It appears to be a two-man race for the SEC Coach of the Year award between Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel and first-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
Pinkel has been at the helm as Missouri dusted off from a brutal, sub-.500 2012 campaign to lead his team to a 9-1 (5-1 SEC) record and in control of its own SEC East destiny in the final two weeks of the season.
The Tigers boast a No. 8 ranking in the BCS, have produced the conference's fourth-best offense (492.6 yards per game) after finishing 11th last season (356.4), and have a defense that leads the conference in turnovers gained (25) and is second nationally in turnover margin (1.40).
Not to be outdone, Malzahn has led Auburn to a 10-1 (6-1 SEC) record, a turnaround from the worst offense in the conference (305 YPG) to the second-best (499.9 YPG), the sixth spot in the BCS and into a de facto SEC West title game with Alabama—the first time in the history of the Iron Bowl that the division title will be on the line.
Considering where Auburn came from—a 3-9 record, the first 0-8 conference record in program history and the dismissal of an entire coaching staff—it's no contest.
Gus Malzahn deserves to be SEC Coach of the Year regardless of what happens in the Iron Bowl or what Missouri does down the stretch.
"I think the fact that I was familiar with the players and familiar with Auburn, I know that had to help," Malzahn said last week. "At the same time, I'm very proud of our players for buying in to what we asked them to do and all coming together."
This was a program in turmoil. A program in despair. A program that had lost its way.
|Gus Malzahn vs. Gary Pinkel Tale of the Tape|
|2012 Overall Record||3-9||5-7|
|2013 Overall Record||10-1||9-1|
|2012 Total Offense||356.4 YPG||305.0 YPG|
|2013 Total Offense||492.6 YPG||499.9 YPG|
|2012 Scoring Defense||28.3 PPG||28.4 PPG|
|2013 Scoring Defense||22.0 PPG||20.2 PPG|
It found the way in a hurry, thanks to Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle attack, a concerted effort to get deep along the defensive line through recruiting and a project at quarterback.
That project is junior college transfer Nick Marshall.
Marshall, a former defensive back for Georgia, switched back to quarterback at Garden City (Kan.) Community College last season and has thrived in Malzahn's system in his first season at Auburn. He's thrown for 1,530 yards and nine touchdowns, rushed for 823 yards and nine touchdowns and is running the read option better than any quarterback in the country.
"You start talking about the best player in the country and I think he should be in the conversation," Malzahn said after the Georgia game, according to quotes released by Auburn.
That's a bit of a stretch, but the fact that we're even having this discussion in regards to an Auburn offensive player is a compliment to just how far the Tigers have come.
Pinkel's team is contending following a laundry list of injuries, while Malzahn's team quit on the previous staff. That has to count for something.
Pinkel has done a great job at Missouri, especially considering starting quarterback James Franklin missed three-and-a-half games in the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. But he didn't have to change that much other than promote Josh Henson to offensive coordinator.
Malzahn fought those same injury battles—Marshall has suffered knee and shoulder injuries this season—brought in a whole new staff and changed the culture of the Auburn program in 12 months.
Malzahn wins in a landslide, regardless of what happens down the stretch.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.