AUBURN, Ala. -- There is order and there is chaos, and then there is order disguised as chaos.
Order is what Alabama is and does better than anyone. Chaos is Chris Davis returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the game of the year. Order disguised as chaos is what 2014 Auburn football will actually be.
It all happened so quickly, Auburn reinventing itself as the premier innovator in modern college football, leading to debates about the way the game should be played. At its best, the Tigers offense is just as precise and methodical as Alabama. It just operates at warp speed, and instead of lining up and running the ball right down the defense's throat -- hey, try and stop it -- by design, the defense rarely knows what's coming. It is controlled chaos, and it's out to upset the balance of power in college football.
"We've got like the mad scientist back there," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. "We've got Coach Malzahn and Coach Lashlee, and those two guys did a great job keeping us ahead of the curve. They thought two steps ahead of the defense last year, and when [defenses] thought they could adjust to something, we changed it completely. With those two guys back there, we didn't really have to worry about that. We were always a step ahead."
Now, the Iron Bowl doesn't need any help in terms of marketability. It's already the most passionate rivalry in American sports: decades of in-state bad blood, winners of four of the last five national championships, owner of the most spectacular finish in the history of the game, home to countless other instances of drama and occasional insanity. It's the last rivalry that needs to add yet another layer of intrigue. But here we are anyway, the 365-days-a-year game now also a fight for the way football should be played, between the ruthless power and precision of Nick Saban and the aggressive tempo obsession of Gus Malzahn.
And it wouldn't be surprising if Malzahn's style wins out.
By the end of the 2013 season, in Malzahn's return as head coach, Auburn led the nation in rushing and was 12th in scoring, a year after the offense finished 80th in rushing and 114th in scoring without him. Everyone knows Malzahn's story by now: Hired from Springdale High School by Arkansas in 2006, he bounced around to Tulsa, then to Auburn (where he guided the 2010 national championship offense), then to Arkansas State as head coach, and finally back to Auburn to replace Gene Chizik. Since the late 1990s, he's been at the forefront of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense -- the system that is now revolutionizing college football and even the pros -- and his strategies played a big role in the proposed (but tabled) 10-second rule that dominated the pre-spring discourse.
Malzahn has a partner in crime in all this, and he's less than half Saban's age: 30-year-old offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who's spent much of the last 15 or so years next to Malzahn: As his quarterback at Shiloh Christian School, then as an assistant at Arkansas, Auburn, Arkansas State and Auburn again. If anyone can recruit players to play in this offense, it's the guy who did it himself.
"It's fun to play, therefore it's somewhat fun to practice, and so guys enjoy it," Lashlee said in an interview in his office on Monday. "I think people are drawn to it, and that's why what I enjoyed the most from Coach is, hey, it lets you play. You can't turn the ball over, but you don't ask people to be game managers; you ask people to be quarterbacks and win the game and allow you to make plays and play to your strengths. And that was fun for me."
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For the past several years, Oregon -- who lost the national championship to Auburn in 2010 -- has usually been labeled the most fun offense in college football. But Chip Kelly moved on to the NFL, and we no longer have to fantasize about an Alabama-Oregon clash of styles finally occurring. Minus Phil Knight and futuristic facilities, Auburn's the new Oregon, and it's right in Alabama's backyard.
"We run our offense so fast, we've got other schools out there doing it like Oregon, and I feel like some defensive coaches don't like that," Auburn running back Corey Grant said. "It's hard to game plan for us; it's hard to get ready for us. You can practice for it for a week, but once you get out there and the pace starts picking up, there ain't nothing you can do about it."
Malzahn and Lashlee do two main things that can make Auburn's offense borderline unstoppable: They communicate quickly, and they stay ahead of opposing coaches, playing chess while others play checkers, always prepared with counters to their opponents' counters. They out-run and out-think opposing teams, which results in things like last December's astonishing 545-yard rushing performance against Missouri in the SEC title game.
But it's not just the running game. Lashlee once threw 72 passes in a high school game when coached by Malzahn. In a perfect world, Lashlee is like most other coaches, saying he'd prefer a 50/50 run/pass split. Auburn's philosophy isn't about a specific scheme, it's about having options -- and being prepared to beat whatever the defense tries to do in the limited amount of time it has to keep up.
"I think the number one thing we've always done, even when I think to when I played for Coach, is we take what the defense gives us," Lashlee said. "We pride ourselves on being able to throw the football when it's a passing-friendly situation, and we pride on ourselves on being able to run the ball when you give us numbers in the box. What that allows us to do is never be dictated to by a defense."
