ATHENS — Former Auburn head coach and Kirby Smart coaching rival Gus Malzahn is headed to take over the Central Florida football program, per ESPN reports.
The 55-year-old Malzahn, who was fired after going 6-4 in his eighth season leading the Tigers, fills the vacancy left by new Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel.
It’s not out of the question to suggest that Central Florida upgraded by hiring a proven coach like Malzahn and could be on the verge of reverse the downward trend Heupel was on before his former UCF AD Danny White hired him to Tennessee.
The Knights went 13-0 under Scott Frost in 2017 and claimed a share of the national title after beating Malzahn and Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl that season, 34-27.
Heupel took over in 2018 and went 12-1 before dropping to 10-3 in 2019 and 6-4 last season.
Malzahn, meanwhile, has had only one 10-win season (2017) since leading the Tigers to the 2013 BCS Championship Game his first season on The Plains. This, even while beating Nick Saban and Alabama two of the past four years.
Former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin replaced Malzahn at Auburn, hiring a pair of coordinators in Derek Mason (defense) and Mike Bobo (offense) that know how to give Smart headaches.
But the same was true of Malzahn, who riddled some of Smart’s best defenses at Alabama and Georgia over the years to epic proportions.
Smart, who called out Malzahn for “Coachspeak” last season after the former Auburn head coach suggested the Bulldogs were “probably the most talented team overall in the SEC,” got the better of Malzahn the past four games.
But the one time Smart didn’t beat Malzahn as head coach proved costly, as Auburn upset a then-No. 1-ranked Georgia team 40-17 in 2017 and cost the Bulldogs the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoffs.
Malzahn was overheard saying “We whipped the dog crap out of them, didn’t we?”
Prior to this year — a season with statistical anomalies on account of defenses being behind offenses on account of the lack of spring football drills — Malzahn had put the most yards up on a Georgia defense back in 2013 (566).
Malzahn’s offense also put up the most yards ever on any Smart defense when the Tigers had 630 yards on Alabama in 2014.
To be fair, it was the only time in the 11 meetings between the coaches that Smart’s defense didn’t hold Malzahn’s offense under its season average.
Malzahn made no bones about it, having to match wits with Smart every year for 11 years added tension to the coaches’ relationship.
“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.”
Smart referred to Malzahn as a “friend” when asked about Malzahn’s firing in December, and correctly predicted the offense whiz would get another good job.
“I have a lot of respect for Gus, he’s been a very good friend of mine for quite a while,” Smart said. “I know that he and Kristi will land on their feet, and he’s going to be successful in whatever he does.”