Winning just three games last year with a coaching change following one of the worst seasons in school history, it was going to take the right fit at the right time to turn things around on the Plains and Jay Jacobs made the perfect call to bring back Gus Malzahn.
A tireless worker on and off the field, Malzahn started by putting together a terrific staff on both sides of the ball and bringing in quarterback Nick Marshall to put some firepower on the field for the Tigers at that position. Before Marshall even arrived on campus the attitude and drive around the team had already started to turn for the better.
Bringing in strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell to challenge the players mentally and physically throughout the winter and summer work, Malzahn knew his team was going to be short on depth and talent at some positions and would need to be in better shape and stronger at the end of games to win.
That has shown up time and time again as Auburn got late wins over Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama to set the stage for Saturday's SEC Championship Game victory over the Missouri Tigers to earn the third title for the Tigers in the last 10 seasons.
As much as anything the Tigers did on and off the field, this season has been just as much about the confidence shown by the players, and it is a confidence that has been built over the long haul. It started with this team believing in Malzahn and what he brought to the table. Very familiar with his style of coaching and his system, the 2013 Tigers knew that the offense was going to be better and because of that they would have a shot in each and every game.
Perhaps an even bigger part of things came from the coaching staff itself and several decisions they made. One was deciding to use Chris Davis and Tre Mason returning kicks. Even though they were two of the most important players on the team there was never any hesitation about putting them on the field because they were the best options for winning right now.
That's why the choice to play Jeremy Johnson could have been just as important. Even though he may not wind up playing any significant difference this season on the field because Auburn would have beaten Western Carolina without him, the decision to burn the redshirt year was a strong sign to this team that the coaching staff wasn't playing for 2014 or 2017, but wanted to win right now.
Now this Auburn team is one win away from winning its second national championship in the last four years. Just like has become the custom with this team the Tigers will be a decided underdog when they take on #1 Florida State on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Cal., but junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"That's fine," Wright said. "I have no problem with that. I hope nobody ever listens to the critics. I think your haters should be your biggest motivators. We take that 3-9 season last year and we own that. That's what we did. What we did this year you can't take from us. Last year is history now. I believe we wiped away that slate. I can't speak enough about the guys the way they battled."