Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - In a matchup few people could have predicted at the start of the season, the fifth-ranked Missouri Tigers and third-ranked Auburn Tigers will square off in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome with a potential bid in the BCS National Championship Game at stake.
In Missouri's first season in the SEC in 2012, it finished just 5-7 overall and 2-6 in conference, but just a year later it has returned to prominence with an 11-1 mark, its fourth double-digit win campaign in the last seven years under head coach Gary Pinkel. Since suffering its only loss of the season on Oct. 26 to a very good South Carolina team in double-overtime (27-24), Mizzou has ripped off four straight wins, including a 28-21 triumph over Texas A&M last week to secure a spot in this championship bout. Even with a win in this game, the team would likely need Florida State or Ohio State to lose in its respective league championship tilt to have a chance to play for the national title, but Pinkel doesn't like to look that far ahead.
"The beauty of it is that you just got to go and play," Pinkel said. "We can't do any more than that. You got to play and take care of your own business. The main difference is all those other teams have won national championships and we haven't. We are the new kid on the block. That doesn't phase us. I just want to win our game."
Even more improbable than Missouri's season has been Auburn's, which is just a year removed from a winless campaign in the SEC. Under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn has defied the odds week after week on its way to an 11-1 ledger. After keeping its championship hopes alive on Nov. 16 when a late Hail Mary was answered versus Georgia (43-38), the squad pulled out the theatrics once again last week against No. 1 Alabama in perhaps the greatest college football finish in recent memory. After tying the game on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates with less than a minute remaining, Alabama put itself in position for a long field goal attempt as time expired in regulation, but after it fell short, the kick was caught by Chris Davis and returned the other way more than 100 yards for a touchdown for another miraculous finish.
"It's hard to find ways to win like that when the pressure is on," Malzahn said. "There was unbelievable pressure to win and nobody understands that, especially with how much this game means. Our guys find a way."
In the only previous meeting between these two teams, Missouri captured a 34-17 triumph in the 1973 Sun Bowl.
Even without the services of its starting quarterback for more than a month, Missouri's offense has been outstanding in scoring 38.8 points per game, and the unit is one of the most balanced in the nation in posting 236.9 rushing and 252.6 passing yards per game.
In his second game back since returning from a shoulder injury, James Franklin carved up the Texas A&M defense to the tune of 233 passing yards, 80 rushing yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. Franklin's numbers are outstanding despite missing four games (.669 completions, 1,952 passing yards, 16 TDs, four INTs, 412 rushing yards, three TDS).
"I think James is pretty good," Pinkel said. "We were out of sync a little in the first half of the game last week, but we settled down and had a pretty good second half. I'm proud of him on how he competed and all of the things he has done to get back 100 percent. He's been excited to get back and have the ability to play."
Of the stable of tailbacks Missouri boasts, Henry Josey (951 yards, 13 TDs) has emerged the most in recent weeks, as he ripped off the game-winning 57- yard touchdown versus Texas A&M to secure a berth in this game. Not to be lost in the shuffle are Russell Hansbrough (624 yards, four TDs) and Marcus Murphy (561 yards, nine TDs), both of whom average greater than six yards per touch.
The talent at receiver is deep as well. Marcus Lucas (596 yards, two TDs) leads the way with 50 receptions, while Dorial Green-Beckham (686 yards) and L'Damian Washington (824 yards) have 10 touchdowns apiece. Green-Beckham has been especially impressive of late with five scores in the last three games.
Defensively, Missouri is more than capable of supporting its potent offense, as it allows just 19.4 points per game. The unit was outstanding last week against the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies, holding them to 379 total yards.
Michael Sam is one of the nation's elite pass-rushers as he has 18.0 TFL and 10.5 sacks, and his presence has elevated the play of Markus Golden (13.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks). Andrew Wilson has a team-high 87 tackles, while E.J. Gaines, Kentrell Brothers, Randy Ponder and Braylon Webb all have multiple interceptions.
Auburn's offense has been just as efficient as Missouri's this season in scoring 38.6 points per game, and the majority of its success has come thanks to the nation's fifth-ranked rushing attack (318.3 ypg), which carved up the stout Alabama front last week to the tune of 296 yards.
Orchestrating the offense is the signal caller Nick Marshall, who, in addition to completing nearly 60 percent of his throws for 1,627 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, is one of the country's most elusive running quarterbacks with 922 yards and 10 touchdowns. With several Heisman Trophy candidates losing steam in recent weeks, Malzahn believes that Marshall deserves as much of a shot as anyone considering his play of late.
"He should be in the mix, no doubt," Malzahn said. "We are a quarterback- oriented offense. If our quarterback plays well, we play well, and if he doesn't, we don't. We put a lot of pressure on the guy as far as not just when the ball is snapped, but before the ball is snapped, after the ball is snapped and we rely on him a lot. I think it is a tribute to Nick."
Adding to the potent ground game is Tre Mason, who has been a true workhorse with 237 carries for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns (tied for fourth-most nationally). Corey Grant (585 yards, five TDs) and Cameron Artis-Payne (573 yards, five TDs) also see plenty of action.
Sammie Coates (32 receptions, 747 yards, six TDs) is an outstanding deep threat, as he showed with last week's game-tying touchdown. His 23.3 yards per catch ranks second in the country.
In an league chock full of outstanding defenses, Auburn fits right in, as it allows just 22.5 points per game while holding opponents to just a 35 percent conversion rate on third down.
Last week's hero, Chris Davis has a team-high 65 tackles and 12 pass break- ups. Dee Ford (12.0 TFL, 8.0 TFL) anchors an impressive defensive line. Robenson Therezie has picked off four passes, while Ryan Smith is also active in the turnover battle with three interceptions, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.