For what it’s worth, I think Gus Malzahn is a good… no, make it very good coach. He first caught my eye when it managed to turn Chris Todd into a functional SEC starting quarterback. And you had to be impressed with how quickly he managed to undo the disastrous decisions Chizik made after Malzahn left Auburn.
That being said, unless you’re the most dyed in the wool Auburn fan, you have to admit last season was fairly magical. The Tigers were 6-1 in games decided by one score or less. (Georgia, by comparison, was 4-4.) And winning back to back games against Georgia and Alabama they way they did, yeah, there was a little luck in play.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s usually more than a little luck involved in any great run towards a national title. And you still have to be good enough and prepared enough to take advantage of those lucky moments when they come. The question for Auburn is how much luck will there be on the Plains in 2014.
You guys know I’m a big believer in regression to the mean. That’s one thing Malzahn will have working against him this season. The thing is, Year2 points out that Malzahn has been the recipient of a lot of good luck over the years. And some of that is because he’s a very good coach.
Yes, two of the top 20 luckest seasons from 1998-2013 featured Malzahn as offensive coordinator, and three of his five seasons of influence are in the top decile of luck. The tipped pass against Georgia and the Kick Six are just two games out of dozens; even setting them aside still gives Malzahn an unsustainably high career luck score.
… Malzahn has had a knack for both playing in and winning close games, something that will really inflate a Pythagorean expectation luck score. His mastery of both running the ball and the two minute drill certainly help with that.
But 2014 isn’t like those other seasons in a particular way.
What he hasn’t done yet is be a part of a team that dominated from wire-to-wire. Both of the best teams he’s been a part of—2010 and 2013 Auburn—started slowly and were dramatically better at the end of the year than they were at the beginning. Improving as the season goes along is a sign of good coaching for sure, but again, it will increase your luck score. The best teams typically top out in the low to mid 80s in percentile, and some don’t break even: 2008 Florida (43.8%), 2011 LSU (48.0%), 2011 Alabama (31.2%), and 2012 Alabama (40.4%) are examples there. The general consensus on the best team of 1998-2013 centers on 2001 Miami (FL), and its percentile is a solid but unspectacular 62.3%.
Malzahn won’t churn out top-decile teams forever. If he continues his run of success, he’ll eventually get a really good team that doesn’t have to play so many close games.
Auburn goes into the 2014 season as a consensus top ten team. I should probably research it, but my recollection is that Auburn doesn’t do the preseason powerhouse thing very well. Chizik’s post-title team fell by the wayside, as did most of Tuberville’s well-regarded ones. Auburn tends to do better coming from behind. So that’s one thing Malzahn will have to deal with.
The other is the schedule.
The fixed cross-division opponent has a big impact on the SEC West each year. Auburn plays Georgia, a traditional power that should have beaten Auburn last season. LSU gets Florida, another tough opponent. Alabama, however, draws Tennessee, a formerly formidable rival that has proven an unequal match since firing national championship–winning coach Phillip Fulmer. Among the SEC West’s presumed top three contenders, Auburn look likely to face the toughest fixed cross-division game this year — Georgia is considered a favorite to win the SEC East. Worse, Auburn must face two of its toughest opponents, Georgia and Alabama, on the road.
In this season’s rotating cross-division game, Auburn will play South Carolina, a strong team expected to challenge Georgia in the East. This is a much tougher rotating contest than Auburn faced last season, when it landed Tennessee. Meanwhile, LSU will face Kentucky, while Alabama will play Florida. Once again, Auburn has the toughest draw.
The SEC’s scheduling approach means one team will always fall victim to a tougher slate, and this year it looks like it’s going to be Auburn.
None of this should be taken to mean the Tigers won’t succeed, of course. But the signs are there it won’t be as easy as it was last year. Unless Malzahn’s luck hasn’t turned.