Auburn's 2013 SEC Title Win Shows Gus Malzahn Is Ready to Take SEC from Alabama

Justin Lee@@byjustinleeContributor IDecember 8, 2013

Dec 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Tre Mason (21) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Missouri Tigers in the 2013 SEC Championship game at Georgia Dome. Auburn won 59-42. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to describe exactly what Gus Malzahn and these Auburn Tigers have done this season.

In just a matter of months, this team has flipped the Southeastern Conference upside down.

Just a year ago, the Tigers were winless in the SEC, buried at the bottom of the conference standings. Saturday night, that same team was in Atlanta, lifting the SEC Championship Trophy after a 59-42 win over Missouri—and getting set for a trip to the BCS National Championship Game.

It's already been one of the best turnarounds in the history of college football. The Tigers' nine-win improvement over last year's 3-9 mark has tied the NCAA improvement record from one season to the next. And they've done it in the SEC, during the SEC's greatest era of national dominance.

But if the hard statistics aren't far enough beyond belief, just consider how Auburn's season ended a year ago—with an embarrassing 49-0 loss to archrival Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

This year, the Tigers' season will end in Pasadena.

"All I can explain is, since I got there, our team bought into what we asked them to do and have gotten better and better and better," Malzahn said postgame. "Like I said, it's very hard to explain. After the season we'll look back, and there's a lot of things to be proud of, but our players have found a way to improve.

"We're playing our best football right now. I don't know if a lot of teams around the country could say that."

Dec 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates after defeating the Missouri Tigers in the 2013 SEC Championship game at Georgia Dome. Auburn defeated Missouri 59-42. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Now, there may only be one other team in the nation that can make that claim, and for Auburn it's the only team left that matters—the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles.

After Auburn's win over Missouri, and No. 2 Ohio State's loss to Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship Game, the third-ranked Tigers are poised to jump the Buckeyes and earn a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

It's been the most unlikely of runs for Auburn—one that needed all the dominoes to fall a certain way, and one that sent fans to swarm downtown Auburn Saturday and roll Toomer's Corner not once, but twice.

But while it's been unlikely, don't call it lucky.

Yes, Auburn has won games in some unbelievable fashions. Yes, some of the Tigers' last-second wins have seemed downright miraculous.

But it isn't just by good fortune or by any strange bounce of a football that Auburn is headed to Pasadena.

"The unique thing from my standpoint is this team finds a way to win," Malzahn said. "It's really bizarre how they complement each other—the offense, the defense, special teams. When the pressure's on, our team's at the best, and it's been really something to be a part of."

Rushing for 545 yards against the Missouri defense doesn't happen by luck. Neither does lighting up the Georgia Dome scoreboard with an SEC title-game record 59 points.

While some seem to know Auburn only for a pair of last-minute plays against Georgia and in the Iron Bowl, others who have followed the program closely have witnessed just what Malzahn and his staff have accomplished this season—fielding a powerful offense that's not quite like anything college football has ever seen.

Malzahn has built Auburn from the ground up in his first year on the job, fine-tuning his hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy and turning what was a fledgling Tigers offense from 2012 into a well-oiled, unstoppable read-option machine in 2013.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates his fourth quarter touchdown with teammate quarterback Nick Marshall #14 against the Missouri Tigers during the SEC Championship Game at Georgia Dome on December 7, 2013 in Atlanta,
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"It's just been very unique," Malzahn said. "It's been one of the more unique experiences I've ever been a part of. Our staff deserves a lot of credit. They came in, they developed relationships with our players. We developed trust with each other.

"We had some growing pains, had some tough times. We strained the dog out of our players in the spring. In the fall camp, we were very physical, and this bunch came together. They found a way to improve each practice and each game, and we're playing our best football right now."

And if the times are any indication, the Tigers aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Since the day Malzahn was hired at Auburn last December, he's laid out Auburn's path to Pasadena, brick by brick.

While he was at it, he built the foundation for a bright future on the Plains.


Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.