Auburn and Arkansas ended their coaching searches today with the hires of Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn and Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema respectively. Auburn improved its program greatly with the pick of Malzahn, while Arkansas ensured it will be an average program going forward under Bielema.
Malzahn was the right man at the right time for Auburn. He was the offensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009 to 2011. He helped lead the Tigers to their 2010 national championship with Cam Newton.
With the hire of Malzahn, Auburn is announcing that it is not going to follow in Alabama's footsteps. It is not going to try to "out-Alabama" Alabama. The Tigers are going in a different direction on offense than their in-state rivals.
The prevailing wisdom is that to win in the Southeastern Conference you need to have a powerful running game and play tough defense. Alabama is the gold standard that all other programs are judged against because of its tremendous success on the field.
When Malzahn left the offensive coordinator position at Auburn to become the head coach at Arkansas State, former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik went out and hired Scot Loeffler to run the Tigers' offense.
Loeffler favored a more traditional offense than Malzahn. He wanted to run between the tackles out of the I-formation like Alabama did. The change in offense was a colossal failure. Auburn had one of the worst offenses in the country, averaging only 18.7 points and 305 yards per game.
The smaller, quicker backs that had been recruited for Malzahn's offense were not a good fit in Loeffler's offense. Add in some issues with quarterback play and you have the recipe for a 3-9 season that leads to the coaching staff being fired.
Malzahn helped recruit most of the offensive talent currently on campus. It will be a good fit for his scheme. Malzahn is an offensive innovator who will throw different formations and plays at a defense until he finds the chink in the defense's armor.
Then he will repeatedly pound on that weakness until the defense gives up. He thinks outside of the box and will find a way to get the most of the offensive talent that is available.
Alabama is historically one of the top programs in the country and routinely recruits the best offense and defensive linemen in the country. When you are Alabama, LSU or Florida, you can make it a battle in the trenches because you will likely have an advantage there.
When you are Auburn, you need to find a different method to win, and it has done just that with the hire of Malzahn.
Arkansas took the opposite approach by hiring Bielema. He comes from Wisconsin where the Badgers have used dominating offensive lines to overpower their opponents in the Big Ten conference. Bielema has led Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowls behind a powerful ground game.
Wisconsin averaged 237 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry en route to its third straight Big Ten title. The Badgers have featured one of the top rushing offenses in the nation since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in Wisconsin in 1990. Alvarez hand-picked Bielema to succeed him at Wisconsin when Alvarez retired in 2005.
Getting a name coach like Bielema is a coup for the Arkansas program, but it will likely not lead to the kind of success on the field that the Razorbacks fans crave.
Which school made the better coaching hire?
Arkansas is not going to consistently out-recruit Alabama and LSU for talent in the trenches. Without the talent, it is not going to be able to win the battle in the trenches which is essential for Bielema's style of offense to work.
You do not beat Alabama and LSU by playing their own game. You do it by making them adjust to your game. Auburn did that with its hire while Arkansas did not. Fans should expect Auburn to compete for SEC titles going forward while Arkansas will remain a middle-of-the-pack program.