COLUMBIA, Mo. _ Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of Gus Malzahn's introductory news conference as Auburn's head football coach, the day he stood alongside Auburn royalty Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan and promised to deliver the program back to glory.
Just two years removed from winning the national championship as Auburn's offensive coordinator, Malzahn returned to find a program in shambles, fresh off a winless season in Southeastern Conference play.
But from his opening sentences as the Tigers' new boss, Malzahn reset the standard.
"It's a new day, and my goal is to get Auburn back to a championship level," he said, sharing the stage with Jackson and Sullivan, the two former Heisman Trophy winners who served on the school's search committee for its next head coach. "The expectations of Auburn are to win championships, so that's my goal."
No one could have expected Malzahn to work his magic this quickly. Nine days earlier Auburn had fired Gene Chizik, who in four seasons led the Tigers to records of 8-5, 14-0, 8-5 and 3-9. Ultimately, Auburn found the 2010 undefeated team to be the outlier during Chizik's reign. That season, with Malzahn directing an offense led by Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, the Tigers averaged 41.2 points a game, swept through the SEC and toppled Oregon in the BCS national championship game.
After the 2011 season, Malzahn parlayed his success into the head-coaching job at Arkansas State, and a year later became an obvious candidate to revitalize his former place of employment. In Chizik's final season, the Tigers tried piecing players recruited to play in Malzahn's spread attack into a pro-style system under coordinator Scot Loeffler, resulting in a decrepit offense that were it not for Kentucky would have been the SEC's worst.
Picked to finish fifth in the SEC Western Division back in July, Auburn has already clinched the greatest turnaround season in SEC history, improving by eight wins to 11-1. And the No. 3 Tigers aren't finished. They face the SEC's other rebound specialists in Saturday's conference championship game, No. 5 Missouri, with an identical and no less surprising 7-1 run through SEC play.
If anyone can appreciate Auburn's sudden reclamation project, its next opponent can relate. Mizzou, accustomed to winning in the Big 12 Conference on Pinkel's watch, is coming off a 5-7 flop in its SEC debut season, the program's first losing record in eight years.
"Our situations are pretty much identical," Mizzou linebacker Donavon Bonner said. "It's really exciting. It's what SEC ball is all about. If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game, people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference."
As Malzahn settled in at Auburn, inheriting a team with many players from his three seasons on campus, the Tigers' past successes and failures were no longer part of the rebuilding process.
"Really, when we first got here we asked them, 'Don't worry about anything that's happened in the past," he said. "'Don't care whose fault it was as far as last year, all that. Everybody has a fresh start.' We didn't talk about 2010. We just talked about the moment, talked about what they have to do, tried to show them and be consistent."
Shortly before preseason camp began in August, Malzahn gathered his seniors and talked about goals.
"Across the board we all said that we just wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football history," defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. "That was our biggest thing."
With Saturday's stunning win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl _ won literally in the game's final second on Chris Davis' 100-yard return of a missed field goal _ the Tigers clinched the biggest one-year turnaround by an SEC team, improving their conference record by seven wins. The previous record of six was shared by four SEC teams: Ole Miss (1947, 1975), Georgia (1959) and LSU (1984).
Based on overall winning percentage, Auburn is the country's most improved team since last season, improving from .250 to .917. Second on the list: Missouri, from .417 to .917.
Malzahn's team has done it with a drastically improved offense. His no-huddle option-oriented spread averages 318.3 rushing yards a game, which ranks No. 5 nationally, behind only service academy option teams Army and Navy and unbeaten Ohio State and Northern Illinois. Junior tailback Tre Mason leads the SEC with 1,317 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. But the arrival of junior college transfer and former Georgia Bulldog defensive back Nick Marshall has transformed Malzahn's offense, much as Newton, a Florida transfer by way of junior college, did in 2010. Marshall (922 rushing yards) has eclipsed Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel as the SEC's most dangerous running quarterback but can also move the chains with his arm. He's averaged a healthy 8.4 yards per passing attempt in conference games.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has likened Marshall to former MU quarterback Brad Smith, once college football's most prolific double-threat runner and passer.
"They have a great offensive scheme, and they're really good at it," Pinkel said. "But it all starts with that quarterback. You're not going to stop him. ... We need to get all the work done we can this week because it's going to be a challenge for us."