- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs hired Gus Malzahn to be the Tigers’ new head coach last December, he had visions of the 2010 season.
He wanted to get back to competing for championships, and more importantly, he wanted to beat Alabama. Malzahn, who was offensive coordinator for the 2010 team, brought that winning mentality back to the Plains. It was evident in everything he did, and Jacobs noticed it during his first practice.
“He hadn’t changed a bit,” Jacobs said. “He was still tenacious and a perfectionist. When it’s not right, he runs it over again. When it’s one step out of place, he runs it over again. It was just 2010 all over again.”
But Malzahn didn’t have the same group of players he had in 2010. There were similarities -- a junior college quarterback who could both run and pass, a talented but underrated offensive line, a defense that overachieved at times -- but ultimately, it wasn’t the same team.
“You know that team was a special veteran group, and we’re not anywhere close to being veteran,” Malzahn said after the Mississippi State game on Sept. 14. “We’re still a work in progress, but it’s a good progress. I really like where we are as a team. We’re going to have the chance to improve each game, and I think our young guys will grow up and get better.”
That was then. This is now. Auburn rallied to win that game against Mississippi State in the final minutes but lost to LSU the next week. Since that loss, the Tigers have won seven straight games, and the confidence has grown with every victory. It’s a different team now than the one who needed a game-winning drive to beat the Bulldogs early in the season.
“Each game they have gotten better,” Malzahn said. “As a coaching staff, we learned a lot about our team the first half of the season. We weren’t there yet. We’re getting closer. There are still areas of improvement. We’re going to have to play our best game [Saturday], and we’re going to have to improve from the last game that we had.”
Malzahn, more than most, knows that playing your best game will be only the first step to beating No. Alabama. He learned that in 2010.
Auburn was undefeated and ranked No. 1, but was still a four-point underdog to the Crimson Tide. In that game, Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but Cam Newton led an improbable second-half comeback and Auburn found a way to win, 28-27. It had been their M.O. all season.
Defensive end Dee Ford was a part of that 2010 team, and he sees a lot of similarities in this year’s Auburn team and their will to win.
“We win very ugly, but we take it,” Ford said. “We weren’t able to do that at LSU, but I see this team just finding a way to win no matter what the circumstance -- just like in 2010.”
“That’s been something that I’ve been very impressed with our team,” Malzahn said. “They’ve found different ways to win. Sometimes it’s the offense. Sometimes it’s the defense or special teams. And in close games, they’ve won in some real pressure moments.”
The end result in 2010 was a BCS national championship. The Tigers need a little help to accomplish that this year, but they’re not looking ahead to that right now. They’re focused on Saturday’s Iron Bowl.
“We’re just the Auburn 2013 football team,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “We’re priding ourselves on that, and we can’t wait to finish this thing the right way.”