It was just two weeks ago that the University of Connecticut announced that Rhett Lashlee would be their new offensive coordinator for the Huskies football team. Of course, the announcement surprised Auburn fans all over as well as caused speculation as to why Malzahn's long time protégé would be leaving and who would be replacing Lashlee at the position. I am of the opinion that Rhett left of his own accord. Only once in Coach Lashlee's career has he been away from Malzahn as the Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Samford in 2011. He quickly rejoined Gus at Arkansas State as the Red Wolves offensive coordinator at the ripe age of 29.
However, I am not here so much to talk about Lashlee as I am about Malzahn. More specifically, to talk about Gus during his time when he was still an offensive coordinator and ask a big "What if" question. It is the type of "What if" that could have changed the fortunes of many Auburn figures and football seasons. It is the kind of "What if" that could have rewritten a big part of Auburn football's narrative over nearly the past decade.
What if Tommy Tuberville had hired Gus Malzahn as Auburn's Offensive Coordinator at the end of the 2007 football season?
I don't want to spend too much time reminiscing and rehashing the Tigers' 2007 season so here is a brief summation that I wrote up from almost four years ago:
To say Auburn's 2007 season was crazy would be an understatement. It was a season chock-full of come-from-behind-triumphs. Six times the Tigers mounted late fourth-quarter drives, and four of those were enough to seal victories. They include moments we never want to forget and moments we've done everything to forget.
It was a season in which Auburn tacked on its sixth straight victory over Alabama, but at the same time, the Tigers watched their all-time lead over Georgia being to slowly chip away. This was an Auburn team that showed so much promise and found ways to come up short.
The 2007 season came to a close with a win in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Clemson. Before heading into that game, Tuberville released fan-favorite offensive coordinator Al Borges and brought in spread-no-huddle-air-raid guru Tony Franklin from Troy. While only installing the foundation of the scheme, it was enough for Auburn to produce its highest offensive performance for the season. Also leaving the team was Auburn's other fan-favorite coach, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, whose departure was reportedly due to a disagreement with assistant athletic director, Tim Jackson. Muschamp was replaced by Paul Rhoads, then-defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Years later I have caught myself wondering as to why Tuberville hired Franklin. According to a quote that I was able to find from Auburn's official website, it is almost like he viewed Franklin's career the way an unfamiliar fan would:
"Tony has had a tremendous amount of success offensively in the Southeastern Conference and during his most recent position at Troy," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. ``He teaches an exciting brand of offense that has posted some very impressive numbers, statistically."
Now, I am not about to make too much more assumptions behind Tuberville's reasoning for making the hire beyond that quote. College football had been changing dramatically as spread variant offenses made their way into the playbooks of major college programs. It could be speculated that Tubs saw this evolution taking place, decided to take a chance, and to evolve with it.
His desire to change up his offense wasn't wrong. Auburn's offense had started to stagnant in 2006 and eventually slid all the way down to 85th nationally in total offense by the end of 2007. There were contributing factors such as injuries and recruiting busts, but some have viewed that Al Borges's system might have been too rigid to adapt to the personnel he no longer had available to him. A change was needed, but Tuberville's choice as to who to change that offense, though, maybe wasn't the best.
Auburn's offensive identity has long been associated with running the football and fans have taken to referring to the program as "Running Back U" for that reason. What is amusing, though, especially during Tuberville's tenure, is the OC's hired to call Auburn's offense for Tubs were coordinators known for passing. Mazzone, Petrino, and Borges: each of them pro-style guys who, at some time or another during their respective careers, coached quarterbacks as well. Also, it wasn't like Tuberville was unfamiliar with these styles of offense before their hiring. During his time at Miami, the Hurricanes were just as well known for their pass-heavy-high-scoring offenses as their soul crushing defenses. So tapping Franklin to install his air raid offensive system at Auburn makes sense in its own way.
However, 650 miles west of Auburn, another bright and upcoming pass happy offensive coordinator was lighting up the non-power conference world.
MEANWHILE, IN OKLAHOMA...
Gus Malzahn, in his second year as a college coach, had relocated from the University of Arkansas to the University of Tulsa. There, under Todd Graham and aided by Herb Hand, Gus took the Golden Hurricanes to new heights. Tulsa, in one season with Malzahn, had a 5000-yard passer, three 1000 yard receivers, and one 1000 yard rusher. It was also the first time in NCAA football that a team had accomplished such a feat.
