It’s bad enough to be a flummoxed former genius, to be in the midst of an offensive identity crisis while sitting on one of the hottest seats in college football. But it’s worse to be all of those things when your rival is Nick Saban, a flourishing former robot suddenly adapting and conquering like some sort of deadly super virus.
Gus Malzahn could use a shot in the arm. Auburn’s coach, whose boss called him “the best offensive mind in the nation” this summer, is well on his way to a second straight sputtering season on that side of the ball. After ranking 74th nationally in scoring last fall, the Tigers are off to a 1-2 start this year thanks to 29 combined points against Clemson and Texas A&M.
Give him a dazzling, dual-threat SEC transfer – by way of junior college – and Malzahn looks like a wizard. See Cam Newton in 2010 and Nick Marshall in 2013. But give him Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and Florida State (by way of JUCO) transfer John Franklin III and … he’ll play all three in a bizarre rotation with a shot at upsetting the 2015 national runner-up.
Without a perfect fit for his scheme, Malzahn can’t seem to solve the puzzle. He’s shown no ability to adapt to his personnel. And that fact is all the more glaring with Saban down the road in Tuscaloosa pushing all the right buttons. Saban, of all people, is going with the flow so adeptly that the Crimson Tide just keeps dragging under all challengers.
Known for his rigidity, for The Process, Saban has lately tweaked his defense to account for increasingly wide-open offenses and, however grudgingly, allowed Lane Kiffin to bring Bama’s own offense up to modern speed. He’s retooled his team to be equipped for a 45-40 shootout over Clemson in the national championship game – or 48-43 last week at Ole Miss.
This summer, Saban described his offense as “flexible,” which should’ve served as a warning while everyone was trying to figure out who would win the starting quarterback job. “We take pride in adapting to what our players can do,” he said then. Soon, he unleashed upon the world his first freshman starting QB, his first devastating dual-threat, and Jalen Hurts has given Saban yet another new strain of killer.
The timing could not be worse for Malzahn, who on Saturday faces what might amount to a coaching elimination game when Les Miles and 18th-ranked LSU come to town. But even the embattled Miles has done a better job picking a quarterback, and that’s really saying something.
Speaking of which, here are the other people and things I’m watching in Week 4:
Revenge of the Boilermakers: With Danny Etling supplanting Brandon Harris at LSU and Austin Appleby replacing injured Luke Del Rio for Florida’s showdown with Tennessee on Saturday, two Purdue transfers will start at quarterback in the SEC this weekend. What does it say about the state of this league’s QB play that a pair of guys who couldn’t keep their job with the Boilermakers (6 wins, 30 losses the last three seasons) are the best available options for programs with national titles in the last decade?
Key to success: LSU linebacker Arden Key set a ridiculous preseason goal of 20 sacks this fall – and now it doesn’t look so ridiculous. His SEC-best five sacks so far are the most by a Tiger through three games since at least 1980. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound sophomore is right on pace for that goal and to smash the school’s single-season sack record (12 by Oliver Lawrence in 1989). And guess what? No team in the league has allowed more sacks this season than Saturday’s opponent, Auburn.
No. 19 Florida at No. 14 Tennessee: The Volunteers (3-0, 0-0) caught a break with Del Rio’s injury, but the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) still have the nation’s top-ranked defense and an 11-game winning streak in the series that has undoubtedly inflicted some psychological damage on Tennessee’s players and fan base. Butch Jones’ best team since arriving in Knoxville has looked very average against Appalachian State and Ohio but excellent against Virginia Tech. Now we’re about to find out what his Vols are really made of, with four consecutive games against SEC title contenders: Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, Alabama. I’ll take Tennessee in this first one.
No. 17 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Can anyone in the West challenge Alabama? The winner of this game stands the best chance. Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks (3-0) and Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies (3-0, 1-0) both have good quarterbacks and strong defenses – and they own two of the league’s best non-conference wins this season: Arkansas at TCU, A&M against UCLA. My money (figuratively speaking) is on Trevor Knight, Myles Garrett and the Aggies.
No. 12 Georgia at No. 23 Ole Miss: If the Rebels (1-2, 0-1) aren’t already broken mentally after blowing a 28-6 lead against Florida State and a 24-3 lead against Alabama, they will be with a loss to the Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0). Georgia is riding high after prized freshman quarterback Jacob Eason delivered a game-winning, fourth-down TD toss at Missouri. But Nick Chubb, after two straight ho-hum performances, will be the star of this one. Ole Miss ranks next-to-last in the league in yards per carry (4.99) and per game (242.7) allowed.
Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky: Do you laugh when someone trips and falls on their face in public? Then this is the game for you. Why would the Commodores go to Bowling Green? They couldn’t beat the Hilltoppers at home last season. It’ll be another loss, after which Derek Mason’s seat will rightly go up in flames.
The rest: Likewise, Mark Stoops will need to touch base with his realtor if Kentucky (1-2, 0-1) loses at home to South Carolina (2-1, 1-1). And why is Mississippi State (1-2, 1-1) going to Massachusetts? Stop doing this, people. Drew Lock might throw for 500 yards against Delaware, which Missouri (1-2, 0-1) will play at home like a civilized SEC team. Last question: Will Saban go easy on his alma mater, Kent State? We say yes, by his standards, so 45-3.