SEC: Gus Malzahn

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
Dec 13

Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

After Sunday, Auburn knows it’s headed to Tampa, Florida, to play Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. What the Tigers don’t know is who their defensive coordinator will be or if they will even have one by the time they play the Badgers on New Year's Day.

It’s been more than a week since Ellis Johnson was dismissed as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, and head coach Gus Malzahn is still in the process of finding his replacement.

[+] EnlargeMalzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn is being tight-lipped about his search for a new defensive coordinator.
"Hopefully we can hire someone in the near future," Malzahn said Sunday on a teleconference. "I'm not putting a definitive date on it, and once we do that, then we can think through the bowl and all that."

The name that’s come up the most has been former Florida head coach Will Muschamp, but he is a hot commodity around the SEC with South Carolina and Texas A&M reportedly interested as well. He has history with Auburn, spending two seasons as a graduate assistant in 1995-96, and returning as defensive coordinator in 2006-07.

When asked about Muschamp, Malzahn didn’t deny that Auburn has reached out.

"I'm not going to get into any details regarding our search," the second-year coach said. "It's just a matter of us trying to get the right guy, and we'll see the timetable on that. We’re just looking for the right fit for Auburn at this time."

Malzahn hasn’t said who will be the defensive coordinator in an interim basis headed into bowl practice, though some believe secondary coach Charlie Harbison could be the one who calls plays in the bowl game.

Whoever draws the assignment will have a difficult task trying to slow down Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, the nation’s leading rusher.

Despite a lackluster performance in the Big 10 championship game, Gordon is likely headed to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He has rushed for 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns this season, and he broke the single-game rushing record when he went for 408 yards against Nebraska last month.

"He’s one of the better running backs in the country," Malzahn said. "We saw them earlier in the year on film against LSU, and he was electric. You could tell he had another gear.

"He’s had a great year. They have a big offensive line. I’ve not gotten a chance to study everything in great detail, but just big picture, they’re very good at running the football and he’s one of the better running backs in the country."

The last time Auburn faced a 2,000-yard rusher was in the 2003 Capital One Bowl. Penn State running back Larry Johnson came in with 2,015 yards rushing, and the Tigers held him to 72 yards en route to a 13-9 victory.

This Auburn defense isn’t nearly as talented as that group, though. This season, the Tigers have given up 30 or more points in six of their past seven games, and they rank in the bottom half of the SEC, allowing 149.5 yards per game on the ground.

That could all change with a new defensive coordinator. But for now, the search continues.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In the search for the next Heisman Trophy winner, we often look for a Heisman moment, a game we can replay over and over in our minds to justify that this is, in fact, the best and most deserving player in college football.

It’s a simple but challenging task: When everyone is watching, shine brightest.

Doug Flutie launched a Hail Mary against Miami. Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown, intercepted a pass and caught a touchdown against Ohio State. Johnny Manziel danced around Alabama’s defense. Robert Griffin III put up 500 yards against Oklahoma.

So what Amari Cooper has done this season for Alabama should be looked upon with awe.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper tied his season high for receptions (13), yards (224) and touchdowns (3) in the victory over Auburn.
Not only has the junior wide receiver put up monster numbers, he has come through most when it counts -- and on more than one occasion. He has doubled down on his Heisman moment and turned it into a handful of resume-building games.

In six games on network television, Cooper has averaged 122 receiving yards and a touchdown. That includes a 201-yard, three-touchdown game against Florida; a 140-yard, two-touchdown game against Texas A&M; and pivotal late-season wins over LSU and Mississippi State in which he caught eight passes for 80-plus yards and a touchdown both times out.

When CBS couldn’t put Alabama on the air again because of contractual obligations, Cooper took his talents to ESPN in a telecast that set overnight records for viewership. Against Auburn on Saturday, Cooper looked like the best player in college football, racking up 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s pretty good,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s probably one of the better playmakers in college football, and he showed that.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said Cooper, who has broken school records held by Ozzie Newsome and Julio Jones, has a style all his own.

“He's made a lot of big plays for us this year,” he said. “I think he is probably one of the best wide receivers in the country.”

If you’re looking for overall production, Cooper has that.

He ranks second nationally in receiving yards (1,573) and receiving touchdowns (14), and he is fourth in receptions per game (8.6). Against seven of the country’s top 50 pass efficiency defenses, he has 69 catches for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns.

If you’re looking for explosive plays, Cooper has those, too.

His 26 plays of 20 yards or more trail only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (33) among Power 5 teams. Of Cooper’s 107 total touches, 69 have resulted in a first down or touchdown.

“You never know where he’s at,” said Alabama safety Landon Collins, a potential All-American in his own right.

Because Cooper’s route-running is so precise, you can’t predict where he’s heading, Collins explained. It’s what makes him wonder why anyone would try to defend Cooper one-on-one.

“Once you put one person on him, you’re making a bad mistake,” Collins said. “We don’t even do that in practice.”

It will be interesting to see if Missouri takes that advice on Saturday when it faces Alabama during the SEC championship game.

