Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gus Malzahn: the Tony Franklin we got, or the Tony Franklin we wanted?

I'll be perfectly honest: I'm stunned at how widespread the willingness of Auburn fans to lay palm branches down at Gus Malzahn's feet seems to be. Not because he's not deserving (well, metaphorically speaking), but because these are the same Auburn fans who were ready to tar and feather Tony "Spread Man Walking" Franklin before running him out of town on the proverbial rail, and that was three games into the season. They're the same Auburn fans who looked at Mike Leach's 11-1 record in this year's Big 12 and said "Actually, we'd rather wait until you go undefeated, thanks." And now comes Malzahn, with his Franklinesque up-tempo scheme and high school roots, and his Leachesque hatred of the humble punt, and he's greeted with hosannas? Was the Fear of a Patrick Nix Planet really this strong?

So, yeah, I was expecting more comments along the lines of this beauty left in the thread after Sunday's post:
Oh no - this is an absolute disaster. I remember the last time an SEC team hired Malzahn and what happened there. Nobody is left from that debacle at Arkansas.

I thought we were going back to smash-mouth football, but apparently we are simply going to concede the next few years to Bama and everyone else in the country and maybe hire Turner Gill after this HIGH SCHOOL COACH fails to implement the spread at AU once again. Tony Franklin, redux. What is that quote about insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result ? The ONLY silver lining in hiring Chizik was he promised a return to AU football, i.e., not the spread. So what does he do next ? This is it for me. The powers-that-be at AU are absolutely crazy and the whole lot of them needs to be run off....
This opinion is far and away in the minority, though. Charles Goldberg's survey shows more than 88 percent of Auburn fans are behind the hire. Why? Are the surface differences between Tony Franklin, the man who'll forever be known as the decision that destroyed Tommy Tuberville's Auburn coaching career, and Malzahn really that great? Hell, despite his Arkansas episode, Franklin's systems were more proven against SEC competition than the ones Malzahn will run at Auburn will be.

But even if I can't explain why Malzahn is being welcomed with such open arms--maybe it's that his Tulsa numbers are off the freaking chart, as opposed to Franklin's Troy numbers merely being very, very good?--you can definitely consider the JCCW among the cheering throng.

Here's why.

The numbers really are that bonkers. It would be one thing if Malzahn had arrived at Tulsa and only maintained an already-built offensive machine. And, to be fair, Tulsa wasn't bad before Malzahn arrived: 26th in yards-per-play in 2006, 31st in 2005. You also have to take Tulsa's total offense numbers under Malzahn with at least a tiny grain of salt: because Malzahn tries to run so many damn plays in a game, their per-game stats (both offensively and defensively) get inflated.

But yeah, things have still been decisively on the ridiculous side for the Golden Hurricane since he showed up. Third in the nation in '07 in yards-per-play (to go with their easy first in total offense), then a tie with Houston for first this season with a staggering 7.3 yards a play, a mark matched only over the past five years by the likes of Leinart and Bush's USC, White and Slaton's West Virginia, Colt Brennan's stupid year at Hawaii.

Are you more worried about scoring than yardage? That's the sort of thing that gets distorted by field position and defensive touchdowns, but why not: Tulsa went from 37th to 6th and then 2nd this year.

There's also the little matter of Malzahn's (ahem) turbulent season at Arkansas in 2006. Exactly how much credit you want to give Malzahn for an offense that finished 12th in yards-per-play and third in the country in rushing is kind of up to you; given that the offense bore very, very little resemblance to what Malzahn has run at Tulsa, that Houston Nutt and then-QB coach David Lee (who took the Wildcat to Miami, as you probably know) are pretty sharp offensive minds in their own rights, and that that offense had at its disposal perhaps the greatest SEC running back since Bo, I'd pass on putting too much weight on Malzahn's results in Fayetteville. That said: the year before he got there, Arkansas ranked 66th in yards-per-play; the year after he left, the Hogs slipped just a hair, from 12th to 14th. (To be fair, the Hogs' scoring offense improved dramatically. So Arkansas sort of stayed about the same overall.) Whatever you want to say about Malzahn's Hog tenure, you have to admit this: he sure as hell didn't hurt that offense.

The bottom line is that no, we don't have a ton of evidence. But every bit of evidence we do have suggests that when you hire Gus Malzahn, your offense gets much, much better.

