Update: We've been told Gus Malzahn is coming back to Auburn.
Smarter people than me have written a lot about underdog tactics. Simply put, the side without the advantages has to resort to things.
In the state of Alabama and the SEC, the Tide have the advantages. Even though Auburn has one of the nation's biggest athletic departments, has an enormous fan base and is often capable of producing teams better than Bama's, it's still decidedly an underdog. And that's fine. Underdogs can win.
Of late, Auburn's either been better than Alabama by hiring a good coach and being fortunate to pit him against a not-good coach (Tommy Tuberville vs. Mike DuBose and Mike Shula) or by trotting out maybe the best player ever. Since Nick Saban isn't going to forget how to coach and Cam Newtons don't fall out of the sky, neither of these courses is an option.
Beating the current Alabama program has to be goal No. 1 for Auburn, and not even from a rivalry perspective. Auburn likely can't win its division without beating Alabama on the field and will have to settle for lesser talent if it can't beat Alabama off the field. And, you know, the rivalry also, which matters in terms of fan and financial support.
Auburn's top two candidates at the moment are former Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, we've been told. There are, of course, other names -- Bobby Petrino's reportedly talked to the search committee, flight-tracking appeared to reveal four possible candidates, there have been varying reports about Chad Morris, Charlie Strong might have interviewed, Jim Mora was a target, and Jimbo Fisher rumors continue.
In its predicament, hiring Smart away from Bama accomplishes little other than making for the most magnificent Finebaum episode of all time. Though Smart is a very highly regarded assistant, does anyone think he's as good as Saban? I don't want to call him a lesser Saban, but as far as results go, how could Auburn hope for anything better than a coach who's just like Saban but not quite as good*?
It might not even hurt Alabama all that badly -- you saw how much their linebacker play suffered after losing linebackers coach Sal Sunseri to Tennessee. (It didn't.)
I don't know if Gus Malzahn would leave Arkansas State to come back to Auburn -- there's a reason he took a small pay cut in order to live in his home state. But if he'd leave in order to be a SEC head coach making four times his current salary, he's the best choice.
He's proved he can win without Newton and Michael Dyer, bringing home a Sun Belt title and ranking No. 17 in offense in his first year at Arkansas State. Anyone worried about his minimal head coaching experience (should also worry about Smart's lack of it) should consider Hugh Freeze, who was at ASU for one year before apparently righting Ole Miss.
Think about talent resources. As Bud Elliott put it in a recruiting Moneyball discussion:
Alabama's offensive scheme means that it often has to pass on talented in-state receiver or scat back prospects. The same thing goes here for quarterbacks who run a lot. If Auburn doesn't take them, they'll often go to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia or Tennessee.
What would a scheme look like that could utilize the players described above? Very familiar, actually. It would be something like Gus Malzahn's. Not only would the spread offense be able to have success with some of the players Alabama passes on, but Alabama has not had the greatest success against offenses like Malzahn's (see Texas A&M's upset in Tuscaloosa as a two-touchdown underdog last month).
It's not about picking up Alabama's scraps. It's about Auburn using the current economy to its benefit, rather than trying to beat that economy into one Auburn would prefer. We'd all like to see our teams smash people like Saban's do, but it would take years for Auburn to truly Sabanize, if Smart's indeed capable -- it only took Will Muschamp two at Florida, but that's with recruiting resources and a Day 1 roster both superior to Auburn's.
It's not about YAYYYYYYY POINTS. Scoring points is great, but so is forbidding the scoring of points. Malzahn's defense would be more Arkansas than Alabama, that's for sure, but wins are wins. You take whichever you can get, and you maximize it.
All I'm saying is this:
If Auburn's down to Malzahn or Smart, we're talking about being as awesome as possible or being as Alabama Jr. as possible.— Jason Kirk (@JasonKirkSBN) December 4, 2012
* Unless we're thinking Saban's going back to the NFL soon. I like to joke about it, but I don't really think it's happening at this point. If it did, sure, a Smart-coached Auburn would then have the best Saban in the entire state of Alabama. That really would probably work well for them.
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