Last season, Auburn barely belonged on the same field with Texas A&M.
The Aggies embarrassed the Tigers in their own Jordan-Hare Stadium, beating Auburn 63-21 in 2012 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score made it appear. Texas A&M dominated the lowly Tigers right from kickoff, building a five-touchdown lead by halftime in what would go down in the record books as one of Auburn’s worst losses in program history.
It was an embarrassment for the school, in front of the entire country in a nationally televised game—and it was a sign of a team falling deeper and deeper into a pit of despair.
What a difference a year makes.
Saturday afternoon was a different story, as first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and No. 24 Auburn managed the unthinkable, upsetting No. 7 Texas A&M, 45-41, on the road at Kyle Field.
Malzahn’s offense rolled up 615 total yards in the win, as his new quarterback, Nick Marshall, bested Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the shootout—engineering a 13-play, game-winning scoring drive late in the fourth quarter, capped by a five-yard Tre Mason touchdown run to put Auburn on top with one minute and 19 seconds to play.
“We challenged our players to improve each week, and they have done that,” Malzahn said. “We've been working on getting our edge back, and we are getting closer. This was a big win for our program tonight.”
Suddenly, Auburn is 6-1 on the season (3-1 in SEC play), bowl-eligible and in control of its own destiny in the SEC West.
It’s hard to find a turnaround story better than the Tigers’—especially after a dismal 3-9 season in 2012, in which Auburn didn’t win a single SEC game, or a single game away from Jordan-Hare.
Suddenly, the team that was 3-9 is on its way to finishing the season 9-3—or even better.
“Our team is going back to the top,” Marshall said, after finishing with 336 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns. “We are just now getting our edge back. On the last drive we went out there and executed. We knew we were going to be the more conditioned team in the second half, and it showed.
“This win is about confidence. We're going to take one game at a time and keep moving forward.”
The Tigers have made incredible strides thus far under Malzahn, who replaced former coach Gene Chizik last December.
Malzahn, who spent three seasons at Auburn as an offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011—and won the Broyles Award as college football’s top assistant coach during the Tigers’ national championship run in 2010—returned to the Plains with his hurry-up, no-huddle offensive philosophy in tow.
Already, his offense is back to breaking school records, and his coaching staff has the Tigers back to form as contenders in the SEC once again—all in just his first year as head coach at Auburn, and just his second year as a head coach in his career.
Saturday’s win was Malzahn’s most impressive yet, as his Tigers came from behind time and again to outgun Manziel and the famous Texas A&M offense, coming back from a 24-17 deficit at halftime, and completing a game-winning drive down late with just five minutes remaining in the game.
“Coach told us we were going to win the game in the second half,” sophomore wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “The second half we showed everyone we are a good team.”
For Malzahn and the Tigers, who host FAU in out-of-conference action next week before closing the season with Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, Saturday’s win wasn’t just the culmination of a year-long process to change the attitude, culture and mentality around the Auburn football program—it could be the beginning of something even more.
“We answered this test,” Malzahn said. “We were curious how we were going to respond on the road, and we did better than when we played at LSU. It was a challenge for our defense giving the ball back to Manziel with one minute left in the game, but we found a way to get it done.”
What a difference a year makes.
What a difference Malzahn makes.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.