Auburn is heading into the seventh season under Coach Gus Malzahn. Over the last six years, no coach in America has been under scrutiny as much as Malzahn. Some of this just comes with the territory. Most of it comes from the Auburn fan base made up of alumni and faithful supporters of the Auburn football program. Some of it comes from sports writers who have never worn a jockey strap. All of it is detrimental to the success of the program under the direction of Gus Malzahn. Not all of it is uncalled for. Coach Malzahn has made some decisions that have cost Auburn several games over the last six years. He has also made some decisions that have won several important games during this same period of time. This story is not designed to defend or condemn the Auburn coach. Let’s just be fair and look at the facts concerning Gus Malzahn.
Gus was a very successful high school coach in his native state of Arkansas. He won state championships at two different high schools. His success was due in part to the development of his zone read offense, which allowed the quarterback to excel as a passer and as a runner. In short, the offense required the quarterback to be in the “shotgun” position with one running back on the left or the right of the quarterback. The offensive formation basically involved having a flanker on one side and a split end on the other side. Sometimes there would be a slot receiver as well. This slot receiver would be used as a passing target as well as a running threat on a reverse at some point during the game. The quarterback would take the snap from center, reach for the belly of the running back, read the defensive end and make a decision as to whether to leave the football with the running back or pull the football and run off the defensive end. If the ball was left with the running back, he would be going forward anyway looking for a crease in the defense. Of course, most passes would come off this same action. With the proper talent, this can be a very difficult offensive to defend. It was paramount that the quarterback be a running threat as well as a passing threat. Also, it was very important to have an excellent running back and several outstanding receivers. The tempo was fast with no huddle. This offensive concept was unique at the time. Malzahn has been forced to make adjustments over the years as defensive coaches were able to design plans that were effective in defending the zone read offense.
Gus Malzahn was so successful in high school that he was hired by Houston Nutt, the head coach at the University of Arkansas in 2006. There, his offense produced a 1,000 yard rusher, but, the Hogs limped in at the end of the season. This unusual offensive idea was not fully accepted by Coach Nutt. As a result, Malzahn was let go after the 2006 season. He was immediately hired by Tulsa. His two quarterbacks at Tulsa were all purpose yardage leaders in the country. After two very successful years at Tulsa (2007-2008), Malzahn was hired by Coach Gene Chizik at Auburn to run the offense in his first year as head coach. Auburn had a
respectable year in 2009. That was the year that Auburn lead Nick Saban’s Alabama team with only a few seconds left on the clock. Quarterback, Greg McElroy, made a great play to save the day for the Crimson Tide. Auburn’s performance was made even more impressive by the fact that Auburn did not have an outstanding quarterback, nor really good wide receivers. What Coach Malzahn had done with the Auburn offense was remarkable. It was so effective that Coach Chiziks’s 2010 team won the national championship with an unknown quarterback named Cam Newton. He is unknown no more. Without a reliable quarterback to replace Newton, Auburn slipped to 8-5 in 2011.
Coach Gus Malzahn had become a hot commodity on the coaching market. He was offered several head coaching jobs, including the Vanderbilt job. He wisely took the head coaching job at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Many people were astounded that Malzahn turned down a job in the SEC for a job in the Sun Belt Conference. But, he knew what we know. Vanderbilt is a wonderful school and Nashville is a great place to visit, but, at that time no coach had ever been heard from after coaching at Vanderbilt in the last 70 years. In 2012 Malzahn won the Sun Belt Conference with an overall record of 9-3. His quarterback was one of the top players for all purpose yards in 2012.
Gene Chizik had an awful season at Auburn in 2012 losing all six conference games. The coach of Auburn’s second national championship team was fired. The question in the minds of Auburn people was did Chizik’s team win that championship or was it Malzahn’s offense that won it. This question was strong enough in the minds of the powers that be at Auburn that Coach Gus Malzahn was hired from Arkansas State. Low and behold, Auburn won twelve games in Malzahn’s first year, playing again for the national championship and cementing the idea that it was he and not Gene Chizik that was responsible for the national championship in 2010. This idea was prevalent until Auburn astonishingly lost a home game against Texas A&M in 2014. Auburn’s outstanding quarterback, Nick Marshall, got the play from Coach Malzahn. It was a zone read option on the one yard line and third down with Auburn trailing as time was running out. Marshall and the running back, Cameron Payne, were both “tugging” at the ball and it fell down right in front of a defensive lineman. Game over!
