Defining the 'Gus Malzahn System' and Why It Just Might Work Against Bama

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterNovember 14, 2013

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Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn's system isn't complicated. In fact, it's incredibly simplistic.

The first-year head coach of the Auburn Tigers has thrived this season on the Plains implementing his hurry-up, no-huddle offense out of the spread. 

When most people hear or read "spread," they think wide-open football that dances on the fringe of being "gimmicky."

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnNelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Malzahn's success in Year 1 is no gimmick.

The Tigers have surged to a 9-1 (5-1 SEC) record and the No. 7 spot in the BCS standings thanks to a punishing and diverse running game that thrives on balance, diversity and tempo.

Let's start with balance.

It may seem like Auburn is incredibly unbalanced since they've thrown a total of 16 passes over the last two games. But the balance on the Plains comes within the running game, where running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall have both become weapons on the ground. 

"When you first start a game, there's a feeling-out process of how they're playing you and what you're successful with," Malzahn said. "After a couple of series," you get a feel [of the game]. If you're having success, you just keep doing what you're doing."

Mason has rushed for 1,308 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, while Marshall—despite missing a game due to a shoulder injury—has 734 yards and seven touchdowns. Mason takes the punishment between the tackles, and Marshall is most dangerous when he breaks it outside, and defenses have to respect both.

On Marshall's 38-yard touchdown run against Tennessee last week (above), the defense is caught in a bind. Mason had worn down the front seven so much that not only did the defensive end crash, but both linebackers were caught inside allowing Marshall a hole as large as the Grand Canyon to cruise through.

Auburn RB Tre Mason
Auburn RB Tre MasonJim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

But the bread and butter of Auburn's offense—even when there is no read-option—is the power running game. It features pulling guards, fullback Jay Prosch lining up at tight end and a concerted effort to dominate the line of scrimmage.

Mixed in with the power running game is the threat of home run hitter Corey Grant or wide receiver Ricardo Louis getting loose on the edge on jet sweeps.

That's also how it's diverse.

Auburn runs essentially the same basic plays out of a variety of different formations and personnel groupings, which keeps defensive coordinators from keying on specific tendencies in each given situation.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnRandy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There is deception in Malzahn's offense, but the deception comes pre-snap due to the diversity he creates.

Tempo is the third major factor, which is a primary reason why this offense can work against Alabama.

Malzahn typically won't push his tempo until his team gets a first down, but once that happens, the race is on. If Auburn's offense gets going, specifically on the ground, it'll get a snap off every 15-20 seconds—sometimes running the same play over and over. 

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tempo frustrates Alabama head coach Nick Saban, because it limits his impact as a coach.

"All you're trying to do is get lined up [on defense]," Saban told's Chris Low in September. "You can't play specialty third-down stuff. You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Alabama's rush defense will be a big challenge for Malzahn. While the Tigers boast the SEC's top rushing attack, the Crimson Tide lead the conference in rush defense with 95.33 yards per game.

Saban's defense is predicated on discipline and assignments, which will put an enormous amount of pressure on outside linebackers Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall and force them to keep Marshall inside. If Mason has success, there will come a breaking point, and that's when Marshall, Grant or a wide receiver could break out.

Auburn WR Sammie Coates
Auburn WR Sammie CoatesShanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

It's also when Malzahn will take shots.

Whether it's his affinity for the wheel route with a tight end or Sammie Coates' ability to stretch the field, Malzahn will take shots at key times—when the secondary is sold on the run. Coates is second in the nation in yards per catch with 24.92 and leads the SEC with four catches of 50 or more yards.

We've seen Texas A&M and LSU take shots at Alabama's secondary in the past. To Saban's credit, he shut down the Tigers in the second half last week after Deion Belue was being targeted by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Malzahn's offense puts stress on a defense. Stress in a hurry. He seeks mismatches and exploits them with tempo when he finds them. Auburn will move the football against the Crimson Tide. The question is, can it cash in yards with touchdowns?

We'll find out on Nov. 30.


*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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