The most improbable story of the 2013 college football season has to be the Auburn Tigers. If Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide is the well-oiled machine of college football, cross-state rival Auburn has been the roller coaster. In 2010, Auburn won the national championship behind quarterback Cam Newton and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. But Newton and Malzahn left, and by 2012 the Tigers were basement dwellers in the SEC West, leading to Gene Chizak’s firing and Malzahn’s return to Auburn – this time as head coach. Now, in Malzahn’s first year, and after several improbable finishes, the Tigers find themselves back in the national title game.
The common theme in Auburn’s recent successes is Malzahn and his offense, which is unlike any other in college football. That is not to say that Malzahn invented anything new. To the contrary, Malzahn’s ingenuity is combining disparate age-old concepts into a coherent whole.
The first thing to understand is that Malzahn’s offense is less about scheme and more about tempo and formation. For Malzahn, the play design is subservient to ensuring that whatever Auburn is running, they are running it fast.
In fact, when Malzahn is asked for his offensive philosophy, he is likely to respond “up-tempo, no-huddle,” which also happens to be the title of his book on offense. Malzahn wants his offense to constantly run like a 2-minute drill, with a goal of 80 plays per game.
Next, Malzahn implements a bevy of formations. The goal is to combine warp-speed with shifts, motion, and misdirection to keep a defense off-balance, prevent the opponent from making pre-snap reads, and limiting specialty packages.
But Malzahn’s schemes are no mere supporting actor. To the contrary, they have led the Auburn offense to gain over 500 yards per game. Auburn’s shotgun, spread offense belies its run-heavy emphasis. That is a credit to Malzahn’s adaptability. He first gained notoriety as a pass-happy High School football coach in Arkansas. Yet, working with Herb Hand at Tulsa, he reinvented himself as a read-option maestro.
What is most interesting about the Tigers’ run game is how Malzahn mixes and matches concepts. Auburn utilizes basic schemes implemented by most spread-to-run teams, such as inside zone read, power, and power-read (inverted veer). For instance, one play the Tigers exploited in the SEC Championship game against Missouri was double inside zone slice, a play that Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers rode to the Super Bowl. The quarterback and halfback run inside zone lead from a deep set, but the offense uses two fullbacks to 'arc' block away from the play. The first fullback will take the first alley defender that shows. This allows for the offense to deal with a 'scrape exchange,' a common technique versus the zone read.
The second fullback's arc block is more interesting. Just like the quarterback, he will read the backside defensive end. If the end sits he will assume the quarterback will give to the tailback and he will block the defensive end just as he would on a traditional inside zone arc block. But if the backside end crashes, the second fullback will 'log' block the end (seal him inside) to ensure that he is no longer a threat to the expected quarterback keep. Once this is accomplished he too will release up the alley for the first opposing jersey he sees/ As such, though the defensive end is being read, the offense accounts for the end to better block inside zone, and provides lead blockers for the quarterback. In the SEC championship game Auburn sprung quarterback Nick Marshall for several touchdown runs using this scheme, as Missouri’s linebackers committed to the run threat from Trey Mason.
But that is not all there is to Auburn’s run game. Uniquely, Malzahn mixes zone read concepts with old wing-T gap plays. One favorite is buck sweep. The buck sweep has a long and storied history. Not only was it the wing-T’s base play, it also generated Vince Lombardi’s famous Packer Sweep. The play side line and h-back down block, while both guards pull and lead. Malzahn often holds the linebackers by faking misdirection, but the basic premise remains the same as fifty years ago.
Speaking of misdirection, reverses constitute the other primary aspect of Malzahn’s offense. Auburn deploys reverses and misdirection more effectively than perhaps any team in the country, maybe because no other team is as committed to the concept. One particularly effective method is running a reverse towards the run fake, providing a lead blocker for the reverse. The quarterback fronts out, fakes the hand-off, then fakes a bubble screen or speed option away, only to hand back to the reverse. Auburn repeatedly used this play with success to the boundary against Alabama to counteract Saban and Kirby Smart’s field pressure.
In comparison to the multi-faceted run attack, the Auburn passing game is merely a complement to the Tigers’ prolific rushing attack. And, to Malzahn’s credit, he never tries to play call for what the Tigers are not. Nearly the entire passing game is predicated upon play action and exploiting opposing secondaries overplaying the run. For example, Auburn hit several passes against Missouri after faking a reverse and drawing up the safeties, allowing the Tigers to generate explosive plays in the pass game.
Taking the play-action concept one step further, Marshall’s critical fourth quarter touchdown throw against Alabama was not a called pass at all, but rather a packaged play. Post-snap, Marshall has the option to run or pass based upon how the defense reacts. The aforementioned play against the Crimson Tide was the same inside zone slice play described above. This time, however, Alabama’s defensive backs came down to tackle Marshall, providing him an easy toss for a score.
Malzahn’s high-powered offense is thus not driven by any new or innovative schemes. Rather, it is the melding together of time worn plays that are effective and simple for his players to learn, with tempo and misdirection making it difficult for opposing defenses to defend.