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Gus Malzahn on the Big 12: ‘There was a Misconception it was a 7-On-7 League’

Gus Malzahn has been around long enough to know physical football when he sees it. The 58-year-old head coach spent eight seasons as the head coach at Auburn, spent time with the Tigers and at Arkansas as an offensive coordinator before that.

Add stints at Tulsa and Arkansas State, and you’ve got a well-rounded coach with all kinds of perspectives who now has a three-year tenure at UCF to build on.

The 2023 season provided Malzahn’s first taste of Big 12 football; from the sounds of it, the experience changed his perspective on what “Big 12 football” actually looks like.


Teams on the outside looking in see offensive tempo, spread schemes, and high-scoring attacks and assume that it’s just a 7-on-7 league with virtually nothing going on in the trenches. According to Malzahn, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“First of all there’s a lot of real teams,” Malzahn told On3. “In the past, there is that misconception that it was a seven-on-seven league. It was anything but that. Teams line up, they try to bloody your nose. It’s a real conference.”

Malzahn’s Knights finished their inaugural regular season in the league with a 6-6 record, dropping several one-score games, which are common in the Big 12. That’s just the way that football is played in this league, and that’s certainly something that stood out to UCF’s head coach in Year 1.


“You learn the first year, there’s no doubt,” Gus Malzahn said. “And just to be completely honest, we didn’t do a great job coaching. Any time you have that many close losses, we lost a couple close at home, you just talked about the Oklahoma (game), you’ve got a chance to seize the moment in a huge win, we weren’t able to do that. But I like where we’re at.”

The Big 12, which will expand again in 2024 to 16 teams, provides little time to breathe once conference play begins. With teams like Kansas and Iowa State elevating over the past several seasons, you’ve got to come ready to play week in and week out.

“There’s no off weeks. And there’s a lot of parity,” he said. “You have to play good football to win, whether you’re at home or on the road. But I was very impressed going through it the first year.”


Malzahn and company have a good contingent of talent coming back to Orlando in 2024 though, and the Knights appear to be a great dark horse candidate in the new-look league in their second year. After watching the film and taking what they learned in 2023, UCF knows what to expect now and can use that going forward.

“Definitely did some self-reflection. But when you do that it gives you an opportunity to, ‘Hey, what do we need to do?’ And we evaluate everything,” Gus Malzahn said. “We made some coordinator changes, some staff changes, I really think that’s going to help us. We brought in some defensive playmakers from the portal that I think can help with our young guys coming up, so I like where we’re at. But we’re going to roll our sleeves up and go to work.”

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