Nick Saban vs. Gus Malzahn Matchup Will Carry Iron Bowl to New Heights

Sanjay KirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystDecember 1, 2013

With brilliant minds such as Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn leading their programs, the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry is poised to remain one of the nation's premier rivalries in the near future.
With brilliant minds such as Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn leading their programs, the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry is poised to remain one of the nation's premier rivalries in the near future.RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

One of the underlying themes of Auburn’s thrilling 34-28 win over Alabama was the back-and-forth chess match between Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn. 

Malzahn became just the second head coach in Auburn history to win his first Iron Bowl. Ironically, as B/R’s Marc Torrence notes, it was Saban who was second-guessed after the game for a series of curious decisions late in the fourth quarter.

With two of the most dynamic minds in the coaching profession matching wits, the Iron Bowl is poised to reemerge as the nation’s premier rivalry for the foreseeable future. 

After capping an 11-1 debut season with a signature win over the two-time defending national champions, Malzahn officially put an end to the theory of his offense being labeled as a gimmick.

How rare was the Tigers stunning ground assault on the Tide’s vaunted defense?

Since Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, Auburn’s 296 rushing yards is the third-highest rushing total that the Tide have surrendered since he set roots in Tuscaloosa.

To put that figure in proper perspective, Arkansas rolled up 301 yards on the Tide in Saban’s first season when his club finished 7-6. Georgia Southern, an FCS club who runs the triple option, put up 302 yards on the ground two years ago. However, Alabama won both of those games.

This performance felt different, and it was. 

In getting the better of the Tide’s front seven, Malzahn was able to beat a team that uses physicality as the foundation of its defensive identity. 

The combination of having a physical, smashmouth ground game at a hurry-up, no-huddle tempo proved to be a mix that created havoc, even for a team such as Alabama that possesses size, speed and depth.

Auburn's Rushing Totals By Quarter vs. Alabama
QuarterCarriesRushing YardsTouchdowns
First Quarter13811
Second Quarter11811
Third Quarter12790
Fourth Quarter16550
data courtesy of ESPN

But Malzahn’s offensive background hasn’t come at the expense of fielding a well-rounded team. Similar to Saban, he’s already proven his ability to put together a strong coaching staff that excels on the field and on the recruiting trail.

However, Saban has been the gold standard of coaching on the college level in recent years. There’s a reason why athletic directors across the country and NFL teams have come knocking at his door seemingly every offseason.  

If history is any indicator, Saban is sure to have his club amped up for next year’s Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.

As Gregg Found of ESPN details, Saban has an 8-1 record in revenge games (matchups against teams who beat the Tide in the previous meeting) with the margin of victory coming by an average of 19 points.

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 30:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts in the fourth quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

However, dating back to his days as an offensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009 through 2011, Malzahn has now split the four meetings in which he’s dueled against Saban. Additionally, three of those meetings were decided by six points or less.

There are several signs that point toward both teams meeting with similar stakes to Saturday’s much-hyped showdown.

Both Alabama and Auburn are currently ranked in the Top Five, and both teams have a chance to be in BCS bowls this season. Also, both clubs have recruiting classes that currently rank in the top 10, according to 247Sports.

While all of those factors are important, it’s the brilliance and contrasting styles of Saban and Malzahn that has restored the luster to college football’s most intense rivalry. It’s that battle of the minds that will create the next unforgettable chapters in the storied history of the Iron Bowl.