Gus Malzahn has slowly risen up the college football ranks from his days winning national championships at Arkansas’ Springfield High School to his prolific offenses at Tulsa, Arkansas and Auburn. It was a slow rise, but Malzahn has been doing this so long that he’s still only 46.

In December, Malzahn made the leap back into the  head coaching seat after accepting the position left vacant by Hugh Freeze at rising non-FBS, Sun Belt conference powerhouse Arkansas State.

However, Bobby Petrino’s career suicide at Arkansas has ensured that Malzahn’s first season will be as awkward as possible.

The offensive genius that guided the Arkansas Razorbacks to only their third SEC West Championship in 20 years, also recruited Cam Newton to Auburn (against Gene Chizik’s wishes) and freshman phenom Michael Dyer to Arkansas State.

Despite winning National Offensive Coordinator of the Year honors, Malzahn’s only season at Arkansas ended acrimoniously because of a philosophical disagreement with Houston Nutt. Malzahn’s departure led to Nutt’s firing and Petrino’s hiring.

Malzahn has maintained his belief that Arkansas State will become the southern Boise State and his name alone has a brought a buzz to Arkansas State’s program. However, in the wake of Bobby Petrino’s firing at Arkansas, he is suddenly the number one candidate for one of the most coveted head coaching positions in the NFL Jr./SEC.

There’s no way in good conscious he could abandon Arkansas State merely four months after accepting the job, however, he didn’t exactly deny interest in the Razorbacks vacant head coaching position.

He only squashed the rumors by literally implying that he was the head coach at Arkansas State and that he hadn’t had contact with Arkansas. It didn’t come across as very reassuring.

Although, Malzahn softly dodged the idea of leaving Arkansas State this season I firmly believe that like Ohio State and North Carolina did in 2011, the Razorbacks will go through the 2012 season with an interim head coach.

During the 2012 bowl season, it will be open season again.

Malzahn turned down numerous opportunities at Vanderbilt and North Carolina before accepting a position with the Sun Belt’s rising powerhouse because Arkansas was in his home state. However, so is Arkansas.

Freeze left Arkansas after one year to leave for Ole Miss to upgrade his $200,000 annual salary to $1.5 million. However, unlike Freeze, Malzahn will receive all revenue and rights associated with his radio and TV shows. By comparison, Petrino’s base salary at Arkansas was approximately $3.5 million.

Arkansas State is no reclamation project. Last season, the Red Wolves went 10-3 under head Freeze, finished just outside the Top 25 and return prolific dual threat senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who threw for 3,600 yards while rushing for nearly 600.

It all depends on what Malzahn wants for his career. For Malzahn, Arkansas would be his final coaching resting place. Arkansas State may be a stepping stone job but it won’t reach Arkansas’ level in Gus’ lifetime. However, he’s quickly built a cult following among the Red Wolves fan base as well.

However, until Arkansas hires a permanent head coach or Malzahn publicly burns all bridges with Arkansas he’ll face the questions about whether he’s simply biding his time until the 2012 bowl season when most hires are typically made.

The fan base will live for the next season in a constant state of anxiety and recruits will be weary of committing to Arkansas State. However, if Malzahn spurns Arkansas it will only strengthen the notion that he’s there for the long haul.

Malzahn may have brought Michael Dyer to Arkansas State from Auburn and half of his Springfield High School offense to Arkansas but it’s unlikely he’ll be bringing many Arkansas State players with him to Fayetteville.

In the meantime, conspiracy theories that he’s already accepted Arkansas’ head coaching position after the season will flourish behind the scenes.

Ultimately, it would make poor imagery for Malzahn to leave Arkansas State high and dry after the manner in which Arkansas snatched Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons and scheduled a press conference while his players found out by text. Arkansas does not need another repeat of the 2008 midnight Petrino press conference/public relations disaster.

The Arkansas saga is not over yet. However, you can expect the next eight months to be a more awkward courting between the Razorbacks and Malzahn than a fifth grade dance.