Before Gus Malzahn ever coached a game at Auburn as head coach, he and I talked about the very same scenario described above. Since I had been responsible for installing the wishbone offense at Lanier High School in 1971, I was very familar with the concept of the quarterback sticking the football in the belly of the running back and either pulling it or leaving it with the back. This is a very difficult procedure which requires hours and hours of repetition in order to perfect the correct read by both the quarterback and the running back. Having had success and failure with this procedure it was my concern that this could be a problem in his zone read option. Malzahn assured me that “this will not be a problem.” We discussed this for a few more minutes and it was my opinion that this would be a problem. It is always a problem. Ask any quarterback that played in the wishbone offense and they will tell you that sometimes the quarterback and the running back misjudge the intention of the other. When that happens, the ball can drop to the ground to be had by the closest lineman. Sometimes you get it back. Sometimes you don’t. In my mind it is insane to run this option on the goal line with one yard to go. One should have many plays in your arsenal to score from the one yard line. After this debacle in the Texas A&M game, Coach Malzahn emphasized that this is what he likes to do on the goal line. Not many coaches will buy that line of thinking. I certainly did not, do not, will not under any circumstance recommend running the zone option or the true wishbone option on the one yard line.
It is my belief that Malzahn’s troubles started that night in Jordan-Hare Stadium in front of a packed house and millions watching on television. Auburn had only lost one game (LSU) prior to that game. They limped through the rest of the season and finished with a record of 8-5. The invincibility of the Auburn zone read offense began to decline. Many changes have been made to Malzahn’s offense, but the philosophy of running the zone read offense in the red zone has been the one handicap that has plagued Coach Malzahn during the entire time that he has been Auburn’s head coach. Most coaches understand the concept of having four downs to make ten yards inside the twenty yard line. This concept however does not allow for losing yardage on a down. The zone read is a feast or famine offense that is great most of the time and loses yardage some of the time. Don’t take the risk of losing yardage inside the red zone. This is a rule most coaches live by.
Offenses have developed over the last ten years that will throw the football at any place on the field. It is not my philosophy, but it is working for many teams. If Coach Gus Malzahn’s red zone philosophy had been different, Auburn would not have had to kick so many field goals. This one problem has caused Coach Malzahn to be in the position he is in with his critics after a successful reign as the Auburn head football coach.
Now let’s look at some positive facts that pertain to the six years that Guz Malzahn has been the head coach at Auburn.
First of all, he is a really good person. He has done nothing to bring any criticism on Auburn University. He has a wonderful family that shares his values. He has tried to fit in with the community as best he can. Gus does not have an outgoing personality that draws people to him. This is not a requirement of a coach, but it really helps when the chips are down. Anybody can be popular when they are winning a lot of football games. It’s when things are not going your way is when it’s good to have a lot of loyal supporters. Gus needs support this year from the Auburn people in order to set the tone for a really good football team that he has developed. This may be the best team that Malzahn has had at Auburn. His big problem is that the Auburn schedule is loaded with outstanding teams.
Auburn opens with Oregon, a team that is a pre-season top 15 team. Then Auburn must go to Kyle Field in College Station to play improving Texas A&M ranked 11th. Next stop is Gainesville against Florida, the runner up last year to the SEC East title and ranked 8th. No help going to Baton Rouge to take on 6th ranked LSU. Georgia and Alabama come to Jordan-Hare. This is some consolation. However, Georgia is ranked number 3 and Alabama ranked number 2. Auburn will be underdogs in all six games. This means that Malzahn will have to engineer at least two upsets to match the record from last year. This is a tall order. However, this Auburn team is built on a sound foundation offensively if the two freshmen quarterbacks come through. I think Bo Nix will start the Oregon game. Coach Kevin Steele will have the Tiger’s defense ready as usual. The kicking game will be much improved. So, it is possible for Auburn to win eight or nine games this year. It is also possible to wind up 6-6. Auburn is ranked number 16.
At many schools in the country, Malzahn’s record would be accepted as very successful. He has been at Auburn as an assistant coach or head coach for ten seasons now. During that span, Auburn played for two national championships, winning one. They also played for three SEC championships winning two. As a head coach, Malzahn’s teams have won at least eight games each year except for one. His over all record as a head coach is 62-30 for a winning percentage of 67.4%. His record as head coach at Auburn is 53-22 for a winning percentage of 64.7%. Do that at Texas Tech or Arkansas and you will get a lifetime contract.
The biggest problem that Guz Malzahn has to face each year is coaching in the same state as Nick Saban. Saban has set the bar so high that no coach so far has been able to match it. Clemson is getting very close. Saban is the best recruiter in the history of college football. The lifeblood of any college football team is recruiting. Saban beats Malzahn and everybody else in recruiting almost every year. That is hard to overcome. He has a “process” developed over his time at Kent State, Michigan, LSU and Alabama that is almost unbeatable. He is now regarded as the best coach in the history of college football, even though there were a few old-timers that are in that same category. Competing against the best football coach in the history of college football is practically undoable. So, there are real legitimate reasons that Auburn has not performed better than anticipated. I don’t know any coaches that are chomping at the bit to be the head coach at Auburn and face Nick Saban’s process.
There is no question that Coach Gus Malzahn’s future at Auburn depends on the Tigers making strong showings in every game. If that happens, the $49 million contract Malzahn negotiated two years ago may seem worth the price.