If the Tigers’ secondary loses track of Cooper like so many have, we could be looking at yet another Heisman moment for the already impressive receiver.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said you have to understand with Copper that, “You’re not going to stop him.”

“He's a great, great player,” he said. “You try to limit the amount of damage they can do.”

The last time Cooper played in Atlanta this late in the season, he was limited to eight catches and 128 yards by Georgia. His game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter catapulted him to Freshman All-American status.

Three years later, could he have another career-defining moment on the national stage? After all, that seems to be business as usual this season.

Though he might not win the Heisman Trophy because so few at his position ever have, what Cooper has accomplished is undeniable.

It should earn him a trip to New York for the award ceremony, at the very least.
Unlike fellow SEC defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who probably was gone before Texas A&M’s season finale against LSU, Ellis Johnson might still be around if Auburn had not blown a 33-21 lead in Saturday’s loss to Alabama.

Instead, the defense allowed five consecutive touchdown drives to Blake Sims and the Crimson Tide, and the second-half collapse all but sealed Johnson’s fate. Auburn finished with 44 points and an Iron-Bowl record 630 yards of offense and still lost. That simply cannot happen, not for a team that expects to compete for national championships every year.

So Johnson, a coach with more than 30 years of experience including 18 in the SEC, was dismissed Sunday in just his second season at Auburn.

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIEllis Johnson's defense, trending down over the past six games, couldn't hold a 12-point lead in the Iron Bowl.
“This is part of the business and I totally understand,” Johnson said in a statement. “I did think we were good in several areas, but overall it wasn’t good enough. I’m disappointed for our players, but this is a results business.”

A day later, the first question after who’s next is what went wrong? Why did the marriage between Johnson and head coach Gus Malzahn not work? How did a defensive coordinator who has had success at other SEC schools Mississippi State and South Carolina struggle so much at Auburn?

The answer to that question dates to last season. The Tigers made it all the way to the BCS championship game, but it wasn’t because of their defense. Auburn finished No. 87 nationally in total defense, allowing 421 yards per game.

There were positives to take away including the first-half performance against Jameis Winston and Florida State in the national championship game, but a similar letdown to Saturday likely cost the Tigers a chance at winning it all. When Auburn needed a stop late in the game, the defense could not come up with one.

That was Johnson’s first year, though, and nobody batted an eye after the run Auburn made. The Tigers would be better in Year 2, right?

It started that way. Auburn allowed just 72 points (14.4 per game) through the first five games and what had been a weakness a season ago looked to be a strength for the Tigers. Then they got into the meat of the SEC schedule and the wheels fell off. They allowed 38 points in a loss to Mississippi State, 35 points in a win over South Carolina, 31 points in a win at Ole Miss, 41 points in a loss to Texas A&M. Sensing a trend?

The Auburn defense allowed 30 or more points in its last six conference games, capped off by the 55-spot Alabama put on them Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Rather than improving, the defense regressed.

It’s not all Johnson’s fault. Auburn lost Dee Ford and Chris Davis from last year’s team. Both are playing on Sundays now. Carl Lawson, the team’s top pass rusher, tore an ACL in spring practice and missed the entire season. And the fact Johnson used seven players from the 2014 recruiting class spoke as much about the lack of talent already on campus as it did about the talent in that class.

But as Johnson said, this is a results business, and the results weren’t there.

Now Auburn is hoping to find somebody who can produce the desired results. Maybe it will be Will Muschamp, who had success as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007. The Tigers finished top 10 nationally in total defense those years. Or maybe it’s Bo Pelini, who had success in the SEC as LSU’s defensive coordinator.

Regardless of who is hired, it was time for Johnson to go.

SEC morning links

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
1. The season of coaching changes is upon us. Florida's Will Muschamp is the only head coaching change in the conference so far, but there is coordinator turnover, with perhaps the most notable move coming Sunday when Auburn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. So who is next for the Tigers? lists five possible candidates. The most intriguing name on that list is clearly Muschamp. He was a graduate assistant there in 1995-96 and defensive coordinator in 2006-07, and the idea of a partnership between himself and Gus Malzahn is enticing. Auburn won't be the only team vying for Muschamp, though; you can bet Texas A&M (who just fired defensive coordinator Mark Snyder) will take a swing at the former Florida coach, too.

2. Remember when Jacob Coker transferred to Alabama this offseason? It seemed like everybody who followed the Crimson Tide expected the former Florida State backup to walk in and take the starting job. Blake Sims, the ever-patient fifth-year senior, waited his turn behind AJ McCarron, battled Coker and the patience paid off. After throwing three interceptions that opened the door for Auburn to take the lead, Sims remained poised and finished strong with 312 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 55-44 Iron Bowl victory over Auburn. Throughout this season, Sims has earned Saban's confidence, and rightfully so. Sims and the Tide are a victory away from the College Football Playoff.

