Auburn Football: Why Gus Malzahn Walked into a Better Situation Than We Thought

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Auburn Football: Why Gus Malzahn Walked into a Better Situation Than We Thought
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks on Friday, December 7. Photo credit: Todd Van Emst / Auburn Athletics

When Auburn fired former head coach Gene Chizik on November 25, a common theme among national sports personalities was that Auburn was not a very desirable job. If we’re being honest, the reasons given for that judgement were completely legitimate.

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports claimed that Auburn was the fourth-best coaching job among the available head coaching vacancies at Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina State.

This should be the top job on the list in terms of absolute institutional commitment to football, recruiting area and fanatical following. But there's the ongoing NCAA investigation, and questions about whether heavy-handed booster involvement is still an issue for whoever is the next coach. Dysfunction is the Auburn norm – sometimes it's a workable dysfunction, but sometimes it's not. Right now, this job has hazard lights flashing all around it.

Along the same lines, CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel had his reasons for why an Auburn job that is willing to pay over $3 million annually would be a bad destination for someone looking over the help wanted ads. The reason? Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

Taking a job opposite Saban? That's career suicide. In six years at Alabama he has run off two coaches at Auburn (Tommy Tuberville resigned, or something, in 2008) and helped run off three at Tennessee. Saban could even be the reason Meyer left Florida. That's not a sure thing -- who knows what Meyer was thinking in 2009, and then 2010? -- but it has to be considered. Sharing a conference with Nick Saban is like sharing a steak with a lion. Only one of you wins that battle. And it's not you.

Now imagine sharing a state with Saban -- and not just any state, but this one. A state with no NFL team, no NBA team, no MLB team. No real passion for college basketball, and no other BCS school, either. Just Alabama and Auburn. Just you two. Staring at each other from 160 miles away, fans of both schools expecting to beat the other. Beating the other means competing for SEC and national titles, but that's just an added benefit. The most important thing in the state, if you're an Alabama fan, is to beat Auburn. And if you're an Auburn fan, it's beating Alabama.

Those are two completely legitimate arguments as to why Auburn's star may not be shining as bright as it once was with coaches looking for employment. 

Now that Auburn has its man in former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, is it possible that he may have walked into a better situation than most of us thought? 

Absolutely. 

Malzahn inherits a roster—specifically on offense—that was recruited for his system. The offense has been successful at every stop of Malzahn when it is left unbridled. It worked at Auburn in 2009 and 2010.

"But Cam Newton isn't walking through that door for Auburn, Brett!" You are exactly right.

In my opinion, Malzahn's best work came in 2009 and not in Auburn's championship season of 2010. It's quite possible even I could have led the Auburn offense in 2010 and looked smart doing it with Newton at QB. 

In 2009, Malzahn's offense was led by Chris Todd.

Under Tommy Tuberville in 2008, Todd was yanked as Auburn's starter midway through the season in lieu of Kodi Burns. Todd completed only 55 percent of his passes in 2008 for 906 yards. He threw six interceptions and only five TDs. 

In 2009, Todd completed 60 percent of his passes. He threw six interceptions and had 22 TD passes. Todd ended 2009 with 2,612 passing yards and his passing efficiency was ranked 18th in the nation. 

Malzahn will have his work cut out for him once again at the QB position after Auburn used three different QBs in 2012. Each QB on the roster, as well as signees Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, will have an opportunity to win the starting job. 

Malzahn is inheriting a talented roster that will not be inexperienced. Youth cannot be an excuse for Malzahn as it was for Chizik. Unless there is further player attrition due to the coaching change, Auburn will only lose seven seniors from the depth chart it had for its final game against Alabama.

On the offensive line, which is probably the most important positional group for Malzahn's offense, Auburn is losing only one person from its two-deep: senior John Sullen. Malzahn has the ammunition to work with. The question is whether or not he can change the fragile and divided mindset that this team had in an awful 2012 season. 

A culture change is the most important thing that this team needs. That was never more evident than when former strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall was relieved of his duties. Former players like A.J. Greene gave us an inside look at what may have been a fractious culture in the locker room over the last couple of years. 

 

A coaching change usually brings a new culture. Especially when Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will be the only familiar faces to most of the team when they return for winter workouts in January. Malzahn did not retain any of Chizik's assistants. 

Let's address the two arguments for why a coach should not take the Auburn job by Forde and Doyel that we highlighted at the beginning of this column. It's also what many commenters to these articles point to when discussing Auburn. 

Something certainly may come from the ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding 2012 RB signee Jovon Robinson that Forde brought back to life on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. However, Auburn's actions show that it is not concerned with the investigation. 

If it was concerned, it would not have kept former assistant coaches Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper recruiting during the coaching search. The two assistants were at the center of Forde's November story about the NCAA's investigation into Auburn. Taylor and Luper were removed from the recruiting trail. 

Most reporters that cover Auburn on a daily basis and are close to the situation, including Auburn Undercover's Phillip Marshall (subscription required), say that the coaches were removed from going on the road to recruit due to a secondary violation.

If Auburn was concerned about any NCAA ramifications surrounding Memphis, it would have removed Taylor and Luper from the sidelines as well as the recruiting trail—much like Mississippi State did with former WR coach Angelo Mirando, who was also involved in allegations of improper recruiting in Memphis. 

As for Mr. Doyel's argument about not wanting the job because of Saban at Alabama, I don't think any Auburn fan would want a coach that did not want to compete against the best. And yes, Saban is the best in the business right now. 

Malzahn has had success against Saban. His offense nearly bested Saban in 2009 and it came back to beat Alabama in historic fashion in the 2010 Iron Bowl. 

It's been no secret that if Saban teams have a weak spot, it is against the uptempo, high-octane offenses like Malzahn will be employing against the Tide next November. 

Malzahn knows what it is like to recruit against Saban and staff, as well as every other SEC team. He's had success in doing so and there is no reason he won't have success again. 

Aside from the reasons that have been mentioned, Auburn is among the top 15 teams in college football history in terms of all-time wins and the administration has shown a commitment to winning with investments in facilities and coaching salaries. It has a rabid fan base that makes Jordan-Hare Stadium one of the best environments in college football on a fall Saturday. 

There's also the fact that the last four Auburn head coaches has done at least one of the following: had an undefeated season, won the SEC West, won the SEC or won a national championship. 

So, despite what we may read in the national media about the current quality of the Auburn head coaching job, it just may turn out that Malzahn walked into a better situation than we thought. 

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