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Apples to Apples: A Deeper Look at Gus Malzahn’s Auburn QB’s

By on October 25th, 2018 in Football 21 Comments »

USA TODAY Sports

The roller-coaster ride that is Auburn football didn’t begin with Gus Malzahn’s arrival on the Plains. While fans, myself included, are frustrated by the ups and downs of being an Auburn Tiger, it has been a part of life for generations. 

Still, Auburn’s struggles on offense both this year and previous years under a coach who has been called by superlatives such as “innovator” and “offensive genius” have at times driven wedges in the fan base as well as between the fan base and the administration.

Football, in general, is called the single greatest team sport, but it is hard to put a finger on any single reason why a team rises or falls. If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and it wouldn’t be the life-blood of the south. Of course, that rings hollow at Auburn because Auburn is the in-state rival of the single greatest football dynasty in the history of college football, just ahead of the second greatest dynasty in college football, also the University of Alabama. The Iron Bowl is the greatest rivalry game in college football, if not in sports.

Auburn’s attempts to keep pace with Alabama led to Gus Malzahn’s hiring to bring his offense to combat Nick Saban’s defensive prowess. It seemed like the aforementioned single reason when it came to “how a team can beat Alabama.” 

Right or wrong, Malzahn’s hire led to both high water marks and to the depths of despair, almost always revolving around his Hurry Up, No Huddle offense. Those who don’t follow this program might ask, how is it that a coach who is set to make $49 million based on his offense is under fire over his offense? That’s really the question. And, again, if it were that easy to correct the woes on offense, someone would have done it, right?

There are a few common thoughts that surround Auburn’s offensive struggles. The first is speculation that Malzahn needs a mobile, run-first quarterback. Second is the idea that Gus cannot recruit or develop quarterbacks and has had to rely on transfer quarterbacks in order to win.

This conversation typically begins with Cam Newton and ends with Jeremy Johnson because each represents a side of the equation. Jarrett Stidham should be the defining player in this conversation as he is a transfer that has been under Malzhan’s tutelage for two years and, he is a pass-first QB that was not only a top recruit but is also a potential first-round draft pick, surrounded by Malzahn recruits and what may be one of the best Auburn defenses of all time. 

I crunched some basic numbers for the first eight games played by the quarterback in the nine years from 2009 through 2018 (excluding 2012) (not always consecutive games). As you might envision, it’s hard to name a best and worst because of things not under a quarterback’s control, such as defense. The common denominator is the coach, who happens to be the man running the offense itself, from recruiting to development to calling plays. Let’s take a look at each player through eight games and try to rank them based on passing statistics only

  1. This Auburn quarterback started his career as a starter and threw for 1,460 yards, which ranks fourth. He did so by attempting no less than 14 attempts per game and was asked to chunk the ball as many as 32 times, averaging 24 attempts per game. He had 12 touchdowns and three interceptions through his eight games, and his 4:1 ratio is tied for the best among the nine QB’s while the 12 scores ranks second. 
  2. This player threw for 1,364 yards, 13 TD’s, and five picks, a 2.6:1 TD to INT ratio, one of the best.  He attempted more than 20 passes just twice in his run. His pure production of touchdowns ranks him second on my list. 
  3. This quarterback didn’t have the number of TD tosses of the first two, but his 4:1 TD to INT ratio, along with his 1,511 yards, ranking third on the yardage list of the nine QB’s, sets him apart. The 4:1 ratio is shared only by this player and quarterback number one. His lowest pass attempts in a game saw him toss the ball just six times in a blowout, and he was asked to hurl it a maximum of 27 times. Still, he averaged over 20 attempts per game. 
  4. In terms of pure yardage production, this player leads the way. His 1,728 yards for eight games ranks him first, and he posted a TD to INT ratio of 2.67:1, ranking third on the list. However, he threw just eight touchdowns, tied for second fewest of any Malzahn QB through eight games. This quarterback attempted no fewer than 16 passes per game while maxing out at 37. 
  5. Checking in just under quarterback No. 4, this QB’s team had an eerily similar year, posting almost identical stats of 1,714 yards, eight TD’s and four INT’s. The 2:1 TD to INT ratio puts him slightly above mid-pack. He threw 11 passes in a blowout, but attempted no less than 22 in meaningful games and had a high of 45 attempts.
  6. This Auburn quarterback has the second fewest yards (1,248) through eight games, but he still managed to toss 11 TD’s, which ranks him fourth on the list, while his 1.83 TD to INT ratio ranks him sixth on the list. His lowest number of passing attempts was eight in a game where he played only a half. However, he attempted at least 18 passes per game with a high of 28, averaging well over 20. 
  7. Ranking this player is difficult because his 13 TD’s ties him for the lead in scores, but his 13 INT’s is almost three times as many as the second-ranked QB’s interceptions mark (5). His 1,357 passing yards ranks near the bottom. He had a low of 14 attempts per game with a high of 35. 
  8. This quarterback threw for 1,266 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. His stats give him a 1.75 TD to INT ratio and rank at the bottom of Auburn quarterbacks. He attempted at least 17 passes with a high of 34. 
  9. Someone has to be last, and this quarterback bears that distinction. His 1,043 passing yards are 200 yards from the next lowest quarterback. His 1.28 TD to INT ratio is second to last, but because he only tossed nine scores, just below the average, it ranks him last on the list. Aside from a game where he attempted just three passes, he was called upon to throw the rock at least 17 times with a high of 32. 

