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BCS title game: Gus Malzahn has led Auburn back to the top

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Gus Malzahn coached high school football for 14 years before he became a college assistant in 2006.

Eight years later, he has guided Auburn to Monday's Bowl Championship Series title game against Florida State.

Malzahn replaced the fired Gene Chizik this season, taking over a program that was 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference in 2012. Malzahn, the Tigers' offensive coordinator from 2009-2011, guided Auburn to its second BCS title-game appearance in four years.

On Saturday night, Malzahn was scheduled to accept the Eddie Robinson coach-of-the-year award, which is presented annually by the Football Writers Assn. of America.

"We had a lot of question marks coming into this season," Malzahn said earlier Saturday during media day for the BCS title game. "Our coaches really weren't for sure what we had. And I think some of our players felt the same way with everything they went through last year."

Malzahn worked as offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn before becoming head coach at Arkansas State. Last season, Arkansas State finished 9-3.

Most Auburn players were familiar with Malzahn, who helped Auburn win the 2010 BCS championship.

"We didn't really know how he was going to run things," junior center Reese Dismukes said of Malzahn's return. "He came in and really put his foot down, and there wasn't a lot of gray area."

Said defensive end Dee Ford: "The first thing I remember him telling us is, 'We're going to get our edge back.' He said we're going to be here…. He said we're going to be on a big stage, and we are."

Auburn is 12-1, its only loss a 35-21 defeat at Louisiana State on Sept. 21. The Tigers advanced to the title game with last-second victories over Georgia and Alabama in their final regular-season games, and a win over Missouri in the SEC title game.

"There's a lot of high school coaches that could be doing the exact same thing that I'm doing, and I just feel blessed that I've been given the opportunity," Malzahn said. "I've been in the right situation and the right time, time and time again. This is no different."

Double threat

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston wants to follow in the footsteps of another Alabama native and Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson, who played in the NFL and in MLB.

"I haven't talked to Bo that much, but watching him and watching the things he does gives me inspiration to see I can do anything I want to do," Winston said. "And watching other players go out there and play gives me the inspiration that I can do anything I want to do."

Winston, an outfielder and pitcher, was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 15th round of the 2012 baseball draft.

He played for Florida State last spring and batted .235 with seven doubles and three triples in 41 games.

In 17 relief appearances, he was 1-2 with a 3.00 earned-run average. He gave up 18 hits, struck out 21 and walked 12 in 27 innings.

Winston said Friday that Florida State assistant baseball coach Mike Martin Jr. was in town for the BCS title game.

"Right now I got one thing on my mind, win the national championship on Monday," Winston said. "Tuesday comes, I'll be ready for it then. I'm pretty sure coach Mike Martin, he'll talk to me about it then.

"I know he's not saying nothing about baseball to me right now."

Carrying the load

Auburn running back Tre Mason was a Heisman Trophy finalist after rushing for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns.

He gained a career-best 304 yards, and scored four touchdowns, in a school-record 46 carries in the Tigers' 59-43 victory over Missouri.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Mason also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Washington State.

"I came in as a freshman saying I wanted to be one of the best running backs to come through Auburn or through college football," he said. "I just wanted to be great."

One that got away

Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey was a Freshman All-American this season.

Up until national signing day last February, Ramsey was committed to USC.

But he was one of several highly regarded recruits that changed their mind and went elsewhere.

Ramsey, who played high school football in Tennessee, said the firing of defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders influenced his decision. Sanders was fired last January after only one season on USC's staff.

"That's who I really had the connection with," Ramsey said. "I felt they really didn't give coach Sanders a chance. We were going to be his first recruiting class. We were going to be in his system."

Ramsey said he "never really clicked" with Clancy Pendergast, who had been hired as defensive coordinator and coached defensive backs.

"He didn't really recruit me when he was at Cal, so I felt like he kind of inherited me, and I didn't like that," he said.

Meantime, Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher hired Alabama defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt as the Seminoles' defensive coordinator.

"Coach Pruitt was with me since Day 1 at Alabama," Ramsey said. "He called me the day he got to Florida State and nothing changed, so I felt comfortable there. I felt comfortable with Jimbo. I knew Florida State was going to be in the top."

Ramsey is now a key member of a Seminoles defense that is ranked first nationally in several categories, including interceptions.

He said he remains in contact with USC players.

"I still talk with all my USC friends, all the time," he said. "They're still going to be like brothers to me. After seven months of being committed, you build a brotherhood."

Ramsey has observed from afar as USC went through four coaches in three months.

"Honestly, what I was thinking in my head was not that I dodged a bullet or anything like that," he said. "I was thinking, 'I hope the best for those guys.'

"Unless we play them, I hope the best for those guys, because I know most of the team. I was there all the time."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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