Auburn Football: Unlike His Peers, Gus Malzahn Will Struggle to Win Big Early on
Expectations have never been higher for college football coaches, particularly in the SEC. There is immense pressure on coaches to win and to do so immediately.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that the SEC has won six consecutive BCS National Championships. Alabama has a chance to make that seven in a row if it takes down Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on January 7.
There is a strong positive correlation between that high amount of pressure and expectation levels. Expectations at Auburn and the SEC are higher than ever. The combination of high pressure and expectations have yielded positive results for many new coaches that have come into the SEC in the BCS era. A lot of the success has happened in the first two years.
Auburn's new head coach, Gus Malzahn, along with three other new SEC coaches (Butch Jones, Bret Bielema and Mark Stoops) will try to keep that trend going. The SEC has never been more competitive, and it does not look like it will slow down anytime soon.
Can Malzahn come in and win big immediately like other newcomers to the SEC have?
Being realistic and having a dismal 2012 season freshly engrained in the memory, the answer is no. At least not in the first two years.
Here is a look at current SEC head coaches (excluding new hires and Missouri*) and how they fared in their first two years at their respective programs:
Nick Saban (Alabama) — 2007: 7-6; 2008: 12-2, SEC West Champions
Will Muschamp (Florida) — 2011: 7-6; 2012: 11-1, Sugar Bowl berth
Mark Richt (Georgia) — 2001: 8-4; 2002: 13-1, SEC and Sugar Bowl Champions
Les Miles (LSU) — 2005: 11-2, SEC West champions; 2006: 11-2
Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) — 2012: 6-6 in first year with bowl game pending.
Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) — 2009: 4-5; 2010: 9-4
Steve Spurrier (South Carolina) — 2005: 7-5; 2006: 8-5
Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) — 2012: 10-2 in first year
James Franklin (Vanderbilt) — 2011: 6-7, 2012: 8-4 with bowl game pending
*note: Missouri is not included because Gary Pinkel became coach while the Tigers were a member of the Big 12 conference.
For good measure, let's not forget that former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik went 8-5 and 14-0, respectively, in his first two years on the Plains. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer won a national championship in his second season in Gainesville.
Even though Malzahn is a familiar face to most of the players, he has a total rebuilding job to do with the Auburn football program. It has been in nothing but a sharp decline since the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. There has been a negative vibe around the program both on the field and off of it since Chizik lifted the crystal ball above his head on January 10, 2011.
He has taken the first step by completely changing the coaching staff, which will be a much-needed culture shock to the returning players. But as the old saying goes, "You can't turn a ship around on a dime."
As everyone saw in 2012, Auburn lacks a dependable QB. The Tigers used three different starting QBs last season and none of them earned the right to be labeled a starter going into spring practice. Jonathan Wallace played the best out of Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier to end the year. However, his play was mediocre at best against the two SEC teams that he faced, even though they were two pretty good teams (UGA and Alabama).
Even though Frazier, a former highly-touted recruit, is going back to the offense he was recruited for and is most comfortable in, he should not be the presumptive starter.
Then there is the defense. Auburn has had a mediocre defense since Chizik took over in 2009. Even in the national championship year, while Auburn had a stout run defense, it still ranked 60th in total defense, giving up an average of 360 yards per game.
Much of the 2012 unit that ranked 80th in total defense under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will return in 2013. The unit looked physically and mentally weak for much of the season.
While having the talent to be a great defense, it must prove it can play physically and mentally tough against the Alabama's and LSU's. It must also show much more of an ability to defend the spread offenses of teams like Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Going off of what we saw last year and the three previous years, it would be foolish to assume that it will be any different in 2013. Malzahn has turned to former South Carolina DC and Southern Mississippi head coach Ellis Johnson to turn things around. He will be Auburn's third DC in three years. His resume as a defensive coordinator says that he can turn a defense around when given time.
Even though the offense that Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are bringing back to Auburn has been successful everywhere it has been, Auburn's SEC opponents will know exactly what to expect from Auburn's hurry-up, no-huddle style of play after seeing it in 2009 and 2010.
The offense may move at a faster pace than Auburn fans saw in 2009 and 2010, but the core of the offense is exactly the same. There will be no surprises to throw at the competition.
As fast as Malzahn has shot up the head-coaching ladder, it is important to remember that 2013 will only be his second head-coaching job. It's also only his second year. That is not unlike many of the names listed above, including Muschamp at Florida. However, it is still not a slam-dunk guarantee (it wasn't with Muschamp, either) that he has what it takes to win big at the SEC level as a head coach.
Malzahn is taking over the Auburn job in the midst of the SEC, and in particular the SEC West, being as strong as it ever has been. Three of the division's seven teams were in the Top 10 in the final BCS rankings. Five of the seven teams are participating in bowls this season.
Each coaching job is a different situation and a lot of the names mentioned above walked into some pretty good circumstances. Les Miles, for example, built off of and continued what Saban had already built for the Bayou Bengals in his time at LSU.
Alabama was a sleeping giant and Saban was the perfect hire to wake it up. Chizik was lucky enough to inherit a veteran team and land a once-in-a-generation type of player in Cam Newton.
Auburn will certainly be a different (and probably better) team in 2013. Still, Auburn fans must lower their expectations to a level of seven or eight wins a season for the first couple of years and give Malzahn time to rebuild a proud Auburn program that is coming off its worst season in the modern college football era.
Judging by Malzahn's first couple of weeks on the job, he appears to have the fortitude to be able to rebuild the program.
While Malzahn may have walked into a situation better than we thought, it is not a situation in which he can come in and win big in the SEC quickly like some of his peers have been able to.
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