Who are these players? 

  1. Chris Todd (2009) 5–3,  8–5
  2. Cam Newton (2010) 8–0, 12–0
  3. Sean White (2016)  6–2, 8–5
  4. Jarrett Stidham (2017) 6–2, 10–4
  5. Jarrett Stidham (2018) 5–3, ??
  6. Barrett Trotter (2011) 5–3, 8–5
  7. Nick Marshall (2014) 7–1, 8–5
  8. Nick Marshall (2013) 7–1, 12–2
  9. Jeremy Johnson (2015) 4–4, 7–6

Quarterback is easily the most important position in football. What does this tell us about Gus Malzhan’s offense and who is in the driver’s seat? Does it offer any definitive looks at what is going right or wrong with the Gus Bus or explain the volatility of the Auburn program?

If this list of teams were to be ranked based on total offensive performance, it would easily show that Malzhan’s best offensive squads are led by a run-first trigger man with passing ability being at worst inconsequential and, at best, a bonus to get the Tigers over the top. And yet, Malzhan’s late struggles at Auburn have been defined as recruiting and developing a pocket-oriented, pass-first quarterback. Whether it is a five-star transfer or a three-star gamer, this offense is not at its best with Malzhan’s recruiting and development of a pass-first player, Period. 

It goes back to the comment that is made by anyone who has watched a minute of the HUNH offense under Gus Malzahn. This offense thrives with a run-first quarterback. There is almost no relationship between a quarterback’s ability to pass and the number of wins to be had.

While the reasons for total wins and losses in many of the years in question can be subjective, affected by factors such as recruiting, turnover, and defense, 2018 in particular shows that no matter how good the defense, no matter how many the stars, nor the predraft rankings, Auburn cannot reach its goals under Malzahn with a pocket passer. 

In a game where pointing to one single reason of a team’s rise and fall is impossible, maybe at Auburn it is really that simple. 

21 Comments

  1. Jonathon Jonathon says:

    Your paragraph “There are a few common thoughts that surround Auburn’s offensive struggles. ” I feel leaves out Gus’ ‘loyalty’ to his QBs. Loyalty in this scenario is a fault in my mind. When we thirst for a change, in-game, for a spark, any spark to keep our hopes alive we just don’t get it with Gus. When JJ was failing, Gus let him fail and fail and fail some more. He’s doing that with Stidham. Playing another / different (mobile) QB might provide a spark to a system that thrives on a QB who is a threat to throw OR run. ESPECIALLY when the OL cannot protect a pocket passer. It’s so frustrating.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      I cannot argue with you there. I completely agree. Just didn’t get around to a lot of those specifics. It would have taken all day, so instead I just said some broad strokes.

      I made the point the other day about Joe Morehead (you know, that coach from State that beat us). He benched the SEC All-Time leader in rushing yards for a QB the other night, just to try something different.

  2. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    Uhmm….CGM does not make $49 million per year.

