Can Gus Malzahn Really Beat Nick Saban in Back-to-Back Seasons?

Luke Brietzke@FireEverybodyContributor IIIMarch 18, 2014

Gus Malzahn said in December 2012 when being introduced as Auburn’s new coach that his goal was to get the Tigers back to a championship level.

Nobody saw the progress coming as quickly as it did.

The daunting SEC West would have been enough to make it a tough road to hoe for Malzahn and Auburn to compete for a title in 2013.

The well-oiled machine up in Tuscaloosa, it seemed, made it darn close to impossible.

Yet when Alabama and Auburn, two teams squared off with the SEC West title on the line, Malzahn’s team made one more huge play than did the Crimson Tide.

Auburn might not have brought home the national championship, but it did land a SEC championship.

Not bad considering the Tigers went 0-8 in conference play a season ago.

Now the mission changes for Malzahn—and the job becomes more difficult.

It’s not simply about winning championships any more.

It’s about regularly getting the best of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has a near-impeccable record against programs to whom his team loses the previous season.

Since becoming the LSU head coach in 2000, Saban’s LSU and Alabama programs are 16-2 when playing a team to whom they lost the prior season.

Nick Saban Against Teams That Beat Him The Previous Year
YearLoss, ScoreNext Year Result
2000at Auburn, 34-17Won, 27-14
2000UAB, 13-10Did Not Play
2000at Florida, 41-9Lost, 44-15
2000at Arkansas, 14-3Won, 41-38
2001at Tennessee, 26-18Did Not Play
2001Florida, 44-15Won at Florida, 36-7
2001Ole Miss, 35-24Won at Ole Miss, 14-13
2002at Virginia Tech, 26-8Did Not Play
2002at Auburn, 31-7Won, 31-7
2002Alabama, 31-0Won at Alabama, 27-3
2002at Arkansas, 21-20Won, 55-24
2002vs. Texas (neutral), 35-20Did Not Play
2003Florida, 19-7Won at Florida, 24-21
2007Georgia, 26-23 (OT)Won at Georgia, 41-30
2007vs. Florida State (neutral), 21-14Did Not Play
2007LSU, 41-34Won at LSU, 27-21 (OT)
2007at Mississippi State, 17-12Won, 32-7
2007Louisiana-Monroe, 21-14Did Not Play
2007at Auburn, 17-10Won, 36-0
2008vs. Florida (neutral), 31-20Won vs. Florida (neutral), 32-13
2008vs. Utah (neutral), 31-17Did Not Play
2010at South Carolina, 35-21Did Not Play
2010at LSU, 24-21Lost, 9-6 (OT)
2010Auburn, 28-27Won at Auburn, 42-14
2011LSU, 9-6 (OT)Won vs. LSU (neutral), 21-0
2012Texas A&M, 29-24Won at Texas A&M, 49-42
2013at Auburn, 34-28???
2013vs. Oklahoma (neutral), 45-31Not Scheduled to Play in 2014
LSU Athletics, Alabama Athletics

Malzahn now aims to join an elite duo of coaches to pull off the feat in consecutive seasons.

The only college coaches to accomplish the feat so far are Steve Spurrier (2000-01) and Les Miles (2010-11).

Though Miles scored back-to-back wins, Saban laughed last that season.

Alabama avenged the losses with a dominating 21-0 victory over the Tigers in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

Up-tempo offenses providing a threat will be nothing new to the Saban dynasty either.

Last year, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin was the new hot shot bringing a dynamic offense that was changing the landscape of the SEC West.

The Aggies underscored their emergence in college football’s toughest division with an upset win over the Crimson Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Sumlin—teamed with 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel—gave Alabama all it could handle again in 2013.

This time around, though, Saban and Alabama found just enough answers to stave off another potential upset.

Saban’s biggest difference in the 49-42 road win: Turn the usually conservative offense loose and allow it to outscore the Aggies.

Alabama actually did a reasonably good job holding a potent Auburn offense to 21 points through the first 59 minutes.

However, the Crimson Tide left numerous scoring chances on the table, highlighted by four missed field goals.

The last missed kick resulted in Chris Davis’ spectacular 100-yard return for the game-winning score.

Suggesting that Auburn’s victory was a fluke is to ignore a few important facts and statistics—namely that the Tigers posted 296 rushing yards against Alabama’s trademark defense.

Auburn also controlled time of possession for 29:06. Considering the differing styles of play, that number comes as a big of a surprise.

If one predicts that Auburn’s passing game will take a step forward in 2014—seemingly a reasonable assessment—then the Tigers will bring a game challenge to Tuscaloosa.

Auburn and Alabama will likely open as Top 10 teams. To say one doesn’t have a chance to beat the other would be foolish.

There’s no question, however, that Malzahn and the Tigers will face a difficult test when they visit Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Many have tried to beat Saban in consecutive seasons. Only a few have succeeded.

For Malzahn to join the select group with Spurrier and Miles, he must install a more reliable passing attack and shore up a defense that improved by season’s end.

Like Spurrier, Malzahn is an offensive innovator. It’s premature to place the two in the same conversation because of Spurrier’s ability to stay ahead of defensive-minded coaches throughout the 1990s.

Malzahn’s offensive results—and overall results—are impressive to date.

Claiming a trophy like consecutive wins over Saban would only further Malzahn’s young legend as a head coach.

One thing is for certain: Saban won’t make it easy on Auburn’s second-year coach.


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