Malzahn’s title blueprint rails against what’s expected in SEC

ATLANTA — Gus Malzahn isn’t the exception to the rule, he is its wake-up-shaking nightmare, the antithesis of everything we believed was carved in stone the SEC.

Defenses win championships in this league, unless Malzahn and Auburn are involved.

Tre Mason burst through for a 13-yard touchdown — his fourth of the game — and ran toward his left, his arms extended and his fingers pointed toward a mass of fans clad in orange and blue.

It was a punctuation mark in No. 3 Auburn’s 59-42 win over No. 5 Missouri, an offensive showcase that included Mason’s SEC Championship Game-record 304 rushing yards, and 677 yards in all — and it was a slap in the face to those who have lauded the SEC for its defense.

Or maybe, Malzahn has simply cracked the code.

In the last eight years, which have seen the SEC win seven consecutive BCS titles, the league has produced two champions that had defenses ranked outside of the top 10 nationally: Auburn in 2010 (60th) and Auburn in 2013 (75th).

The two common threads? Malzahn, and dominating run games. Defense, basically, is secondary.

“Any time you can run the football, especially in this league, good things are going to happen,” Malzahn said. “Right now, we can run the football on anybody.”

When he was the offensive coordinator three years ago, Malzahn’s up-tempo, hurry-up offense, which is predicated on the zone-read — the scheme coined ‘Hurry Up No Huddle’ he’s seeking to trademark — found success with a dynamic magician of a quarterback and an explosive back behind him.

In his first season as Auburn’s coach Malzahn is using a similar formula, and it’s paid off with these Tigers becoming just the fourth team in major college football history to win a conference title outright once year after going winless in league play.

The results are similar, though there are differences.

There’s no Heisman Trophy front-runner on this roster like the ’10 team had in Cam Newton and no instant trip to the BCS title game in hand, though both those things could change. Mason has, at the least, run his way onto some Heisman ballots and these Tigers suddenly look BCS title game-bound after No. 2 Ohio State’s loss to No. 10 Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.

That Malzahn was able to turn things around so quickly a season after Auburn missed a bowl game is due to the capabilities of Mason and QB Nick Marshall.
“They have something special, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “It’s hard to explain and they work extremely well together. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.”

If anyone believed this team was a byproduct of on-field miracles, well, Saturday was about delivering a statement

Auburn came into the SEC title game ranking fifth in FBS, averaging 318.3 yards per game on the ground, a number the Tigers nearly hit in their win over then-No. 1 Alabama, as they totaled 296 on 52 carries.

That was a Crimson Tide defense that had previously yielded 91.3 ypg, so against a Missouri unit that was 14th (119.1), should we have expected anything less?

All 75,632 in attendance at the Georgia Dome — a crowd that was so overwhelmingly Auburn it seemed as though the Loveliest Village On The Plains had been plucked up and moved 108 miles East — knew Auburn was going to run, run and run some more.

No matter.

Auburn ran on 16 of their first 18 plays and 74 of 85 in all, including a program and SEC title game record 46 by Mason, the game’s MVP. There was simply no stopping Malzahn’s offense as Mashall followed Mason with 101 yards and a TD on 16 carries and three other players had at least 36 yards rushing.

“Everybody has problems with it,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “It’s a great scheme. More people are going to use it probably. He has a lot of good people that can damage you. They have a lot of talent. You put that with a good scheme and you’ve got problems.”

Though the troubles with Auburn’s defense did leave Malzahn needing more out of that offense, in particular Mason, than he would have liked.

James Franklin delivered the shootout a seventh lead change as he hit Marcus Murphy for a 10-yard TD with 5:35 remaining in the third quarter to give Missouri a 34-31 edge. While Auburn countered by taking over for good on its next possession, it did so and kept that lead with a massive helping of Mason, who ran on 13 of their next 27 plays, which included TDs of 1 and 13 yards.

To put his workload into context, at the time Missouri took the lead off that Franklin-to-Murphy TD, Mason already had one more carry (33) than at any game in his career.

“I didn’t even think about fatigue at that point in time,” Mason said. “Just not quitting until the clock said zero.”

After one of his first-half TDs, Mason struck the Heisman pose — and following the game, he got some Heisman love, both from an Auburn legend and his coach. Bo Jackson, the 1985 winner gave Mason a hug and told reporters “He’s a bad, bad man.”

Malzahn did the same, though not in quite the same way, as he stumped for his player before turning to his team’s case for a spot in the BCS title game.

“You’re looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today,” Malzahn said of Mason. “So usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you’re looking at one of those guys right here.”

From a winless SEC season to a conference championship — and likely chance to play for a BCS crown — riding a running back who, like this team, rose from an afterthought to the sport’s forefront in a matter of weeks. It’s a stunning run navigated by a coach who has bypassed the SEC’s blueprint.

Winning with defense? Not Malzahn. Not Auburn. Not in its last title run, and not in this one either.

“We’re going to ride with that all the way until the end of things,” Mason said.