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18 Sep 2009

Varsity Numbers: Miracle Malzahn?

by Bill Connelly

In Football Outsiders' preseason projections, five-year history was taken very seriously. The bottom dropped out for Michigan in 2008? No worries -- 8-4 in 2009 for Rich Rodriguez and company. Ole Miss came out of nowhere to win nine games and get national attention? The numbers are not buying it -- 6-6 for the Rebels in 2009.

Of all the contrary-to-conventional-wisdom picks from FO's FEI projections, one of the most jarring was Auburn at No. 11 in the country and tied for first in the SEC West. Really? Nine wins for the team that ranked 99th in Rushing S&P+, 98th in Passing S&P+ in 2008, and a whopping 117th in Unadjusted Offensive FEI? How? The answer lied mostly in Auburn's strong five-year history and seven returning starters on each side of the ball. But the answer could have just as easily been "Gus Malzahn."

When Gene Chizik was hired by Auburn after winning just five games in two years at Iowa State, plenty of people scoffed. And that was before he decided to bring the spread offense with him, to the same place that mercifully ran offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and his spread out of town after a half season in 2008. But this time around, it wasn't just any spread. It was the Malzahn spread. The adjustable-fit, fifth-gear, chameleon-like, smash-mouth spread.

From the time he left the high school ranks to call plays in the soap opera known as "Houston Nutt's Final Years at Arkansas" to when he kicked up the pace for two years at Tulsa, Malzahn's offenses have run more plays than just about anybody in the country, and they've played to the strengths of the personnel on the field.

The Gus Malzahn Offense
Year (Team) Rushes
Per Game
Yds Per
Carry
Passes
Per Game
Yds Per
Pass
Total Plays
Per Game
Yds Per
Play
2006 (Arkansas) 38.5 5.9 21.6 6.9 60.1 6.3
2007 (Tulsa) 40.2 4.2 39.8 9.4 80.0 6.8
2008 (Tulsa) 48.1 5.6 30.2 10.0 78.3 7.3

In his one season at Arkansas, Malzahn engineered solid offensive improvement while running the ball 64 percent of the time (which is what you do when you have Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the backfield with a freshman quarterback). No on knows how much Nutt influenced the play-calling, but when he left for Tulsa the next season, he got free reign from head coach Todd Graham to do his thing, and Tulsa averaged almost seven yards a play with a roughly 50-50 run-pass split. Star quarterback Paul Smith left after 2007, and when Malzahn surveyed the personnel around him and saw an embarrassment of riches at running back (mainly in the form of Tarrion Adams and Jamad Williams), he veered toward the run again. Tulsa averaged a somewhat insane 7.3 yards per play while running the ball 61 percent of the time. While he was getting the reputation as the same type of pass-heavy spread guru as can be found in other parts of the country, Malzahn was adapting to the strengths of the team and showing that a hurry-up, no-huddle attack does not have to mean 50 passes a game.

Malzahn's flexibility had to be part of what drew Chizik to him. For all the offensive struggles Auburn faced in 2008, they seemed to be in pretty good shape at running back. Neither Ben Tate nor Mario Fannin thrived in 2008 (902 yards, only 4.2 yards per carry, four touchdowns), but they were solid in the pre-debacle 2007 season (1,351 yards, 4.7 per carry, 13 touchdowns). Starting the 2009 season with a reasonably big, experienced line led by junior tackle Lee Ziemba (6-foot-8, 304 pounds, 25 career starts), there was potential for overcoming obvious shortcomings at quarterback and wide receiver. Signal callers Kodi Burns and Chris Todd were, to say the least, problematic in 2008, combining for a 53.7 percent completion rate, 5.8 yards per pass, and a less-than-stellar 7-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio; plus, leading receiver Rodgeriqus Smith was gone. To play to their relative strengths, the Tigers would need to run the ball a lot. They have done just that.