Ignore the scores. Yes, Auburn could have easily finished 8-4 and gone to the Gator Bowl instead of 12-2 with a national title shot last year. Half of its wins came by a touchdown or less, and it used back-to-back miracles to take down Georgia and Alabama. But what's also true is that, by the end of the season -- one year after finishing 3-9 overall and winless in the SEC under a different regime -- Auburn was good enough to 1) essentially play to a draw with Alabama, 2) run for 545 yards and score 59 points in a conference title game against the SEC's best defensive line, and 3) become pretty much the only team to stay within a zillion points of Florida State.
By the end of the season, luck or no luck, Auburn was capable of hanging with and beating any of the game's best, and it did this with a juco transfer quarterback who wasn't on campus until summer, and an offense coming off a historically terrible season. The result was that sluggish start when Auburn still was figuring out what it could be, and was ranking only 58th in plays per game (72.4).
"The thing is, a lot of guys -- including our quarterback -- who ended up playing a lot for us last year weren't here last spring," Lashlee said. "And so they ended up having to really learn on the fly in August. Nick Marshall's first time he ever practiced with me out their coaching him was like August 1st, and by a month later he's playing his first game. Having people like him get another spring -- or get his first spring -- really helps us a lot. Just in terms of taking that next step, instead it's, 'Hey, now I know the offense, I understand the expectations, now let's perfect it and let's try to execute it at an extremely high level.' And also be able to go to the next step on some things … We can add some deals here or there, some wrinkles, and try to give our guys a chance to really be successful."
Auburn says goodbye to a few standout players, including Heisman finalist Tre Mason at running back, likely top-five draft pick Greg Robinson at left tackle and the versatile Jay Prosch at H-back, but otherwise everyone is back on offense -- meaning we shouldn't expect much drop-off, if any, from the one that took the nation by storm in the second half of last season.
Marshall's expected maturation at passer, in particular, along with the return of a deep and talented group of wideouts, will allow Auburn to be more balanced, if it needs to be. And while Mason fit perfectly in this offense, so might a combination of Artis-Payne, a bruising senior who ran for 610 yards; Grant, a lightning quick back who averaged 9.8 yards per carry; and Peyton Barber, a 225-pound redshirt freshman who's expected to share some of the between-the-tackles load. Whoever's getting the carries will have a dual threat in Marshall, who can act as both a decoy and a running threat, as well as a point guard now a year into the system.
In other words, last year was only a beginning. A seasoned quarterback opens the door for more.
"I definitely think we'll move a lot faster than last year," Artis-Payne said. "Last year, even though we went through the whole season, it's still our first year in the offense. So year two I feel like everybody's more comfortable in the offense, especially Nick. And he's our leader in the offense, so with him being more comfortable and him being able to do everything -- knowing where people need to be, knowing where they should be at -- is going to play a major role in us moving faster on offense."
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Spread offense coaching trees are expanding. Everyone will still gladly take a Saban disciple, for good reason, but the Air Raid guys who rose to prominence last decade are suddenly everywhere (Mike Leach, Kliff Kingsbury, Dana Holgorsen, Kevin Sumlin, Sonny Dykes), and now the Auburn/Oregon style will surely spread too (Lashlee, Oregon's Scott Frost) as it begins to own this decade.
There's always been hesitancy to innovate in football. Everyone's afraid of doing something that's not already commonly accepted. It takes someone like Malzahn to not be afraid -- "The only negative we could foresee was a rather large one. If it did not work, we could lose our jobs," Malzahn wrote in his book of the initial decision to play fast -- then be successful with it and evangelize the strategy.
What Malzahn has helped popularize is fan-friendly, player-friendly and ultimately effective: It ditches the old "punt to win, avoid mistakes" mantra and instead lets the offense dictate the pace of the game.
"The athletes are so good now, you've got to make them defend the whole field, and I think it's only going to continue to pick up," Lashlee said. "And football's cyclical. It just is, and as an offense we're going to have to continue to evolve and adapt as far as schemes, because defenses are going to start developing ways to start stopping certain things, and we're going to have to stay cutting edge, just like defenses have to adapt to what we're doing.
"But I think right now there's no question that Coach has been a pioneer offensively in college football and high school, and now it's even bleeding into the NFL."
Only a couple teams in any given year can be talented enough at every position to just line up and physically beat you -- Alabama, LSU occasionally, Florida State last year. Otherwise, there has to be a way to find an edge and get the most out of your talent -- hence the spread revolution if the 21st century. But why not combine that talent with a system known for producing 70-point offenses? What would happen if Mike Leach was able to recruit Alabama-level blue chippers?
Auburn may be on the verge of showing us, becoming the most forward-thinking, aggressive -- and soon-to-be copied -- program in America.
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