NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — It's the spread, or smashmouth. It's about big passing numbers, or off-the-charts run stats.
All those descriptions can be fairly accurate for the hurry-up, no-huddle offense designed by Auburn coach Gus Malzahn back in his Arkansas high school days. They can each be totally off-base, too.
"All he's ever said is, 'We're a hurry-up, no-huddle team that takes advantage and is going to play physical football,'" said Chris Wood, Malzahn's former offensive coordinator at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High. "He didn't say we were going to throw it or run it. He lets his personnel define the team and define the offense.
"I guarantee you he loved running the ball in the SEC. That's how he is; he just wants to win."
Malzahn has won at every stop of the way with an offense he adapts to fit the personnel instead of the other way around.
The No. 2 Tigers (12-1) effectively switched styles four games into this season, and rode Nick Marshall and the running game all the way to Monday's BCS national championship game against No. 1 Florida State (13-0). The zone read, where Marshall can either run or hand off based on what he sees from the defense, became the staple of Auburn's offense after a loss to LSU.
The offense then took flight, or more appropriately was grounded.
The result is the nation's top rushing team at 335.7 yards per game, an average just a few yards shy of the two games before the metamorphosis combined.
The offense that used to give Arkansas prep foes fits bedeviled the mighty Alabama defense and roughed up Missouri for 545 yards rushing and 52 points in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, whose defense yields the nation's fewest points, said the Tigers are just "doing a better job of executing than everybody else."
Part of Malzahn's philosophy is being willing to do what his quarterback does best. Marshall has run for 1,023 yards to complement Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards), Corey Grant (650 yards) and Cameron Artis-Payne (609).
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was an eighth-grade quarterback in Springdale, Ark., when Malzahn started running this no-huddle offense, and ran it for two years in junior high before taking over the reins at Shiloh Christian. He believes Malzahn "is the best play caller in the country." Adaptability based on the personnel of the moment also sets Malzahn apart.
"I think so many times in our game you may see people that try to make a square peg fit in a round hole and make guys do things they want them to do but maybe they're not best at, and we just try to take the opposite approach with that," Lashlee said on Thursday.
This season is a perfect example.
The Tigers have run on 70.7 percent of their plays, counting sacks as passes, far more than any offense in Malzahn's eight seasons as a college offensive coordinator or head coach. The next highest was the Cam Newton-led Auburn team that won the national championship in 2010 (66.4 percent), according to STATS Inc.
The 2010 team posted easily the highest percentage of run plays by a national champion since the 1997 Nebraska option offense ran 80 percent of the time.
Newton and Marshall are his only college quarterbacks to rush for 450 yards or more, though every one of his college teams has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher.
Malzahn's first Tulsa offense in 2007 ran just 47 percent of the time, and quarterback Paul Smith set an NCAA record with 14 consecutive 300-yard passing games. The Golden Hurricane led the nation in total offense in both of Malzahn's seasons as coordinator.
Current Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said the running game was a key part of those offenses, too, whatever the perception.
"I think there's an illusion that it's always been pass," said Blankenship, also a member of that staff and like Malzahn highly successful in the high school ranks. He and Malzahn attribute that flexibility to the necessity of building around the available playmakers in high school.
Blankenship and Malzahn became acquainted when both were in the prep ranks.
Then Blankenship got more familiar with Malzahn's offense and its misdirection plays, sweeps and reverses at Tulsa's football camps.
"It was this creative kind of mad scientist look," Blankenship recalled. "When you get to know what's going on in the inside, there's a lot more systemic approach than what you realize.
"It's not just a collection of plays. It's really a pretty good system that he's developed over time, and he has answers and he builds on top of a play and on top of a play on top of a play."