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AUBURN, Ala. – It's a tough time to be Auburn's coach, no matter how easy Gus Malzahn has made it look.
Nick Saban has had rival Alabama collecting five-star recruits and national titles with such relentless regularity that fans and pundits whisper he may be one of the most talented college coaches ever.
Then comes Malzahn, a former Arkansas high school coach who led the sixth-ranked Tigers to the Southeastern Conference title and national championship game in his first season. The run included a tense first Iron Bowl matchup decided only when Chris Davis crossed the goal line to cap a 109-yard return of a missed field goal.
Then there was a new question: Has Auburn finally found a coach who can stand up to Saban? After all, Malzahn & Co. had stationed Davis in the end zone in the first place.
"Without almost any warning, he's being challenged not by Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops, he's being challenged by somebody right down the highway who was a high school football coach eight or nine years ago," ESPN commentator and radio talk show host Paul Finebaum said of Saban.
Malzahn has a long way to go to challenge Saban's résumé, which includes three national titles at Alabama and one at LSU. His Tigers open against his home state team, Arkansas, on Saturday.
Still, the Iron Bowl suddenly seems even more intriguing than usual going into this season, and that's saying something for a rivalry that permeates offices, churches and just about everywhere else in the state year-round. Alabama and Auburn have combined for four of the last five national titles but are both entering a season with Top 10 rankings for only the fourth time.
It's Malzahn's offense versus Saban's defense. Tempo versus pro-style. New-school versus old-school.
If one classic Iron Bowl isn't enough evidence that it could be something to watch the next few seasons, then how about two?
If Malzahn wins again this season, Finebaum said, "It would be one of the greatest seismic shifts in recent college football history."
Malzahn was offensive coordinator during Auburn's national championship season in 2010 that featured the biggest comeback in the rivalry's history, a Cam Newton-fueled 28-27 win by the Tigers.
Steve Spurrier is a believer in his pal Malzahn, who shares his knack for playcalling and offensive innovation. Malzahn shaped his offense around Newton's super-sized abilities for passing and power runs.
"Gus Malzahn is one of the best coaches in the country, not just the SEC," Spurrier said at the league's media days. "I think everybody knows that. They didn't win that national championship unless he was there."
Auburn has fired two head coaches whose tenures were culminated by poundings from Saban and the Tide. Tommy Tuberville's final game at Auburn was a 36-0 defeat. Gene Chizik was gone the day after a 49-0 Iron Bowl loss, and lost 42-14 the year after the comeback win. A final, dreadful season came after Malzahn had left to take over at Arkansas State.
Both coaches had directed Auburn to undefeated seasons.
Malzahn, like Saban, has singular focus and seems an unlikely candidate to get sidetracked by success. He often celebrates big plays with a fist-pumping "Boom" and victories with a trip to Waffle House, just like when he was coaching high school.
"You've just got to take it one game at a time," Malzahn said. "You can enjoy it if you win, right there for that moment. Then you've got to put it behind you and think about the next game and just the process and everything that goes with it."
Auburn's offense went from struggling to leading the nation in rushing in Malzahn's first season. His veteran coaching staff also remained intact after last season, a good indicator of stability.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah calls him "a football genius" and doesn't worry about rival coaches solving Malzahn's versatile up-tempo offense.
"I think he's definitely got enough tricks in his bag to be able to adjust for 50 years," Uzomah said.
Associate head coach Rodney Garner played for the Tigers during Pat Dye's run of four straight SEC titles starting in the late 1980s and said Malzahn's competitiveness reminds him of his old coach.
Bespectacled and cerebral, he seldom publicly displays much emotion off the sidelines and doesn't have the famous Saban scowl to show off his feisty side.
Garner said that's misleading.
"I think he is definitely competitive enough. I think he's tough enough. I think it's a bad rap when people question his toughness, he's a tough guy."
He added: "He has high expectations for everything that he's touching."