Malzahn leads stunningly quick turnaround at Auburn
Chips don't come much bigger than the ones Auburn players carried on their shoulders at the beginning of the year.
Nobody expected the Tigers to contend, at least not this early. Oh, sure, Auburn was predicted to be better in 2013 than it was in 2012 -- it would have been difficult to be worse -- but with a new coaching staff, a new/old system, and many of the same players who went 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) last season, improvement was predicted to be slow and steady. The consensus opinion was that Gus Malzahn would turn things around eventually, but no one should expect miracles during this rebuilding year.
Now the Tigers are 6-1 (3-1 in the SEC), ranked 11th in the nation in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and in second place in the SEC West behind Alabama. They are also running neck-and-neck with No. 5 Missouri for the biggest surprise in the conference, not because the Auburn wins look like flukes, but because the lone loss to LSU is beginning to look like the anomaly.
So, how did this happen? How did a team that lost every conference game by an average of 28 points a season ago turn things around so quickly?
It starts with leadership, and no one is more deserving of rookie coach of the year than Malzahn, who came back to Auburn after a season at Arkansas State and began preaching the message: "It's a new day."
That newness had a bit of an old Malzahn feel to it, though. The head coach reinstalling the fast-paced offense that served Auburn so well when Malzahn was an assistant and coaching a quarterback named Cam Newton.
Again, everyone assumed it would be an improvement over the slower-paced system of Gene Chizik, but with a quarterback named Nick Marshall -- two years removed from playing defensive back at Georgia -- no one predicted that Auburn would put up 3,460 yards of offense through seven games with Marshall throwing for 1,138 yards and averaging 5.6 yards per carry when he runs. He accounted for 336 total yards of offense in the Tigers' upset win over Texas A&M.
He has also brought a level of leadership to the field that was lacking all of last season at the quarterback spot.
"I think he's shown (great leadership) now in a couple of games that were either tight or coming down to the last drive," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He's just got a calmness about him. He knows how to win, and whether it's throwing for over 300 (yards) against Mississippi State, or against Ole Miss and A&M doing more with his feet, he's not rattled.
"When something bad happens, like he misses a few throws in a row or we fumble, he's done a good job of having a short memory and going forward and getting on to the next drive. His teammates believe in him, I know he believes in them and that's been a positive for us."
The other positive has been the improvement of running back Tre Mason, who has become a stalwart in the Auburn backfield.
Mason erased any lingering doubts about his strength and tenacity in the A&M game where, banged up and bruised, he rushed for 178 yards and a touchdown, including a crucial 1-yard run in the second quarter on fourth down at the Aggies' 5-yard line.
"As an impact player, I have to be the one to make a play," Mason said. "We needed that yard, and I did all I could to get that yard. I followed my fullback. I ran behind my line. They did their job, so I had to do mine and I got that extra yardage."
That attitude is permeating the sidelines at Auburn, especially as the wins keep coming. Now some are suggesting what was considered unthinkable just a few short weeks ago.
"I think we can win it all," defensive end Dee Ford said. "You know, there's no reason to say that we can't. We said we wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football. Why not win it all?"
Why not, indeed? With the No. 1 team in the nation looming large on the schedule at the end of November, anything seems possible for a team on the rise.
"You look across college football, the teams that don't keep improving throughout the year, it's relevant," Malzahn said. "There's a lot of ups and downs and that's our challenge. We've got to keep rolling, take it one game at a time and stay focused."
If they keep winning, the Tigers could be more than the most improved team in college football -- they could end up being one of the best. If that happens, they will surprise a lot more people than just those paying attention to the SEC West.