A year ago, the thought of the Auburn Tigers being a BCS National Championship contender was laughable—a far-off dream at best.
The Tigers were fresh off a putrid 3-9 season that featured a winless 0-8 SEC run, which led to the dismissal of head coach Gene Chizik. Meanwhile, archrival Alabama was dominating on the field and on the recruiting trail with arguably college football's best active coach, Nick Saban.
So, in its coaching search, AU brought back its former offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, who had just one season of head coaching experience to his name. And now, just a few months later, the Tigers are ranked No. 7 in the BCS at 9-1 with a shot at winning the SEC and knocking their rival out of the national title game.
Whether Auburn completes the job this year or not, Malzahn has his program set up for success for years to come, even in the uber-competitive SEC.
The rebound has been incredible and will likely earn Malzahn Coach of the Year honors.
There might not be a better representation of the team's turnaround than the perspective of CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel. Last November, he wrote that any coach would be a fool to take the Auburn job at that place in time.
When he wrote that, the sentiment seemed right on. The Tigers were reeling from a terrible season, had just fired a coach two years removed from a national title and were hidden beneath the shadow cast by Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Just less than 12 months later, Doyel revisited his 2012 column with a big "oops." Earlier this week, he admitted his mistake and praised Malzahn's quick fix on the Plains:
Point is, whoever coached Auburn wasn't supposed to do this right now. Wasn't supposed to inherit the standstill that was Auburn football in 2012 -- winless in league play, at an apparent talent deficit to the SEC elite, and (by the way) reportedly facing an NCAA investigation -- and generate so much momentum that the Tigers are ranked seventh nationally and are one bad quarter of mistakes against LSU (a lost fumble, a mishandled snap on a punt) from being in the BCS title game conversation.
It is ridiculous to blame Doyel for his missed prediction. When he made it, the Tigers looked like a program nowhere near capable of competing for SEC titles, much less one that would be ranked in the Top 10.
But Malzahn has done it, and even in Auburn's success, it is easy to see why the versatile club has excelled. The Tigers have a strong defense and have shown the ability to win low-scoring games. Through the season, they have given up just 20 points per game on average.
However, they also have a dangerous spread offense that can score along with the best attacks in the nation. The Tigers showed that in a monumental 45-41 win at Texas A&M on Oct. 19—the win that put them in the BCS conversation.
Auburn knows that it has plenty of talent at running back. Tre Mason realized his potential and has been arguably the best running back in the SEC this season. The third-year back has some talent behind him as well in fellow juniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne.
Additionally, the Tigers have two capable quarterbacks: the signal-caller of today, Nick Marshall, and the one of tomorrow, Jeremy Johnson.
Marshall, a junior college transfer, struggled a bit acclimating to his new role in the Auburn offense, but he has flourished in key games lately, particularly with his legs. He'll be exactly what Malzahn and the Tigers need while they continue to groom Johnson.
Meanwhile, AU's quarterback of the future has shown great promise in his limited time filling in for Marshall, completing 70 percent of his passes for 408 yards and six touchdowns with a pair of interceptions.
He isn't the only source of sunshine on the horizon in Auburn. The Tigers also boast three stud freshmen along their defensive line as they look to contend with their power rushing foes in the SEC. Despite playing reserve roles, Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel have combined for 41 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, 21 hurries and two forced fumbles.
Two of them are likely to move into full-time roles next season, as the Tigers will lose seniors Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae to graduation.
Malzahn has also kept up on the recruiting trail while leading a renaissance at home. AU currently boasts the No. 13 class in the 247Sports composite rankings with more work left to do.
As incredible as Auburn's rise has been already this season, the best might be yet to come on the Plains.
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