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It might happen in January 2012. It might happen in January 2013, but sooner or later it’s going to happen—Auburn Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn will become a head coach at a major Football Bowl Subdivision school.
Last year, Auburn made Malzahn one of the highest paid assistant coaches in the country by upping his salary to $1.3 million. Malzahn was said to be the leading candidate in a number of jobs that opened in the offseason, including Vanderbilt. Vandy reportedly had a $3 million offer on the table but Malzahn chose to stay put.
Several very lucrative jobs will be open following the 2011 season. These include Arizona, North Carolina and likely UCLA. Penn State and Ohio State will also be open and those two programs will likely go after bigger names who are already head coaches, opening up two more potentially nice gigs (forget about Ole Miss and Tulane—Gus is too smart to take dead end roads).
Auburn’s dilemma is this—do they find another spread offense guru to come in and continue Malzahn’s wide open attack, or do they look for a more traditional pro set coach? Asking the question another way—why would a successful offensive guru take the Auburn offensive coordinator position? If he’s got the coaching chops, why not try to make the leap to a head coaching gig of your own?
Auburn’s offensive recruiting has targeted athletes geared towards running Malzahn’s offense. Kiehl Frazier is not a pocket passing, game managing quarterback. He’s a zone read guy, through and through. The offensive line is recruited and coached to play Malzahn’s zone read attack. They’re not road graders built or developed to pave the way for a 230 lb bowling ball like Trent Richardson, Knile Davis or Marcus Lattimore. Mike Dyer is a talented tailback, but he’s not built for a ground and pound play action attack. That’s just not what the Auburn offense does.
I’m not sure that Auburn can find and hire a guy with Malzahn’s uncanny ability to design and call plays that surprise and frustrate defenses the way his does. Auburn’s had some problems moving the ball and scoring this year, but little to none of the blame for that falls on offensive strategy or in-game tactics. They have six wins and are bowl eligible because of Malzahn’s coaching, not in spite of it. The program is rebuilding from last year’s senior and talent laden National Championship team and suffering the effects of two bad recruiting years in 2007 and 2008. The 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes were outstanding and the team has plenty of talent—it’s just still very young.
It’s also geared towards running Malzahn’s offense, and I don’t know of any other Gus Malzahn’s out there. I’m sure Auburn can attract a quality replacement for Gus. There’s too much money available to not attract a very good candidate.
Is Auburn prepared to deal with a 2012 retooling season as the players adjust to a completely new system? Is Auburn prepared to deal with that knowing that including 2011, the last three years have been Auburn’s worst in a generation for points allowed by the defense? That likely means subpar offensive production again in 2012 combined with a defense that gives up points like fat guys give up diet bars. Auburn likely finishes 7-5 this season. That would be a hard feat to repeat in 2012 with no Gus and Ted Roof’s leaky defense.
If Gus Malzahn stays at Auburn, none of these painful questions have to be answered. At least not until next year, when a whole new round of lucrative coaching jobs open up. But sooner or later, it’s going to happen and Auburn will have a dilemma on its hands.
Driving the Narrative Update: A mere couple of hours after this entry was posted, Auburn Coach Gene Chizik was asked about the subject of replacing Malzahn. And, in today’s print editions of the state’s three major daily newspapers, you’ll find this story on a highly regarded Malzahn protégé. Interesting timing, huh?