Post-UGA Reflections on Gus Malzahn
When AU hired Gus, Malzahn, it took a big (but calculated) gamble. Before 2013, he had proven to be a really good (maybe even revolutionary) offensive mind, but he had never run a top 15 program before. AU was in a tough spot after 2012—trying to compete against Saban after going 3–9 just two years after a national title. So, it took the calculated gamble.
Not surprisingly, there have been some crazy highs (built on a simple offensive scheme that is tough to stop) and some crazy lows (built on Gus’ blind/stubborn trust in said simple offensive scheme that is tough to stop).
What’s alarming is that the offensive struggles of 2016 dwarf the offensive struggles of 2013 and 2014. Even though 2015 was a consistently worse offensively than this year, the worst offensive performances in 2015 (Miss State, UGA, Bama) weren’t as bad as the Clemson and UGA games this year. This trend is frustrating to say the least.
Here’s the primary issue: AU expects championships, but what Saban has done at Bama has forced AU t0 find different ways of competing. No longer can AU simply out-recruit and/or out-coach like it could under Tuberville and win championships. Don’t get me wrong, AU has recruited at a higher level since Saban got to Bama. But, it has also been extremely inconsistent.
Why the inconsistency? Because AU turned its offensive focus towards out-scheming its opponents in a nontraditional way. Enter Gus Malzahn, the founder of the Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH). He has shown time and time again that, when run properly, his offense can torch even the most talented of defenses (those 2013 and 2014 offenses were truly elite). However, the issue with the HUNH is that it requires a stud QB AND a good RB in order to be good versus talented teams—a combination that AU has lacked the last 2 seasons. The scheme also places a high degree of responsibility/stress on the QB in order to make the offense work, which makes it difficult to replace an injured QB.
So, what happened against UGA when Sean White (who isn’t an elite QB) was hurt, and when an already-depleted RB depth chart was paper thin? The offense, despite its superiority upfront, absolutely wilted. (On a different but related note: White isn’t physically built to take SEC hits and has yet to make it through a season without injury.)
I’m a fan of Gus because he has shown that he can field an offense that can win at the highest level. But, he has failed to recruit the most important position on the field, especially for this offense (QB). His inability to find a really good QB has led to some mind-bogglingly bad offensive showings over the last two seasons. This is absolutely unacceptable—AU should have 2–3 guys on the roster that are big, fast, and can make deep throws. (The RB depth chart is excusable this year because the top three running backs from 2015, none of whom were graduating, unexpectedly departed during the offseason?)
Essentially, this is what you get with Gus: if you have a really good QB, you can go from a 9-win team to an 11-win team. If you have anything but a stud QB, you can go from a 9-win team to a 7-win team. Simply put, as long as Gus is at AU, AU will have the best chance of winning championships—but it will also have a much higher chance for inconsistency, and it will lose some games versus physical-but-inferior competition (UGA the last two seasons).
The question becomes: do we have the patience as a fan base to sit through the valleys in hopes that Gus will recruit and develop elite QB’s? Or, do we want to build a more traditional program that sacrifices upside for consistency? To me, it all comes down to our answer to that question. But until Saban leaves, and we can run an offense that relies less heavily on the QB, then that’s what it comes down to.
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