CBSSports.com Coach of the Year: Auburn's Gus Malzahn

Don't look down.

That's what it has become now for those of us in the press box. That is, if you like to keep score. And I like to keep score -- writing down play-by-play in my notebook.

It reveals trends, numbers, etc. It's a trail of bread crumbs -- leading me back through the game -- for the college football soul. Keeping play-by-play is also getting damn distracting if you actually want to follow the game.

Gus Malzahn has seen to it.

Actually, Malzahn and his up-tempo peers. They don't allow us time to look down -- to our notebooks, to keep score. As you may have noticed, their offenses move too fast.

It hit me on Nov. 30 at Auburn. Alabama led Auburn 21-7 late in the first half. The Tigers had been playing fast but on that series they came out in some sort of hyper drive. They scored in seven plays, covering 81 yards. The drive took slightly more than two minutes.

The Tigers snapped the ball that drive, on average, once every 18.2 seconds. The team that ran the most plays this season -- Texas Tech -- averaged a play every 19.16 seconds.

Yeah, hyper drive.

Shoving the Kick Six aside, it may have been the biggest moment in Auburn's season. Malzahn didn't let Alabama get comfortable, didn't let the Tide seal the deal.

Malzahn pushed his innovative offense into a new gear.

I barely had time to look down.

It gave the crowd and his team confidence. We all know the epic result. So if I can't spare a few seconds to scribble down a few numbers, how can a major-college defense with 11 players keep track?

No doubt, Gus Malzahn has thought of this. So have his peers. Malzahn just does it better. Malzahn just does it faster. So much so that he is CBSSports.com's 2013 coach of the year -- in only his second year as a head coach.

Don't look down. It's been fast.

Malzahn not only has changed the game but also created a new mode of transportation. Yes, there is the Gus Bus. You're either on it or under it.

Malzahn is a 48-year-old, nerdy savant of sorts who doesn't have time for small talk, but can eviscerate your defense. Ask Missouri. They had given up 11 rushing touchdowns all season. Auburn ran for seven alone in the SEC title game.

Or ask the master himself, Nick Saban. The case can be made that Malzahn outcoached and out-strategized Saban for stretches of Auburn's upset of the then-No. 1 Tide.

It's hard, then, to deny Malzahn this honor or this moment -- playing for a second national championship in three years.

Becoming the No. 1 coach with a bullet, though, has been years in the making. I was cleaning out some drawers the other day and stumbled upon a VHS video called Hurry-Up, No-Huddle -- An Offensive Philosophy. It was from 2004, from Malzahn when he coached at Springdale (Ark.) High.

The man turned 40 in 2005 having spent 15 years as a high school coach. He looked like a lifer. Then he spent one turbulent season (2006) as Houston Nutt's offensive coordinator at Arkansas. The "Springdale Five" recruiting spawn who followed him were supposed to turn around the Hogs. They didn't. It's complicated, but don't blame it on Malzahn.

He refined his skills as an assistant under Todd Graham at Tulsa (2007-08). Gene Chizik hired Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in 2009 at Auburn. Enter one Cam Newton. The juco transfer set the SEC total offense record (since broken) in helping the Tigers to the national championship.

Still, Malzahn had never been a college head coach until last year. A one-season apprenticeship at Arkansas State was enough to earn him a return to Auburn to replace the man who had hired him.

In his first two seasons as a head coach, Nick Saban was 15-7-1. Urban Meyer was 17-6. Malzahn is 21-4 with an SEC title and a monstrous role in a Heisman Trophy.

The man has built his reputation waving wands over quarterbacks. His Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has been with him essentially since playing quarterback for Malzahn in the seventh grade. Despite a rocky college career, Mitch Mustain was a record-setting quarterback at Springdale (Ark.) High.

There may be a Next One on the way. In the offseason, Malzahn landed another juco quarterback with off-field issues, returning him to the SEC. Former Georgia defensive back Nick Marshall came out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College and everything changed.

The Tigers went from 3-9 to 12-1. A victory against Florida State in the BCS title game would mark the biggest one-year turnaround in the history of major-college football. (Beating Hawaii's 8 1/2-game turnaround from 1998 to 1999.)

"That's my high school background," Malzahn said. "Each year you lose something. The foundation of our offense is always going to be the same. But once you choose you're quarterback you build around his strengths."

Marshall, suspended at Georgia after theft allegations, had to wipe clean his reputation. A year at desolate Garden City was the answer. Nobody said, though, it was altogether fun. During a 14-hour van ride to Kansas, Marshall bared his soul to Garden City coach Jeff Tatum.

"We talked about it almost weekly. "You've got to clear your name. You can't get in any trouble,' " Tatum said.

Malzahn already had been recruiting Marshall at Arkansas State. Bigger stage, brighter lights at Auburn. Marshall flourished and commanded the nation's top rushing offense, but that wasn't the end of it.

The pride of Pineview, Ga., has this feel. Once the ball is snapped, it's hard to tell where it's going. Under Malzahn this season, Marshall developed into a true triple-option quarterback reminiscent of the greats who ran 1970s wishbones.

It has been only a couple of weeks since that late second-quarter series during the Iron Bowl but already it has hit home: If those of us who like to leave bread crumbs in notebooks can't afford to look down, what hope is there for any defense?

Or maybe that's the point.

 
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