AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn inherited a demoralized Auburn team with a stagnant offense and bullied defense that had just suffered through the program's worst season in decades.
As usual, the coach known for fast-paced offensive play quickly went to work. Malzahn led the second-ranked Tigers' transformation into Southeastern Conference champions and has them in the national championship game Jan. 6 against No. 1 Florida State.
The quick turnaround made him The Associated Press' coach of the year.
"It's very humbling," Malzahn said Monday. "Any time you get awards like this, it's a team thing, as far as our staff and our players. It's been fun to be a part of this year."
Malzahn received 33 votes from The Associated Press Top 25 poll voters to beat out Duke's David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe received 17 votes after leading the Blue Devils (10-3) to their first 10-win season. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio each received three votes.
Malzahn is the second Auburn coach to win the award since it began in 1998, joining Tommy Tuberville (2004), and he's the second coach to win it in his first season with a new team. Ralph Friedgen was AP coach of the year in 2001, his first season with Maryland.
It's the fifth time an SEC coach has won AP coach of the year.
Auburn icon Bo Jackson likened Malzahn's task to starting with an empty lot upon his hiring in December 2012.
"He's got to rebuild that house," said Jackson, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner.
The foundation was set with confidence and attitude, reinforced with a message that it was "a new day" for Auburn after a 3-9 season in 2012 that was the Tigers' worst since 1952. Even more jarring, they had failed to win an SEC game.
It didn't take the team long to adopt a goal of forging the greatest turnaround in college football.
The result was one of the biggest ever. Only Hawaii's 8½-game turnaround from 1999 to 2000 matches Auburn's one-year improvement.
"It's a real tribute to our players that they've bonded together," Malzahn said. "They've done everything our coaches have asked, and I think the No. 1 thing is we developed good relationships with our players. We trust our players, the players trust our coaches, and we've got each others' backs."
Receiver Sammie Coates said the revival started "when we really just bought into Coach Malzahn's plan."
"Our goal at the beginning of the year was to have the biggest turnaround in college football," Nosa Eguae said. "We knew the only way to do that was to get better every single day. Tuesdays and Wednesdays [on game weeks] were big for us because those are our work days and we got better. We beat some teams that people thought we couldn't beat."
The confidence boost was so dramatic that defensive end Dee Ford wondered publicly in November, "Why not win it all?" That seemingly far-fetched utterance followed a 45-41 road upset of Johnny Manziel and then-No. 7 Texas A&M.
It was the Tigers' biggest win before they beat defending national champion Alabama and then Missouri in the SEC championship game. That followed a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds against Mississippi State and a 35-21 loss to LSU after they had fallen behind 21-0 in the first 18 minutes.
"The Mississippi State game, finding a way to drive the field and win that game in the end, said a lot about our team," Malzahn said. "LSU, we had a chance to shut her down in a tough environment, and they kept fighting."
The pivotal game, though, was probably Texas A&M.
"At the time they were one of the top teams in the country, one of the toughest places to play," Malzahn said. "Our offense drove the field with under two minutes to score, and then we held the best player in college football [Manziel] out of the end zone on the last drive, which nobody had done up to that point.
"When we walked off that field, we felt like we could play with anybody."