College football turnarounds are not easy, especially in the SEC West.
At the beginning of the year, we pencil our teams in, expectations shaped by experts and the results of the season before and we jump headlong into college football. In 2013, the names were pretty familiar.
Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Florida State, Stanford, Texas A&M, and so forth.
In the SEC West, after Alabama and A&M, still you had LSU with Les Miles (horseshoe up his ass, and all), and the two Mississippi schools.
Nobody ever mentioned Auburn, and why would you? 3-9 in the final year of the Gene Chizik Era, Auburn was an unmitigated disaster that would take at least a couple years to regain respectability, and allow new head coach Gus Malzahn to implement his system, right?
Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator for the Auburn team that won a national championship in 2010 under Gene Chizik, took Auburn's 3-9 outfit, and behind quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, crafted an offensive juggernaut that led the nation in rushing at 328 yards per game.
More importantly, he spearheaded an overall improvement that saw Auburn turn 2012's 3-9 outfit into a 12-2 squad that came within 13 seconds of winning a national championship.
It was perhaps the most remarkable turnaround in the history of college football, and sent a message to the rest of the SEC that the zero sum game that is SEC conference records would not include Auburn rolling over:
"We're still hurting over the fact that we were close to winning the national championship and got beat," Malzahn said. "But if you can remove yourself from that, it was a lot of fun, our players came a long way, they improved each week and we were 13 seconds away from being the national champion."
As for Malzahn himself, the Bryant Award holds a ton of personal significance as, like Bryant, he is a native of the state of Arkansas:
"When you're growing up, he's the man," Malzahn said. "The fact that I'm from the state of Arkansas and he's from Fordyce, Arkansas, and one of my best friends is coaching high school there makes it even that much more special."
Malzahn won the award over four other finalists -- Baylor's Art Briles, Rice's David Bailiff, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Stanford's David Shaw.
The Tigers lost to LSU on September 21 and then reed off nine straight victories, including a win over Georgia on November 16 on a Hail Mary tipped pass, and a now legendary win on November 30 over Alabama when the Tigers returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a last-second score.
Malzahn's Tiger squad got better as the year went on, closed strong and sent the message to the SEC West that the crowded house that already included Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Kevin Sumlin, would be even further crowded.
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"There's no doubt," he said. "It's hard to get better each week. I bet we're one of the few teams that actually did that, and the fact that we were playing our best football toward the end of the year, it was a lot of fun to watch those guys grow and end up where they did."
Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum was the ceremony's other honoree, receiving the Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award. Slocum coached the Aggies from 1989 to 2002.
"I did have a chance to know him, and certainly his accomplishments I'm very aware of," Slocum said of Bryant. "Just to have a lifetime achievement award, there are so many people that are involved in that, and to me it's a sort of validation of the work of all those people, all those players."