On the first day of Gus Malzahn's return to Auburn, he made it crystal clear exactly what he wanted and expected from the Tigers.
"From Day 1, he's said we're going to have the biggest turnaround in college football and that's been the goal," running back Tre Mason said. "Day 1, first sentence: 'Guys, get ready. It's a new day, and we're going to have the biggest turnaround in college football.'"
As we enter the ninth week of the season, the Tigers' goal certainly looks like it's materializing. After a wretched 3-9 2012 season that ended with the firing of head coach Gene Chizik and the Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in total defense, Auburn is 6-1 (3-1 SEC) and ranked 11th in the BCS standings.
The Tigers are fresh off of a 45-41 upset win over then-No. 7 Texas A&M, are 2-1 against ranked teams and have an outside shot at playing in a BCS bowl game. People expected a turnaround under Malzahn, who returned to Auburn after a year as Arkansas State's head coach, but one this dramatic and this fast is impressive.
Few questioned the Malzahn hire, who was Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-11. He knew Auburn, was beloved by fans (a record 83,401 attended the spring game) and could return the spread offense to a team built for spread players. It's clear that he was the right man to revive Auburn's football program.
"We took a huge, huge U-turn from last year," said Mason, who has rushed for 693 yards and eight touchdowns in an offense averaging 494.3 yards per game. "We're going in the perfect way; we're trying to win it all. Go back and get another title -- a national title."
Mason might be dreaming big, but you can't knock the confidence. It's oozing from this team. Mentally and physically, the Tigers have totally transformed under Malzahn. Mason said it's because of the confidence and belief he's restored in the program. Malzahn says it's because of the trust and chemistry that's sprouted since his return.
Malzahn's familiarity with the program helped when he stepped back on the Plains, but so did his resume. He was the 2010 Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant after directing Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton to the Tigers' 2010 BCS title. As a collegiate coach, Malzahn's teams have won or played for conference titles in five of his last seven seasons, and as either an assistant or head coach in college, Malzahn's teams have a combined record of 77-24.
When Malzahn greeted his new team in December, he told them to forget the past and forget the blame.
"Gosh, when we first got here you could tell they had some mental scars," Malzahn said. "They just went through a storm.
"You could tell things were different when I got back, even with some of the guys I was familiar with because they went through a tough time. It was a little Dr. Philin' and hard work setting the bar high."
Coaches started by developing better relationships with players. Malzahn wanted players to see their coaches as people more than instructors. Then, Malzahn said he used character development exercises and programs to help bring players closer with one another. He had to rebuild from within before taking things to the field.
“I just think it is a matter of our guys bonding together," Malzahn said. "During the spring we were extremely tough on them and extremely challenging. We challenged our guys. They came together, you could tell, and in fall camp, the same thing. They are playing for each other, and I think that is important.”
Mason, who played for Malzahn during his final season as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, said Malzahn's leadership and his relentless effort to push guys has motivated the Tigers. They were pushed to be "the best team in America," which established a confidence and championship attitude in Year 1.
"We played in the worst season possible and now we know what that feels like and we don't want to go through that again," Mason said. "A lot of people's mindsets have changed and we're looking forward to doing big things for Auburn."
The Tigers have a chance at a 10-win season, have a top-10 quarterback in Nick Marshall and a defense that is light-years ahead of the last few Auburn has thrown out.
Malzahn wasn't sure what he'd see at this point, but he's very pleased with the product. It isn't perfect, but it improves every week. It struggled through an opening win over Washington State, pulled off a thrilling comeback at Mississippi State and dug itself into an insurmountable muddy hole in Baton Rouge, and then left College Station with a win.
Just how Malzahn drew it up.
"I'm happy for our team that we've improved each week and we're playing pretty solid football," Malzahn said. "Now, we haven't arrived yet, but we have a chance to improve. If we keep improving, we'll end up being a pretty good team."