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Year, Won: Malzahn can’t lose after surprising turnaround

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn talks with Auburn running back Tre Mason (21) during the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Auburn won 55-23. (USA TODAY Sports: Jim Brown)

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn talks with Auburn running back Tre Mason (21) during the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Auburn won 55-23. (USA TODAY Sports: Jim Brown)

AUBURN, Ala. — When Gus Malzahn was hired to take over after one of the worst Auburn seasons in history, the expectations would be that the turnaround could take years.

Years. As in, plural.

Instead, what Malzahn and the No. 4 Tigers are on the cusp of accomplishing in just one year — should they beat No. 1 Alabama in the 78th Iron Bowl this weekend — is the greatest single-season turnaround in NCAA Division I history.

If Auburn (10-1 overall, 6-1 in the SEC), which went 3-9 a season ago under former coach Gene Chizik, can find a way to dethrone the reigning national champion Tide, the Tigers will tie the 1999 Hawaii team for the biggest turnaround season in NCAA history. The Warriors (0-12 in 1999 to 9-4 in 2000) saw an 8 1/2-game difference that year, while Auburn’s last-second win against Georgia two weeks ago means the Tigers have been improved by 7 1/2 games from a season ago.

After a bye week to prepare for Alabama and reflect on where he’s taken the program in one season, Malzahn was asked Tuesday during his weekly news conference whether it had sunk in what he’s been able to accomplish in less than a year.

“I knew our mindset, which was to get better,” said Malzahn, who has put his team in position to capture the SEC West title and a trip to the conference championship game with a win against the Tide. “There were still a lot of question marks early in the season. We learned a lot about our team.”

Malzahn, like most head coaches, keeps his emotions close to the vest, but others around the program aren’t afraid to talk about what’s happening on The Plains heading into the Iron Bowl, which — for the first time in the game’s history — will serve as the deciding factor as to which team is crowned the SEC West champ and represents the conference in Atlanta.

And, of course, there’s always that outside chance a convincing win against the No. 1 team in the land could also vault Auburn ahead of No. 3 Ohio State in the BCS standings. That would set up a national title game pitting the Tigers against No. 2 Florida State as long as both teams win Saturday and win their respective conference championship games.

“To have an opportunity like we’ve put ourselves in - to play against the No. 1 team in the nation and have some things riding on it?” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told USA Today. “I don’t think anybody could have dreamed our football team would have had this opportunity. So we’re very lucky and obviously very excited about it and going to have to really play well to have a chance to reap the benefits.”

Auburn and Alabama have combined to win the last four national titles — the Tide owning three of them — but Auburn’s championship was aided by a late-season win against Alabama three years ago in an epic Iron Bowl that saw the Tigers fall behind, 24-0, before rallying to a 28-27 victory that continued their unbeaten season.

The 2010 game was called the biggest Iron Bowl history.

This one may be bigger.

“We are taking it one game at a time, and each game is bigger. Our guys understand that. We aren’t going to hype up things. It’s already big enough,” Malzahn said of the regular-season finale that has drawn ESPN’s GameDay crew to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Auburn will look to atone for two straight losses following that stunning 2010 win, getting outscored, 91-14, since then. “Our fans have been unbelievable. They have helped us win games. I know our fans will be ready for this one.”

Both teams have exciting quarterbacks in Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Auburn’s Nick Marshall, who are being mentioned as darkhorse Heisman hopefuls depending on how they perform in this game. Alabama also brings in the SEC’s top-ranked rushing defense that’s allowing a staggering 91 yards a game, while Auburn has the conference’s best rushing attack that’s averaging a mind-blowing 320 yards an outing — second in the nation.

In other words, something’s gotta give.

And in the midst of an already historic season for Auburn, if it gives in Auburn’s favor, a win would just be the icing on the cake for Malzahn in his first season at the helm.

“The Iron Bowl is a great rivalry game, one that is recognized all over the country in college football,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who is 4-2 in his six meetings as coach of the Tide. “If you are a competitor, it’s a great opportunity to compete and to play in a game like this that means a lot to a lot of people on both sides.

“(Auburn has) played extremely well all year, (and) Gus Malzahn has done a fantastic job.”