Auburn, Arkansas taking divergent paths in new SEC

 

Happier Times: Oct 8, 2011; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Auburn Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and head coach Gene Chizik talks prior to the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. (Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Happier Times: Oct 8, 2011; Fayetteville, AR, USA; offensive coordinator and head coach Gene Chizik talks prior to the game against the at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. (Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Dec. 4, 2012

 

Dec. 4 was a busy day in the SEC. First, Arkansas announced it had swiped Wisconsin coach to be its successor to Bob Petrino. Then, Auburn hired Gus Malzahn instead of Bob Petrino (or Kirby Smart).

 

Tennessee’s job opening lingers, with the Volunteers apparently down to Mike Gundy, Charlie Strong, Larry Fedora and still a remote, outside chance at Jimbo Fisher. Any of those four names would be solid hires for the Volunteers, and all four would likely run some variant of a high-powered, but balanced offense.

 

Arkansas and Auburn? Not so much.

 

Arkansas is doubling down on power football. It’s a risky move for the Razorbacks, who don’t typically attract the talent needed to run a pure pro-style, power running offense. There are two common denominators of successful teams who run a power pro-style attack: One, they destroy people; two, they recruit like it’s an art form.

 

Alabama and Georgia are evidence of this. So is BCS at-large team Florida and South Carolina, which has displaced Tennessee as the SEC East’s third-best team on an annual basis. LSU is at its best when Les Miles stops playing with his chemistry set and lets the Tigers’ pro-style leanings take over.

 

Arkansas has read the tea leaves, and is apparently going down the same path. To be successful, the Razorbacks will need to raid Texas for far more talent than they are currently getting, as well as lock up Memphis and parts of Missouri and northern Louisiana. The problem is, the Razorbacks are second fiddle or worse in all those markets at the moment, which explains the hire of Bielema, who is considered to be good at finding second-tier talent and developing it.

 

Bielema has a tough road in front of him. Arkansas hasn’t been particularly stingy on defense – on a consistent basis, at least – since coming to the SEC. Danny Ford and Houston Nutt both had periods when parts of the Arkansas defense were first-rate, but consistency and depth have been constant issues. Arkansas also has to take the long view when developing OL talent, and finding big safeties who can run is a concept that has eluded the Hogs now for decades.

 

But far more curious was Auburn’s choice of Gus Malzahn as its new head coach.

 

Sources tell TideFans.com that Auburn first offered the job to Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who gave it strong consideration before eventually turning the job down. Auburn is also believed to have gauged interest from Jimbo Fisher, Gary Patterson and at least one other major college coach, but could not find a willing dance partner. Bob Petrino was never seriously considered by the people charged with actually making the decision. Enter Gus Malzahn.

 

Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn as offensive coordinator had its ups and downs. On the upside, there was obviously the Cam Newton-led 2010 national championship offense. On the downside, there was the debacle of 2011 that ended with Alabama unceremoniously stomping out the Tiger offense in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

 

Malzahn’s lone season at Arkansas State has been a success, but it is worth noting that Malzahn followed Hugh Freeze, who had already installed the system Malzahn swears by.

 

Auburn, essentially, is playing the counter-strategy, betting big on a distressed asset, wagering that it can have more success being a more well-financed version of Ole Miss than going head-to-head with seven or eight other pro-style teams.

 

It would be foolish to declare Auburn’s program “over” or “passed” because of this, but if one was to look at this hire from a completely neutral perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.

 

  • Firing a national championship coach and replacing him with a guy who has one year of head coaching experience.
  • Betting on an offensive fad instead of the offense all successful programs eventually return to, no matter which way they first twist or turn.
  • Pulling the trigger on said coach when more qualified candidates were still on the table – and actively considering changing jobs – especially when no competition existed for the signature of the guy Auburn eventually got.

 

Gus Malzahn may work out swimmingly. Or, Auburn might continue to drift rudderless across the SEC seas. It is quite possible that Malzahn was the best Auburn could get, under the circumstances – a fractured power structure, an NCAA investigation looming over the program, and its cross-state rival running at a level Auburn is incapable of affecting – but something about this hire, and the decision of the Auburn brass to sanction the Malzahn offensive system, doesn’t add up.

 

While Arkansas pulled a rabbit out of a hat, Auburn is still trying to catch the rabbit and pick which hat to stuff it in first. The Malzahn hire puts a fitting cap on a 2012 year so atrocious from an Auburn perspective that Mayan prophecies might seem preferable.

 

Our take? Auburn looked once again across the state at Nick Saban – and chose to wave a white flag. If the Tigers are going to close the gap between themselves and the Crimson Tide, it won’t be done by conventional means. And might not be done at all.

 

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