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WBE Mythbusters No. 1: The offense

Thanks for everything, Chris, seriously. But I'm not sure you'll be missed.

Welcome to WBE Mythbusters, a new irregularly-posted series in which I attempt to dispel certain wrongly-held assumptions regarding Auburn football and related issues.

Today, we’re going to look at a couple of those assumptions as they pertain to Auburn’s 2010 offense. Starting with …

Myth No. 1: Auburn will struggle to replace Ben Tate and Chris Todd.

I know the knee-jerk reaction to the loss of starters at any position is “that’s bad,” and that goes double when said starters happen to play the two highest-profile positions in football. So it hasn’t been surprising to read things like

Losing RB Ben Tate hurts, but there are plenty of other options on offense


Ben Tate had a lot to do with the offensive success of the Tigers last season.  He’ll be missed.

Yes, it sounds nice, and Tate was unquestionably a hell of a player last year, but … no, actually, he won’t be missed. Maybe a tiny bit. But probably not at all.

Start with this post at MGoBlog which examines the correlation between returning starters and production, broken down by position. His conclusion regarding running backs:

No position on the field came close to running backs in terms of lack of value for returning starts.

There was literally no correlation from returning starts from running backs to on field success.  No improvements in running game or total offensive output.

There you go. Experience counts for nothing at running back. As long as you have someone just as talented waiting in the wings, you’re good to go.

And of course Auburn does have that someone, maybe even two or three someones. Ask a hundred Auburn fans over the past two summers whether they felt Tate or Mario Fannin was the more purely talented back, and I think you’d have gotten at least 60-70 telling you it was Fannin. The same way all Tate really needed to break out was one good year in Malzahn’s system, so it seems awfully likely–especially with Curtis Luper’s endorsement–that all Fannin will need is this year’s opportunity to do the same, or even more.

Even if Fannin can’t rise to the occasion, there’s Michael Dyer. There’s plenty of examples of true freshman tailbacks stepping directly into the starting lineup and thriving, and the overwhelming majority of those backs haven’t had anything like Dyer’s advance hype. (Did you remember that the nation’s third-leading rusher last year was a true frosh? Ditto for the SEC’s leader in all-purpose yardage?) Dyer will of course have some intricacies to learn, but as far as “take handoff, gain yards” goes, he’ll probably do just fine.

And even if he doesn’t, who’s to guarantee that newly-buff Onterio McCalebb can’t take the reins? Like everyone else I’m skeptical he’d hold up under the bruising that comes with being the every down back, but we don’t really know how much of an impact his weight gain will have.

The point: between these three candidates and the general uselessness of returning starts at tailback in the first place, replacing Ben Tate is just about the least of Auburn’s concerns.

As for Todd, his absence isn’t generally being greeted as a problem, per se; it’s more that having Newton in his first year might be an issue, for reasons of accuracy, adjustment to scheme, etc.

To which I respond: for all intents and purposes, Todd was even more green when he took over last year. Yes, he’d gotten that handful of starts under Franklin (and had some JUCO experience), but he still had to make the scheme adjustment, while–oh yeah–missing all of spring practice. Consider that as you read the following from Dr. Saturday:

We have no idea what kind of quarterback Cam Newton is going to be for Auburn, but we know that kind of quarterback he can be, physically, and that potential is far beyond anything Malzahn has had at his disposal since he coached Mitch Mustain to five-star status back at Springdale High. Since leaving Arkansas in 2006, Malzahn has orchestrated a pair of chart-topping offenses at Tulsa and revived Auburn’s moribund attack with the like of Paul Smith, David Johnson and Chris Todd as his starting quarterbacks, which is like making filet mignon out of squirrel meat.

Now, Todd still wasn’t exactly the second coming of Pat Sullivan, especially in SEC play. But that just means the hurdle for Newton to clear to give Auburn improved performance at QB is even lower. If Auburn had any other quarterback coach, I would say, yeah, this might be an issue. But we have Malzahn. First-year starters are his raison d’etre, and this should be his best one yet.

So: replacing Tate and Todd isn’t a problem. If anything, as a pair, it’s a positive.

Myth No. 2: Malzahn’s offense won’t be as successful as defensive coordinators get more film and he doesn’t have the element of surprise.

Not an opinion you see too terribly often, but it pops up time to time amongst Tide fans who seem to believe Malzahn’s “high school offense” isn’t complicated enough to withstand the rigors of a full two seasons of examination from the admittedly-shrewd batch of DC’s that operate in the SEC.

If being complicated was the point, then yes, the offense might be in trouble. But it’s not the point at all. From the classic Smart Football breakdown of Malzahn’s philosophies:

There are a few differences here between what Franklin and Tuberville tried to do (or said they were trying to do). The biggest, I’d say, is that Malzahn’s spread is not exactly like other spreads, whether pass-first ones like the Airraid or run-heavy spreads like Urban Meyer’s or Rich Rodriguez’s. That’s because the schemes are simple – very, very simple – and the core of the offense is not even about schemes: it’s about tempo …

In this way his offense has advantages over what Franklin was doing at Auburn. If done correctly, the tempo and formations really are what eats the defense up. The schemes themselves are simple

Not too much to say here. In many ways Malzahn’s run game resembles Urban Meyer’s: Malzahn’s is based on four-run plays – the inside zone, the outside zone, the counter, and power – with reverses, fakes, QB runs, and jet sweeps and play-action all built off those four plays. He also throws in some quick traps and draws for good measure. Again, nothing revolutionary …

The passing game is equally simple … The rumor is that Malzahn got his passing game from Evangel Christian, which is similarly based on simple vertical stems to the routes and quick break-offs by the receivers.

Malzahn’s offense is designed to look complicated with its constant motion and shifting formations, but what it’s actually doing is the same straightforward spread concepts that have been around forever.

The problem for opposing DC’s is getting their players to recognize what (simple) play is coming in the middle of the ludicrous tempo and whirligig motion. And that, there’s not really any preparing for. No scout team can operate at Malzahn’s preferred pace, no way to diagnose quickly enough what formation Auburn’s operating out of to stop what’s coming.

What’s ironic is that it’s Tide fans who seem most convinced of the long-term non-viability of the Malzahn offense when it’s the Tide who were subject to maybe the best illustration of why it’s not going to miss a beat. Alabama fans are fond of saying that Auburn’s 21 points were the product of a crazy barrage of bye-week-generated trick plays, but that’s nonsense; the Zachery reverse and the pump-and-go to Adams were both bread-and-butter play-calls for last year’s Auburn offense the Tide would have seen on film half a dozen times already. They knew they were coming. And even Saban and Smart–arguably the best collective defensive braintrust in the country–couldn’t get their players to stop them even with their own extra week of preparation*.

Besides, as even Chris himself has said many times, the importance of scheme can be overrated–what’s more important are the quality of the players and the execution within the scheme. Given Auburn’s greater familiarity with Malzahn’s preferred tempo, greater experience, and just-plain-better players at quarterback, slot receiver, etc., that quality and execution should be miles ahead of where it was at the end of last season.

In short: expecting Malzahn’s offense to spin its wheels just because it’s been around for all of one half-capacity season is some seriously wishful thinking.

*Unless you think they actually spent that week preparing for Chattanooga, which if you do, I have some … various, uh, goods that I would like to sell you. Very valuable.

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