3. To the surprise of just about nobody, Missouri is a 14-point underdog heading into its SEC championship game matchup against Alabama. The Tigers (10-2), winners of six in a row, aren't going to be expected by many to beat Alabama. That seems to be OK by them. "“We love it,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “We don’t want people to believe in us." The Tigers are of the mind that the more doubters they have, the bigger the proverbial chip on their shoulder will be heading into the game. This will be Missouri's second consecutive SEC East title game, so the Tigers have an idea of what to expect.

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SEC plays of the week: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
So many games, so many plays to choose from this week. Here are the ones we felt were the best plays in the SEC in Week 14:

Get out of his way
Leonard Fournette is a true freshman. I repeat, a true freshman. So it's almost comical to see him do what he did to Texas A&M senior safety Howard Matthews, a guy who has a reputation for delivering big hits himself. The LSU running back didn't go around but through Matthews en route to this 22-yard touchdown run. As Les Miles said afterward if he saw Fournette coming his way, "I would get out of the way."

video Speedy not only speedy
Thursday's game was a big one for Texas A&M true freshman receiver Speedy Noil personally. A New Orleans' native, Noil was focused and ready to face his home-state power, which was a finalist to land his signature. He showed how fired up he was on this leaping 27-yard touchdown catch over Tre'Davious White. The catch? Top-10 worthy. The celebration? Not so much.

video Gus with a gadget play
Bonus points for creativity. With time winding down in the first half and Auburn looking to add to its lead over Alabama, coach Gus Malzahn dialed up a trick play, calling for a reverse pass that involved a direct snap to Quan Bray and Nick Marshall lining up at receiver. Bray handed off to Corey Grant, who handed it to Marshall, who fired a bomb to Sammie Coates who made an impressive catch between two Alabama defenders at the 1-yard line.

video A two-touchdown swing
Coaches often preach to their players to "play to the whistle," and Georgia showed why that's advice worth heeding. Georgia Tech threatened and nearly scored a touchdown early in the third quarter but Georgia's Damian Swann had other ideas, stripping the ball from quarterback Justin Thomas and sprinting 99 yards for a touchdown. It didn't help translate to a Georgia win as the Bulldogs lost in overtime, but a big play nonetheless.

video "Boom" delivers the boom
Stanley "Boom" Williams proved worthy of his oft-used moniker on this 14-yard touchdown run. Williams powered his way through three Louisville defenders, keeping his feet moving until he crossed the goal line for a fourth-quarter touchdown in Kentucky's 44-40 loss to No. 22 Louisville. The freshman is one of many bright young stars for Big Blue Nation.

video Diving pick and a beauty
Florida did a nice job of turning Florida State over, intercepting quarterback Jameis Winston four times. It wasn't enough for a win, but it was still impressive, like this diving interception by Florida defensive back Quincy Wilson. Not only did he dive, but he bobbled it and secured it on the way down.

video One heck of a halfback pass
A great call by Hugh Freeze to again put the Rebels up by two touchdowns. Bo Wallace pitched the ball to Jordan Wilkins who made a perfect pass to Cody Core, right in stride, for a 31-yard touchdown. Again, the Rebels went up by two touchdowns with the score and it served as the final margin of victory.

Walton shakes and bakes for 91
Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty, Ole Miss won the Egg Bowl. And one of the biggest plays in the game came courtesy of running back Jaylen Walton. Walton evaded at least even would-be Misississippi State tacklers as he reversed field, juked and sprinted to paydirt. It was a huge play that gave Ole Miss a two-touchdown lead and the cushion needed to keep the Bulldogs at arm's length the rest of the way.

Bear Force One goes airborne
They call De'Runnya Wilson "Bear Force One," in Starkville and the 6-foot-5, 215-pound former basketball player showed off some of his leaping skills with a 32-yard touchdown grab over Ole Miss defensive back Kendarius Webster. Wilson simply went airborne, and though he was well covered by Webster, secured the ball for six.
Nick Saban, Gus MalzahnAP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn have more in common than you might think.
It would be easy to portray Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban as two completely different coaches. Different philosophies. Different dispositions. Different sides of one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.

But while you could cast them as opposites and be done with it, that might not be telling the whole truth. Because they aren't as different as you might think. Whether it's an obsessive drive to win, or a fierce attention to detail, the two coaches share much in common.

One is a defensive mastermind, the other an offensive magician. Whether it's exotic blitzes or misleading pre-snap motions, both attack their respective sides of the ball from unique angles. They try to confuse you. They try to outthink you. And they're both among the best in the game at doing so.

From a certain perspective, you might say Malzahn and Saban are different sides of the same coin.

They share an ingrained work ethic, having grown up in small towns -- Saban in Fairmont, West Virginia, and Malzahn in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Though they're 14 years apart in age, their birthdays fall during the same week of October.

Saban was defensive coordinator at Michigan State, left, and then got his big break when he returned to become the Spartans' head coach.

Malzahn was offensive coordinator at Auburn, left, and then got his big break when he came back to take over as the Tigers' head coach.

Sensing a pattern?

Though Saban dwarfs Malzahn in total wins, their winning percentages aren't that far off, with Saban at 84 percent and Malzahn at 80.

