AUBURN, Ala. — Listen closely enough, and you’ll hear Gus Malzahn utter an iteration of the same concept every week.
“There’s nothing like experience.”
Those were his exact words Tuesday, noting the improvements he had seen in Ole Miss from last year to now. And Saturday, that will prove to be his biggest headache. It’s not difficult to grasp why — Ole Miss represents what Auburn hopes to become offensively.
With the benefit of running head coach Hugh Freeze’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense last season, the Rebels already have a one-year head start on Auburn. Raw, simplistic numbers can tell the story. Ole Miss has played 17 games under Freeze, while Auburn is entering Game No. 5 of the Malzahn regime.
The opposing coaches and good friends didn’t try to put any spin on this fact — far from it.
Instead, the pair tackled the topic head-on.
“There’s nothing like players having a full season under their belts with a staff and with a head coach,” Malzahn said. “They have a different mindset and you can see a difference on film.”
And what of the Tigers, Mr. Freeze?
“To watch them play is just eerily similar to what we were going through last year,” he said.
Note Freeze’s use of “last year.” That’s not by mistake. He didn’t outright say it, but Freeze subtly hinted that Auburn has had the same relative level of success — and failure — his team is already well past.
Innocuous as the comment may seem, it will bring little comfort to the Tigers.
This season’s statistics prove that the Rebels are more in-tune with the tempo at which Freeze wants the offense to operate. After some numbers-crunching, it showed that Ole Miss is averaging 2.79 plays per minute this year, outpacing the 2.64 plays per minute in Freeze’s first season. (For those wondering, Auburn, is running 2.59 plays per minute through the first four games of 2013.)
But if advanced statistics aren’t your thing, there’s always the eye-ball test. In that department, Ole Miss still holds an edge for now, especially at the most important position on the field: quarterback. No, returning starter Bo Wallace might not have the wheels or the arm strength that Nick Marshall possesses. Few do. It’s not as if he needs either attribute, though, because Ole Miss doesn’t use him in such a manner. While Auburn prefers that Marshall get to the perimeter to take advantage of his speed, Wallace takes a more direct approach, running between the tackles as well as any player on the team.
Not surprisingly, that impressed Malzahn.
“He's a very good runner, especially inside,” Malzahn said. “He's a tough guy, you can tell. He's very good with his read-zone things, makes good decisions. We think he's a very good quarterback.”
Don’t mistake Wallace for a ground-and-pound battering ram, though. After struggling with his consistency throwing the ball last season — he had 22 touchdown passes, but that was nearly evened out by his 17 interceptions — Wallace has shown great care in 2013. Yes, he only has four touchdown passes thus far. But take a gander at the interception column, and you see a zero in its place.
That maturation didn’t happen overnight.
As Malzahn would attest, that’s the kind of knowledge that only comes with experience. The gray area that goes hand-in-hand with experience — mastery of an offense — is where Marshall is still trying to match his counterpart this weekend.
While he may not be at Wallace’s level yet, Marshall doesn’t have to worry about the coaching staff losing faith in him. At every turn, Malzahn has praised the junior signal-caller’s progress. The coach has pointed out (on numerous occasions) that Marshall wasn't able to go through the spring, which makes the Georgia native’s victory in the four-way quarterback race during fall camp all the more impressive in Malzahn’s eyes.
Just how much does Auburn ask of Marshall?
According to Malzahn, it’s more than what mere mortals are capable of pulling off.
“If you were the quarterback in our system and we put you out there, it would blow your mind what you have to do before the play is even snapped,” he said. “It just takes a while to process all that and then you have to actually execute the play and that’s a feat within itself.”
In time, Marshall will be able to make those pre-snap calls and execute the plays without a second thought. The same goes for the offense as a whole. Just wait.
With a little more seasoning, the Tigers’ offense will be clicking off plays at the frenetic pace Malzahn desires.
It just might not come soon enough to beat Ole Miss.
More Ryan Black: