GAINESVILLE — The first meeting between Florida coach Dan Mullen and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was nothing like the one coming Saturday.
It happened 14 years ago, when Mullen was the Gators’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Urban Meyer. Malzahn was an up-and-comer, too, regarded as one of the top prep coaches in the nation at Arkansas power Springdale High.
The details of their recruiting and chalk-talk conversations have gotten fuzzy over the years. But the general sentiment from Malzahn’s trip to Gainesville and Mullen’s visit to Arkansas remains: There was an immediate, mutual respect.
“I just remember he really stood out to me as a class guy, real down to earth,” Malzahn said. “That was our first experience.”
It wasn’t the last.
Saturday’s matchup between the two visor-wearing offensive gurus will be their sixth as head coaches (and ninth time overall). Although their styles differ —Mullen is known for developing quarterbacks, while Malzahn’s reputation centers on the run game — both have risen to take over big-name programs with championship pedigrees because of one critical similarity.
They adjust their schemes to fit their personnel.
Malzahn burst onto the national scene a year after his meeting with Mullen. As Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, Malzahn popularized the Wildcat formation with running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones; those Razorbacks won 10 games before losing to UF in the SEC title game.
Malzahn kept evolving and innovating.
He groomed Paul Smith into a 5,000-yard passer at Tulsa. Malzahn coordinated Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy season during Auburn’s 2010 national title run. Three years later with a future pro cornerback (Nick Marshall) at quarterback, his Tigers passed less and compiled the most prolific rushing offense in SEC history (4,596 yards) to come within 13 seconds of beating Florida State for another national championship.
“He’s not afraid to be an innovator within an offense,” Mullen said. “He has systems that he runs and he knows and he’s not afraid to create outside the box within his system, put his players in position to make plays.”
Mullen isn’t, either.
He had the SEC’s top rushing offense in 2009, his first year as Mississippi State’s head coach. Six years later, he had the SEC’s No. 2 passing offense with Dak Prescott.
“Coach Mullen’s one of the most brilliant minds in college football,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “Whatever he comes up with it usually works out pretty well…”
This season has been a testament to that.
Although the No. 10 Gators’ strength is a defense that’s second nationally with 24 sacks, Mullen and his staff deserve credit for what they’ve done with the offense.
Losing starting quarterback Feleipe Franks to a season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky could have been devastating. Instead, Mullen plugged in veteran backup Kyle Trask for the comeback victory in Lexington and has helped him score 72 points over the last two games.
Like UF, Auburn’s best unit is a defense — specifically a line UF co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy called “one of the best ones” he has seen in his 15 years in the SEC. That fact shouldn’t obscure what Malzahn has done since taking over play-calling responsibilities in last year’s bowl game.
Despite facing the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule, Auburn has a top-25 scoring offense that torched Mississippi State for 56 points last week. And Malzahn is doing it with a quarterback (Bo Nix) who became the Tigers’ first true freshman passer to start Week 1 in 73 years.
The separate success from Mullen and Malzahn only reaffirms what both coaches knew 14 years ago: That these bright offensive minds are headed for big things.
Like an undefeated, top-10 matchup at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Mullen vs. Malzahn
Florida coach Dan Mullen was 2-3 at Mississippi State against Gus Malzahn in their head coaching matchups:
2013: Auburn 24, Mississippi State 20
2014: No. 3 Mississippi State 38, No. 2 Auburn 23
2015: Mississippi State 17, Auburn 9
2016: Auburn 38, Mississippi State 14
2017: No. 13 Auburn 49, No. 24 Mississippi State 10