AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — 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.