AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn inherited a demoralized Auburn team that had just gone through the program's worst season in decades with a stagnant offense and pliant defense.
As is his way, the coach known for fast play on offense went to work in a hurry. He led the No. 2 Tigers' transformation into Southeastern Conference champions and has them in the national championship Jan. 6 against No. 1 Florida State.
Malzahn's quick work made him The Associated Press national coach of the year.
"It's very humbling," he 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 AP Top 25 college football poll voters to beat out Duke's David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe received 17 votes after leading Duke (10-3) to its 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 the second coach to win it in his first season with a new team. Maryland's Ralph Friedgen was AP coach of the year in 2001, his first season with the Terrapins.
It's the fifth time an SEC coach has won.
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 (12-1) after a 3-9 season in 2012 that was the Tigers' worst since 1952. Even more jarring, they failed to win an SEC game.
It didn't take the team long to adopt a goal of forging the best turnaround in college football.
The result was one of the biggest ever. Only Hawaii's 81/2-game turnaround from 1999-2000 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."
Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense has thrived with junior-college transfer Nick Marshall at quarterback and tailback Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy finalist, behind a sturdy offensive line.
The Tigers' confidence boost was so dramatic that defensive end Dee Ford wondered publicly back 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 beating defending national champ Alabama, and then Missouri in the SEC championship. That followed a winning touchdown in the final seconds against Mississippi State and a 35-21 loss at LSU after trailing, 21-0, at halftime.
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 that up to that point.
"When we walked off that field, we felt like we could play with anybody."