His real name is Gustav. Arthur Gustav Malzahn III. Would you want your opponent to have a coach named Gustav? No, no you would not.

Balance. As Jay G. Tate related for you in the Malzahn hire's aftermath, just because Malzahn prefers to spread the field and Tulsa tied for the best mark in D-I in yards-per-passing attempt doesn't mean he's of the Leach/Mumme/Franklin "Airraid" pass-to-set-up-the-run school. The Golden Hurricane had an almost exactly 50-50 run/pass split in 2007 (two more passes than runs) and in 2008 ran 61 percent of the time. For comparison, remember Auburn's 2007 Borges-directed grind-a-thon? 60 percent running. 2006? 62.5 percent running. In other words, the newfangled, basketball-on-grass, no-huddle pointfest Malzahn oversaw at Tulsa this year? Every bit as run-obsessed as the Auburn offenses that Tubby believed so stodgy he had to turn to Franklin.

When Franklin said he was going to pass to set up the run, he wasn't lying. That's how his system worked. When Malzahn says he'll use the run to set up the pass, he's not lying either. And as with Franklin, that makes all the difference when it comes to success. Any shred of balance Franklin had at Troy came from Omar Haugabrook's ability to run with the ball, but Malzahn's genuine commitment to the run means that that 5.43 yards-per-rush--eighth-best in the country this year, one spot ahead of Navy--isn't a mirage that's going to evaporate when he comes to Auburn. He'll find a way to run the ball.

And once he does, that's when he goes deep. Again, no team in the country averaged more per-pass than Tulsa; Malzahn's not interested in dinking-and-dunking. When he passes, he's usually going for the throat. End result: the only team in the country that finished in the top 10 in both total rushing and passing.

Personally, even an all-pass-all-the-time scheme like Leach's (or the Paul Johnson converse) would be fine by me--as long as it worked. But to pull off something like that requires a phenomenal coaching mind, a true savant like Leach or Johnson. For all we know, Malzahn might be that kind of savant; Tulsa's eye-popping numbers suggest he might be. But even if he's just very good, having the option of succeeding either via the air or the run means Malzahn arrives on the Plains with more ability to adapt: adapting to Auburn's personnel, adapting to SEC defenses, adapting to whatever challenges this position winds up offering him. There's a reason Malzahn hit the ground running at Tulsa and never stopped.

Ludicrous speed. That's the term the brilliant Chris Brown coined for the pace of Malzahn's Tulsa offense in this must-read Smart Football post on Auburn's new hire. Remember how Tubby said he wanted Oklahoma's offense? As Brown points out, the two teams that in 2008 ran the most plays and played at the fastest pace were Oklahoma and Tulsa. Total offense, sure, but both of those teams also finished in top five in the country in yards-per-play. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Also, do you think this just might be a selling point with skill position recruits? Come to Auburn, and you won't only play for a good offense--you'll play for an offense that is designed to give you more opportunities than any other offense in football, every game, of touching the ball.

Also also: as Brown illustrates, because Malzahn's version of the Spread Eagle won't be all that schematically complex, the adjustment period shouldn't be quite so rough as it might be with some other alleged *cough*Jonathan Clawson*cough* gurus.

The negatives might not be as negative as you might think. Let's review the common complaints:

Malzahn's offense won't work in the SEC. Why, exactly, is never explained, of course. The same reasons Mumme's offense* and Meyer's offense weren't going to work, I'm sure, or that Paul Johnson's offense was never going to work in the ACC. You'll hear that even if the novelty has some effect, that in Year 2 the defenses will adjust. This, of course, assumes that the guy creative enough to come up with this and who at the very least had a hand in the creation of the Wildcat is incapable of making adjustments himself.

The offense didn't work against real competition. Riiiiight. 528 yards against Arkansas, a better per-play average against the Hogs than anyone but Florida or Alabama ... a clear failure. The relatively anemic ECU output of 24 points and 399 yards? Still good for 28 first downs and 100 more yards than ECU managed. 2007? 5.5 a play against Oklahoma, 8.5 in a 55-47 win over 11-2 BYU, 6.5 in the 63-7 annihilation of Bowling Green in their bowl game. No, over two seasons, Malzahn's Golden Hurricane haven't been quite as good stepping up against non-C-USA competition as they are in bludgeoning the weak sisters of their home league. But that doesn't mean they've failed, exactly, either.

