Four Downs: Gus Malzahn, The Chosen One

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Narratives in college football change more frequently than personnel on a lengthy touchdown drive. Gus Malzahn’s was scripted, scrapped, rewritten and scrapped again, all in the course of four years.

Stanford’s went through a comparable number of rewrites through 12 weeks of the 2017 season, and the final draft is still being penned.

And the College Football Playoff? Well, the first weekly rankings were released Oct. 31. It’s Nov. 25, and the layout of scenarios that got us to this point, and the possibilities for the final four, resemble Rust Cohle’s cork board.

FIRST DOWN: The Return of Gus Malzahn

Assuming you view Nick Saban as college football’s Darth Vader, our understanding of story arcs dictated a Luke Skywalker would emerge. Now, I would write Saban is the sport’s Sauron, but that means a Samwise would need to face down the Crimson Tide threat…and we saw how things worked out when Sam/Rudy took on Alabama in the championship picture.

Every coach to beat Saban since the rise of this incarnation of Alabama football to prominence was, at one time or another, deemed the Chosen One. And yet, Les Miles was fired last year; Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin were both cut loose this year. Our various New Hopes turned to prequel-level disappointment. 

In 2013, Gus Malzahn returned to the SEC, working for the first time as a head coach, and made an instant impact unlike anything seen in college football. Auburn won the SEC in his debut campaign and came a play away from a national championship. Even Tigers legend Pat Dye needed until Year 3 before he had Auburn in the title hunt.

And, in that first year, the same offensive style that produced a national championship and engineered the Cam-back with Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator in 2010 vexed Alabama again.

As is the case whenever a coach beats Saban head-to-head, hails to the new king went up. The following is the most hyperbolic and goofiest, which — well, consider the source — but I include it to serve as reminder of just how out-of-control the rhetoric following Gus Malzahn got to be at a point not long after the Kick-Six.

Wrong and hilariously “how do you do, fellow kids” usage of the colloquialism “smoke show” notwithstanding, results before Saturday proved this hot take to be absurd. Alabama’s average margin of victory since the Kick Six was 15 points per game, without a single-digit margin among the three Crimson Tide wins.

Over that same time span, intermittent issues on both sides of the ball resulted in Auburn falling well short of expectations — and Gus Malzahn joining other one-time Saban Killers in the hot-seat conversation.

They love you one second then hate you the next, oh ain’t it crazy, baby.

Well, consider Gus Malzahn back in the good graces of college football taste-makers. The Tigers’ 26-14 win Saturday marks Alabama’s first loss by double digits since the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. And, since the Iron Bowl served as a de facto SEC West championship, the implicit excuse the Tide were disinterested does not apply.

No, Gus Malzahn’s team simply came and punched Alabama in the mouth, and not with high-flying offense that yanked the Tide from its comfort zone. The most impressive part of this rewrite is that it happened with Auburn beating Alabama at its own game, the Tigers winning on defense (especially third down) and grinding away with the run.

Kerryon Johnson’s performance was the kind of perfectly workmanlike outing Saban typically gets from his running backs, and Jarrett Stidham went legend (and I don’t mean the Finebaum caller of the same name) with his critical touchdown rush.

SECOND DOWN: The Revenge of the Nerds

Odd as it might be for a program like Stanford, which just a decade inhabited the lowest rung of power-conference football, the Cardinal’s success has become taken for granted.

It took just one season finishing out of the Pac-12 North championship picture (while still winning 10 games) for David Shaw’s Cardinal to be replaced by Washington and Washington State as the divisional darlings. A 1-2 start to 2017 with a blowout loss to USC and a back-and-forth defeat against Group of Five San Diego State did nothing to restore excitement in what has been the West’s most consistent program for eight years running.

Since that bizarre loss at San Diego State on Sept. 16, however, David Shaw’s bunch is 8-1 and headed for the program’s fourth Pac-12 Championship Game in six years. What’s more, while the Cardinal will not factor into the College Football Playoff discussion themselves, they changed the landscape dramatically over the past 15 days.