  3. neonbets says:

    easywin didn’t like the $49 million per year reference because it’s more difficult to humble brag his income.

    ‘Gus makes too much money. He makes $49 mil per year which is like 20 times what I make in year.’

  4. dyingculture dyingculture says:

    mumble mumble mumble … high school coach and high school offense …. mumble mumble … Lindsey high school coach too, no wonder …. grumble grumble ….

  5. AUNation AUNation says:

    Meh, I hear the, “Gus’ offenses don’t run without a scrambling QB” theory constantly parroted from sports radio callers, one after the other. “Stick Malik Willis or just any random WR back there, soon he’ll be Nick Marshall 2.0!” I think that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. Do the dual threat guys help an offense go? Yes, but the ability to scramble when a play breaks down helps any offense… The key is, if the play is breaking down too often, something isn’t right in the first place. Every QB on that list had their own special set of issues to overcome with the team around them that doesn’t reflect in a simple TD/YDS/INT stat line. Truth is, I would love to see one of you statisticians break down the larger picture of why Gus had super successful offenses at Ark, Tulsa, and Springdale with pocket passers, but has not been able to do it consistently at AU. Marcus Monk had almost 1k receiving yards while being thrown to by two different pocket passers. If you watch some of his offenses at Tulsa they look nothing like what he puts on the field at AU. Paul Smith at Tulsa threw for 5,000 yards and ran for 100. Even Ryan Alpin at Ark St. threw for 3,400 yards, although he could be considered as a semi-dual threat guy, rushing for 400ish. To Jonathan’s point above, what’s truly mind-blowing is Malzahn’s seeming inability (read unwillingness) to change to fit his personnel since he arrived on the Plains as HC. If there should be a strength to being a former high school coach it should be adaptability, because those guys have a constant rotation of different talents each year.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      The discussion on Tulsa is extremely valid. I wish we could understand how things are different.

      About Aplin, I would have to disagree a bit. Aplin had rushed for something like 700-1000 yards a year before malzahn came to jonesboro. While he did progress as a passer, the offense regressed a bit(some revisionist history is possible).

  6. KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

    Just looking at quarterbacks is too simplistic. Cam Newton was a very good passer in addition to being a prolific runner. But that whole team was filled with superstars on both offense and defense.
    as also a pretty good passer. And again, he had a lot of exceptional players around him.

    I would suggest looking at the offensive linemen around the quarterbacks listed and note the strong correlation between games/starts, and or number of Juniors/Seniors.
    Nick Marshall was a good runner. But he w

    • KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

      something weird happened when I posted the above comment. it should read:

      Just looking at quarterbacks is too simplistic. Cam Newton was a very good passer in addition to being a prolific runner. But that whole team was filled with superstars on both offense and defense.

      Nick Marshall was a good runner. But he was also a pretty good passer. And again, he had a lot of exceptional players around him.

      I would suggest looking at the offensive linemen around the quarterbacks listed and note the strong correlation between games/starts, and or number of Juniors/Seniors.

  7. idnod idnod says:

    Anybody watch Georgia Tech churn it up and down the field last night against Virginia Tech ? It would appear that Paul Johnson recruits players who fit into his system, and then they make the system go ! Meanwhile Auburn seems to constantly be in search of the one element needed to make its system go, be that a mobile dual-threat QB, a Pocket Passer, an Offensive Line, receivers who don’t drop balls, or an Offensive Coordinator…it seems like we don’t know what we need. I’m not saying that I want to be like 4-4 GT, but if our coach is an “Offensive Genius”, then put a product on the field that justifies that billing.

  8. Jason Wright says:

    Good article Zach. Fair and balanced. Just one question. If Gus must have a running quarterback why is the number one QB on your list a passer and not a run first guy?

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      Man, I’d love to have a beer and chat over this one. I’ve long since said that 2009 was the best job malzahn ever did with an offense.

      In this case, with what the numbers say and my interpretation of them, I would say that the job was great. He matched personell well. But after game 8, the offense became stale. Mostly because defenses figured out how they were using mccaleb.

      In other words, even at his best, malzahn couldn’t win down the stretch with a pass first guy.

      Make sense?

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