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SEC 2015: Auburn Flips the Script

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What if everything you know about Auburn football is wrong?

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

One of the hottest issues for Auburn in 2015 is how good of an offense Gus Malzahn will be able to create for Jeremy Johnson. While Johnson is able to move, he is more of a pure passer and less inclined to run than predecessors like Nick Marshall and Cam Newton.

The funny thing about the past is that it's hard to remember. In 2009, the concern was whether the pass happy Malzahn would run the ball enough to be successful in the SEC. Does this from Smart Football's Chris B. Brown ring a bell?

All that said, you can still consider me slightly skeptical of his claim to being a smashmouth guy. Back in his high school days, and even during his time at Arkansas, those around Gus always said if he had his way he would have thrown it about as much as was humanly possible. We're talking Mike Leach, June Jones stuff. But, people change, and his experience with Coaches Graham and Hand at Tulsa (much moreso than his experience with Nutt at Arkansas) appears to have heavily influenced him. Hand, a Rich Rodriguez disciple, not only helped implement many of Malzahn's ideas, he also brought many of his own to the table, particularly regarding the spread run game.

Is that really what the conventional wisdom on Malzahn once was? Yes, really.

Gus Malzahn gained notoriety as a high school coach in Arkansas throwing the ball and attacking through tempo and extreme spread sets (see ninja). While joining forces with Rich Rodriguez protege, Herb Hand, the appreciation of the 2-back power run game was realized and perfected.

Remember the drama of the Springdale Five? The father of tight end Ben Cleveland, one of those five, had this complaint:

"Our boys are used to catching 60 passes a year," Cleveland told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "They want to go to a college where they get the same opportunity."

"Boys", plural. As in, multiple guys were expecting to be 60-catch receivers in an era where you might get five in the entire conference in a season.

And look at Rhett Lashlee, Auburn's offensive coordinator who played in high school under Malzahn. As of 2012, he held eight Arkansas high school passing records and was in the top ten nationally for all eight. This is a guy whose last season was the fall of 2001, well before hurry up spread schemes or the Air Raid filtered their way throughout the high school scene.

Needless to say, Malzahn gained plenty of appreciation for power running attacks from Hand. So much so that, nowadays, that is what the guy is known for. Coaches were once telling Brown that Malzahn wanted to throw as much as Air Raid and Run 'n Shoot coaches, but now Malzahn has people noting the novelty of him running an offense with a quarterback who's a better passer than runner. My, how times change.

Malzahn's hire of Will Muschamp has been a universally hailed move, and it's not without reason. Though Coach Boom couldn't cut it as a program CEO in Gainesville, he's more or less never had a bad defense. Even when things fell apart in 2013 and his team went 4-8, the defense was still one of the best in the conference.

There is just one potential worry spot, though. Muschamp has done his best work in battling spread schemes. There have been a few exceptions here and there, but that's his calling card. AU was 2-0 against Urban Meyer during Muschamp's DC stint in 2006-07, his Texas defenses were all great (though less great in a rebuilding 2010) while facing almost exclusively spread offenses in the Big 12, and he shut down Johnny Manziel in the second half of a win over A&M in 2012.

Oddly, he's not been as great at stopping more traditional offenses despite being a Nick Saban disciple. If you look at the highest yards per play allowed against FBS competition in his time at Florida, you find Alabama at No. 1 (2014) and No. 11 (2011), 2013 Florida State second, LSU at third (2011) and tenth (2013), and Georgia at fifth (2013) and sixth (2014). Mark Richt has been a particular thorn in his side, dropping 37 and 45 points, respectively, on his 2006-07 Auburn defenses.

That's not to say that Muschamp was a bad hire for Auburn, but he's going to be facing Alabama, LSU, and Georgia every year. You can add Arkansas and its paleolithic offense to that list as well. The marriage of Malzahn and Muschamp will almost certainly prove to be a wildly successful one, but it's going to take both of them at times to keep the wins coming in.

Auburn has a formerly pass happy guy now known for the run and a Saban acolyte who stops the spread but isn't as good against the pro set. It's a place of football oddities that should be fascinating to watch for years to come.