Malzahn served as the Tigers' offensive coordinator in 2009-11, and during that time he helped Auburn nearly knock off a national championship Alabama squad in 2009, engineer the biggest comeback in school history in 2010, and go without an offensive touchdown in 2011.
Just as in those three previous matchups, Malzahn's Auburn squad is an underdog Friday as the fourth-ranked Tigers (10-1) host No. 1 Alabama (11-0). Most betting services have placed Auburn as a 10.5- to 11-point underdog.
“Any time you have experiences against certain people or coaches, you’ve got to use that,” Malzahn said. “I’m sure they will, too. That’s part of the game.”
Nick Saban is wary of Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense, which has produced the leading rushing attack in the SEC this year and ranks second to Texas A&M in total yards.
“Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense, with their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to, score the points that they’ve been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league,” Saban said.
In Malzahn’s first Iron Bowl in 2009, Auburn was a 10-point underdog, according to Covers.com. Auburn amassed 332 yards (216 passing, 108 rushing) in total offense, but lost a 26-21 nail-biter in which the Tigers led most of the way.
The 2010 contest saw the Tigers outgained 446-324, but 4.5-point underdog Auburn found a way to escape Tuscaloosa with a 28-27 victory. The Tigers trailed at 24-0 at one point, the largest deficit in school history Auburn has overcome.
Then in 2011, against an Alabama squad that led the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense, total defense and passing defense, 21.5-point underdog Auburn fell 42-14. The Tigers' two touchdowns came on a kickoff return and a fumble recovery in the end zone. Auburn managed only 140 total yards (62 passing, 78 rushing).
This time, statistically speaking, it will be strength on strength when Alabama’s defense faces Auburn’s offense. The Tigers rank second nationally with 320.3 rushing yards a game, while the Tide is No. 4 nationally against the run, allowing only 91.3 yards.
Auburn’s up-tempo offensive attack forces defenses to adapt on the fly, which means Alabama will once again have to rely heavily on linebacker C.J. Mosley’s experience and leadership. Mosley, who leads the Tide with 88 tackles, makes every on-field call and adjustment for the defense. Saban said with Auburn’s multiple formations, a player like Mosley becomes even more valuable.
“I think that both of those things are going to be critical factors in this game,” Saban said. “There’s a lot of adjustments that you have to make on defense, especially to be able to stay sound on the perimeter and to make sure that everybody’s in the right gaps when they run the inside runs.
"He’s the guy that’s going to try to adjust that defense all the time to try to get us in the right spot. It’s not only going to be his ability to make plays (but) also his ability to help us execute the game plan and get guys in the right spots. You’ve got to do it at a fast pace. I think that the experience that he has will help us do that.”
That's exactly what Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is planning on. He has seen more than enough of Alabama’s top tackler to know the senior’s capabilities. Lashlee believes Mosley is comparable to Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson, who Auburn faced earlier this season. Alabama uses Mosley the same way most teams use their linebackers, Lashlee pointed out -- they all play in the box, after all.
The difference is that the Crimson Tide does a good job of putting him in a position where he can perform best.
“We know he’s a guy that they try to free up and keep people off of him and when he’s unblocked he makes plays. He’s as good as anybody in the country at doing that,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got to account for him. Whether it’s the linemen, whether it’s the backs, we’ve got to know where he’s at, we’ve got to block him. That’s just the bottom line.”
More often than not, the player Mosley will focus upon will be running back Tre Mason. The junior leads the SEC in rushing yards (1,153) and touchdowns (18). It's no surprise Mason garners the lion’s share of the headlines when it comes to the Tigers’ formidable ground game. And Saban noted slowing him down will be of the utmost importance for his team Saturday.
However, it's a lesser-known player paving the way for Mason that has Alabama's coach every bit as concerned: fullback Jay Prosch.
“If you didn't have a guy that was a good blocker at fullback, you wouldn't be able to have the success running, even though they have very talented runners, that they do,” Saban said. “You talk about a tough, physical guy. He doesn't get the ball much, but he sure does a good job of finishing, playing with toughness, blocking the right guy, blocking the right play. You can’t say enough about what that guy does for them.”
The Tigers said they aren’t taking the matchup against the Crimson Tide’s defense personally, despite their struggle to score the past two seasons -- that 2010 game was the last time Auburn scored an offensive touchdown against Alabama.
As Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah was quick to point out: “The past is the past.”
“We feel like we've been doing a great job offensively running the ball, passing the ball when we need to in clutch situations,” he said. “So I think we feel confident in our offense.”
So what has to change for Auburn to start turning things against Alabama’s vaunted defense?
One thing the Tigers can’t afford to do, Uzomah said, is to let their intensity level drop at any point in the game. That’s what Uzomah said happened against Georgia.
After taking a 20-point lead just minutes into the final period, the Tigers “took our foot off the gas,” he said, allowing the Bulldogs to mount a comeback and briefly take a 38-37 advantage with just 1:49 to play.
“We’re going to have to play all four quarters,” he said. “Start off strong and finish strong against them, because they're a really good team, and if we let up for a second, they’ll be right back in it.”