There’s no telling what Auburn and Missouri players were doing on the first weekend of December last year, but one thing's for sure: they were not playing in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. We all remember Alabama clinching a BCS title berth with a narrow victory over Georgia at the Georgia Dome. The Tigers and the Tigers, meanwhile, remained largely forgotten after similarly disappointing campaigns in the SEC.
This season's a different story, however, as Auburn and Missouri put together two of the most remarkable turnarounds in the country. The teams that combined for eight wins in 2012 reeled off 22 regular-season victories and two division titles this year, and will meet in Atlanta for one of the more unlikely matchups for the SEC title in recent history.
“Our situations are pretty much identical,” Missouri linebacker Donovon Bonner said on the SEC Championship Game teleconference on Monday. “If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game [this year], people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference.”
For all the similarities between the programs this year, Auburn has recently stolen the spotlight, thanks to improbable, last-second plays that secured their final two wins of the regular season. On Nov. 16, Auburn sunk Georgia on a tipped Hail Mary pass that fell into the outstretched arms of Ricardo Louis. The following week, Chris Davis ran back Alabama’s last-second field goal attempt in an Iron Bowl win for the ages.
Missouri probably can’t compete with the magic surrounding Auburn, but it can hang with the Tigers on paper. Coach Gary Pinkel’s Tigers boast a defense that keeps opponents out of the end zone; they've allowed only 19.4 points per game, good enough for second-best in the SEC. It held Ole Miss to 10 points two weeks ago before putting the pressure on Johnny Manziel and giving up only 21 points to Texas A&M last week. In the Tigers’ only loss this year -- against South Carolina in overtime -- they forced three Gamecock turnovers and allowed only 75 yards on the ground.
But Missouri had to switch up its preparation this week. The Tigers faced prolific passing attacks against the Aggies and Rebels during the past two weeks. Now they're gearing up for an Auburn rushing attack that averages 318.2 yards per game -- 81 yards more than Missouri's average.
“I think it's a challenge,” Pinkel said on the SEC teleconference. “It's a challenge in a few days to get the game plan down, then you get it so you can execute it, not be thinking on the field, just reacting. I think that's going to be a challenge for us, there's no question about that.
“We're going to have to draw from some experience of other running teams, some of the running philosophies that they have that maybe some other teams had that didn't run the ball as much, be able to apply those lessons to this.”
Behind quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, Auburn has run right through plenty of stout defenses this season, including Alabama’s. The Tigers managed 296 yards against the Tide, with Mason chipping in 164 yards and Marshall getting 99. Auburn was the first team since 2011 to hang more than 200 rushing yards on Alabama. The Tigers’ ground game didn’t thrive in just the Iron Bowl, though; they accounted for 379 rush yards against Texas A&M on Oct. 19 and 444 rush yards versus Tennessee on Nov. 9.
It isn’t hard to forecast Malzahn’s offensive strategy -- Marshall attempts on average 18 passes per game. Last week many expected Auburn to struggle against Alabama if the Tigers didn’t pass the ball more against the Tide’s defensive front. Instead, Marshall threw the ball only 16 times and ran straight through ‘Bama.
Defensive end Michael Sam, who leads the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18), is the headliner of a Missouri defensive front that must slow down Auburn’s ground game. But Malzahn’s offense isn’t worried about the challenge.
“I think that's a big strength of their defense,” Auburn running back Cory Grant said on the SEC teleconference. “With us running the ball, we'll find a way to move the ball and get out on the edge and run our zone reads and things like that. So either way, our offense, we've gotten better each week throughout the season. I believe we'll find a way.”
For all the chatter surrounding Auburn’s offense, however, Missouri matches up with the Tigers in scoring, total offense and yards per play. Missouri even managed to keep pace with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk at the helm, as starting quarterback James Franklin missed four games with an injury. But Franklin is back in the lineup with a rehabbed shoulder and ready to take down Auburn.
“I got to watch some of the live Alabama game Saturday before our game, and just seeing that, from watching film, they're all really hard and they run the ball,” Franklin said on the SEC teleconference. “It's going to be a challenge.”
This is Missouri’s chance to cap off its own miraculous season in only its second year in the SEC. Last fall, an injury-plagued Tigers roster was overshadowed by Manziel and fellow Big 12 defect Texas A&M, who took the conference by storm. Now it’s hard to remember that Pinkel’s job security was in jeopardy heading into the season. Now, he suddenly has the program on the cusp of an SEC championship.
Step by step, game by game, the Tigers have climbed off the couch and are now contending for the conference’s biggest prize.
“I thought we'd have a good football team going into the season,” Pinkel said. “I think one thing's been key for us, we've just really improved. We're a lot different team than we were in the first of September, and October we were a lot better, and even November we were a lot better. This team’s improved a lot.”
The other big ones:
• No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 10 Michigan State: This is the toughest test the Buckeyes have faced all season. Ohio State’s offense has scored at least 42 points in each of its last five games, but the weaknesses of its defense were further exposed in a tight win over Michigan last week. The Spartans’ defense is for real, but what can its offense do against the Buckeyes?
• No. 20 Duke vs. No. 1 Florida State: The Blue Devils have won 10 games for the first time in program history, a testament to the work put in by head coach David Cutcliffe. Now Duke must handle the newly minted No. 1 team in the country, Florida State, which can clinch a spot in the BCS title game with a win.
• No. 7 Stanford at No. 11 Arizona State: Stanford ripped through Arizona State 42-28 in both teams’ conference openers in September. But this Pac-12 championship matchup is in Tempe, and both of the Cardinal’s losses this year have come on the road.
• No. 18 Oklahoma at No. 6 Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy’s crew can clinch a share of the Big 12 title with a win over rival Oklahoma. That’s unusual in a series where the Sooners have won nine of the last 10 meetings, but Oklahoma State is the one with its eyes on the BCS this year.
• No. 23 Texas at No. 9 Baylor: Is this the final regular-season game for Mack Brown? What a statement the coach could make if his Longhorns take advantage of a Baylor team coming off a three-point win over TCU.
• No. 15 UCF at SMU: The Knights have already clinched a spot in the BCS thanks to Louisville’s Thursday-night OT win over Cincinnati. With very little on the line, UCF’s offense (34.6 points per game) should make this an easy one. • Utah State at No. 24 Fresno State: Fresno is no longer BCS-hunting after last week’s loss to San Jose State. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Utah State to pounce on the disappointed Bulldogs in the first-ever Mountain West title game.