CFN Reaction: Gus Malzahn to Auburn
Posted Dec 4, 2012

CFN Reaction: Is the move of Gus Malzahn to Auburn a good one?

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

What did we learn from the 2012 college football regular season? For one thing, we learned that Alabama head coach Nick Saban hates – and I mean HATES – the fast-tempo spread offense… you know, the kind of offense that defeated him in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 10.

The following is a core truth of any competitive endeavor against a formidable foe or adversary, a truth that can never be repeated enough: You do what your enemy does not want you to do. You do what your foremost competitor hates and dislikes. You engage in tactics and strategies that unsettle your opponent, methods that your opponent is not comfortable with.

Arkansas wants to be more like Nick Saban – that was the message the Razorbacks sent with their bold decision to hire Bret Bielema. Arkansas wants to rear back and smack opponents in the mouth. That's the Saban Way, the formula Nick knows and loves.

Auburn, unlike Arkansas, has chosen to go the opposite route. The Tigers have essentially split the SEC West in two by hiring former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. The SEC West is made up of an old-school cluster – Alabama, Bielema's Arkansas, and Les Miles's LSU – and a new-age world of spread passing offenses at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze), Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin), and now Auburn with the Gus Bus.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen would technically be lumped in with the spread crowd, but his offenses have not been dynamic enough to make the Bulldogs a team with a rich identity. At any rate, it's now clear where Auburn stands in the larger picture of the SEC West. It does not want to be like Saban. It wants to do things that make Saban uncomfortable.

It has chosen very wisely.

Malzahn, let's keep in mind, was and is the coach who should be remembered as the primary architect of Auburn's 2010 national championship. Yes, Gene Chizik – who has been pounded a little too much over the past year (but only a little…) – is not a supreme football mind by any measure, but the point people have to remember about Chizik is that he had the foresight and wisdom to hire Malzahn in the first place. Head coaches should get credit for making hires that transform their staffs and, accordingly, the direction of their programs. This is the case at Clemson, where Dabo Swinney – a man who couldn't swim on his own – needed (and still very much needs) Chad Morris in order to contend for ACC titles and BCS bowl games. You can knock Swinney as an X-and-O man, but you can't knock his hire of Morris, the move that has given Clemson new levels of relevance and prosperity. So it was with Chizik and Malzahn. Chizik deserves credit for the hire, but Malzahn was and is the man who made the Tigers soar more than anyone else.

Now, he's the sheriff on the Alabama Plains, and if he gets a big-time defensive coordinator, Auburn should be a bowl team next season and a contender in 2014.

Arkansas wants to be like Nick Saban. Auburn doesn't. It will be fascinating to see how these two schools – and the two fundamental halves of the SEC West – fare in the coming years.