Wins over Washington and Notre Dame removed both from the Playoff hunt. Stanford exacted revenge for the embarrassing loss sustained against the Huskies a season ago, while Saturday’s defeat of the Fighting Irish marked three straight in the series for the Cardinal. David Shaw improved to 5-2 head-to-head against Brian Kelly.

K.J. Costello’s emergence in recent weeks, culminating with a four-touchdown performance against Notre Dame, points to sustained success into 2018. Costello is finding his rhythm and comfort in the offense, much in the same way Kevin Hogan settled in down the stretch of a tough 2014 season.

Hogan was outstanding in 2015. Costello could be even better. He made throws against the Fighting Irish not seen on The Farm since — dare I go there? Yes, I’m going there — Andrew Luck.

#NerdNation isn’t back; it never left. 

THIRD DOWN: No Scholarships, No Problem

The FCS Playoffs kicked off Saturday with opening-round action. Maybe it’s my own nostalgia influencing my opinion; one of my first professional gigs covering college football was as a national FCS reporter for the then-CBS-owned NCAA.com in 2009, the last season in which the FCS Playoffs ran a 16-team format. 

Whatever the rationale, I prefer the old 16-team tournament to the 20 and now 24-team bracket. The admittedly limited sample size of precedent suggests the opening round often goes chalk, giving us a 16-team tournament we would have had anyway — at least, without a few automatic qualifying conference champions. 

One of the automatic qualifiers given an opportunity it wasn’t in the old system is the Pioneer Football League, a collection of non-scholarship programs spread across the country. In the 16-team Playoffs days, the champion of the Pioneer capped its season against the champion of the Northeast Conference, a partial-scholarship league, in the College Cup. 

The College Cup seemed a more fitting end-of-season reward for the PFL champion than a spot in the Playoffs, given the first three seasons of AQ status resulted in one-and-done exits of 31-0, 52-14 and 24-7. 

However, on Saturday, the University of San Diego advanced to the Round of 16 for the second time in as many seasons with an impressive, opening-round win against an opponent from the Big Sky. The Toreros beat Cal Poly last year, and thoroughly dominated Northern Arizona in this year’s Playoffs. 

San Diego’s success in the Playoffs isn’t necessarily emerging out of nowhere. This program produced an NFL quarterback in Josh Jackson, who played at USD when Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw were on the Toreros sidelines. USD’s recent lineage exceeds what one might anticipate of a non-scholarship program.

FOURTH DOWN: Some Serious Stones on Stony Brook

In my days covering the FCS, Stony Brook was a program on the rise, albeit one on the outside looking in. The Seawolves were members of the Big South, a conference without an automatic bid into the Playoffs during the 16-team days.

Stony Brook parlayed its success in the Big South into an invitation to the Colonial Athletic Association. In FBS parlance, Stony Brook made a move akin to jumping from Conference USA to the SEC.

Despite some initial growing pains, failing to finish above .500 in any of the first four seasons as members of one of the top FCS conferences, the Seawolves broke out in 2017. Their 9-win regular season is made all the more impressive when one considers the same head coach who oversaw the program’s success in the Big South, Chuck Priore, remains on the sidelines in the CAA.

Stony Brook finished 7-1 in the CAA this season, making its inclusion among the teams playing an opening round game somewhat surprising. Even more surprising, a Round of 16 matchup with undefeated defending national champion and CAA counterpart James Madison suggests Stony Brook was the de facto No. 16 seed.

Be that as it may, Priore followed up a 59-29 opening round rout of Lehigh with a declaration.

Stony Brook and James Madison did not play in the regular season, to explain Priore’s stance. Is laying out a challenge to the defending national champion — a team that has been laying waste to all competition, including Elon in a Top 15 showdown just a week ago — a wise move?

I guess we’ll find out next week. But one has to admire the chutzpah of Priore, a head coach who has routinely defied the odds in a career that included juggling lacrosse coaching duties with coordinating an offense.

Yes, seriously. Respect the grind.