Revenge of the Nerds: Malzahn is the big cheese on the Plains - USA TODAY Sports
There's one big brass ring left on the SEC Coaching Carousel. And then beginneth the assistant coach feeding frenzy. How will it all affect the Gamecocks?
Well, that was fast. And a bit surprising.
Yesterday, Auburn announced it would hire Gus Malzahn, who has been the head coach at Sunbelt Champion Arkansas State. The surprise came from the fact that Auburn had long been rumored to have a short list of Bama assistant Kirby Smart, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher and Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, with maybe-just-maybe Bobby Petrino of the Ozarks Motorcycle Club in the wings.
In any even bigger shocker, Arkansas came out of left field by naming Wisconsin Badgers' head man Bret Bielema as the new front man in Fayetteville - just hours after one reporter in the Natural State had tweeted it was going to be OK State's Mike Gundy (only to be contradicted by another reporter at the same paper!). Wow. What made Bielema's hire such a gobsmacker was the fact the successful B1G coach has no ties to the southeast or Texas (the Hogs' two main recruiting beds) and everyone thought he was content in Madison.
So now that leaves Tennessee as the only SEC school with a head coaching vacancy. It's a cliche to say that only time will tell if Auburn and Arkansas (and eventually UT too) have made the right coaching decisions - not just the hires, but the fires, too. But as we've been doing of late on GABA, let's take a look at would these new coaching hires could mean for USC - since I don't care a fig about anybody else!
Auburn/Malzahn. The last three years have had to be a roller coaster for Malzahn. First, he was the undisputed offensive genius of the SEC in 2009. Then he helped guide an elite Auburn Tiger squad to a BCS Championship at the end of the 2010 season. He spurned some decent job offers (Vandy, e.g.), and then his wife had her little unfortunate interview all while Auburn sputtered a bit in 2011. Next thing you know he's shunted off to Arkansas State. In light of Cam Newton's very impressive rookie season at the Carolina Panthers, some people wondered if Malzahn wasn't "all that" and he would be permanently exiled in Jonesboro (I shivver at the very thought). Lo and behold, however, Malzahn guided the 2012 Red Wolves to 9-3 (7-1 Sunbelt) without even All-SEC caliber RB Mike Dyer - who'd wanted to follow Gus to Jonesboro but the NCAA would not grant him a waiver. Now before we get too carried away, let's remember Hugh Freeze had led the Wolves to 10-3 (8-0) in 2011, so its not like Gus inherited a bad squad. Still, it was an impressive season for Malzahn but, despite that, you also figured that Auburn was aiming a bit higher than Gus anyway you cut it. Or they were until the guys further up the list turned them down.
Will he turn around Auburn? Auburn's recent SEC history is like a big comet that glows white-hot as it dives to the Sun every 6 or 7 years - winning league titles and being in the national championship mix - but then goes colder during its dormant period, which is when the ritual bloodletting (i.e., firing coordinators first, followed by head coaches later) begins on the Plains. Malzahn deserves some credit for what Cammy-Cam did at Auburn in 2010. And there's no doubt he's a top offensive thinker. But despite doing a good job with Arkansas State, you wonder if 2010 wasn't a collaborative effort between the rah-rah CEO Chizik and the offensive genius Malzahn, so that they both need each other? I'm curious about that. Chizik didn't stop being a rah-rah guy; his team abandoned him because they realized there was no longer any "there" there. (That makes me wonder if Dabo isn't in the same fate but that's another day!). Would Fisher, Strong or Petrino have done better than Malzahn might? I'm thinking "no" to Fisher (he's dumb) and "no" to Strong (they won't give him time).
Petrino might be the better pure-coaching hire, but it was clear Auburn was too proud (!) to call him. Will wonders never cease? All in all, I think Malzahn can fix the malaise that's grounded War Eagle, but I'm not sure he can catch Saban or Miles, or deal with the TAMU juggernaut. The trick will be whether he can do better than Freeze, Mulllen or Bielema. Retaining D.C. Brian Van Gorder would be a good idea in my books.