Saban played defensive back in college. Malzahn played receiver. Even today their actions mirror one another, as Saban tries to slow down the tempo of the game while Malzahn does everything he can to pick up the pace.

Personality-wise, they present similar images to the media: guarded, singularly focused, sometimes combative. But behind the scenes, there's more to them. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we've seen both coaches dance, Saban doing his best "Electric Slide" and Malzahn strutting his stuff to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."

Anything for recruiting, you might say.

Alabama presents itself as an NFL factory and Auburn as a place of family, but they both produce results. The Crimson Tide have finished No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings Insider each of the past three years. Auburn, meanwhile, is currently ranked ninth Insider and closed its most recent class at No. 8 overall.

But the biggest similarity between Saban and Malzahn is their attention to detail.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle was amazed when he first caught a glimpse of the way Saban ran his program. Everything was so efficient, so focused on the task at hand. Watching practice from outside his office, Battle saw there wasn't a wasted moment.

Jay Jacobs, Auburn's AD, noticed the same thing about Malzahn.

"He's not thinking about other things," Jacobs said. "He's not self-serving at all. He's relentless in details, and he's absolutely great to work with because all he's thinking about is how to make Auburn football better."

Tying those two accounts together is Hoover (Ala.) High coach Josh Niblett, who has sent numerous players to both state schools. Whether it's on the recruiting trail or during coaching clinics, Niblett has had the chance to get to know both Saban and Malzahn well.

"They're both very professional," he said. "Both of them are competitors and both of them are driven, and then both of them have attention to detail. You don't have to be around them long to understand that attention to detail is one of the big factors for their success."

What's stood out to Niblett is their businesslike approach and their hands-on style of coaching.

"One of the neatest things about them is they're both good teachers," he said. "It's one of the best common values they have, they're very hands-on. You have a lot of coaches that are the CEO-type that are involved, but they're involved from the outside in. These two guys are involved from the inside out. It means so much to them that they put their stamp on it, that they want to make sure that they continue to do it."

On Saturday, we'll see their systems come to a head.

Auburn, well out of the playoff race with three losses, is out to spoil No. 1-ranked Alabama's season.

The way Malzahn's emphasis on speed matches up with Saban's emphasis on size is so perfectly incongruent. It's like looking in a mirror.

No, they're not exactly alike. But like the reflection in a mirror, everything is reversed. The receiver is the defensive back. Offense is defense.

They're different, but so much of them is the same. It's what makes it so fun to watch.

At first glance: SEC Week 14

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
It all comes down to this.

The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.

Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.

Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn

Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.

Coach under the microscope: Will Muschamp, Florida

This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?

Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?

There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.

Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read

Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
Just two weeks ago, Auburn was 7-1, fresh off a last-minute victory at No. 4 Ole Miss, and one of the few teams in college football that controlled its own destiny. There was a growing belief that the Tigers could navigate through their treacherous schedule and represent the SEC in the four-team playoff.

That’s all gone now. Back-to-back losses have knocked Auburn out of both the playoff hunt and the SEC West race. The team hit its low point Saturday with a 34-7 loss at Georgia, the worst loss under Gus Malzahn since he took over last season.

“Anytime you get beat convincingly, as a head coach, you’re going to try to solve the issues moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We just have to be big boys. We got it handed to us, and that’s uncharacteristic. We have to bounce back.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsThe Auburn Tigers are in the unfamiliar position of regrouping after consecutive losses.
The losses might have been uncharacteristic for Auburn, who had lost only three games under Malzahn, but the struggles began much before the last two weeks.

It was evident last month when the Tigers suffered their first loss at Mississippi State. They turned the ball over on their first two possessions and fell in a hole that they could never climb out of. The offense turned the ball over four times in the game, and the defense, which had been so good up until that point, allowed 469 total yards and 38 points to the Bulldogs.

It has been those same problems -- slow starts, turnovers and a lack of defense -- that have plagued Auburn over the past month.

Quarterback Nick Marshall and his four touchdowns helped the Tigers survive a scare against South Carolina, though the defense still allowed 551 total yards. And if not for a fumble at the goal line by Ole Miss, Auburn might be below .500 in conference play right now.

The magic finally ran out against Texas A&M last week. In a game where the Aggies jumped out 14-0 and led 35-17 at the half, Auburn battled back and still had multiple chances to win. But it fumbled that opportunity away not once, but twice in the final minutes. The late turnovers compounded by the slow start and the inability to get stops cost the Tigers.

This past Saturday’s game might have been the most surprising, though. Auburn had never lost back-to-back games under Malzahn, and instead of responding to adversity like it had time and time again, it was run out of the building by a Georgia team that was dismantled by Florida just two weeks ago.

“I’d say probably this is the first time we didn’t [respond to adversity],” Malzahn said. “We responded last week. We just didn’t get it done at the very end.”

How does this team respond now? They’re coming off-to-back losses. They have no shot at winning the conference or making the playoff. They’re basically playing to see which middle-of-the-road bowl game they can earn an invitation to.

“All you can do is control what you have moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We’re disappointed we got beat. We expected to play better, and we didn’t. In college football, you have to go on to the next week.

