Malzahn vs. Smart: A Look At the Record Books
For the ninth time since the SEC went to divisional play, the Auburn Tigers will play in Atlanta for the league title. With this appearance, Auburn moves into a tie at third place with Saturday’s opponent, the Georgia Bulldogs. Florida (12) and Alabama (11) lead the way in appearances, and both are near the top in winning percentage, trailing only LSU with a 4–1 mark.
It is the first time that the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry has experienced a rematch. However, Auburn is familiar with rematches with regular season opponents. In 2000, Auburn lost a rematch to Florida in Atlanta after losing in the regular season. Florida went on to get thumped by the Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn dominated Tennessee in a 2004 rematch before being snubbed by the BCS Championship game. The Tigers destroyed South Carolina in 2010 after a solid win earlier against the Gamecocks before winning the BCS Championship. Auburn’s other appearances in Atlanta involved a loss to Peyton Manning’s ’97 squad and a winning effort in 2013 against Missouri before dropping the last BCS Championship game to Florida State in 2013.
In all, Auburn enters 3–2 with a 2–1 mark in rematches while Georgia sits at 2–3. Georgia is no stranger to regular season rematches, as the Bulldogs avenged a regular season 17–10 loss to LSU by winning the SEC Championship in 2005. After losing its first two appearances, Auburn is 3–0. In the combined 10 appearances, the higher ranked team has won all but one of these match-ups.
In reality, there is virtually nothing in common between this latest rendition of the SEC Championship and those past classics. The only relevant aspect of these two teams is …
the coaching. Kirby Smart is in his second year as Georgia’s head man, and he was able to get Georgia back to Atlanta, something that Mark Richt couldn’t get done in his last three years despite an absolutely atrocious SEC East that hasn’t won the overall title since Florida beat Alabama in 2008. While Kirby Smart was on the Bama staff, he had a perfect 5–0 record in the SEC Championship as an assistant coach and coordinator. On the other sideline, Gus Malzahn is undefeated at 2–0 as both a coordinator and head coach.
In those games, Smart’s defense averaged giving up just 20 points per game, and that average is skewed by two games where the opposing offense scored 31 and 28. In Smart’s last two SEC Championship games, his defenses allowed just 13 and 15 points, though those games were against dreadful Florida offenses ranked at the very bottom nationally. On the other side, Malzahn’s offenses have been absolutely dominant, scoring 56 and 59 points against some pretty solid defenses for South Carolina and Missouri.
Then, there is what has happened on the field this season that is truly pertinent. That starts and ends with what we saw in the game three weeks ago. Auburn absolutely manhandled Georgia 40–17 with one of the two Bulldog touchdowns being meaningless. Auburn scored 40 or more points in four straight games going into the Iron Bowl, but it is the defense led by Kevin Steele that has been the story. Auburn’s defense has been downright nasty, and for the most part Georgia’s defense has been just as good. The Bulldogs have allowed 20 or more points just twice: once in this year’s beatdown in Jordan-Hare and the other in a meaningless 53–28 win against Missouri. The only other offense even to look alive against the ‘Dogs is Notre Dame. But time has told the story on the Irish, who just aren’t very good. On the other side of the ball, Georgia’s offense was held under 20 points just once: the loss to Auburn.
Georgia’s SEC East opponents are a combined 34–36. UGA’s best SEC win was when it knocked off an 8–4 Mississippi State team. Meanwhile, Auburn’s opponents have a 44–27 mark with the best win against an SEC East team being the whipping put on Georgia. Of course, Auburn has two close losses to LSU and Clemson. The purple Tigers just may be the new top team in the nation.
In a rematch, the defense almost certainly has the advantage, having seen the opposing offense previously. In this case, Auburn’s defense is almost 100 percent healthy and comes into this game knowing exactly what it has to do. The only tweak Auburn must do is respect Javon Wims, the Dog’s only threat not named Sony Michel or Nick Chubb. Wims snagged several critical third-down passes that kept Georgia in the game until halftime. Could the same be said about Georgia? Unfortunately for UGA, Gus Malzahn’s offense was better in the lone Atlanta rematch. Auburn knocked off South Carolina 35–27 in the regular season before throwing up 56 points on the ‘Cocks in Atlanta.
How about head-to-head stats? Smart and Malzahn have faced off seven times with Smart being on the wining side with a 4–3 mark, though a deeper look shows that Malzahn’s team is scoring an average of 22 points per contest, scoring over 40 points twice (once in a loss in the 2014 Iron Bowl). Smart got the better of Malzahn in 2011, 2015 and 2016, though one could argue that those Malzahn offenses were the worst of his college coaching career. That also includes a 2011 shutout pitched by Bama’s defense, which is one of the only four times Malzahn has been kept out of the end zone in his career at Auburn.
Truly, records and stats don’t really matter when the ball is teed up, but Auburn fans should rest assured that when it comes to coaching, the man in the vest may be the best on the sideline come Saturday afternoon.