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Malzahn making the most of his shot

In the old days, coaching feuds weren’t too hard to find.

They were out there front and center, and coaches weren’t shy about hiding their disdain for the guy on the other sideline.

Every once in a while, a coach will still pop off. See Mike Zimmer’s tirade last week concerning Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino.

Zimmer, though, is coaching in the NFL and Petrino in college. They won’t be facing each other any time soon.

This Saturday, though, a couple of guys who’re not especially fond of each other (and that’s putting it mildly) will face off when No. 1 Auburn travels to Ole Miss.

And like Zimmer and Petrino, they once worked together on the same staff.

Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn spent a year on the Arkansas staff as offensive coordinator in 2006. Of course, the Hogs’ head coach at that time was current Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.

To say it was one big, happy family would be a wee bit disingenuous.

Nutt, coming off a 4-7 season, felt pressured into hiring Malzahn, who was putting up ridiculous numbers with his spread offense at nearby Springdale High School and had several big-time prospects on that team, including quarterback Mitch Mustain.

The Hogs lost 50-14 at home to Southern California in Malzahn’s first game as offensive coordinator.

Needless to say, it was more Nutt’s offense the rest of that season than it was Malzahn’s.

Malzahn was one and done, off to Tulsa after the 2006 season. And before Nutt left under pressure following the 2007 season, there was a near mutiny with several of the Springdale players and their parents, all of whom were upset about the direction of the offense.

They wanted to open it up and throw the ball and said that’s what they were promised.

Never mind that the Hogs had Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis in the backfield at that time.

Publicly, Nutt and Malzahn won’t revisit what was a turbulent time for both of them. In fact, prior to last season’s game, they said they really hadn’t spoken since Malzahn went to Tulsa following the 2006 season.

Nutt, though, didn’t hold back two summers ago when I asked him how it all went south for him at Arkansas.

Asked if he would have done anything differently, he said pointedly, “I probably wouldn’t have hired a couple of people. I probably would have just stuck to my niche.”

Well, the fact remains that he did hire Malzahn, giving him a shot in college football, and it’s an opportunity Malzahn has taken and run with at Tulsa and now Auburn.

He led the country in total offense at Tulsa, but the knock against him was that he was a gimmicks guy. Plus, it was Tulsa.

Now in his second season at Auburn, the Tigers lead the SEC in just about every statistical category.

And most importantly, they’re No. 1 in the BCS standings.

Malzahn is unpredictable, and he’s the kind of offensive coordinator who loves to keep you off balance with misdirection, some zone-read and a trick play mixed in here and there.

But his calling card at Auburn has been running the football. The Tigers are fourth nationally in rushing offense (303.2 yards per game). They’re doing it with quarterback Cam Newton leading the way this season. Last season, it was with tailback Ben Tate.

One more thing: This isn’t Tulsa, either. This is the SEC, and they’re scrambling all over this defensive-minded league trying to figure out how to stop Malzahn’s offense.

Newton would make any offense look good. That’s a given.

Malzahn, though, is the one who put it all together. He’s also the one who called the sweep to Onterio McCalebb that popped wide open against LSU and was the difference in that game.

The bottom line is that his offenses move the ball and score points as well as anybody. And if you want to call rushing for 300 yards a game gimmicky, something tells me Malzahn won’t care what you call it as long as he continues to get that kind of production.

The fact that it was Nutt who gave him his shot in the college game doesn’t bother him, either.

Sometimes, all anybody needs is a shot.