Guerry Clegg commentary: Malzahn deserves to be coach of the year

December 24, 2013 

National coach of the year is a quite literal phrase.

As with any award that has no written criteria, there can never be a single most deserving honoree in the eyes of everyone.

That said, how can anyone sincerely study the facts of the 2013 season and come up with anyone other than Auburn's Gus Malzahn?

Somehow, the Maxwell voters did just that, selecting Duke's David Cutcliffe.

But the Associate Press voters got it right, selecting Malzahn with 33 votes to Cutcliffe's 17, the other two votes curiously going to Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.

The case against Malzahn has less to do with him, and more to do with another feel good story of 2013, the unlikely ascension of Duke.

To say Cutcliffe is undeserving of the award would be disrespecting him and failing to acknowledge his remarkable work in six seasons.

That said …

Malzahn is more than the most deserving man as Coach of the Year. The work he has done this season ranks among the greatest coaching jobs in the history of college football.

I know, I get it. You're supposed to win at Auburn. Malzahn inherited a lot more talent than last year's 3-9 record would suggest. Winning 10 games at Duke is unprecedented.

But it's not that simple. Ask yourself this question:

When this season began, which would have seemed more unlikely, Duke winning 10 games or Auburn playing for the national championship?

Before you answer, here are facts you need to know. The Blue Devils were a bowl team last season and returned 46 lettermen, including 14 of 22 starters. Cutcliffe had told people that merely having a winning season would not be a success.

The schedule wasn't exactly overloaded with heavyweights. Navy replaced Stanford as the toughest non-conference opponent.

Florida State and Clemson were replaced on the ACC schedule by N.C. State and Pitt.

As it turned out, only three of Duke's 10 wins came against teams with winning records -- Navy, Virginia Tech and Miami. Yeah, those latter two were monumental wins for Duke even though those programs combined for seven losses.

Now consider:

Auburn beat four teams that had been ranked in the top 10 at some point during the season -- Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri.

Malzahn took over a team that not only went winless in the SEC but had only one win over an FBS program, that being Louisiana-Monroe. In overtime, no less.

He won the toughest conference in college football, beating the No. 1 team in the country in the process.

Again, this isn't to take anything away from Duke or Cutcliffe. Rather, it's simply to provide some perspective.

Coach of the Year is a literal title. Which coach had more of a positive

impact on his team this YEAR?

Malzahn restored the work ethic that had been missing since the Tigers won the 2010 national championship. He immediately instilled a winning attitude, telling players in their first meeting that they were about to begin the most amazing turnaround in college football history.

He built a strong staff and reached out to Auburn alums Rodney Garner, Dameyune Craig and Carver coach Dell McGee to restore pride.

He held together a strong recruiting class, which was ranked No. 8 nationally by Rivals.com. That class included two quarterbacks, Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall, a junior college transfer.

Malzahn knew the key to being competitive right away was to establish a productive quarterback. He handled the selection of his starter perfectly, giving veterans Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace a fair opportunity going into preseason practice. But he didn't let it drag out too long once it was clear that Marshall and Johnson were better.

Once he selected Marshall as his starter, Malzahn spoon fed the offense in proper doses. That included entrusting him to with the game with his arm instead of just his legs in the final two minutes against Mississippi State.

Malzahn held the team together after the LSU loss and didn't let one bad first half on the road against a top 10 team in the rain ruin the season. He took his team into College Station against Texas A&M -- a game in which nobody outside the program gave Auburn a realistic chance -- and somehow won a shooting match against Johnny Manziel.

To me, that was enough right there. The fact that the Tigers easily could have lost to Georgia and Alabama and finished 9-3 does not diminish the work Malzahn had done to that point. In its preseason analysis, USA Today defined a "Dream Season" as going 9-3, with those losses to LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

Coach of the YEAR? The AP voters got it right. I don't see how it's even close.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. He can be reached at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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