With Auburn all but certain to make a coaching change following the 2012 season, the future of the program will be determined by the hiring of Gene Chizik's replacement. Might Texas A&M's upset of Alabama influence president Jay Gogue's final decision? If so, former offensive coordinator and current Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn could become a prime target.
The Aggies used a high-octane offense run by a dynamic duel-threat quarterback to beat the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Sounds familiar, right? That pretty much describes the weapons used in Auburn's victory over Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 2010. A&M started fast and held on for dear life, while that Auburn team dug itself out of a deep hole and surpassed the Tide in the fourth quarter. In both cases, Nick Saban's teams couldn't stop the spread for a full 60 minutes, and they lost.
Auburn needs to hire the right coach for Auburn, the coach that will reinstall Auburn as a power. No coach should be hired simply based on the perception that he can beat Saban and Alabama, but those responsible for bringing a new head coach to the Plains -- Gogue, the Board of Trustees and, possibly, athletics director Jay Jacobs -- may not understand that. Seeing the Tide go down to A&M's offense could give those in charge the feeling that Auburn needs to move back to the spread. That's certainly understandable, as Malzahn rose Auburn's offense from the dead in 2009 and set records en route to a BCS title in 2010. The offense faltered in 2011, but even at its worst, it wasn't nearly as bad as what Scot Loeffler, a pro-style coordinator, has produced in 2012. A down year for Malzahn was averaging 25.7 points and 337.8 yards per game in 2011. This season, the Tigers average 17.3 points and 298.5 yards. Surely, Chizik's move to transition from the spread back to a pro-style attack is being questioned by at least some with influence over the program.
Over at Team Speed Kills, Year2 points out that the majority of teams to beat Alabama since Saban returned the program to power in 2008 have run some sort of spread offense. Only LSU in 2010 and 2011 (regular season) has been able to defeat the Crimson Tide with a pro-style attack:
- 2008: Florida, spread option
- 2008: Utah, spread with some option
- 2010: South Carolina, spread with some option
- 2010: LSU, pro set
- 2010: Auburn, spread option
- 2011: LSU, pro set
- 2012: Texas A&M, uptempo spread with mobile quarterback
It would appear that it's nearly impossible to beat a Saban-led Alabama team with a pro-style offense, which is something Gogue and co. will likely take into consideration. And while that may be foolish, it should be said that to win a title in the SEC, especially in the SEC West, a team is more often than not going to need a win over Alabama. Gogue shouldn't focus on just hiring someone who can beat Alabama, but if he's going to hire someone who will win titles, that coach really does have to be able to beat Alabama.
If a return to the spread is the way to go, Malzahn should be the leading candidate. Auburn never saw what he is fully capable of when he ran the Tigers' offense, as Chizik slowed down the tempo to help the abysmal, Ted Roof-led defense. And even with the struggles in 2011, Malzahn deserves every bit of credit for turning Auburn's offense around after the disastrous 2008 season. He transformed Chris Todd from a scrap on the trash heap to a record-setting quarterback in 2009, proving that a duel-threat quarterback is preferred but not necessary in his system. He coached the greatest offense Auburn has ever seen in 2010, and his Arkansas State team has increased scoring and yards per game over last season -- from 32.5 to 35.1 and 447.8 to 467.5, respectively.
There's no way of knowing in what direction, if any, Gogue and his fellow powers that be are leaning. The most consistent rumors flying around message boards and Twitter have been linked to Charlie Strong, Jimbo Fisher and Malzahn. Truthfully, any of the three could succeed at Auburn, and they would all be an upgrade over Chizik. For better or worse, many at Auburn have always had an unhealthy obsession with Alabama. If that obsession holds influence over this coaching search, thanks to Texas A&M, Malzahn may have just gained a little more clout.