In a few short months, Gus Malzahn will walk the sidelines of Jordan-Hare Stadium as the head coach of the Auburn Tigers.
He has taken over the Tigers as they come off of their worst season in the modern era of college football. Auburn went 3-9 last year and was not able to record a win in the conference. After only a few months on the job, Malzahn has rejuvenated the proud program and fan base—proven by Auburn leading the country in spring game attendance (83,401).
Malzahn and Auburn have a few advantages in their corner—a manageable schedule, experience and talented personnel. Still, there is a lot of work that remains to be done to get Auburn back to the top of the SEC and college football. Three of the biggest challenges that Malzahn will have to overcome in Year 1 are managing expectations, overcoming SEC defenses familiar with the offense and instilling a winning attitude back into Auburn players.
As already noted, Malzahn has done a superb job of re-energizing the Auburn football program and the Auburn fan base. It's a fine line for Malzahn, who must also keep expectations among the fan base at a manageable level.
Fans of the Auburn Tigers are as rabid as they come. That is saying a lot for a team in the SEC. It is what happens when winning has become the norm over a long period of time. Over the past 30 years, Auburn has the 10th-best winning percentage in all of college football. The Tigers only trail Florida and Tennessee for the best winning percentage among SEC teams in that span.
The early part of the schedule for Auburn sets up so that expectations could sky rocket among fans after the first three weeks of the season. The Tigers open up with Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State at home to begin the season. There is a very strong possibility that the Tigers could be 3-0 heading into Baton Rouge the last weekend of September.
It is important for Auburn fans to remember that although the Tigers lifted the crystal football just a couple of years ago, this current Auburn team is much closer to the team that went 3-9 last season than the one that tore through the SEC and went 14-0 on the way to a national championship.
The offensive system that Malzahn ran as Auburn's offensive coordinator a couple of years and the one that the Tigers will employ in 2013 has been successful at every single stop Malzahn has been. It has crushed school and conference records, it has helped nine running backs reach 1,000 yards in only seven seasons and helped Auburn turn things around offensively in 2009 after a disastrous offensive output in 2008.
Still, Malzahn will have to insert new wrinkles into his system for it to continue to be effective.
In 2009, the breakneck speed of Malzahn's offense was brand new to the SEC. Many head coaches and defensive coordinators had trouble handling it. Auburn averaged 25 points per conference game. It had one of the best Alabama defenses in the school's rich history on the ropes for 58 minutes and nearly upset the eventual national champions in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In 2010, it was a perfect storm for Malzahn. Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, along with a veteran offensive line and a breakout freshman RB helped the offense to average 40.2 points per game against conference opponents.
It has been well-documented that former head coach Gene Chizik decided that it was best to slow down the offensive tempo after a few weeks into the 2011 season. That resulted in the Auburn offense ranking 100th in the nation in total offense and Gus Malzahn bolting to become Arkansas State head coach (via Kevin Scarbinsky, al.com):
On the field in 2011, Chizik began to assert himself more in the game plans, especially on offense, where he wanted Malzahn to slow down the offense to protect the defense. Chizik’s meddling combined with Malzahn’s desire to be a head coach led to Malzahn taking a pay cut to take over at Arkansas State.
The Auburn offense will be unbridled in 2013, but SEC coaches are now familiar with how Malzahn likes to attack opposing defenses. The tempo will help, but Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee must find new ways to move the ball down the field against the league's top teams.
Winning is a choice and a mindset. It was obvious that this Auburn team did not have it in 2012. Malzahn will have a challenge making sure that the winning attitude is back in 2013.
Last fall, Auburn entered the fourth quarter with a chance to win games on numerous occasions—games against Clemson, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas come to mind. A play here or there in those games could have easily swung Auburn's season in a different direction.
It was as if the Tigers played the fourth quarter not to lose instead of attempting to win.
The veterans on the 2010 championship team knew how to win. Other than 2008, that group of upperclassmen had grown accustomed to wins. It showed in all of the come from behind wins that team had.
The upperclassmen on the 2013 team will not have that experience of consistent winning. That quality only comes after winning close games, winning games you aren't supposed to and making the game-changing plays that are needed to win.
Malzahn will only be in his second year as a college head coach in 2013. So far, he has made all the right moves and said all the right things.
Still, his biggest challenges are ahead of him.