Chizik won't let him be Malzahn, just as Tubby never let Franklin be Franklin. Uh, Malzahn is now very likely Chizik's only hope of turning the steaming, fetid pile that is the current Auburn offense into something competent before the ax falls on his own neck and the neck of the man who hired him. Hamstringing him in any fashion seems the very essence of stupidity--particularly since if Chizik is indeed attempting to build the SEC's version Oklahoma, meddling is the very opposite of what Stoops did with Leach/Mangino/Wilson. (Not to mention that if Chizik's experience at Iowa St. is any indication, he needs to spend a lot more time worrying about his defense than his offense.) Also: there is no misguided loyalty to Steve Ensminger et al to get in Chizik's way. I will be very, very surprised if what we see at Jordan-Hare this fall isn't something awful close to what Tulsa's doing right now.

Malzahn's teams turn it over too damn much, and between that and the supercharged pace, they hurt the defense. Well ... there might be something to this. Tulsa has finished 97th and 92nd in turnover margin under Malzahn, and it was the Golden Hurricane's TOs and general wastefulness in the red zone cost them the Arkansas and East Carolina games (the laterr of which featured an incredible 7 Tulsa TOs). Whether you want to blame the turnovers or the pace, with Malzahn in tow Tulsa finished 100th in scoring defense in 2007 and 84th this year. Yards-per-play? Back-to-back 93rd-place finishes after finishing 37th in '06.

But ... that downturn in defense also coincides with Steve Kragthorpe's departure from Tulsa. Is it really due to Malzahn's arrival, or to the AgroKrag and his staff's departure? There's no way to tell. Are Tulsa's turnover margins--2008's would have been +4 if not for meltdowns against Houston and ECU--really due to the Hurricane's lightning pace and more plays, or could we assume that with both teams having so many possessions in each game, that it might just be bad luck that will even itself out over time? Again, I don't think two seasons is enough to know for sure.

Yes, it's a worry. But only a worry--I'd much rather my defensive-minded head coach go out and find the best offensive coach he can and worry about figuring out the defense myself. That's the way Pete Carroll's approached it, the way Bob Stoops has approached it. It looks for all the world to me that's the way Gene Chizik has approached it, and even if the results aren't quite so spectacular, there's not enough reasons here to think there shouldn't be offensive results.

He's a good coach. This is the bottom line. Good, smart coaches find a way to succeed. Bad, misguided coaches find a way to fail. Everything we've seen of Malzahn has to suggest that he is, in fact, a good coach, right?

Of course, in the wake of last year's Chick-Fil-A Bowl, I've said the exact same thing about Tony Franklin. Is he really a bad coach and Malzahn really a good one? Nah. I think they're both good coaches. But one got suckered into a series of mistakes and dug himself a hole "his" staff and situation wouldn't let him out of. Malzahn won't face that situation. His balance means he'll have more slack to make mistakes. His statistics suggest he's an even better coach than Franklin was.

So in some ways, yes, he is the second coming of Franklin. But it's my best guess--biased as it is--that this Franklin is going to come to a very different end on the Plains than the first one. This Franklin is going to be the one we wanted, the one we were promised all along.

*Remember, Mumme's offense was never the problem; it put up points like mad. He just never got the defense figured out. I like Chizik's odds a lot better than Mumme's if everything offensive winds up equal. At least, I think I do.


Loganville Tiger said...

I like your take on the Malzahn hire. Biggest point being he will be given free reign to install it and operate it as he sees fit. No short leashes.

I cringed when I heard we were hiring another spread guy. But I am probably like a lot of other fans that gets caught up thinking the spread is a system rather than its true meaning as only a formation. I like his balance with run vs. pass. I would have not been happy with the Air-Raid version though.

I'm willing to give him a chance - hell - I gave Franklin a chance.... Until this hire, no way I would have been watching the Tulsa game on the 6th.... Will be now.

BTW, got turned on to your blog a month or so back and find it highly entertaining and informative!! Keep up the good work....



Anonymous said...

I notice there's nothing said about the quality of his recruiting. Hard to gauge coming from Tulsa, and the Arkansas situation was sui generis, but do we have any thoughts on that?

PowerOfDixieland said...