“The thing about Auburn and why I’m here is we’re going to have high expectations. That’s just the way it’s going to go. You’re disappointed when you don’t reach some of your goals, and that’s part of it. But we’re always going to have high expectations.”

That expectation now is to beat Samford this Saturday and finish the season with a win at Alabama in the Iron Bowl. If anything could salvage a disappointing season for Auburn fans, it would be a win against their in-state rival.

However, unless the Tigers clean up some of the issues that have hurt them over the last month and a half, there won’t be an opportunity for a kick-six at the end of the game.
A lot changed during Arkansas' 17-game conference losing streak -- a slide that finally ended when the Razorbacks beat LSU 17-0 last Saturday night.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost $3.82 when Arkansas last won an SEC game, beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012. "Gone Girl" and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series dominated the best-seller lists, two years before they became highly anticipated movies.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBrandon Allen and the Razorbacks shut out LSU on Saturday. The win marked Arkansas' first conference victory since Oct. 13, 2012.
Bret Bielema was still winning Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. Now he's trying to become 2-13 in SEC play as Arkansas' head coach, having finally thrown the losing-streak monkey off his back.

Here are some notable ways the SEC changed during the 763 days that Arkansas went between conference victories:

Manziel becomes a phenomenon: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had played in just three SEC games when Arkansas last won a conference game. By now we know he went on to win that season's Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, but the legend of Johnny Football was only starting to build at that point.

Two weeks before Arkansas' 2012 win against Kentucky, Manziel had set a Texas A&M record with 453 passing yards and three touchdown passes, plus 104 rushing yards and another score, in a 58-10 win against the Razorbacks.

Coaching changes aplenty: John L. Smith was Arkansas' coach when the streak started, and his departure after the 2012 season was only one in a handful of coaching changes that have occurred around the conference.

Arkansas (from Smith to Bielema), Auburn (from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn), Kentucky (from Joker Phillips to Mark Stoops), Tennessee (from Derek Dooley to Butch Jones) and Vanderbilt (from James Franklin to Derek Mason) have all changed head coaches since October 2012. Now Florida is on the verge of making it six schools to change coaches since then, following Sunday's announcement that Will Muschamp will not return in 2015.

Conference keeps rolling: The SEC would extend its string of consecutive BCS titles to seven when Alabama closed the 2012 season with a championship-game rout of Notre Dame. And Auburn nearly made it eight last season, although the Tigers allowed Florida State's Jameis Winston to lead a last-minute touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles the final title of the BCS era.

Nonetheless, the SEC's run as the preeminent conference in college football continued throughout the time that Arkansas failed to win a league game.

The conference went 13-6 in bowl games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, easily the best winning percentage among major conferences, and placed seven teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 after both seasons.

The SEC also dominated the NFL draft, with 63 players picked in the 2013 draft -- more than double the number from any other conference -- and 49 more getting selected earlier this year. That includes this year's No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and 10 other first-round picks from SEC schools.

Nick Saban's Alabama remained the league's toughest program throughout Arkansas' slide. Not only did it win the 2012 BCS title, but it posted a 16-3 mark in SEC play during the same period that Arkansas was 0-17.

Auburn's fall and rise: Auburn was en route to arguably the worst season in school history on Oct. 13, 2012, having lost 24-7 to Arkansas a week earlier. The Tigers would go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play only two seasons after winning the BCS title and Chizik would be dismissed after the season.

Auburn would replace Chizik with his former offensive coordinator, Malzahn, who rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas and who spent the 2006 season as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Malzahn led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history last season, pushing Auburn to an SEC title and a spot against Florida State in the BCS championship game.

Hogs finally break through: Arkansas certainly dealt with its share of uncertainty in Bielema's first season on campus, closing 2013 with a school-record nine-game losing streak that included some unsightly blowouts. However, the Razorbacks closed the 2013 season with a pair of close losses and regularly hung with their toughest conference opponents this fall.

The outcomes were all the same, of course, as loss after loss piled up even when the Hogs would fall by only one point against Alabama or by a touchdown against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. But Arkansas' results finally changed last Saturday when their defense dominated LSU and the offense did just enough to claim ownership of the "Golden Boot" trophy that goes to the winner of the annual LSU-Arkansas game.

Many college football analysts had insisted throughout the season that an improved Arkansas was on the verge of breaking through under Bielema, and Saturday's LSU win was the confirmation the Razorbacks' coach needed. Now he has the chance to launch his first SEC winning streak as the Hogs' coach when No. 10 Ole Miss visits Fayetteville on Saturday.
Todd GurleyAP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia running back Todd Gurley's status is unknown following a knee injury against Auburn.

ATHENS, Ga. -- In what was supposed to be a rousing homecoming for Todd Gurley, the Georgia Bulldogs' chilly, late-night celebration felt a little more subdued after their star went down in the fourth quarter.

Gurley's late-game knee injury, which came with Georgia's dominating win over Auburn well in hand, has many wondering if the Bulldogs will yet again have to move on without their best player.