The Auburn Offense
Year Rushes
Per Game
Yds Per
Carry
Passes
Per Game
Yds Per
Pass
Total Plays
Per Game
Yds Per
Play
2008 (All Season) 39.1 3.5 28.4 5.8 67.5 4.5
2008 (First Two Games) 43.5 5.2 30.5 5.5 74.0 5.3
2009 (First Two Games) 55.5 6.2 25.5 8.9 81.0 7.1

Even ignoring the multitude of problems from 2008 and comparing only their first two games of 2009 to last year's first two games (a 34-0 win over Louisiana Tech, followed by a 27-13 win over Southern Miss), there is pretty staggering improvement here. Auburn is running the ball 12 more times per game and averaging an extra yard per carry. Plus, thanks to the run and the fast pace of the offense, Chris Todd is throwing better. Sophomore receiver Darvin Adams (nine catches, 181 yards) and junior Terrell Zachery (five for 139 yards, including a 93-yarder) are combining for almost 23 yards per catch.

But the story, of course, is the running game. Tate (40 carries, 274 yards) has been the workhorse and Fannin (18 carries and catches for 160 yards) has contributed, but freshman Onterio McCalebb has come out of nowhere to put up 268 yards in 38 carries. Auburn has gone from no consistent threats a year ago to boasting four or five in 2009. Most importantly, they have scored 86 points in two games. As a means of comparison, Auburn scored a total of 86 points in their last seven combined games against FBS competition last year.

Malzahn has to be considered the main cause for the sudden success. While it's nice that he has brought some early excitement to Auburn, the fact that the team's numbers have been so closely in line with Malzahn's offensive identity may be a sign of sustained prosperity. While they probably will not continue to average 7.1 yards per play as SEC season continues, the Tigers' offense has taken on his style with no growing pains whatsoever. Of course, it has only been two weeks.

As with all of the other "hot or not" talk, we have to remember that we are still dealing with the smallest of sample sizes. Never mind the October slate that features three road trips (to Knoxville, Fayetteville, and Baton Rouge) in four weeks, or the 1-2 punch of Georgia (in Athens) and Alabama to end the season. All of the happy storylines emerging from the town two-and-a-half hours southeast of Birmingham could evaporate in an instant if they are shut down by West Virginia on Saturday. The developing Varsity Numbers jinx (victims thus far: Minnesota, LaGarrette Blount) could claim another victim by the end of the weekend.

At this early a stage, one thing is certain: While uncertainty surrounds head coach Gene Chizik is, now and into the future, he sure knows how to pick an offensive coordinator.

SEC West Race

If Auburn truly is good, and Arkansas lives up to it's turnaround potential (preseason S&P+ projections gave them a shot at 8-10 wins), do we have a five-team race on our hands in the West? Will LSU, Ole Miss, or (most likely at this stage) Alabama still run away with things? We will start to learn the answer soon enough. Below are the ten games pitting those five teams against each other.

September 26

Arkansas at Alabama

October 10

Auburn at Arkansas
Alabama at Ole Miss

October 24

Auburn at LSU
Arkansas at Ole Miss

October 31

Ole Miss at Auburn

November 7

LSU at Alabama

November 21

LSU at Ole Miss

November 27/28

Alabama at Auburn
Arkansas at LSU

Ole Miss still holds the edge in terms of scheduling (three home games, one away) while Arkansas is at a strong disadvantage (just one home game), but if Auburn and Arkansas live up to their potential projections, this race could be a thrilling one to watch. Like the Big 12 North ... only with a whole lot more talent.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 18 Sep 2009

2 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2009, 1:31pm by Dr. Trying Not to be Grammar-Obsessed, but Come On

Comments

1
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Fri, 09/18/2009 - 11:39am

Lemme tell ya' another thing about Chizick; nobody made a better hire for a defensive coordinator this year than Chizick did with Ted Roof. Varsity Numbers Jinx or not, Roof worked a miracle with Minnesota's defense last year.

I love the spread offense with a physical offensive line and a good running back.

2
by Dr. Trying Not to be Grammar-Obsessed, but Come On (not verified) :: Fri, 09/18/2009 - 1:31pm

The answer "lied" mostly? Really?