Is LSU or Alabama Better Equipped to Figure out Gus Malzahn's Offense?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2014

BATON ROUGE, LA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers talks with ead coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers after LSU defeated Auburn 35-21at Tiger Stadium on September 21, 2013 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Gus Malzahn ain't going anywhere.

Auburn rewarded its first-year head coach with a hefty raise and six-year extension in December, locking up Malzahn until 2019 with an additional $250,000 each year he stays on the Plains, according to Joel Erickson of

Alabama head coach Nick Saban signed a similar extension roughly a week after Malzahn and not long after saying he's "too damn old to go some place else," per Andrew Gribble of LSU head coach Les Miles, meanwhile, signed his own extension the prior December and has already spurned Michigan, his alma mater (and supposed dream job), to remain in Baton Rouge.

Which is to say, beyond a shade of dissent, that the SEC West is loaded at the top—not just now but in the future. In terms of building and sustaining a program, no sport is more reliant on its head coaches than college football. The SEC West has three of the undisputed best in America.

Among that triumvirate, however, there is a small schism.

Saban and Miles are old-school, win-with-defense coaches, the kind of guys your father or your father's father might prefer. Their offenses perform outmoded strategies like "clock control" and "risk minimization" and employ anachronistic players like "the fullback."

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Malzahn is the opposite: a new-school, win-with-offense coach, the kind of guy your father's son or your father's father's son might prefer (hint: that's you). He doesn't control the clock so much as he sprints right though it—a feat for which Saban, along with a small minority of other FBS head coaches, has tried to change the rulebook to combat.

Saban and Miles have a longer resume of success, but right now Malzahn is the college head coach du jour. He led Auburn to within 13 seconds of the national title last season, one year after inheriting a team that went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.

If they want to sustain their dominance of the past decade, Alabama and LSU must devise a foolproof method that stops Malzahn's attack. Especially because Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M also reside in the division, game-planning against the uptempo offense is the most important thing an SEC West team can do both next year and in the foreseeable years that follow.

But which team, Alabama or LSU, is in better shape to crack the code?

Neither defense struggled, per se, to stop Auburn's offense last season. LSU held it to a season-low 5.14 yards per play, Alabama to a respectable 5.78. The latter number goes down to 5.28 if you eliminate Auburn's final offensive down: a 39-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates on a play that even the strictest Tigers "homer" would admit was broken and, thus, kind of lucky.

Things won't be so easy in 2014, though, when Malzahn will return eight starters to an offense that finished No. 7 in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings and led the nation with 328 rushing yards per game.

Meanwhile, Saban and Miles will lose players such as C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson, Anthony Johnson and Lamin Barrow—the only four Crimson Tide and Tigers to appear on either of the All-SEC coaches teams last season—along with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Trey DePriest, Jeoffrey Pagan, Deion Belue, Ed Stinson, Adrian Hubbard, Ego Ferguson and Craig Loston.

That's a lot of talent.

If Alabama and LSU want to enjoy the same (relative) success against Auburn next season, the personnel won't be as responsible as the coaches. 

It will be a chess match that Saban, along with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, and/or Miles, along with defensive coordinator John Chavis, must find a way to win.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

As is often the case in matters like these, you cannot go wrong picking either Alabama or LSU. There are arguments to be made for both sides, and good ones at that.

For Alabama, there is the argument of timing.

Unlike LSU, the Tide couldn't beat Auburn in 2013. But they played the Tigers in the final game of the regular season. LSU, meanwhile, played Auburn in September, before Malzahn's team hit its late-season stride.

Marshall was three games, not 10 games, into his career as an FBS quarterback, and the curve of his development, starting roughly around the Texas A&M game, when not just he but the entire Auburn offense began to click, was closer to exponential than linear.

The Auburn team Alabama played in Jordan-Hare was much different (read: better) than the team LSU beat in Baton Rouge. The final scoreboard is damning, but Alabama, in many respects, did a more impressive job defending Malzahn than LSU.

For LSU, there is the argument of sample size. 

Malzahn's system is unique unto himself, but it falls under the grander category of uptempo offenses.

Another team in that category is Texas A&M, which conveniently happens to play Alabama and LSU every year. And in each of the past two seasons, the Aggies have been kryptonite to Alabama's defense but been kryptonite'd by LSU's:

Alabama and LSU Defense vs. Texas A&M (2012-13)
2012 'Bama2012 LSU2013 'Bama2013 LSU
Average Yards Allowed237.1299.1258.1344.2
Yards Allowed vs. A&M418.0410.0628.0299.0
Average Points Allowed9.517.411.623.0
Points Allowed vs. A&M29.

Over the past two seasons, Alabama has allowed an average of roughly 10 points per game to teams that aren't Texas A&M but 36 points per game to the Aggies. LSU has allowed 29 points to A&M in the past two years combined—a number Alabama has failed to stay under in either meeting.

This is important because it nullifies, in some respects, the argument of timing issued in Alabama's favor above. Neither team played A&M when it was starting to put the pieces together in 2012 (i.e., the phase in which LSU played Auburn last season), instead getting the peak version of Johnny Manziel, so the results are not skewed in the same respect.

Ergo, these numbers seem to say that Chavis has been better than Smart against the uptempo offense these past few seasons. Beyond that, LSU returns seven defensive starters to Alabama's five, according to Phil Steele's experience chart. The Tigers lost four of their best defensive players, sure, but the Tide lost eight or nine of their own.

Alabama's defense in 2014 should look a lot like LSU's in 2013: filled from top to bottom with blue-chip recruits but not experienced enough to function at its usual mode of efficiency. It won't be a bad defense, and it should still be one of the SEC's best.

It just won't be one of Alabama's best.

LSU gave a lot of meaningful reps to young players last season and should reap the benefit of that experience in 2014. It doesn't have the star power of a normal Chavis defense, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. There is balance at all three levels.

Despite playing at Jordan-Hare—whereas Alabama will get Auburn at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa—LSU is, by a nose, my bet to slow down Malzahn's attack in 2014. The Tigers have always fared well in marquee road games during the Miles era, and there's no reason to expect that will stop. They will come prepared to play.

The race is close, however, and not worth actually betting on.

For all anybody knows, Alabama could be the right answer. Both could be the right answer. Neither could be the right answer. A lot depends on the continued development of Marshall, on how Auburn replaces future pros like Tre Mason and Greg Robinson in 2014.

There is so much we do not know, but amid all the chaos and questions atop the SEC West, one fact does stick out for certain.

It's going to be must-watch television.


Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT


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