"You never want to see a guy like that go down," cornerback Damian Swann said of Gurley's injury. "We know how much that guy means to our team. … Hopefully, everything will be OK and he'll be back."

For now, Gurley's prognosis is unknown. Coach Mark Richt didn't have an update on the junior after the game, but expects him to take X-rays on the knee soon.

The hope is that Gurley, who rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in his first game back from his four-game NCAA suspension, will be fine, but if No. 15 Georgia (8-2, 6-2 SEC) has to continue without him for any amount of time, it's clear that this team is more than prepared for such a challenge.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb has rushed for at least 143 yards in his past five games. He had 144 yards and 2 touchdowns against Auburn.
And if the past four weeks didn't prove that, Saturday's 34-7 rout of No. 9 Auburn (7-3, 4-3) should have made you a believer.

Before the game, Gurley stalked the field during warm-ups, as cheers bellowed throughout Sanford Stadium whenever his face appeared on the scoreboard. You got the sense this would be a storybook comeback for the former Heisman Trophy favorite.

And we almost got it when he took a kickoff 100-plus yards for a touchdown, only to have it called back because of a penalty.

That's how Gurley's return went, but it didn't hurt the Bulldogs one bit. Not with true freshman Nick Chubb -- who more than filled in for Gurley during his four-game absence -- playing out of his mind, and Jeremy Pruitt's defense executing a near-flawless game plan.

With Gurley more the appetizer than the main course, Georgia turned Auburn into a cupcake on a frigid night between the hedges. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry was hardly close, as Georgia scored 34 straight points after Auburn's opening drive.

Like the Bulldogs had done in three of their past four games, they found ways to dominate opponents without Gurley leading the way. And that's not taking anything away from Gurley, but it was clear he was rusty after not playing in a game in 42 days.

As Gurley slowly regained his football legs, Chubb chugged away to 192 total yards, including a game-high 144 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. He bounced and bullied his way over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and continues to play at superhuman levels despite his age.

"Once he gets a little bit of a head of steam up, I tell you it's just so difficult to get him down with just one person," Richt said of Chubb, who has now rushed for at least 143 yards in each of the past five games. "You see it all the time, guys are just bouncing off of him. You can go low, and you're going to get punished down there, too. He's about as strong as Todd is. ... Guys don't like to go high or low on those guys because they are like a little locomotive going through there."

When Chubb wasn't rambling through or around Auburn's overmatched defense, Georgia's own defense was slowing down one of the SEC's most explosive units. Entering the night, Auburn ranked second in the SEC with an average of 506.9 total yards of offense per game, including an SEC-high 286.44 rushing yards.

Against the Bulldogs, Auburn totaled just 292 yards of offense and 7 points -- the lowest in either category for Gus Malzahn as Auburn's head coach.

A defense that a couple of weeks ago was gashed for 418 rushing yards by Florida made Auburn look nothing like, well, Auburn.

"Coach [Pruitt] put together a great plan and after we executed it, it was hard for those guys to do anything," Swann said.

This was supposed to be a barn burner, but Georgia pushed Auburn around in every phase of the game, showing it has the talent to hang with any of the top teams. When this team is clicking, watch out.

Georgia is now 2-0 against the SEC West, and a Missouri slip away from heading back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

But that's where frustration sets in for the Dawgs. Their life is in the hands of a Missouri team they waxed on the road by 34. A Missouri team that has been incredibly inconsistent on offense and lost at home to Indiana, yet just walked out of College Station with a shootout win over Texas A&M.

Georgia needs only one Mizzou loss to get to Atlanta, but after losses to South Carolina and Florida, the Dawgs can only hope.

It's a shame with how well this team has played outside of those two blunders, but if the Dawgs find a seam to Atlanta -- and maybe even the playoff -- quarterback Hutson Mason likes his team's odds.

"The one thing about this team that's special about it is we get better every single game," Mason said.

"When you have a team like that, that's pretty dangerous, because you're gaining a lot of momentum and you're improving every week and you're gaining a lot of confidence. We have a lot of that right now."


What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 15, 2014
Nov 15
We’re getting close to resolution in the SEC’s division races after another wild weekend of conference play.

Here are five things we learned after the conclusion of Saturday’s games:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Butch DillWith their win over Mississippi State, Amari Cooper and Alabama are on track to play for the SEC title.
Georgia-Alabama?: We went through all of that to get to this? After beating No. 1 Mississippi State 25-20 on Saturday, Alabama is back in the driver’s seat in the SEC West, as many prognosticators expected before the season. Meanwhile, Georgia (9-2, 6-2 SEC) destroyed Auburn 34-7 in its final SEC game of the season, which put the pressure on Missouri to win out if it wants to win the SEC East. Otherwise, it’ll be Alabama-Georgia in the SEC championship game, which seemed the most likely outcome before the Mississippi schools and Missouri made unexpected title pushes. Mizzou (8-2, 5-1) still leads the way in the East, though, with games remaining at Tennessee and versus Arkansas. The Tigers can still spoil the Bulldogs’ title hopes, and Georgia tailback Todd Gurley's injury status will also have a bearing on the Bulldogs' prospects moving forward.

