ATHENS — Gus Malzahn and Kirby Smart pay one another the common pleasantries expected among head coaches, but the mutual resentment can’t help but seep out on occasion.
It’s natural when one considers how many times Malzahn and Smart have gone head-to-head — and scheme-to-scheme — amid two of the fiercest rivalries in college football.
This season’s Georgia-Auburn rivalry is fast approaching. The No. 4-ranked Bulldogs and No. 7-ranked Tigers are bracing for a 7:30 p.m. game on Saturday (TV: ESPN).
Already, the tensions are running high between two coaches who can’t help but make it personal. So much has been on the line for their programs each time they have met over the years.
“The thing about it, you’re exactly right, he was at Alabama when I was here as a coordinator and head coach, and then he goes to Georgia, that’s our two top rivals,” Malzahn said on the Wednesday SEC coaches teleconference, asked about his relationship with Smart.
“We’ve had, obviously, some really really big games,” Malzahn said. “But I will say this, I’ve got respect for him and he’s a really good football coach, and we’ve had some really good battles.
“When you’re rivals, that’s just the way it is.”
Especially when Smart’s defenses at Alabama and Auburn have held Malzahn’s Auburn offenses under their average yardage 10 of 11 times.
More recently, Smart’s Georgia defense has held the Tigers to 14 points or less in four of the five meetings.
It’s an impressive feat when one considers Alabama, Malzahn’s other rival and the perceived standard of SEC football, has allowed Auburn 21 points or more each of the past three seasons.
The Malzahn-Smart rivalry surfaced earlier this week when Smart took exception to what seemed like a rather innocuous comment from Auburn’s Tuesday press conference.
“You’re looking at a team that’s probably the most talented team overall in the SEC,” Malzahn said, a seemingly innocuous remark.
But when asked about Malzahn’s comment later that afternoon, Smart referred to it as “coachspeak,” and looked to shoot whatever added pressure he felt the Auburn coach had put on him back toward The Plains.
“That’s called coachspeak, so thank you, Gus,” Smart said. “He has the most talent in the SEC.”
The Malzahn-Smart SEC feud started in 2009 when Malzahn was the new offensive coordinator for then-Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Smart was in his third year at Alabama as Nick Saban’s first lieutenant.
Alabama welcomed Malzahn into the Iron Bowl rivalry with a 26-21 victory, capitalizing on two Tigers’ turnovers to win a game in which the Tide was otherwise outplayed.
“The strong do survive, but the strong do get their [butts] kicked,” Saban said, no doubt fuming Malzahn’s offense had jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead on Smart’s defense.
Malzahn lost the war but won a battle by making a statement in his first meeting with the legendary Saban, another successful step in a cobbled coaching path that looked nothing like the rival he’ll face at Georgia this week.
Malzahn, 54, paid his dues for 14 years as an innovative high school coach after a modest collegiate playing career at Henderson State.
Malzahn was catching passes at his tiny Division ll school in Arkadelphia, Ark., some 10 years before Smart was granted a scholarship to intercept passes as a safety at SEC powerhouse Georgia.
Malzahn made the most of his first big-time coaching break after being hired by Houston Nutt at Arkansas in 2006, earning national offensive coordinator of the year honors from Rivals.com.
Malzahn directed an explosive Arkansas offense that featured two 1,000-yard rushers, including Darren McFadden.
Smart was with the Miami Dolphins in 2006, having reunited with his mentor, Saban, after spending the 2005 season at Georgia coaching running backs for Mark Richt.
Smart’s coaching start had begun at a much higher level than Malzahn’s.
The former All-SEC safety was ushered in as an administrative assistant on the UGA staff in 1999 before former teammate Will Muschamp helped him get hired at Valdosta State in 2000.
In 2002-2003, Smart was working as a graduate assistant for legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.
And in 2004, at the age of 28, Smart was hired by Saban at LSU, the first of his 11 seasons serving under the current head coach.
In 2004, Malzahn was 38 years old and at his third high school heading coaching stop in Springdale, his coaching career still limited to the state of Arkansas.
The Tigers and Tide tangled in 2010 and 2011 with Malzahn and Smart having nothing more in common than having to study one another year-round, assigned mortal enemies in college football’s hottest rivalry.
Smart surely hasn’t forgotten the 2010 Alabama-Auburn classic, when Cam Newton put the Tigers on his shoulders and erased a 24 point deficit to score a 28-27 win.
Smart, no doubt, got an earful from Saban that day; his unit was tagged with the dubious distinction of becoming the first in Alabama’s proud history to allow a team to rally for victory from as many as 24 points down.
Revenge was served up one year later at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Smart’s Alabama defense strangled Malzahn’s offense to the tune of a 42-14 win, allowing the Tigers just nine first downs and 140 yards.
After a one-year respite, when Malzahn going off to serve as head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, the pair commenced to plotting against one another again.
This time, Malzahn was wearing headphones as a head coach and standing on the sideline while Smart was still silently earning his stripes under Saban’s iron rule.
Malzahn put the Tigers back on the winning track in 2013 in the historic “Kick Six” Game, a 34-28 victory that still gives Alabama coaches, players and fans nightmares.
