There was a time when Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was considered one of the great offensive minds of our time. Utilizing a spread attack that skewed run or pass-heavy depending on the talents of the players he had, Saint Gustav the Sweatervested built an Arkansas high school powerhouse. He then resurrected the Arkansas attack for a brief time (in a little mission I like to call Operation Nutt Job), and scored seemingly at will while at Tulsa, from the moment he got to campus. He turned Arkansas State into a bowl bound scoring machine in a single season,
Of course Malzahn's most nationally prominent success has come on the Plains, where he's coached a national title team as offensive coordinator and played for a title in his first year as the head sociologist. The Tigers did that behind a potent offense, which placed second in scoring offense (39.5 points per game) in 2013, Malzahn's first year at the helm. Last year, with Nick Marshall once again at the helm, they fell slightly to fourth in scoring offense (35.5 points per game). This season however the wheels have come off, with the Tigers dropping to tenth (Georgia's anemic attack ranks eighth).
Part of that may be that Jeremy Johnson is only just now starting to look like the quarterback he was supposed to be from the jump. But the numbers don't necessarily bear that out. To me the most significant offensive number for the WarPlainsTigerEagles is their rushing offense. In 2013 behind Tre Mason, Nick Marshall, Corey Grant, and Cameron Artis-Payne the Tigers led the SEC in rushing offense, and it wasn't even really that close. Auburn averaged 328.3 yards rushing per game. Second place Mizzou was nearly 90 yards behind (237.9 yards per game).
But in 2014 that total dropped to 255.5 yards per game (still good for second best in the league). In 2015 that number has gotten appreciably worse, with the Abuurn offense only rushing for 188.9 yards per game. The downward trend in the Tigers' scoring has also been pretty striking during the Malzahn era. During that 2013 season culminating in a title appearance Auburn averaged 39.5 points per game. They still needed late game heroics of an epic nature to win against Georgia and Alabama down the stretch, but were in those and other games because they could successfully get the ball down the field against some stout defenses. That scoring number slipped to 35.5 in 2014, still a pretty solid output. But 2015 has been a chaotic year for the Auburn offense, with the Plainsmen falling to 10th in the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game.
What's at the root of this decline? 2015's numbers can be partially explained by turnover at quarterback and tailback. Artis-Payne and Mason were each exceptional tailbacks, and no QB ever ran like he stole something quite like Nick Marshall. But 2014's marginal slippage occurred while Artis-Payne and Marshall were still guarding the store. I propose that what we're seeing is a combination of Auburn struggling to find the right personnel, SEC defenses (including Georgia's under Jeremy Pruitt) being transformed to take on spread attacks, and the Malzahn scheme itself simply stagnating.
Over time that's what tends to happen to all innovative offenses, whether it be the wishbone, the run and shoot, the air raid, or the spread option. In the end there are really only so many ways to line up on a football field while staying within the rules (pouring one out for you, A-11 devotees). As a growing body of film develops, there are fewer wrinkles to take advantage of. It happens to even the most innovative of innovators.
This is one reason why I'm such a devotee of the old coaching saw that "it isn't the x's and o's, it's the Jimmies and Joes." In the end there are lots of different ways to be successful on offense, if you execute well. Georgia runs a pro-style attack that really doesn't do anything terribly innovative. In the past when it's been executed well by talented players it's been obscenely effective. There's a reason Georgia's scoring fewer than 32 points a game for the first time since 2009. It's execution, both by the players and the coaching staff. That's not 100% unexpected given all the new moving parts on the Bulldog offense. And it's perhaps important to understand that it's a very different thing than what Auburn is dealing with. Auburn may be running an offensive attack that once made up for in novelty and scheme-specific talent what it lacked in execution. And that can become a long-term program issue.
Today's matchup between two teams who really need to win this game may well come down to offensive execution. The question for both fan bases will be whether the conference wins they notched last week were a sign of turning the corner or were merely a mild reprieve from the downward spiral. Until later . . .