can Malzahn force his tempo on an entire SEC establishment running at a glacial pace? Can he counteract an entire summer of scheming by Saban and Muschamp and Richt to drag his flashy new war machine into the trenches? Can his up-tempo offense wear an SEC defense down before committing a crippling turnover? This is where Cam Newton becomes important, and there is not a Cam Newton on this roster.

The Cam Newton factor is what is going to make Malzahn so interesting. The 2010 championship season at Auburn was largely (and, to be fair to a stellar defense playing way too many snaps in a game to be statistically relevant, incorrectly) attributed to Chizik, Malzahn, and Newton, in some combination. Auburn removed two variables -- Malzahn and Newton -- to test the third, and that test came back overwhelmingly negative. Now Malzahn is under the microscope. Success will place credit for the championship largely at his feet. Failure leaves that credit for Newton. Not only is Malzahn's career on the line over the next few years, but his immediate legacy is, as well.

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