Gus Malzahn Georgia game

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn greets fans during the Tiger Walk at Jordan-Hare Stadium before the Georgia game. [JAKE CRANDALL/MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER]

AUBURN — Gus Malzahn can do something in Saturday’s Iron Bowl that only one head coach has done before.

Nick Saban has been the head coach at Alabama for 13 seasons going back to 2007. The Crimson Tide have gone 156-22 during that span, losing no more than three games every season since 2008 and losing no more than one game every season since 2015.

Two of Saban’s 22 losses came against Auburn teams coached by Malzahn. The other 20 came against teams coached by Mark Richt, Bobby Bowden, Les Miles, Sylvester Croom, Charlie Weatherbie, Tommy Tuberville, Urban Meyer, Kyle Wittingham, Steve Spurrier, Gene Chizik, Kevin Sumlin, Bob Stoops, Hugh Freeze, Dabo Swinney and Ed Orgeron.

Like Malzahn, Meyer, Freeze and Swinney have beaten Saban twice at Alabama. But only one of those coaches, Miles, has done it three times — 41-34 in 2007, 24-21 in 2010, and 9-6 in 2011.

Malzahn has another chance to become the second in Saturday’s Iron Bowl.

“They’re always going to be one of the most talented teams in the country or the most talented. Obviously, he does a good job coaching them,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “This is, what, the 10th Iron Bowl I’ve been a part of, so we know each other pretty good, and we’ll see what happens.”

Auburn has won the Iron Bowl in two very different ways under Malzahn. The first victory, 34-28 in 2013, involved a lot of offense and a little bit of magic. Quarterback Nick Marshall threw for 97 yards, ran for 99 and totaled three touchdowns. Running back Tre Mason rumbled for 164 yards and another score. But the difference in the game, which will forever be known as the “Kick Six,” is Chris Davis’ 100-yard return of a missed Adam Griffith field goal in the final second of the game.

The second victory, 26-14 in 2017, was more methodical than it was flashy. Running back Kerryon Johnson threw for the Tigers’ first touchdown out of the Wildcat, hitting Nate Craig-Myers from 3 yards out, but it was really a strong running game and even better defense that won the game.

Running back Bo Scarbrough put the Crimson Tide ahead 14-10 coming out of halftime, and Auburn scored 16 unanswered points from there. Johnson carried 30 times for 103 yards and a score, and quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed an efficient 21 of 28 passes for 237 yards and ran for the backbreaking touchdown.

If Auburn is going to defeat Alabama for a third time during Malzahn’s seven seasons as head coach, odds are it will look much more like the latter victory than it does the former. One, because the “Kick Six” is the sort of decade-defining play that doesn’t come around very often (though it did come just two weeks after The Prayer at Jordan-Hare); and two, the Tigers’ 2019 offense isn’t anywhere near as explosive as the Marshall-led one that led the nation in rushing and averaged 39.5 points per game.

That’s actually what has so many people so frustrated with this particular Auburn team. The biggest story of the offseason was Malzahn taking back offensive play-calling duties three years after it was suggested from someone above him on the food chain) that he give them up, to Rhett Lashlee in 2016 and Chip Lindsey and 2017-18. It’s what got him to this position in the first place and where he is most comfortable as a head coach.

And his offense is the biggest reason why the Tigers are 8-3 and can play only spoiler Saturday against a Crimson Tide team that is ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings and still has a shot to play its way into the top four despite the fact that it can’t win the SEC West.

“We’ve played good football at times,” Malzahn said. “Like I said, we’ve come up short. Feel good going into this one. We need to play well on offense, we know that, and really looking forward to getting out there with the bunch.”

In each of its losses to teams ranked in the top 10, Auburn has had chances to win. But a mediocre offense in those big games prevented the Tigers from having a truly special season.

“When you look back at close games, there’s a fine line between winning and losing. A lot of times it’s either one or two plays, impact plays when the game’s on the line that you have to make to win the game. That’s probably the thing that has stood out the most,” Malzahn said.

“We’ve been very close. We’ve had opportunities. You look back, there’s one or two things and if you would have made those plays we would have had a good chance to win or we would have won those games. When you’re playing the top teams, you’ve got to make plays to win the game. That’s really our goal for this one, that we’ll need to do that.”

Much has been made about Malzahn’s record against Auburn’s biggest rivals during his tenure, which is in its seventh season and second of the seven-year, $49-million contract he signed following the 2017 campaign. The Tigers defeated both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season that year. Since then, they have beaten neither.

Malzahn is 2-6 as a head coach against LSU, 2-7 against Georgia and 2-5 against Alabama. Saturday’s Iron Bowl won’t change that all that much, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not significant for more reasons than it always is (and that it’s the 30-year anniversary of the first one every played at Jordan-Hare Stadium).

“A win in the Iron Bowl solves a lot of problems,” quarterback Bo Nix said Saturday.

Win Saturday, and Auburn can spoil Alabama’s College Football Playoff hopes, beat its chief rival in a season full of losses against the others, finally prove itself on offense against a top team, and keep the team’s goals of winning 10 games this season alive.

Malzahn becoming just the second head coach to beat Saban for a third time would be icing on the cake.

“There’s nothing like it. The Iron Bowl’s different,” Malzahn said. “When I first got here, everybody would talk about it, how special it was, and you go, ‘Ok, yeah,’ but you’ve got to experience it. It’s one of those things that all you’ve got to do is experience it one time, whether you’re a coach, player or fan, it’s different. It’s real special and I feel blessed this will be my 10th one.”

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