By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Championship week has finally arrived, and as usual the stakes are high in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. While the implications are predictably large, the two teams squaring off inside the Georgia Dome were anything but predictable at the beginning of the 2013 season.
At SEC Media Days back in July, media pundits predicted a rematch of last season’s title game in Atlanta between Alabama and Georgia, with the Crimson Tide being picked to claim the conference crown for a second consecutive year.
Auburn and Missouri, both coming off losing seasons in 2012, were not thought to be legitimate threats in their respective divisions; Auburn was voted to finish fifth in the East, while Mizzou was pegged as the sixth-best team in the East.
Five months later, things have not shaken out the way that the preseason crystal ball envisioned.
No. 3 Auburn, under the leadership of first-year coach Gus Malzahn, has pulled off the single biggest turnaround in SEC history by winning seven league games just one year after going 0-8 in such contests. Mizzou has followed suit, trading in a banged up 5-7 overall record in ’12 for a polished 11-1 mark in ’13.
“Gus has done a remarkable job with that program,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. “The programs are a lot different, but we both had poor years a year ago and we both have come back to play for the SEC Championship this season. I guess that connects us in that fashion."
The similarities don’t stop at last season, though. As Malzahn noted this week, neither team had an easy road to this weekend’s conference championship.
“When I look at Missouri, they do remind me of our team in a lot of ways,” Malzahn told ESPN.com. “Their team has gotten better each week. They play together. They are very confident. They make plays when they have to. They have played in some big games, especially these last two weeks.”
Auburn will be looking to win its first SEC title since the 2010 season that saw the Tigers go 14-0 and claim a national title. For Missouri, the drought has been a bit longer. The Tigers from Columbia have not won a conference title of any kind since 1969 when they claimed a share of old Big-8 championship along with Nebraska. Mizzou’s last outright title of any kind came all the way back in 1960.
One of these turnaround teams will complete the journey from the cellar to the conference title. Kickoff is set to go at 4:00 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
Saturday’s meeting between Auburn and Missouri will be just the second all-time meeting between the two teams…Mizzou holds a 1-0 lead in the series thanks to a 34-17 win over AU in the 1973 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas…Because this is the SEC Championship Game, the teams have still never met in the regular season…This week’s showdown will mark the first meeting between the two schools as members of the same conference.
1973 – Mizzou 34, Auburn 17 (El Paso, Texas – Sun Bowl)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
The 1973 Missouri Tigers, led by Mizzou’s Al Onofrio, finished the season with an 8-4 record, along with an incredible 13-12 win over No. 2 Nebraska (Oct. 13, 1973) to their credit. The SEC Championship matchup means that both Tiger teams have only ever faced each other in postseason competition. Auburn finished the ’73 season with a 6-6 overall record.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Auburn – Nick Marshall, Junior, Quarterback
Marshall has been excellent at the helm of Gus Malzahn’s offense, posing a threat through the air and on the ground. In 11 games this year, he’s accounted for 2,549 yards of offense and 21 total touchdowns for the Tigers, averaging 6.6 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per pass. The Tigers currently lead the SEC in rushing by a wide margin, and they will look to move the ball on the ground again this weekend. Marshall has not only been consistent for Auburn, but he’s also made clutch plays in each of its last two nail-biting wins. Malzahn has praised his QB leading up to the SEC Championship. "We are a quarterback-oriented offense.” Malzahn said this week. “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."
Mizzou – James Franklin, Senior, Quarterback
Franklin has played in only eight of Missouri’s 12 games this season due to a mid-season injury, but he has still amassed 19 total touchdowns (16 passing, three rushing) to go along with 1,952 passing yards. The senior has been careful with the ball as well, only throwing four interceptions on the season, and he turned in a 233-yard, two-touchdown performance last week against Texas A&M to help Mizzou clinch the SEC Eastern Division. Behind Franklin, the Tigers are currently averaging 489.5 yards of offense per play and 38.8 points per game, which ranks near the top of the league in both categories. Despite its success this year, Auburn has been susceptible through the air and on the ground at times this season, which bodes well for the experience signal-caller and the rest of the Missouri offense on Saturday afternoon. Franklin will look to throw to his trio of big, physical wide-outs against an Auburn secondary ranked 13th in the SEC against the pass.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Auburn – Chris Davis, Senior, Cornerback
Davis leads the Auburn defense in tackles with 65 in 2013, 45 of which have been solo stops. He’s recorded a team-high 11 pass breakups and has also forced a fumble. As important as he has been on defense, he’s also been electrifying on special teams. Davis leads the SEC in punt returning with a 20.5-yard per return average, and he made the play of the year last week in Alabama with his now infamous 100-yard touchdown return off a missed 57-yard field goal as time expired. Davis will lead the Auburn defense against a balanced Missouri offense this weekend, where he will try to make his presence felt at corner as well as in the return game.
Mizzou – Michael Sam, Redshirt Senior, Defensive End
Michael Sam emerged as one of the best defensive ends in college football in 2013, ranking among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Sam leads the SEC in both categories with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, which ties him for eighth and 11th nationally in those departments, respectively. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Sam is not the most physically imposing defensive linemen, but his quickness and relentless motor make him a terror for opposing offensive linemen. Sam is a key component in a Missouri defense that is second in the SEC and 14th in the country in stopping the run, which will be paramount against an Auburn offense that is predicated on the ground. As if his production on the field did not speak loud enough about his impact for the Tigers, Sam was presented the team MVP award at their banquet on Sunday.
• Auburn leads the SEC in rushing at 318.3 yards per game (81 yards better than second-place Missouri), and rank fifth nationally; Auburn is one of seven teams nationally to have had four different 100-yard rushers this season and the only team nationally with four 500+ yard rushers.
• With a win, Missouri would secure just its second 12-win season ever. The first such season for Mizzou came back in 2007.
• Missouri has not won a conference championship since 1969, when it shared a title with Nebraska.
• Auburn completed the biggest single-season turnaround in SEC history this year by finishing 7-1 in league play following a 0-8 campaign last year (plus seven conference wins).
• Mizzou and Auburn have played five common opponents in 2013, and they are both a perfect 5-0 against the group (Arkansas State, Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M).
• Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates leads the nation in yards per reception (23.3); the sophomore has 32 catches for 747 yards and six scores this season.