Senior quarterback Paul Smith, a three-star pro-style prospect from Owasso, Oklahoma, completed 60% of his passes, threw 47 touchdowns and rushed for 13 touchdowns. In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Todd Graham said of Malzahn, "If I just let him do whatever he wanted, he'd throw the ball every play." This Gus sounds far different from the Gus we know today. A Gus more known for spread option running attack than bombing defenses into oblivion. But maybe it is the same Gus, but a Gus who has not run headlong into SEC administrators and fanbases yet.
Junior running back Tarrion Adams, a two-star prospect from Moore, Oklahoma, exploded under Malzahn's system crossing the goal-line eleven times by rushing for 1225 yards and receiving for 301 yards. He also threw two touchdown passes of his own that season, because you know, Gus use to do tricky stuff like that.
It is here that Malzahn begins to really further develop his reputation as an offense guru. In 2008, Tulsa will again take the top spot in total offense and move up to second in scoring offense. At Auburn that same year, well, we already know what happens to Tuberville and his Tigers that season.
So from here on out everything will be speculation based on results and trends from previous years and correlating them to what did take place in 2008. This is just one possible scenario:
After finishing the regular season 8-4 and the bowl game announcement against Clemson, Tuberville begins searching to replace Al Borges. He gets in touch with Malzahn through shared agent, Jimmy Sexton and offers him Borges's job with the promise that he (Tuberville) will not interfere with Malzahn's play calling. Gus agrees, but under the condition that he will still coach Tulsa in their bowl game against Bowling Green State University. Tubs explains to Malzahn that he wants to employ Gus's offense for Auburn's upcoming bowl game, but Gus reiterates that he will not leave until the season is done at Tulsa. Tuberville unwillingly agrees and as a result, Auburn loses in overtime to Clemson finishing the year 8-5.
Malzahn arrives on campus in January, meets the offensive staff (who probably aren't all that excited about him) and hits the recruiting trail. In this timeline, the incoming class remains pretty much the same with the exception of Chris Todd not being recruited. Instead, Malzahn plans to focus on fellow Arkansas native, Kodi Burns, Neil Caudle, and further develop three-star dual threat QB Barrett Trotter as well as four-star athlete, Deron Furr.
Gus begins implementing his offense in the spring spreading first team snaps between Burns and Caudle. Beat writers and bloggers are abuzz regarding Auburn's new uptempo offense with plenty of quotes from coaches and players alike about the fast-paced, high-flying offense. A modest crowd shows up for A-Day to see for themselves only to get a decent performance, but nothing truly exciting. Auburn heads into the doldrums of the offseason with a top 10 preseason ranking.
Soon enough fall camp arrives and the Tigers get to work for the upcoming season. Malzahn has Burns and Caudle split reps with the first team unit and has Furr and Trotter working with the second team and scout units. Eventually, the coaching staff decides to redshirt Trotter. Also, in this timeline, Furr is never booted from the team due to a confrontation he had with teammates after moving to defense. As the season nears, Burns, Caudle, and Furr all get an equal chance with the starters, but Malzahn and the staff settle on Kodi as the starting quarterback on game day against Louisiana-Monroe.
In the first two weeks, the Tigers offense is effective and Auburn cruises past the Warhawks and Golden Eagles without too much trouble. The Tigers have a bit of a turnover bug, but it isn't anything that Auburn's defense can't overcome. Much like Graham, Tuberville has Malzahn keep his offense as balanced as possible and the running game churns up the sod with a passing attack that keeps opposing secondaries on their toes.
Auburn hits the road for their third game against conference and West Division opponent, Mississippi State. Turnovers and penalties really hamper Auburn's offensive efforts, but the Tigers' defense is able to respond and keep the Bulldogs at bay. Auburn mounts a few successful drives and is able to leave Starkville with a 21-3 victory.
Week 4 arrives and Auburn faces another conference and divisional match-up against LSU in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The orange and blue Tigers struggle much of the first quarter, but a couple of big plays and penalties in the second give Auburn the lead heading into the half. LSU's defense really comes alive and stuffs Auburn's offensive efforts at every turn while the Bayou Bengals offense chip away at Auburn's lead. Late in the fourth quarter, Auburn mounts a drive that ends with Wes Byrum putting the ball through the uprights in what will surely be the game winner. However, Les Miles, the Mad Hatter himself once again pulls off the seemingly impossible and LSU escape with the victory. Auburn falls back a few spots out of the top 10.
The next week, Auburn hosts listless Tennessee and drops a beating on the Volunteers similar to the 2004 regular season beat down. Tuberville has Malzahn rein it in and some careless turnovers help out Tennessee some, but not enough to get back into the game. The Tigers get a solid win over a cross-divisional SEC opponent and pretty much put one of the final nails in the Phillip Fulmer's coffin.