Tulsa stole a major QB commit from freaking Michigan. It was before Malzahn agreed to come to Auburn, too. How much of that is Malzahn and how much is Todd Graham, I'm uncertain. But it's at least some proof you asked for, Anon.

Doophy said...

On the recruiting front, I have a feeling if he's willing to get out there and pound the bricks, recruiting will take care of itself. Like Jerry said, offering skill players the opportunity to touch the ball more than any other team can offer is a pretty big deal - especially if he's successful putting up points in '09. That said, how he fares against Saban's machine is entirely unknown.

I wasn't real happy w/ Franklin from the start. I don't understand why a team like Auburn needs to run a 100% spread offense. Bringing Franklin in smelled too much like change for the sake of change. Sure, the offense needed a refresh, but Franklin seemed like the wrong fit from the start. Don't forget, but for solid defense and an excellent play by Kodi at the end of the game, Auburn would have lost the Peach Bowl (screw Chick-Fil-A).

If what I'm reading is right, I like what Chizik might be trying to do. Installing a Carroll/Stoops/Meyer-type system at Auburn might be a better change than the faied method of:
1. Throw a spread guru in with a bunch of power/ace/smash-mouth guys
2. ???
3. Profit!

Alex P in Smyrna G said...

Now we need some RECEIVERS! Because we don't really have any that can beat anyone virtically.

Alex P in Smyrna G said...

Also, the longer we go with no DC, the more I think Chiz is gonna do it himself, which if that means going back to the 2004 version (which truly was a "nerver-ending chain of demons"), then count me as on board.


Kilgor said...

JCCW said:

"...that Houston Nutt and then-QB coach David Lee (who took the Wildcat to Miami, as you probably know) are pretty sharp offensive minds in their own rights..."

Nutt was forced to hire Malzahn against his will and there was much resentment on the Arkansas staff of him (sound familiar?). David Lee didn't arrive until after the 2006 season. His hire is the reason Malzahn went to Tulsa. Nutt told Malzahn that David Lee would be the new OC and that Malzahn would just be the receivers coach. Yes, Houston Nutt is THAT stupid. Malzahn left with class and has never publicly commented one how he was ridiculed and handcuffed by the Nutt staff.

Neither Nutt or Lee brought the Wildcat to Arkansas. That was Malzahn's idea, which Nutt and then Lee co-opted. However, Malzahn is much more than just that offensive set. He is a brilliant mind, that if allowed to do his thing will produce serious benefits for Auburn.

If Arkansas' head coaching position comes available in the future, Malzahn will be at the top of the list. Enjoy him while you have him.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, Tony Franklin is no Gus Malzahn and the only problem Auburn and Chizik will have with Malzahn is keeping him from being a D1 head coach very soon. Gustav? whoever winds up with him will call him by whatever name he choses. Gustav? Did Notre Dame have any problem with Knute?

max said...

Malzahn only ran his HUNH offense once at Arkansas. It resulted in an five-play 80 yard touchdown drive against USC. Houston Nutt was so jealous of Malzahn he never allowed the HUNH again even though several players went on record as saying they were excited about its potential. Instead Malzahn went about adapting certain plays from his offense to Nutt's uninspired "run off-tackle, throw an occasional 11 yard turnaround" attack.
It's a well know fact that Arkansas ran off seven straight wins before Nutt stepped in before the South Carolina game and told Malzahn he was taking back control of the offense. From that point on Arkansas went 3-3.
Malzahn is a focused, no nonsense work-a-holic. He flat out-works and out-thinks opposing coaches.
He had very little talent to work with at Tulsa and produced wonders with those players.
He will do the same at Auburn. You people just got the steal of the century provided Chizik stays out of his way.

Anonymous said...

Every fan of Auburn University should be highly ecstatic that they have Gus. being from Northwest Arkansas I have seen him more on the High School level then on the collegiate level. For those who don't know, Gus wrote a book on the spread offense " literally ". I assure you that he is no scrub when it comes to the spread offense. If Houston Nutt would have him do his job at Arkansas an run the offense for the " whole " season then he would still be there and I think as a head coach, but no, Nutt had to run him off and then coward out to leave to Ole Miss. And now he is acting like he brought some " Wild Rebel " offense there When in reality he has no Idea how to run it to its most full ability. Nutt is a joke and you should glad to have Malzahn.