Auburn is bringing a very familiar and successful face back to the Plains with the hiring of Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn as the Tigers' new coach.
After just one season with the Red Wolves, Malzahn is headed back to Auburn to take over for Gene Chizik, his former boss, who was fired after going 3-9 in his fourth season as Auburn's coach.
Malzahn's return brings hope that offensive competence resurfaces on the Plains. This past season was abysmal for the Tigers' offense. With Malzahn taking his act to Arkansas State, where he promptly went 9-3 and won a Sun Belt championship, and Scot Loeffler taking over, Auburn's offense shifted from the spread to a more pro-style look.
But without Malzahn's guidance -- or offense -- the Tigers were last in the SEC in total offense, mustering just 305 yards per game. Auburn shuffled around three starting quarterbacks, averaging 156 passing yards a game in the process, and scored fewer than 20 points seven times, including two shutouts in the final three weeks of the season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Auburn's offense scored 48 fewer touchdowns and had 41 fewer 20-yard plays than the 2010 unit headed by Malzahn.
With Malzahn back, the hope is there will be an immediate offensive turnaround. Remember, when he stepped in as the offensive coordinator in 2009, he whipped that offense into shape right from the start. In 2008, the Tigers were one of the SEC's worst offensive teams, but by the end of the 2009 season, Auburn was second in the SEC, averaging 431.8 yards of offense per game, which was nearly 130 more yards a game than 2008.
But he really made a name for himself in 2010, when he and some guy named Cam Newton helped Auburn to a 14-0 season and a national championship behind the SEC's No. 1 offense. Newton won the Heisman Trophy after passing for 2,854 yards with 30 touchdowns and rushing for an SEC-high 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. Newton's 4,327 total yards of offense set an SEC record.
Malzahn isn't expected to duplicate his 2010 success -- he just can't without a Cam Newton on campus -- but he should make the offense considerably better with his fingerprints on the playbook. He has a talented backfield to work with, starting with running backs Tre Mason, Mike Blakely and Corey Grant. He also has three quarterbacks in Jonathan Wallace, Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley, who all have dual-threat ability, which is what Malzahn's offense needs to succeed.
It should be especially exciting to see how Wallace responds. He took over as the starting quarterback late in the season, and showed some promise as both a runner and passer.
An immediate criticism will be that Malzahn won't have Newton to work with. He's 25-13 since 2009 without him. His teams score 10 fewer points and average about 84 fewer yards without him. But Malzhan did pretty well for himself this season at Arkansas State without Newton.
Here are some interesting Arkansas State stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Arkansas State is currently 40 yards shy of tying the school record for total yards in a season (currently at 5,782).
The Red Wolves average 481.8 yards per game, which is on pace to break the school record of 447.8 set last season.
The team currently averages 6.5 yards per play, which is on pace to break the school record of 6.0 set in 2008.
5.2 yards per rush would break the school record of 5.1 set in 1989.
Arkansas State has scored 437 points this season, 19 shy of the school record.
Obviously, SEC defenses are tougher to beat than Sun Belt ones, but Malzahn should have his successes. In his three years as Auburn's offensive coordinator, the Tigers won 30 games, scored 33.6 points per game and averaged 424.9 yards of offense, including 227.8 on the ground, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It also will help that he's extremely familiar with how things work at Auburn and the culture on the Plains. Fans know him and know what he can do. But with that comfort will come higher expectations. He'll have the usual grace period, but fans are very restless in Auburn, and they expect Malzahn to come in and clean off some of the mud splattered on the program in 2012.
This wasn't the sexiest hire for Auburn, but it's one the administration thinks will get this program back on track and back on the scoreboard.