By the Numbers: It hasn’t taken Kirby Smart long to surpass Gus Malzahn
Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. This week’s edition of By the Numbers looks at the coaching matchup between Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
In the SEC, the elephant in the room is literally The Elephant in the room.
Alabama — and its famous pachyderm mascot — cast quite a shadow. This has been true since Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban first won the SEC West as Alabama coach in 2008. It’s not an exaggeration to say the way the program resurrected itself then — laying the foundation for what would become five national championships — struck fear into the hearts of many of Alabama’s SEC rivals, and the relevant question was: Is any coach capable of matching wits with Saban?
For a while the best answer to that question seemed to be Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. However, that’s no longer true.
Malzahn quickly made a name for himself. He led Auburn to a national championship as an offensive coordinator in 2010 when he worked with quarterback Cam Newton — the Heisman Trophy that season. After a one-year stint at Arkansas State — Malzahn returned to Auburn in 2013 — where he won the SEC and played for a national championship in his first season as head coach.
It was quite a feat, and many thought Malzahn’s rookie year would be the start of a storied rivalry with Saban. However, while Malzahn remains a yearly opponent for Alabama, he’s shown himself to be hardly in Saban’s league as a coach.
Malzahn’s biggest flaw? He’s struggled to maintain consistency.
After Malzahn’s breakthrough 2013 performance, the years that followed for Auburn were massive disappointments. The Tigers lost 16 games in the 2014-16 seasons. A closer look at the stats explains why.
Despite being thought of as an innovative offensive mind, Malzahn’s offenses haven’t ranked well on analytics charts. Auburn has finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders FEI offensive rankings just once in Malzahn’s five seasons with the Tigers (2014, when it finished eighth). The average ranking for Auburn’s offense over that span is 23rd.
Defensively things have been worse. Auburn’s average defensive FEI finish is 25th. Although to be fair, Auburn fielded the No. 1 defense in the country using this metric last season.
Compare that to Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Smart’s first year at UGA in 2016 didn’t go as well as Malzhan’s. The Bulldogs only went 8-5. They were a long way from a conference title, but they did knock off Auburn when it was ranked No. 9 in the country. It was a victory that would foreshadow the success to come for UGA, and it served as a reminder that Malzahn will probably always have difficulty satisfying Auburn fans’ insatiable hunger to be as good as Alabama.
In 2017, it was Smart’s turn to strike it big. UGA won the SEC and made the College Football Playoff. Many wondered how Smart could follow up on that success this season. Would their be a drop off without many of the seniors who made last year’s accomplishments possible? Would Smart disappoint UGA fans the way Malzahn seemingly had done to Auburn fans over and over?
So far, the answer has been no.
Georgia hosts Auburn on Saturday ranked No. 5, with the SEC East already clinched and peaking slightly ahead to the possibility of returning to the Playoff. In short, Smart has followed up his breakthrough success with more success — something Malzahn’s never quite been able to do.
The main difference between the two coaches seems to be their recruiting prowess. To be sure, Malzahn is an accomplished recruiter. Five of his six signing classes at Auburn have ranked in the top 10 of the 247Sports composite rankings. Malzahn even built a strong enough roster to win the SEC West last season — knocking off UGA and Alabama in the process. However, Auburn is 6-5 in its 11 games since those wins, and some recruiting misses are at least partially to blame for why the Tigers have come up short.
On the other hand, Smart has built a recruiting juggernaut. His three recruiting classes at UGA have finished No. 6, No. 3 and No. 1, respectively. He’s signed more 4-stars than Malzahn over that span (43 to 37). He’s also signed 13 5-star prospects, compared to just two for Auburn.
That’s almost certainly why Smart’s repeat performance this season has been superior to Malzahn’s attempts to build on his first-year success. Smart just gets better players.
The two coaches meet again Saturday. Malzahn must surely know what’s at stake. A loss for him would be his third in four head-to-head meetings with Smart, and another signal that Smart in just two-and-a-half seasons on the job has already surpassed Malzahn as the chief threat to Alabama’s dominance in the SEC.