What does it mean for Carolina? Since we're still dealing with year-to-year scheduling from Birmingham (which they promise they've fixed going forward in '14 but we'll see), we don't know when we'll next face Auburn on the rota, but under a 6-1-1 rotation - i.e, an eight game SEC schedule with six game division round-robin, one permanent cross-division rival and one rotating cross-division game per season, the Cocks will face the Plainsmen only twice every twelve years unless both teams are fortunate enough to make the SECCG. So, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't matter what Malzahn does EXCEPT in recruiting. Auburn has traditionally done well recruiting the Palmetto State and is close enough geographically-speaking, and tradition-rich enough, to be attracted to SC kids who don't want to go to Clemson or Carolina. I'd have liked Chizik to stick around another year, all things being equal. As I, Hogbody Spradlin and Mr. Sanchez debated in another thread, a "down" Auburn is good for USC recruiting as far as keeping big names at home, or chasing other big southeastern prospects.
Arkansas/Bielema. I've always kind of liked the Badgers and Camp Randall Stadium (even though my fav B1G squad has always been Michigan State) but I've never been a big Bret fan. It's not the numbers, which are fairly impressive (68-24 in seven seasons in Madison; bowls each year - including three straight Rose Bowls which is big deal in B1G country; and two division titles). It's more the way that I thought Bielema loved to run it up even when huge margins of victory no longer mattered so much to the pollsters or the computers. Montee Ball - a very good player and the likely Doak Walker winner this year - wouldn't have broken the NCAA touchdown record if Bielema had ever taken his foot off the gas pedal when he had an opponent down and broken.
So what does Bret bring to Fayetteville? SEC ties? No. Texas ties? No. History of anti-SEC bias? Yes (remember how he bashed Urban for playing the big boy SEC recruiting game in the B1G?). All that being said, if he's ever had NCAA trouble in Madison, I've never heard it. He runs a clean program and he's proven he can win. He's not Nick Saban, but then remember Nick was a middlin'-successful coach at Michigan State from '95 to '99, with mostly six-win seasons with the Spartans until his last 9-2 campaign. Look what Saban did at LSU (yes - you could argue Saban had to build Sparty back after George Perles' disastrous 0-12 campaign in 1994), but Bret still as a better Big 10 record than Saban anyway you slice it and he might thrive in warmer climes.
Will he turn around Auburn? Yes. I will concede that there's no way in Hades that Bielema was the Razorbacks' first choice, but give Arkansas AD Jeff Long some credit for reeling in a pretty impressive fish after Miles, Gundy and TCU's Gary Patterson said no. They've got some talent in Fayetteville - Bobby Petrino's moral failure combined with the way John L. Smith beclowned himself (and the way the Hogs let losses to very good UL-Monroe and Rutgers teams beat themselves for the rest of the season) made a good team bad. If Auburn is a comet, then Arkansas is like a Flying Dutchmen, sometimes scary, but often rudderless with a succession of ghost-captains. Bielema, notwithstanding the things I don't like about him, ain't Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino or John L. Smith. Hog fans may look back on this day as the day it all settled down after too many years of drama, but even with marrying a good coach to the Razorbacks' built-in advantages (good tradition, no-instate competition, very passionate fans), can he break through the Miles-Saban logjam at the top of the western division? Especially with Sumlin surging? Better question - can he hold off Malzahn, Freeze and Mullen? In the "social Darwinism" world that is SEC football not all of them can/will survive.
What does it mean for Carolina? Unless things change dramatically, our 20 year permanent cross-division series with the Hogs comes to an end in 2013, and - thanks President Pastides! - we get a couple of years of Johnny Football as Kevin Sumlin turns Texas A&M into the new power in the Lone Star State. After 2013- as with Auburn - we only see the Hogs every twelve years, unless we go to a nine-game sked with a 6-1-2 rotation. The Razorbacks will go from annual friends to distant cousins. We may cross-recruit a kid from Georgia or Florida with them, but for the most part, any real connection between the two 1992 newcomers is going to be permanently severed. I don't think we'll miss each other much, so whether Bret builds a winner only really impacts whether we're targeting the same recruits.
Tennessee. So whose it going to be? Strong? Gundy? Or UNC's Larry Fedora? Heck, after Arkansas and Auburn, no way I'm going to speculate, except to say I think OSU's Mike Gundy has no real interest to leave Stillwater, and is playing these openings to get more power in controlling the Pokes' destiny. In the meantime, every day the UT recruiting juggernaut is sidelined is a good day for South Carolina.