The Matchup: #5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1) vs. #3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1)
When: Saturday, December 7th
Where: Atlanta, Georgia (Georgia Dome)
Game Time: 4:00 PM ET
Vegas Line (Wynn): Auburn (-1.5)
What’s at stake: Auburn and Missouri clash Saturday for all the SEC marbles. It’s almost an unlikely scenario; neither team even went to a bowl game last year. These two will meet for only the second time in history, and Mizzou leads the all-time series a whopping 1-0. An SEC Championship and a national championship are both on the line Saturday. Ohio State, however, likely needs to lose for either to jump into the title game.
Reshaping history: Usually, when we talk SEC Championships, we talk about pro-style, under-center rushing attacks with great defenses. Turn the page to the SEC’s 2013 season, and it all looks different. But how different? Auburn and Missouri are spread offenses. True. But each is just as strong as any pro-style SEC Champion in previous years with their line of scrimmage play. Missouri has the better overall defense, but Auburn’s bend-but-don’t-break style has been making key play after key play in 2013. Although we’re talking about spread offenses and the SEC’s slightly different direction of offense this year, both teams are built from the inside out with great line of scrimmage play and timely defensive stops. It’s still fast and physical SEC football; it just may look a little more spread out.
Coach of the Year? Is the award on the line Saturday? Most around the country, including myself, think Gus Malzahn is in the driver’s seat. He inherited a 3-9, SEC-winless team, and he turned them into an 11-1 program primed for an outside shot at a national championship. Similarly, Gary Pinkel orchestrated a major rebound in 2013 and is coming off a five-win season in the Tigers’ inaugural season in the SEC. You can make a case for either, but you can make a better one for Malzahn. I personally do not think the SEC Championship outcome will decide the coach of the year. If anything, it may decide that Duke’s David Cutcliffe is the coach of the year.
Run the football: Both teams are very good at it. It’s no surprise the SEC’s two best rushing offenses, though differently balanced, will play in the championship. Auburn averages over 318 yards per game and over 50 attempts per game for 6.34 yards per carry, while Mizzou averages over 236 yards rushing per game on 42 carries for 5.61 yards per carry. Like previously mentioned, it may look different, but both are smash-mouth in their own way.
Auburn features 1,300-yard rusher Tre Mason, who has an SEC-high 18 TDs, along with nearly 1,000-yard rusher in QB Nick Marshall with 10 TDs. Two others in Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne both have over 500 yards and have combined for 10 TDs on the season. This is one of the most dominant run games in college football. It’s like Oregon but with physicality.
Missouri features its own three-headed monster with Henry Josey (951 yards, 13 TDs), Russell Hansbrough (624 yards, 4 TDs) and Marcus Murphy (561 yards, 9 TDs). QB James Franklin will also tote the rock, and he’s rushed for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Josey is the SEC’s comeback player of the year, and it’s a story that needs to be told and retold again.
Auburn unbalanced: The Tigers don’t throw the football much because they don’t have to. We said it before the Alabama game that Auburn has to be balanced on offense in order to pull the upset. Auburn rushed for 296 yards and passed for only 97. That’s hardly balanced. They didn’t have to be balanced. Nick Marshall made key throws when he had to. He missed two big plays to Ricardo Louis, but he hit TE CJ Uzomah on a beautiful 13-yard touchdown pass, and he hit Sammie Coates on a run-pass option for 39 yards and the game-tying touchdown with under a minute to play. Auburn doesn’t have to be balanced, but Marshall has to hit the big play when it’s there. So far, he’s done it
Missouri’s defense: It’s better than you think it is. What Dave Steckel and his coaching staff have done has been incredible. The Tigers are second best scoring defense in the SEC behind Alabama, as well as the second best rushing defense, only allowing opponents a little over 119 yards per game. The secondary has struggled at times, but they have an SEC-high 18 INTs. Mizzou matches up better with Auburn’s offense than it would against Alabama, mainly because the lack of superior size along the defensive line. Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and company are big-time players, and it bodes well for the athleticism to help Mizzou against Auburn. Mizzou is one of three teams to have not given up more than 28 points in any game in 2013, joining Michigan State and Stanford. That’s pretty good company.
What gives? All the talk surrounds Auburn and their unbelievable finish against Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers have orchestrated four fourth-quarter comebacks this season, with three of them all coming with less than a minute to play against Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama. All the talk consumes Auburn and whether they should jump Ohio State. No one is talking about Missouri, one of the most sound football teams in college football. The Tigers could easily be 12-0 right now if not for a fourth-quarter comeback to South Carolina when their starting quarterback James Franklin didn’t even play because of an injury.
It’s going to be tough for either defense to stop either offense, and as is usually the case, field position and special teams will play a huge part in who wins Saturday. There’s a major difference in driving 80 yards as opposed to driving 55 to 60 yards. Auburn has the edge in special teams, but they are riding an emotional high that few experience. And it only compares to winning a conference or national championship. How will they respond?
Both teams are pretty much even athletically, and it could come down to the better coach and game planner. Gus Malzahn or Gary Pinkel – who are you taking?
Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports