The Auburn program Gus Malzahn took over in December 2012 was stuck in the mud.
The majority of the coaching staff had been fired. The fan base was largely disenchanted and the players were, too, with many fleeing for greener pastures and higher ground. The defense had turned atrocious. The offense had lost direction. And to make matters worse, there was no suitable quarterback in place to make things better.
The afterglow of the 2010 national championship had turned into a palling shadow over The Plains, a reminder of how things could go from so good to so bad so quickly.
Malzahn began lifting that gloom right away. When he was hired, he set expectations to championship or bust, and promised that "Whatever happened last year happened last year and it's a new day." The words were bold -- "New Day" was plastered everywhere -- but creating a fresh start wasn't as simple as a catchphrase. Spring practice didn't promise much, and the Tigers were predicted to finish fifth in the SEC West. Auburn entered the first week of the season favored to beat Washington State, but only barely.
To say Auburn was average then was an overstatement.
"Maybe below average," Malzahn said with a grin. "We weren't very good."
What Malzahn remembered of that seven-point win is anyone's guess. It was like watching a baby walk for the first time: first a stumble as Nick Marshall fumbled his first-ever snap, then a rally as the offense struck for 25 first-half points, followed by the inevitable clinging on for dear life as the offense soured and the defense yielded nearly 500 yards.
Malzahn can smile about it now only because the team he had then is so different from the one he has today. Auburn has gone from battling for its first SEC win since October 2011 to winning the conference title and preparing to face Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Jan. 6. He can grin and laugh and joke with reporters about the drastic turnaround now because what might be perceived to the outside world as an overnight sensation is actually something far less flashy. It was earned, and it was anything but easy.
Auburn was bad in Week 1. It was only slightly better Week 2. And in every week that followed, things improved.
"I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have," Malzahn said. "We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. Our guys continued to improve. They continued to work hard in practice, which is rare. I probably can count on one hand practices our coaches weren’t happy with. Our players bought in to what we asked and they worked extremely hard and they earned the right to get here."
Maybe we should have seen Auburn's turnaround coming. The first clue would have been a junior college quarterback transferring to The Plains.
But Marshall was no Cam Newton. Like everything else this season, Marshall proved to be a work in progress.
The 6-foot-1 athlete was a defensive back at Georgia before being dismissed from school. He only wanted to play quarterback, so he went to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, accounted for 37 touchdowns (19 rushing) and convinced Auburn to give him a shot.
Missing all of spring practice made his chances of starting at Auburn slim. He didn't have the polish as a passer and didn't yet know how to make the reads, but he could run, and that gave him an edge. He separated himself at the very end of fall camp, according to coaches, and together they agreed that he gave them the best shot at winning, even if that meant learning on the fly.
He entered Week 1 knowing about 25 percent of the offense, so Malzahn ran and ran and ran some more. Auburn won, but Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday wasn't impressed. After the loss he said, "If they could find a quarterback, they'd be a top-five team. … They just don't have a guy that can throw it."
"We knew we were going to have to be patient with him," Malzahn said.
Marshall struggled to grasp the offense against Arkansas State and Mississippi State. He showed he could throw, passing for more than 300 yards in his first SEC game, but he also threw two interceptions. He showed he could lead by engineering a game-winning touchdown drive, but a week later all momentum was lost as Auburn was beaten down by LSU.
Malzahn regrouped and re-evaluated during the bye week.
"It gave us a chance to catch our breath because we still were learning about our players," he said, "not only from a physical standpoint but as a team, how we handle situations. We evaluated our personnel and we got a plan for the rest of the year. Offensively we felt like we needed to run some more zone read."
When Auburn went all-in on the zone read is when everything changed. A game after Marshall mustered just 46 yards rushing against LSU, he ran for 140 in a victory over Ole Miss. A week later, he ran for 100 yards against Texas A&M and led another game-winning touchdown drive. He rushed for the most yards by a quarterback (99) against Alabama in the Nick Saban era and combined for 233 yards and two touchdowns a week later in the SEC championship game.
Since Oct. 1, Marshall has thrown just two interceptions, accounted for 17 touchdowns and lifted his QBR from 52nd nationally to 10th.
"It looks like we found one," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said when asked Wednesday about Halliday's comments from earlier in the year.
"The only thing I’ve seen that’s crazy like this is Cam Newton, and it’s kind of hard to be compared to him because he’s a freak," Auburn wideout Sammie Coates said. "But Nick, he did a great job. The way he just turned it around, he put up crazy numbers this year rushing. It’s amazing how he just turned it around real quick and learned everything."
But Marshall isn't the only reason Auburn is where it is today. If this season were a script, he might be the leading man. But there were plenty of supporting actors: Tre Mason and the rest of the tailbacks, Reese Dismukes and the offensive line, Ford & Co. in the trenches on defense.
A year after allowing 37 sacks, Auburn surrendered only 17. A year after letting offenses run wild, Auburn's defense increased its stops of zero or negative yards from 27.6 to 35.8 percent. And Mason, a year after churning his way to 1,002 yards, ran for 1,621 yards and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Lady Luck played a part, too.
But there's a difference between stumbling into luck and working your way into her favor.
"We've definitely done the work to be able to be where we're at," fullback Jay Prosch said . "It's not luck, but I do think some crazy things happened."
From Week 1 until now, it's been a wild ride. All Malzahn can do is smile, knowing exactly what it's taken to get here.
"I feel very blessed to not only be at Auburn but to be at Auburn at this time, coaching this team," Malzahn said. "It’s been extremely gratifying for me to watch this group, very proud of our coaches, too. Our coaches have done an excellent job. The unique thing about it, it’s players, it’s coaches, it’s managers -- we’re all in this thing together."