Auburn goes on the road for the second time in 2008, this time up to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt. The Tigers hit the Commodores early and often, but Vandy is not about to go down easy with the help of some badly timed turnovers on the part of Auburn. The Commodores give the Tigers a real good scare, but Auburn avoids a potential upset and the Tigers are halfway through the season at 5-1.
The Arkansas Razorbacks with new head coach, Bobby Petrino, come to Auburn and the errors and miscues that the Tigers have managed to avoid for the most part catch up with them in a bad way. Time and again, drives are killed by penalties, sacks, and turnovers. The Hogs jump on every opportunity and keep the came way too close for comfort. In the fourth quarter, Arkansas takes the lead sending Auburn into panic mode. Malzahn pulls out all the stops and with some clever, well-timed "trickeration" the Tigers are able to snatch victory away from almost certain defeat.
After a week off, the Tigers travel to Morgantown to take on the Mountaineers of West Virginia. The match-up turns into one of the premier games of the year with both team's offenses gobbling up yardage. Unfortunately, WVU gets some critical second half stops and Auburn picks up their second loss of the season.
Auburn is back on the road again, this time out west to take on Ole Miss. Where the game against WVU had been a wide open affair, this game is the complete opposite. Solid defensive play mixed with penalties keep both teams out of the endzone till the end of the first half where Ole Miss is able to punch through. The Tigers' offense hits back in the beginning of the second half, but the Rebels are able to answer back. In what turns out to be an utterly insane fourth quarter, three times the Tigers' defense makes heroic stops only to literally throw each opportunity away with three interceptions near the endzone. The Tigers head back to the Plains with a third loss.
Auburn takes down UT-Martin with little effort in a game played mostly by graduating seniors and second/third stringers.
Preseason favorites, Georgia, comes to Auburn and both the Bulldogs and Tigers play a gritty game of football with each team's defense playing extremely well. The Tigers catch a couple of lucky breaks in the way of two Dawg fumbles, which Auburn is able to convert into points. The rest of the game is a nail-biting affair, which sees another late game lead change given up by Auburn. However, Malzahn is able to string a series of plays together that puts the Tigers over the goal-line for the winning touchdown in the final seconds.
The Iron Bowl. Auburn heads up to Tuscaloosa to take on undefeated Alabama with the hope of pushing the Tigers six-game streak to seven. Again, some great defense played by both teams, but a poor punt by Bama gives Auburn decent field position for an early strike and a touchdown. The Tide are able to counter with a clock-killing drive for a field goal followed by a couple long runs in their next series to give Bama the lead. Auburn races against the final minutes of the first half to have their drive stall outside the red zone. A last second field goal is blocked and the half ends. The third quarter is a disaster for Auburn. Saban's defense is smothering Malzahn's offense and a couple of poorly timed fumbles aren't helping the Tiger's cause. The Tide capitalize on each mistake and are starting to put the game out of reach. The fourth quarter sees Auburn respond with a couple more quick strikes, but in the end, it is not enough to overcome the third quarter deficit. The Tigers lose and Auburn's longest win streak over Alabama comes to an end. Auburn finishes the regular season with 8 wins and 4 loses.
Tuberville's bold move to revitalize Auburn's offense by moving to a spread-based system pays off, more or less. While the number in the "wins and losses" columns relatively stay the same from the previous season, the offensive output under Gus Malzahn is enough to get fans excited about the future for the Tigers. Other programs in the conference begin to look closely at Auburn's system and begin implementing similar schemes or variations. However, internally, Tuberville's longtime offensive staff are still apprehensive in completely changing over to the system completely despite the results and successes that Malzahn has shown to be capable. Face value compromises are agreed upon, but tension remains throughout the offseason and into the start of the 2009 season.
If you have read this far, congratulations! As I stated earlier this was all just one possible scenario. In my opinion, I don't think Auburn's defense would have fallen off in 2008 with Tuberville and his staff despite implementing Gus's offense the way it did in 2009 with Chizik. This would have helped through a lot of the growing pains and fatigue as experienced in the middle of the 2009 season. I do believe, though, that Malzahn was not going to be able to completely recreate what he did at Tulsa either. It's hard to imagine that the likes of Nall, Ensminger, and whoever else, would readily give in to listening to another outsider. Especially an outsider with ideas like Malzahn. The infamous "Tubershell" still would have taken place, but probably much sooner, and at times to possibly to the defense's detriment.
If you think this could have turned out differently or just want to post "LOL TL;DR" please do so in the comments below. Stay tuned for another exciting "What if?" in the near future, same Whiskey time, same Whiskey channel, College and Magnolia dot com!