Cast Out of the SEC, Gus Malzahn May Be an Ideal Match for UCF

If the former Auburn coach succeeds big in Orlando, the Tigers (and Tennessee) will be sure to notice.
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Up-Tempo Gus Malzahn stepped to the podium as the new football coach at Central Florida, looking and sounding like a guy who wants to script 100 plays and sign 20 players before he eats his signature Waffle House breakfast tomorrow. Like he is in a hurry to rebuild his career.

“I’m a dreamer,” he said. “I don’t want a job that doesn’t have expectations to win a championship. … I truly believe we’ll be in the Final Four (College Football Playoff) in a short period of time.”

“We’re going to recruit Florida like nobody else,” he said. “We’re going to recruit like our hair’s on fire. We’re not going to back down from anybody.”

“We need to schedule a top-10 opponent, and beat them. … I’ll play them out in the parking lot, I don’t care. I want to play ‘em and I want to beat ‘em.”

UCF coach Gus Malzahn

“They’re getting the best Gus Malzahn coach of anytime during my career,” he said.

There were times during his eight seasons at Auburn when Malzahn could underwhelm at the microphone. This was quite the opposite. This was high-energy, bold-talking Gus with a new lease on coaching life.

Fired at Auburn in mid-December, Malzahn had to decide whether he was ready to get back on the horse that bucked him right away or take a year off in his mid-50s. After about a week, he decided he was ready. Lo and behold, an enticing opportunity arose in last January, after the hiring cycle has usually run its course. He jumped on it.

“I could feel the fire through the phone,” said UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir of his initial conversation with Malzahn about the job.

UCF and Malzahn could be beautiful together, a marriage of proven winners who just need the right opportunity to do even more than they already have. UCF has gone undefeated and won a New Year's Six bowl within the last five years; Malzahn has played for a national championship within the last 10. There has been some backsliding since then, but joining forces might bring out the best in both.

If that happens, the powers that be at Auburn and Tennessee might want to purchase ear plugs and delete the social media apps from their phones. One of them kicked Malzahn to the curb and the other didn’t make a push to hire him after he became available. Both chose Group of Five coaches they believed would do a better job—Brian Harsin (from Boise State) at Auburn, Josh Heupel (from UCF) at Tennessee. Both could work out, but neither are sure things.

Should Malzahn succeed in a big way in Orlando, the SEC programs that didn’t want him will feel it and hear about it.

If the College Football Playoff expands to eight teams in the coming years—by no means a certainty, but there will be a lot of people pushing for it—the biggest beneficiary might be the American Athletic Conference. UCF is a member of the AAC, and a higher-echelon one at that. An eight-team playoff with a spot reserved for the best G5 program would have had at least two AAC representatives in recent years: the Knights in 2017 and Cincinnati in 2020.

Gaining that playoff access would eliminate one of two remaining barriers to a more level playing field with the Power 5. (The other is media rights revenue, which is a bigger hill to climb but probably matters less to recruits. If you can sell them on competing for a national championship, that would resonate.)

First things first, Malzahn has to regain (and refurbish) the mojo that helped Auburn win the SEC West twice and defeat almighty Nick Saban three times. He has to prove that he’s more than just a tempo guru in an era when tempo alone is not a winning strategy. He was on the cutting edge as a coordinator and head coach from roughly 2006–14, then the rest of the sport caught up. When his Tigers averaged 25.1 points last season, it was the lowest of his tenure.

Malzahn said the eight weeks since being fired gave him a chance to self-evaluate and talked about “tweaks and being cutting edge and being creative.” He also said he will return to calling plays—a job from which he’s unwisely fired himself twice—and will do so “the rest of my career.”

A modernized Malzahn working with junior quarterback Dillon Gabriel could be a fun thing to watch. And a big debut season could pay dividends on the recruiting trail.

(Will it be enough to topple defending champion Cincinnati? That’s a steep hill. The Bearcats could start next season where UCF wants to be—in the top 10. Cincy coach Luke Fickell has become the Saban of the AAC: one season to get his legs under him at 4–8, then 31–6 since. But as previously noted, Malzahn has had some success against Saban.)

Similarly, UCF must restore its brand. Since star quarterback McKenzie Milton went down with a catastrophic leg injury in the 11th game of the 2018 season, the Knights are 17–8. That’s good, but returns were diminishing under Heupel. Last season UCF went 6–4 and defeated nobody who ended the season with a winning record.

That knocked some of the stuffing out of a program that had gotten plenty chesty—declaring itself the 2017 national champion and taking a stance that UCF would not schedule anything less than a home-and-home series with Power 5 opponents. (Former athletic director Danny White subsequently softened that stance, but not before rankling the in-state powers he was hoping to play against.) The dose of humility deepened when Tennessee raided the school last month for both White and Heupel.

But that customary food chain development was turned upside down when UCF replaced Heupel with Malzahn. The Knights appear to have secured an upgrade at head coach—and in the process, the new regime has regained its tweak-the-big-boys swagger. Mohajir declared Malzahn “the best football coach in the state of Florida right now.”

This, certainly, was playing to the UCF base. The school’s fans are eternally standing on their tiptoes to look Florida, Florida State and Miami in the eye, then declaring themselves the tallest of the bunch.

But hiring Gus Malzahn might just give them the growth spurt they’ve been waiting for. If he’s ready to do his best work and the College Football Playoff eventually expands, UCF might have just struck gold with an SEC cast-off.