In 2016, Smart took over as Georgia’s head coach, his coaching feud with Malzahn becoming part of what’s known as the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.”
Smart’s first Bulldogs team struggled to an 8-5 record, with losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. But Smart pulled off a 13-7 upset over Malzahn and Auburn that season, and that surely carried weight.
Georgia’s win that day at Sanford Stadium ended Malzahn’s hopes for an SEC Championship Game appearance, and the Bulldogs needed only 13 points to do it.
SEC Championship meeting
Chilly air separated Smart and Malzahn as they stood on the stage in Atlanta leading up to the 2017 SEC Championship Game.
Malzahn’s Tigers had put it on a previously seemingly unbeatable Bulldogs team like no other, 40-17 in a Nov. 11 clash.
Auburn pilled up 488 total yards, 237 of it through the teeth of Smart’s run defense.
“We whipped the dog crap out of them, didn’t we?” Malzahn was overheard saying after the game, rubbing salt in the fresh wounds of a young head coach who had just seen his perfect season come to an end.
Now, less than one month later, Smart was asked to confirm the postgame promise Malzahn had made to him.
Was it true Malzahn told him the Tigers would be waiting for the Bulldogs in Atlanta, and that Smart replied that he would pass that message on to Saban?
Smart confirmed as much, crediting Malzahn for making good on his word, the Tigers beating Alabama 26-14.
This Auburn, however, was not the same team when it faced Georgia the second time around. Powerhouse back Kerryon Johnson was injured, and Smart and the Bulldogs got their revenge, 28-7.
Georgia has won the last two battles, home and away. UGA cruised to a 27-10 win in 2018, raising eyebrows when attempting a fake field goal with less than four minutes left.
The Bulldogs raced out to a 21-0 lead through three quarters last season en route to a 21-14 victory.
There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes recruiting battles play out invisibly, no doubt, further fueling the animosity between the programs and coaches.
Auburn won the high-profile battle for 5-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown of Buford, Ga., in 2016. Brown as a player who could have been the missing piece in Georgia’s national championship quests of 2017 and 2018, as the Bulldogs’ weakest defensive unit was upfront.
Smart returned the favor in the 2019 cycle with a key 5-star WR target from Hoover High in Alabama. George Pickens, with the talent to make any playcaller look like a genius, had been committed to Malzahn’s Tigers for 566 days before he flipped to UGA.
Smart, for his part, clearly respects Malzahn’s offensive prowess, once explaining that to beat Auburn, “you just try to survive the first quarter until you can figure out what Gus is doing.”
The mind games, wordplay and Xs and Os will continue on into late Saturday night.
Malzahn and Smart have coordinators running their offenses and defenses, and they’ll likely point to the field and say it’s the players who determine the outcome.
But make no doubt about it, Smart and Malzahn have had plenty of input in the hours of meetings and on-field preparation that has led up to this Top 10 matchup.
It’s Gus versus Kirby, Round 12.
Kirby vs. Gus
(coaching positions, final scores)
Smart leads Malzahn 4-1 in head coach meetings
Smart leads Malzahn 4-2 as Alabama assistant
2019 Auburn HC Malzahn, Georgia HC Smart
Result: Georgia 21, Auburn 14
Bulldogs: 251 yards, 0 turnovers
Tigers: 329 yards, 1 turnover
2018 Auburn HC Malzahn, Georgia HC Smart
Result: Georgia 27, Auburn 10
Bulldogs: 516 yards, 1 turnover
Tigers: 274 yards, 0 turnovers
2017 Auburn HC Malzahn, Georgia HC Smart (SEC title)
Result: Georgia 28, Auburn 7
Bulldogs: 421 yards, 0 turnovers
Tigers: 259 yards, 2 turnovers
2017 Auburn HC Malzahn, Georgia HC Smart
Result: Auburn 40, Georgia 17
Bulldogs: 230 yards, 1 turnover
Tigers: 488 yards, 0 turnovers
2016 Auburn HC Malzahn, Georgia HC Smart
Result: Georgia 13, Auburn 7
Bulldogs: 343 yards, 1 turnover
Tigers: 164 yards, 1 turnover
2015 Auburn HC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Alabama 29, Auburn 14
Tide: 465 yards, 0 turnovers
Tigers: 261 yards 1 turnover
2014 Auburn HC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Alabama 55, Auburn 44
Tide: 539 yards, 3 turnovers
Tigers: 630 yards, 2 turnovers
2013 Auburn HC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Tide: 495 yards, 0 turnovers
Tigers: 393 yards, 1 turnover
2011 Auburn OC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Alabama 42, Auburn 14
Tide: 397 yards, 1 turnover
Tigers: 140 yards, 2 turnovers
2010 Auburn OC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Auburn 28, Alabama 27
Tide: 446 yards, 2 turnovers
Tigers: 324 yards, 1 turnover
2009 Auburn OC Malzahn, Alabama DC Smart
Result: Alabama 26, Auburn 21
Tide: 291 yards, 0 turnovers
Tigers: 332 yards, 2 turnovers
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