It tolls for thee, Muschamp: Maybe there was a way for Will Muschamp to save his job after Florida shocked Georgia a couple weeks ago. But the way the Gators blew a late lead and fell 23-20 in overtime against South Carolina on Saturday -- getting two kicks blocked in the last 3:30 -- probably removed any doubt. The Gators are now 5-4 and can become bowl eligible with a win against Eastern Kentucky next week, but this has to be the end for Muschamp. The Gators should have won this game but imploded at home in the closing minutes.

A breakthrough for Arkansas: It was a long time coming, but Bret Bielema finally got the first league win of his Arkansas tenure when the Razorbacks shut out LSU 17-0 on Saturday. Oddly enough, the win ended a 17-game SEC losing streak. The Hogs came close against several teams this season -- most notably Alabama and Mississippi State -- but they controlled the night against LSU. They even handed the Tigers their first shutout loss since they fell 21-0 to Alabama in the BCS title game to end the 2011 season. Clearly, it meant something to the Razorbacks’ fans, though. They rushed the field to celebrate the win.

Gus Bus hits a speed bump: Saturday’s loss was by far the worst for No. 9 Auburn since Gus Malzahn became head coach last season. The Tigers scored seven points in a loss to Georgia -- well below their previous scoring low (20 points in a win against Kansas State earlier this season) under Malzahn. Auburn came in averaging 506.9 yards and 38.7 points per game and mustered just 292 yards and seven points against a UGA defense that got dominated by lowly Florida two weeks ago. The Tigers also lost for the second straight week and fell out of the SEC West and playoff conversations.

Look out for the Vols: They lost their first four games in SEC play, but here come the Tennessee Volunteers (5-5, 2-4). With quarterback Josh Dobbs leading the charge, the Vols blasted Kentucky 50-16 on Saturday after beating South Carolina in overtime two weeks ago. Dobbs passed for 297 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday and ran for 48 yards and another score. They’ll host Missouri on Saturday with a chance to spoil the Tigers’ hopes of winning the SEC East.

Four storylines for Auburn-Georgia

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
No. 9 Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) and No. 15 Georgia (7-2, 5-2) will renew one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries on Saturday in Athens in a game that could have major implications in the SEC’s divisional races.

With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group, here are four key storylines to watch on Saturday night.

Gurley’s return: ESPN’s Football Power Index shows Auburn has a 50.3 percent chance to win on Saturday, so this is truly a pick-’em game. The main reason for those even odds is that Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the Bulldogs’ lineup after serving a four-game suspension for accepting money to sign memorabilia.

Freshman Nick Chubb was phenomenal as Gurley’s replacement, ranking 10th in the FBS in rushes per game (25.5), fourth in rushing yards per game (167.8) and tying for fifth with 17 runs of 10-plus yards during his time as the Bulldogs’ starter.

But former Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley brings an entirely different level of production to the offense. In case you forgot, here is what the junior star had accomplished before Georgia coach Mark Richt benched him prior to the Missouri game.

Not only is he a home-run threat -- Gurley (8.2 ypc) is on pace to become the third SEC player with at least 100 carries in a season to average at least 8 yards per carry, joining Arkansas' Felix Jones (8.7 in 2007) and Auburn's Brent Fullwood (8.3 in 1986) -- but he also possesses a remarkable ability to make something out of nothing.

That’s where the veteran Gurley truly separates himself from freshman Chubb. On runs where he is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gurley still averages 4.0 yards per carry, where Chubb averages just 1.0. The average against Power Five opponents on such carries is 0.5 ypc.

Efficient Tigers offense: This isn’t just the Todd Gurley Show, however. Auburn’s offense is every bit the machine that Georgia’s is.

According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Auburn has the third-most efficient offense in the FBS, trailing only Oregon and Baylor. Georgia is fifth.

That’s largely because of quarterback Nick Marshall -- a former Georgia cornerback -- Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and the other Tigers’ abilities on outside runs. On runs outside the tackles, Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (149.1) and runs of 10-plus yards (49) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (13).

That’s an especially interesting matchup on Saturday because of Georgia’s problems against outside runs, particularly in its upset loss to Florida. The Bulldogs are allowing 6 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles (third worst in the SEC) and surrendered 392 rushing yards outside the tackles combined in their losses to Florida and South Carolina. In Georgia’s seven wins, they allowed a total of 364 yards on runs outside the tackles.

Will Georgia pass?: Largely because of its success running the ball, Georgia hasn’t shown much interest in putting the ball in the air. The Bulldogs have run on 62 percent of their offensive plays, and probably won’t alter that philosophy much with Gurley back in the lineup.

It might be a good idea for Hutson Mason to let it fly a bit more often, however. Auburn’s passing defense has been spotty at best in the last four games -- particularly last week, when Texas A&M freshman Kyle Allen tossed four touchdown passes in the first half of his SEC starting debut.

The Tigers have been especially atrocious defending receivers after completions, allowing 150.8 yards after the catch this season, the most of any SEC defense.

