Thursday, December 22, 2011

Neither Bama nor Auburn likely to make hires before bowls, but Chizik’s choice is critical

image Alternate headline: Auburn’s Gene Chizik to prolong fan anguish for a few more weeks.

Both Alabama and Auburn enter the holidays looking for new coordinators. Don’t expect either Nick Saban or Gene Chizik to make those hires before 2012 rolls around, but Chizik’s hires will be worth careful scrutiny.

Alabama will replace offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who takes over the head coaching job at Colorado State after the BCS Championship Game. Auburn needs a matched set—defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the same job at Central Florida and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left to take the Arkansas State head coaching position.

As covered in an entry earlier this week, it’s unlikely that Saban’s new guy will be a splashy coach known for his “decided schematic advantage.” We already know what kind of offense Alabama is going to run in 2012 and anyone expecting the Tide to sling the ball around the field 50+ times in a game will be bored silly. Saban will make his choice, the new coach will be announced (but not introduced) to the media, and it’ll be business as usual in Tuscaloosa.

Auburn’s hires are much more significant. I’m bucking conventional wisdom and postulating that who Chizik hires as a defensive coordinator will be much more important than the offensive guy going forward. This is especially true if there are no significant changes in offensive philosophy.

Pete Roussel has a fascinating look at how teams with up tempo offenses affect the performance of the programs’ defensive units. To put it bluntly, teams that rack up points with high octane attacks have defenses that usually suck.

For example, West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has proven to be one of the best in the business for years.  Since 2007, the Mountaineers have finished 8th, 11th, 31st, and 3rd nationally in scoring defense.  Enter Dana Holgorsen's up tempo offense in 2011 and Casteel's defense dipped to 63rd nationally in scoring defense.

In Dana Holgorsen's two years as the offensive coordinator at Houston, the Cougars finished 91st nationally and 95th nationally in scoring defense. One year later at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys finished 61st nationally in scoring defense while Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator.

Holgorsen, however, did help Oklahoma State win 11 games in 2010. And under his leadership this season at West Virginia, the Mountaineers have earned a trip to the Orange Bowl.

Whether it be at Tulsa or Auburn, the defensive units opposite of Gus Malzahn's up tempo style have finished 100th, 75th, 79th, 53rd, and 80th nationally in scoring defense.

Tulsa, however, was 21-7 with Malzahn and Auburn won a national championship thanks in large to Malzahn's offensive philosophy.

Roussel also cites the examples of Chip Kelly at Oregon and Chad Morris at Clemson, whose offenses have also corresponded with mediocre (at best) defensive performance. While all of those teams have won a lot of football games, their defenses have stayed on the field and their performance has been disappointing.

For the last three years, Auburn has recruited offensive players geared for Malzahn’s up tempo attack. A radical shift in philosophy would likely result in a few years of pain and suffering as the right players are recruited and developed to execute the new scheme. See the 2011 Florida Gators, for example. Given the pressures at an SEC school like Auburn, that would likely mean Chizik goes straight to the hotseat and doesn’t get off until he wins or it detonates. You don’t see that happening, and neither do I.

Given the pattern described by Roussel and knowing that the offense will stay up tempo, it becomes apparent that Chizik needs to hire a stud defensive coordinator. He needs to swing for the fences and nail the homer. The question is, would that type of coach be willing to take such a risk?

Extraordinarily good coordinators are ambitious men with proven track records. They’re not always looking forward to an eventual head coaching job (see LSU’s John Chavis), but the best probably are. If your defenses have consistently ranked in the top quartile nationally, do you risk joining a team that is almost certain to dent your numbers and darken your résumé? Not unless it’s for a totally sick amount of money.

If you’re going to win consistently in the SEC, you’ve got to play ferocious defense. You don’t just fall down in the face of oncoming ball carriers. Who Auburn hires to run the defense will go a long way in determining whether the 2011 season was a run-of-the-mill rebuilding year, or the new normal.

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