Battle of the best: Saban vs. Malzahn

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
10:30
AM ET


The hype is palpable. The buildup for Alabama-Auburn, the "Iron Bowl of all Iron Bowls," might be unprecedented. As a result, the game will be dissected and analyzed in virtually every way possible.

There will be plenty of intriguing matchups on the field Saturday when the nation's Nos. 1 and 4 teams meet for the right to play in the SEC championship game, but perhaps no matchup is more intriguing than the one on the sidelines between the two head coaches: Alabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAuburn has run over everyone en route to the nation's No. 2 rushing attack, but Alabama's defense has been second to none the last five seasons.
It's the SEC's best defensive mind (Saban) against arguably its best offensive mind (Malzahn).

Saban's reputation as a defensive guru is well-deserved and supported by his unit's success. In the past five years combined, no defense has been as successful as Alabama's.

Recruiting and talent level has a lot to do with that, and Saban and his coaching staff recruit with the best of them. But others acknowledge that Saban and his defensive staff are getting it done schematically as well.

"They’re going to have new wrinkles every game," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said in September, prior to his team facing the Crimson Tide. "They’re going to switch in between their 3-4 stuff and 4-2-5 stuff. They’ll give you every look that you can imagine.

"Those of us who are into this pace or tempo offense, right now, it’s the cutting edge. It will fade out at some point. Coach Saban has done the same thing defensively, in my opinion. He kind of came in and has been on the cutting edge of the defensive stuff. He’s going to give you some new stuff. Every game he’s going to give you a new wrinkle, on third down in particular. You may or may not be ready for it. It’s very multiple. They’re very physical up front. You have a difficult time consistently having drives on them."

Ole Miss experienced all of that first hand, being shutout 25-0.

When it comes to Saban's defenses, the numbers tell the story. In the last five seasons combined the Crimson Tide rank first in the nation in the following defensive categories: yards allowed per game (245.1), yards allowed per play (4.16), rushing yards per game (85.18), passing yards per game (159.91), third-down conversion percentage (30.4 percent conversions allowed), fewest touchdowns allowed (73), yards per rush attempt (2.78), yards per pass attempt (5.64), red zone touchdown percentage (40.5 percent), percentage of drives not allowing a first down or touchdown (46.6 percent) and turnover margin (plus-58, tied for first with Boise State).

That certainly helps to explain why the Tide are on track for their fourth BCS national championship in five years should they win Saturday.

Malzahn hasn't remained in one place as long as Saban has at Alabama, but his impact has been felt by every offense he has been associated with in his college career. When he took over as offensive coordinator at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane ranked first in the nation in yards per game in both 2007 and 2008.

When he arrived at Auburn, he began working his magic there. In a two-year span the Tigers went from tied for 110th in scoring offense to seventh (17.3 points per game to 41.2) and from 103rd nationally in yards per game to seventh (302.9 to 499.2). In that second season, with Malzahn as the offensive coordinator, Auburn went 14-0 and won the BCS title.

In that 2010 season, the Tigers set nine school records on offense and finished in the top 10 in the country in six statistical categories.

Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State and, after one successful year there, returned to Auburn, where the Tigers have been college football's turnaround story, going from 3-9 to 10-1. This season, Malzahn's offense is No. 2 in the country and No. 1 in the SEC in rushing, averaging 320.3 yards per game, and 17th nationally in scoring, averaging 39 points per game. The Tigers are 12th in the country in yards per game at 499.9 and trail only Texas A&M in the SEC in that category.

"It's super impressive what Coach Malzahn has done," Georgia coach Mark Richt said earlier this month before his team met Auburn. "Everywhere he has gone he's won, if you look at his track record it's amazing, especially as a head coach and what his teams have done. He's turned it around very quickly, quicker than maybe I would hope, but you have to give him credit. They are doing a great job."

When Auburn has the football on Saturday, the chess match will be compelling. How successful the Tigers are on offense will go a long way in determining the outcome. LSU was the only team to slow the Tigers down this season, shutting Auburn out for a half before Auburn got it going and scored 21 in the second half, but the team has progressed significantly since then.

"[They're] one of the leading offensive teams in the country," Saban said on Monday. "Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense. But their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to [has helped them] score the points that they've been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league."

Malzahn knows the challenge of going against Alabama's defense will be a tough one.

"Obviously, they're very good against the run and we are pretty good running the football," Malzahn said on Tuesday. "I think that will be a big key. … They are extremely talented at every position. From an offensive standpoint, you look for weaknesses and all of that and they've got very good players at every position."

Sam Khan | email

Texas A&M/SEC reporter

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