Mason (140-203, 1,515 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the definition of a game manager at quarterback, but Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo might need Mason to complete a few more passes this week and see if wideouts Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett can make something happen after the catch.

Tigers’ turnover trouble: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn spoke of attempting to shake things up in practice this week in an effort to get the Tigers off to a better start.

The Tigers turned it over on their first offensive play in both of their losses this season (to Mississippi State, where it actually lost turnovers on its first two plays en route to an early 21-0 deficit, and last week against Texas A&M, when the Aggies led 35-17 at halftime) and lost five fumbles in their games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Auburn has allowed an SEC-high 35 points off turnovers in its last four games and has a 2-2 record in that period. During their 5-0 start, the Tigers did not allow any points off turnovers.

Georgia is tied for the SEC lead with a plus-13 turnover margin, which is fourth nationally, and has outscored opponents 62-6 off turnovers. Only Arizona (three points) has allowed fewer points off turnovers than the Bulldogs.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Marshall has been in big games before. He played in both the SEC championship and the national championship last year. He’s faced off against two past Heisman Trophy winners. He recently returned to the state where he rejuvenated his career.

But will any of that prepare him for what he’s going to face Saturday when he goes back to Georgia, the school that dismissed him back in 2012 for a violation of team rules?

“Last year there’s no doubt it was definitely different for him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “But any time you have that experience one time, it’s not as a big a deal the second time. He’s going to prepare like he normally would, and there’s not going to be any more to it than that.”

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisAuburn's Nick Marshall is aiming to beat Georgia -- his former school -- for the second straight year.
Tell Marshall that. The Auburn quarterback played one of his better games against the Bulldogs last season as he accounted for 318 total yards and three touchdowns in the 43-38 victory, but that was at home in front of his fans. On Saturday, he enters the lion’s den.

The Georgia fans haven’t forgotten about him. His former teammates certainly remember him. It’s not going to be a friendly atmosphere inside Sanford Stadium.

“He knows a lot of those guys over there,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He spent a year there. It’s his home state. He’s human. But at the same time, when that game starts, he’s going to play just as hard as he would any other game.

“At the end of the day, he’s going to do whatever he can to try to help our team win.”

Prior to last year’s Georgia game, Marshall said he wasn’t going to treat it as anything too big because it was just another opponent.

Don’t expect that to change this year. That’s his mindset. It’s why he’s always so even-keeled and calm under pressure. It doesn’t matter if he just threw an interception or if he’s leading his team on a game-winning drive or if he’s about to face his former team.

“He's pretty much the same guy all the time,” Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “His demeanor doesn't change too much. He doesn't go up and down.”

“I think that’s one of his biggest strengths,” added Lashlee. “I think it helps him not make too much of the situation and not make the moment bigger than it is. He can just focus on playing and trying to play his best because that’s what we’re going to need him to do in order to go into a place like Georgia and try to get a win.”

Saturday will be a big game for Marshall, but it will also be a big game for the other 40 players on Auburn’s roster who hail from the Peach State. They might not have started their careers at the University of Georgia, but they’re all returning to their home state.

“I think it’s going to mean a lot to Nick,” teammate Gabe Wright said. “He mentioned that he hasn’t been back since his freshman year.

“But honestly, it goes that way for a lot of guys. Me, [Angelo] Blackson, Jeff [Whitaker], Ben [Bradley], a lot of us haven’t been back in years. It will be as hyped up a game as I can imagine, but I’m pretty sure collectively we’re going to be focused and stay level-headed.”

That level-headed demeanor stems from Marshall, though. If he keeps his cool on the road, in a familiar, yet hostile atmosphere, then so will his team.

“He's just trying to come out and win,” Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray said. “He doesn't care about what's been going on, he just wants to come out and win.”

SEC morning links

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
The weather has been a common topic at LSU this week.

Not the unusually cool temperatures in the low 40s that the Tigers practiced in on Wednesday. Even worse. The weather forecast for Saturday night’s game at Arkansas shows lows in the 20s and a 70 percent chance of snow.

Considering how 90 percent of Les Miles’ LSU roster hails from Louisiana and the surrounding Southern states, most Tigers have barely seen snow, much less played a competitive football game in it.

If it really comes down on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how the Tigers handle an entirely different climate than what they are accustomed. Miles’ staff seemed amused to turn it into a game of sorts, with one support staff member going shirtless at Wednesday’s chilly practice, but it could be a genuine area of concern.

Arkansas’ players aren’t especially prepared for snowy weather, however. Yes, far more Razorbacks are from states with cooler weather -- and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said that might be an advantage -- but the Arkansas News Bureau’s Robbie Neiswanger wrote this week that the last Razorbacks game impacted by snow was in 1993 against Auburn.

Arkansas initially planned to allow students to camp outside Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Friday night, but the school announced on Wednesday that camping is now canceled because of possible inclement weather.

One likely outcome is that two run-oriented offenses will lean even more heavily on their ground games in snowy weather. If that happens, the Razorbacks and Tigers might play the fastest televised SEC game of the entire season with few pass attempts to stop the game clock.

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