Auburn’s offensive coordinator has had a heck of a journey

Published 4:15 pm Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gus Malzahn is one of the luckiest human beings walking God’s green earth today.

And if he wants to keep his new job, that luck better not run out.

The path for Auburn’s new offensive coordinator began three years ago in Springdale, Ark. The high school coach had five of the most sought-after prospects in the country that year with quarterback Mitch Mustain atop the list.

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According to, Mustain was rated the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, under pressure after two losing seasons, knew he could not let the state’s top player slip away. Malzahn knew he had a meal ticket to the big time.

Add those factors together, and the result was Malzahn’s promotion from high school head coach to offensive coordinator in the SEC. Take a long look because it’s going to be a while before another coach will be worthy of that sentence.

The aftermath wasn’t pretty. Sure, Arkansas won the SEC West title and was rewarded with an SEC title game appearance and a berth in the Capital One Bowl. But the Mustains turned into head cases.

They paid visits to Nutt and Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles to discuss Mustain’s lack of playing time. They expressed disgust at Mustain slipping behind Casey Dick in the rotation.

Call me crazy, but with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in my backfield, I’d opt for the game manager over the headline grabber every time.

So Mustain transferred to Southern Cal — where he spent the 2008 season on the bench. Malzahn, having made a name for himself with two of the best backs in the country — and already carrying baggage — was snapped up by Tulsa.

To his credit, Malzahn’s offenses have put up great numbers. Check that, gaudy numbers.

Tulsa had the nation’s top offense in 2007, gaining 543.9 yards per game. The Hurricane also led Conference USA in passing, scoring, TD passes and passing efficiency, while ranking third nationally for passing, fifth for pass efficiency and 10th for scoring offense.

Impressive, no? The 2008 stats are even gaudier — second in the country in total offense with 565 yards and 47.4 points per game. The Golden Hurricane also ranks second in scoring, eighth in rushing and seventh in passing.

Both seasons at Tulsa are impressive at first glance, but a closer look reveals some weaknesses in the numbers. The 2007 team fell to its lone BCS opponent Oklahoma 62-21 and couldn’t defeat Central Florida in two attempts, losing both contests by an average of 20 points.

Yes, this is the same Central Florida team that gained 219 yards and three points in a Liberty Bowl loss to Mississippi State.

The 2008 team started 8-0, but again hit a speed bump against the lone BCS opponent on the schedule — it wasn’t Oklahoma. Malzahn couldn’t outduel an Arkansas team that finished 5-7. The Razorbacks fell to a three-win Mississippi State team two weeks later.

Truth is, the gaudy stats are great for the fans and pundits to talk about and regurgitate. But those alone do not convince me that he will be a good fit at Auburn. The Tigers do not have two first-round picks in the backfield, and quarterback is another question mark.

The SEC is not Conference USA, either.

Good fortune has followed Malzahn since he left the high school ranks. Time will tell if his luck is at its end.

Barrett Welch is sports editor of the Selma Times-Journal. He can be reached at 410-1736 or