Kevin Price commentary: Gus Malzahn, spread return to the Plains

December 4, 2012 

Auburn announced the hiring of Gus Malzahn Tuesday afternoon, bringing the spread offense and one of its biggest believers back to the Plains.

"This is a homecoming for me, and I look forward to being reunited with the Auburn family," Malzahn said.

Chizik hired Malzahn as his first offensive coordinator in 2009. A year later, Malzahn and quarterback Cam Newton, the prototype quarterback for the spread offense, led the Tigers to a national championship with a record-setting offense.

Without Newton in 2011, the Auburn offense slipped and the Tigers fell to 8-5. Most of the reason for the offense's decline was that the Tigers didn't have a quarterback who could properly run the offense.

Kiehl Frazier was recruited to Auburn by Malzahn. But Frazier, who was a freshman in 2011, never seemed to grasp the spread offense. Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter were just not cut out for it.

Chizik believed that to win consistently in the SEC he had to dump the spread, and that meant bidding good-bye to Malzahn. Chizik didn't fire Malzahn, but he certainly wasn't going to raise a hand to try and stop him from leaving, for what turned out to be Arkansas State.

Perhaps Chizik's fate was sealed the moment he brought in Scot Loeffler in as offensive coordinator to replace Malzahn. The offense, under Loeffler, looked downright inept most of the season. The Tigers finished 3-9 and winless in the SEC for the first time since 1980.

While the Auburn defense was lousy as well, most of the blame for this past season fell -- and rightfully so -- squarely on Chizik and Loeffler.

At the time Malzahn left, it appeared he was tucking his wounded pride and heading back home to Arkansas, where he had been revered as a high school coach. It seemed he could have had a much better job than Arkansas State, a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

But maybe he knew something would open back up on the Plains, and it did as Chizik was fired less than two weeks ago.

Malzahn did what he needed to do as a head coach at Arkansas State to make him a candidate for a step up. His team went 9-3, won the Sun Belt title and earned a bid to the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

It appeared that Auburn zeroed in on Malzahn and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart from the outset of the search. At various times in the past few days, either Malzahn or Smart was the leading candidate, according to published reports.

Much like the hire of Chizik, there are doubters about Malzahn and the spread offense. There is still a question of whether it can win long-term in the SEC. The answer to that question will determine whether this a happy homecoming or not.

Kevin Price, 706-320-4493, kprice@ledger-enquirer.com.

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