Entering the 2013 season, the SEC welcomed four new coaches into its ranks. Looking at the talent inherited and the schedules set before them, most pundits predicted that Gus Malzahn would have the best first-year run. Moving down the table, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones were expected to finish ahead of Mark Stoops.
At the one-quarter pole, that’s pretty much exactly the way things have broken.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
While the Tigers finished 3-9 last season, it was widely believed there was more talent on their roster than appeared a year ago. This was a program that had won 14 games and a BCS crown in 2010 and eight games in 2011. Auburn recruiting — though there had been attrition — should have resulted in more than three victories in 2012.
Enter Malzahn with his flashy, up-tempo offense. The former Auburn offensive coordinator had been gone from the Plains for just one year (as head coach at Arkansas State). So he knew much of the Tiger roster. He knew the lay of the land in the AU athletic department. In terms of transitions, his figured to be the easiest among the league’s newbies.
Toss in a favorable early schedule and it’s not surprising that Auburn sits at 3-0. What is surprising is how they got there. If not for three Washington State turnovers in the season opener, AU might not have won that squeaker. And a touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds of play was needed to vanquish Mississippi State last Saturday.
Malzahn has had to break in a new quarterback in juco transfer Nick Marshall and his signal-caller has shown improvement from week-to-week. Leading the Tigers to a game-winning score versus MSU might give Marshall the confidence boost needed for a faster growth spurt.
Auburn’s coach has slowed the tempo of his offense when necessary, running a play once every 23 seconds of possession time. Malzahn wants to have the fastest offense in the country, but it takes time to get a team ready to move so quickly and so precisely. (For comparison, Oregon is running a play once every 18 seconds.)
Malzahn’s team will get its toughest test to date on Saturday night at 3-0 LSU. After that come games with 3-0 Ole Miss, FCS Western Carolina, and at 2-1 Texas A&M. But even though the schedule is about to get rougher, the Tigers’ own 3-0 start should put them in position to compete for a bowl trip in their new coach’s first season. Just as expected.
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