Malzahn and Nightmare Fuel: Part Three

Where's that pressbox again? Still feeling suicidal. - John Reed-US PRESSWIRE

Third and final installment examining Malzahn's offense.

RECAP:

Part One

Part Two

Malzahn runs a very fast offense that incorporates several concepts: spread with vertical play action, inverse veer and modified wing-t for base runs and play-action, and a nearly-pure run and shoot for the majority of non-play action passes. Nothing here is necessarily new, aside from the speed at which the offense is run and a commitment to vertical passing not often seen out of the option.

The offense is not designed to string together long drives; rather, it is meant to gain chunks of yards quickly. When Malzahn’s teams drive the field, those drives have high value, and about half the time his teams wind up at or inside the opponent’s 30 yard line. Explosive plays do not necessarily correlate with a highly efficient quarterback –most of his quarterbacks have been highly efficient. In fact, when not given an elite quarterback, the offense is well below average in that regard. Even when not scoring, the offense can flip the field pretty quickly. It is fair to call it a home run offense.


Simmer down: It's still Chris Todd, and that's still Furman.

To repeat, those hypotheses are:

  1. Malzahn has been extremely fortunate in his career to be given a decent set of players with which to work: returning starters, particularly solid backs and veteran offensive linemen have defined his success.
  2. 2010 was a freakish outlier –the product of one rare athletic prodigy (coupled with the factors above). Malzahn normally will not produce a top-10 offense.
  3. In the outlier years, if there are any, offensive success would still be predicated on the running game. Malzahn may have a reputation as a passing guy, and he very well may want to be one, but success in the SEC must be accompanied by a balanced attack, particularly a strong running game.

To compare these, I will set forth the hypothesis, and any supportive and contradictory data.

Assumption 1:

Malzahn has been extremely fortunate in his career to be given a decent set of players with which to work: returning starters, particularly solid backs and veteran offensive linemen have defined his success.

Take a look at the quick breakdown below, for which complete data are available. The first hypothesis is plainly true.

Team/Year


Returning


Off. Starters


Returning OL


Notable Returning or


Entering Skills Players


OFEI


OFEI


Rank


2007 Tulsa

5

3

Paul Smith (Sr. QB), RB

.311

21

2008 Tulsa

9

4

Both RBs, FB, two WRs

.435

9

2009 Aub.

7

3

Ben Tate, Emory Blake, Darvin Adams, Lutz

.252

25

2010 Aub.

7

4

M. Dyer, C. Newton, Lutz, Adams, Blake

.857

1

2011 Aub.

3

1

Dyer, Lutz

.096

47

2012 Ark. St
.

6

3

(Aplin) Sr. QB, Sr. RB

.231

31

2013 Aub.

6

4

Solid WRs (Coates, Bray, Reed), Prosch (FB), Trey Mason

?

?

Comparing the Adjusted FEI/FEI ranking with Malzahn’s personnel on-hand, some preliminary conclusions may be drawn. Only once has Malzahn had to deal with less-than-a-majority of returning starters on the offensive line, that miserable 2011 season at Auburn. Likewise, his skills players have been top shelf or at least of a veteran hue. For instance, the 2007 Tulsa offense which Malzahn helmed had a returning starting RB and all-CUSA QB Paul Smith (a guy which had previously won bowl MVPs, and led his team to 8 and 9 win seasons). Unsurprisingly, in 2008, with 4 OL returning and all his skills players returning –save Smith, Tulsa replicated its 10-win season of 2007, and the offense was even better.

Given those early returns at Tulsa, a successful offense in 2009 should have been somewhat predictable: Auburn was returning all-SEC RB Ben Tate and the erratic, but athletic, Kodi Burns (who would later be benched for another of Auburn’s interchangeable white immobile QBs, Chris Todd). And, as with Tulsa, when given a nearly-all veteran offensive line, the 2010 season was even better (especially coupled with the infusion of new, supremely talented guys like Dyer and Newton). 2011 though? No true returning QB? A new offensive line? The wheels fell off the Gus Bus. This would indicate that Malzahn is not so much a system guy, and this is not a plug-n-play offense. Finally, we get to 2012 ArkansasState. Like Tulsa in 2007, there was a veteran core on the OL, returning starters at RB, and a Sr. QB. The yield? A better FEI than the 2011 Red Wolves, but not a better record.

Assumption 2:

2010 was a freakish outlier –the product of one rare athletic prodigy (coupled with the factors above). Malzahn normally will not produce a top-10 offense.

This is plainly true. Using adjusted FEI, only twice has Malzahn produced a top-10 offense: In 2008 (the David Johnson explosion at Tulsa) and 2010 Auburn, with the latter ranking #1 in the nation (in every respect, as it would turn out after the BCS MNCG). There were many things at play this year, but it seems to be that a veteran offensive line was not the most significant one. While 4 returning starters manned that unit, an influx of talent at the skills positions were the difference. Gone were steady performers like Chris Todd and Ben Tate; enter Cameron Newton and Michael Dyer –both Malzahn recruits, both ranked either 1st or 2nd at their position. Newton, if you recall, was the heir apparent to Tebow and undisputed future for the Gators when he enrolled in 2007. Some criminal dalliances and good old fashioned cheating at UF coupled with some sweet under the table cash landed Newton first at Blinn C.C. and then at its academically inferior counterpart, Auburn. Dyer, meanwhile, had offers from every D-I team that even pretended to a running game.

It worked out pretty well: Auburn went 14-0, winning the SEC and National titles, and along the way averaged 287 YPG on the ground, 497 yards overall, led the conference in passing efficiency, third down conversions and first downs. As we’ve seen from the first two installments, the first downs, passing efficiency and overall yardage aren’t surprising. The ability to convert on third downs and turn drives into points? The marked improvement in the running game? Those are on Newton and Dyer.

So, what conclusions do you draw from 4 returning offensive linemen, a gifted tight end, three returning wide receivers, a bowling ball running back with soft hands, and a Heisman QB that rewrites SEC records? Sure, then Malzahn can field the nation’s #1 offense and compete for titles. In other years, the offense will usually be good, but only occasionally very good.

Assumption 3:

In the outlier years, if there are any, offensive success would still be predicated on the running game. Malzahn may have a reputation as a passing guy, and he very well may want to be one, but success must be accompanied by a balanced attack, particularly a strong running game.

Man, I hate to humblebrag, but I nailed this one…sorta’. Look at the breakdown below

Year/Team

Rush Att. PG

Rushing

YPG

Pass

Att PG

Pass

YPG

Points PG (rank)

OFEI

OFEI Rank

2007 Tulsa

40.1

172.9

40.3

371

41.1

(6th)

.311

21

2008 Tulsa

48.1

268.0

30.2

309.1

47.2

(2nd)

.435

9

2009 Aub.

42.3

212.0

28.0

219.8

33.13

(17th)

.252

25

2010 Aub.

46.6

284.8

21.1

214.4

41.2

(7th)

.857

1

2011 Aub.

41.2

182.3

22.5

155.5

25.7

(70th)

.096

47

2012 Ark. St
.

41.5

206.2

31.7

260.5

34.9

(26th)

.231

31

Irrespective of how unsteady the lineplay may be (think 2011 Auburn), or how good the passing game is (2007-2008 Tulsa), Malzahn will pound the ball over and over and over. It is not even a forced balance. Only once has there been "balance" in the run-pass game: 2007 at Tulsa, and somewhat at ArkansasState last season. In every other year, running plays account for 60%+ of the play calls.

Call Gus many things, but a passing guy? Hardly. The offense just happens to be effective at throwing the ball, usually. That said, this dude wants to run the ball to an extent that Woody Hayes blushes from the grave.

Conclusion:

The data reveal some unusual patterns, particularly in the aberrant Tulsa years, with those seasons of 4000-5000 yards passing. Generally speaking though, it is safe to say that Malzahn is a run-first guy. It is not a flash-in-the-pan or gimmick either; the running game Gus wants to install (and when successful) is a very physical one. Much more physical, in fact, than the variant Meyer ran at Florida, though some concepts may be similar. While I was correct regarding outliers, and was correct that –in most seasons, a Top-10 offense will not be produced, I will say with some degree of predictive certainty that the next few years at Auburn will –on average, produce a top a Top 30-ish offense marked by a physical running game, vertical play action from a variety of sets, and a highly efficient passing game overall. The wildcard in all of this is that success is, unsurprisingly, tied to returning starters: an area in which Malzahn has had exceptional fortune, by and large.

So, is this genius? Probably not. But it is efficient enough that should it not be taken lightly? None of these conclusions are to dismiss Malzahn or minimize the physicality at which his teams will play. Auburn will be more than capable of dealing damage, even if the adjusted efficiency of the offense is not as superb as you have been led to believe. So, what we will face in Auburn is yet another SEC game that will be won and lost the line of scrimmage, and decided by the running game.

And that’s the way it should be.

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