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New Stripes

Their offense turbocharged by a change at coordinator, the Auburn Tigers are piling up points and winning games

He's not flashy. Gus Malzahn wears rimless glasses, often speaks in a voice that's library quiet and generally is as mild-mannered as a seventh-grade geography teacher, which he once was. But give Malzahn, 44, the keys to an offense—as new Auburn coach Gene Chizik did last December—and he morphs into something of a mad scientist, the way he can assemble an attack that is part spread, part smashmouth, part single wing and always hurry-up.

The Tigers have been humming along quite nicely with their new offensive coordinator. At home last Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn rallied to defeat speedy West Virginia 41--30 in a game that was delayed more than an hour by lightning and torrential rain. Suddenly, Auburn (3--0) looks capable of wreaking havoc in the ultrastrong SEC West, in which Alabama and Ole Miss are the favorites. Why? Because a year after finishing 10th in the SEC in scoring (17.3 points per game), the Tigers are averaging 42.3 points and have a healthy and accurate quarterback (senior Chris Todd), a pair of talented running backs (senior Ben Tate and freshman Onterio McCalebb) and a threat in the Wildcat formation (junior Kodi Burns).

Malzahn has jump-started teams before. From 1992 through 2005 he coached at three high schools in Arkansas and led them to five state championship games. In '06 Houston Nutt hired him to be his offensive coordinator at Arkansas; Malzahn introduced the Wildcat offense, which has been copied by coaches at every level of the game. (With Darren McFadden and Felix Jones splitting carries, the Razorbacks finished fourth in the nation in rushing.) The next season, after a falling out with Nutt, Malzahn moved to Tulsa, where his unit finished first nationally in total offense in '07 and second in '08.

"I love this offense," says Todd. "We can run it right at you. We can throw it down the field. And we can bring in Kodi. It can be a lot to handle."

No Tiger has grown more in 2009 than Todd. Facing nine-man fronts against the Mountaineers, the Tigers had 16 rushing yards at the end of the first quarter and trailed 21--10. But Todd kept Auburn close by repeatedly connecting on midrange passes, something he couldn't do as recently as three months ago. Recruited out of Hutchinson (Kans.) Community College, Todd arrived on campus in early '08 with what he describes as a tired right shoulder. He could barely throw the ball 50 yards last season while he split time with Burns. "I'd see windows that I could normally hit, and then I just couldn't," Todd says. "I had to do something."

Last winter Birmingham surgeon James Andrews repaired the AC joint in Todd's shoulder, and Malzahn named him the starter after only nine preseason practices. "You could tell right away that Chris's arm strength was back," Malzahn says.

On Saturday, Todd had career highs in yards (284) and touchdown passes (four). It was Auburn's most significant home win in nearly a year, and 15 minutes after the final whistle, the Tigers' coaches and players were celebrating in the locker room—all of them except Malzahn. He was still on the field, shaking hands with a crush of fans, in his own low-key way bringing a blast of fresh air to the Plains.

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PASS HAPPY Under Malzahn's watchful eye, a healthy-at-last Todd had a career night against the Mountaineers.