3 things to know about Auburn's Gus Malzahn, more than just a spread guru

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Malzahn may like to go fast, but he's willing to adjust when necessary and isn't lacking in his desire for competent defense.

1. He's been here before.

"Yeah, well the only reason y'all won it was because of Malzahn. Chizik had nothing to do with it."

That was a common statement aimed at Auburn fans following the Tigers' 2010 national title, often coming from the lips of rival Alabama Crimson Tide fans. Auburn fans loved Gene Chizik, the head coach who brought a championship to the Plains for the first time in 53 years, but pretty much everyone else believed it was a victory in spite of Chizik, and that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was the real catalyst.

Two years later, Chizik led Auburn to its worst season in 50 years and was fired. Malzahn was hired as his replacement and has the Tigers at 12-1 and playing in another BCS Championship Game. Those rival fans and Chizik critics were right: It was all about Malzahn and his offense. For his efforts this year, the OC-turned-head coach has earned Coach of the Year accolades and drawn interest from at least one NFL team

2. His offense isn't a gimmick.

While most expected Auburn's offense under Malzahn the head coach to be defined by speed, that isn't exactly true.

Yes, the Tigers run a hurry-up attack, and when they smell blood, they really pick up the pace. Yes, Malzahn and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema have a running feud over what constitutes normal, American football.

But Malzahn is comfortable slowing things down a bit when necessary, and it shows: Auburn ranks 43rd the nation in total plays, sixth in the SEC. Auburn isn't winding the play clock down to :00 before every snap, but it isn't running plays every 10 seconds, either.

No, this edition of the Malzahn offense is defined by running, which the Tigers do more than just about anyone else -- and they're better at it than anyone else, too. Their 52 attempts per game rank fifth in the country, their 6.5 yards per carry ranks third, and their 335.7 yards per game tops all challengers. If Malzahn could get away with running the ball on every single play, he probably would.

When Auburn does get into warp-speed mode, the Tigers keep opposing defenses on their heels with packaged option plays. With multiple choices to either run or throw, quarterback Nick Marshall, who excels at making the snap decisions necessary in the option game, can find the hole in a tired defense and exploit it.

Auburn can line up over and over again in the same formation with the same players and continue running one play that looks like a series of different plays. In the thrilling victory against Alabama, packaged plays led to a great deal of Auburn's offensive success, and defensive mastermind Nick Saban had a hard time finding an answer.

3. And he cares about defense, too.

The biggest knock on Malzahn when he was hired was that he doesn't know about defense. That's usually the biggest knock on any offensive-minded coach in today's era of high-octane spread football. But again, that's not really true for the Tigers head coach.

His first move on the job was to hire defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, a man with more than a decade of experience successfully running college defenses, including a few stops at SEC schools. Malzahn filled out the staff under Johnson with a few more coaches who have solid track records, including Auburn alum Rodney Garner to instruct the line.

The Tigers haven't been world-beaters on that side of the ball, allowing 423.5 yards per game, but the ability to generate big plays and clamp down in the red zone was crucial in their run to the SEC title. They rank 34th nationally in tackles for loss, 22nd in third-down D, and eighth in red zone D.

Auburn fans had hopes Malzahn would lead the Tigers back to the top, but no one expected it to happen this quickly. With a new contract agreed upon, residents of the Plains have high hopes they'll be in title contention for years to come.

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