The Battle of Bama: Is Gus Malzahn the best head coach in the state?
How many people in the Yellowhammer State thought this would ever be a legitimate question when Gus Malzahn arrived on the Plains two years ago?
(Here’s the answer: none.)
When Auburn hired Malzahn as its next head coach in December 2012, he inherited a program that Gene Chizik left in shambles and embarrassment. The Tigers were coming off a program-worst 3-9 season, including an 0-8 mark in SEC play, and ranked 117th out of 124 FBS programs in total offense.
He salvaged what he could of the recruiting class, and not only did he go 12-2 with an SEC championship and a national title appearance, but he changed the culture around the program.
Malzahn is an offensive savant, and part-Renaissance man. He respects the history of the game, but is always at the forefront of innovation.
But he had a monstrous hill to climb to get Auburn back in the same realm as cross-state rival Alabama.
Since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007, the Crimson Tide have been the gold standard in college football. Alabama has three national titles through Saban’s eight seasons in Tuscaloosa, and has become a pipeline to the NFL. Saban’s teams have seen 41 players drafted into the NFL, including 16 as first-round picks.
Saban’s the seasoned conqueror of the sport. An extensive record of success that makes players want to play for him and every coach wish they could learn under him. He’s on a pedestal, especially with all that he’s accomplished at one of the game’s most storied programs. The thought of Alabama’s run of unparalleled success faltering seems as historic as the Roman Empire falling.
He owns winning record against each of Alabama’s hated rivals: Auburn, Tennessee and LSU.
Can you guess the only coach he hasn’t beaten, however?
The author of the “hurry-up, no-huddle” has proven his system is capable of sustained success. Each of his teams, as both an assistant and head coach, finished with winning records and no less than eight wins. In his eight seasons as a college coach, Malzahn has won or played for a conference championship six times.
Since taking the reins of the Auburn program, Malzahn is 17-2 including an unprecedented 10-1 mark in conference play. He’s 7-2 against ranked opponents.
Saban on the other hand, is 4-3 in his last seven games and has lost his last three games to top 25 opponents.
Saban has a difficult task in Tuscaloosa. He’s built expectation to a fever-pitch level, essentially to an unattainable level. Therefore, perception surrounding the two programs is that Malzahn has it easier. And perhaps, he does right now. However, the game is changing – you can’t debate that – and Saban has his process, but he also has to deal with his own success. Alabama seemingly has a young team year-after-year due to players departing early for the NFL. He also has to battle complacency which often results in seasons such as 2010 or 2013 for the Tide.
If Alabama wins the next two or three Iron Bowls, Saban will remain the state’s best coach. That’s a much more difficult task than it was early in Saban’s tenure.
The tide (no pun intended) is turning, and Saban now has to deal with not only Malzahn, but Dan Mullen, Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin. Five of the seven teams in the SEC West are ranked in the top 15 of the latest Associated Press Top 25. All of the aforementioned coaches present problems for Saban’s system with tempo and dual-threat quarterbacks. Both Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and Mississippi State signal caller Dak Prescott are averaging greater than 85 yards rushing per game.
Don’t get me wrong, Saban’s a master recruiter and motivator but has mishandled Xs and Os in recent Crimson Tide losses. Alabama’s last three conference losses are to Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M team, Nick Marshall’s Auburn squad and now Bo Wallace and Ole Miss. In each of those losses Alabama’s fundamental play, Saban’s ability to make in-game adjustments and special teams have proven costly.
It’s not just Malzahn’s scheme, but also his ability to adjust to circumstances and personnel that will one day make him the best coach in the state of Alabama.
The burning question surrounding Auburn entering 2014 was whether or not the Tigers’ run to the BCS National Championship game was a fluke.
Through four games, Auburn was averaging more than 60 rushing yards less than a year ago and Marshall had shown marginal, if any, improvement as a passer after talk all offseason about his improvement and Malzahn’s desire to have a more balanced offensive attack.
A 41-7 win over then-No. 15 LSU on Saturday night. Marshall amassed 326 yards of total offense and four touchdowns while Cameron Artis-Payne added 126 yards rushing. The Tigers gained 247 yards in the first quarter alone, most under Malzahn. It was the Auburn’s most dominant effort in the Malzahn era, and Malzahn said after the win that this game was different.
“This felt different. Everything felt different,” Malzahn said. “Our players, our coaches, myself. It was just a big game.”
He doesn’t fear the moment.
ESPN’s Colin Cowherd feels Malzahn is going to continue to give Saban fits, as well. In an interview on “The Paul Finebaum Show” last December after Auburn’s win the SEC Championship Game over Missouri, Cowherd predicted Auburn would be better than Saban’s Crimson Tide team this year and would win in Tuscaloosa in what is a massive revenge game for Saban and the entire Alabama fan base.
Cowherd reiterated that point today on his radio show.
28 players from that 2012 team that went winless in conference play. Malzahn has turned them into a team that’s won 17 of its last 19 games and is currently ranked No. 2 in the country. He’s sold them on his vision, his system and the culture he expects around the program.
You can call it luck. You can call it an aberration. You can call it a gimmick that won’t last for long.
I call it the best coach in the state of Alabama.