It’s fair to say that back in the preseason no one predicted these two teams — who went a combined 2–14 in the league in 2012 — to meet in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn completed the unlikely worst-to-first journey with a stunning win over Alabama last Saturday afternoon. The Tigers were outgained by more than 100 yards and did not force a turnover yet somehow found a way to beat the No. 1 team in the nation. The win sent Auburn to the SEC Championship Game for the fifth time.
Missouri, of course, is making its first trip to the title game. The Tigers, 2–6 is the SEC last season, cruised through their non-conference schedule with a 4–0 mark and then established themselves as a legitimate contender by beating Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida by an average of 19.0 points. The Tigers stubbed their toe in a home loss in overtime to South Carolina — with backup quarterback Maty Mauk running the show — but closed by winning four straight to claim the outright SEC East title. The most surprising aspect of Mizzou’s surprising run has been its dominance at the line of scrimmage, especially on defense. The Tigers allowed only 5.11 yards per play in SEC games — tied for second-fewest with Alabama and behind Florida — and led the league with 37 sacks.
Auburn vs. Missouri
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn -2
Three Things to Watch
It’s no surprise that Auburn and Missouri, two of the top offensive teams in the league, have the ability to strike quickly. Auburn leads the SEC with 21 plays from scrimmage of at least 40 yards; Missouri ranks second with 20. Auburn also leads in plays of at least 50 yards (13) and is tied for the lead in plays of 60 yards (seven) and 70 yards (four). Missouri isn’t far behind. Auburn, however, has been prone to giving up the big play — like the 99-yard touchdown pass by Alabama in the Iron Bowl — allowing 16 plays of 40-plus yards (13th in the league) and seven plays of 50-plus yards (ninth). So which team can deliver the big play (or plays) on Saturday? And which team gives up the big play (or plays)? The answers to these questions could go a long way in determining the outcome.
Forcing turnovers is a product of solid play on defense and a little bit of luck. For Missouri, this combination has translated into 27 takeaways — tied for most in the SEC — and league-best plus-1.25 turnover margin. The Tigers were either even or on the plus side in turnover margin in all but one game — a lopsided win over Kentucky. Auburn did a solid job protecting the ball in 2013, committing only 16 turnovers (fifth-fewest in the league). Quarterback Nick Marshall, in his first season as a starter at the FBS level, only threw five interceptions in 201 attempts, including only one in his last seven games. A key on Saturday will be Missouri’s ability to pressure Marshall — remember, the Tigers led the league in sacks — on passing downs and force him into making a big mistake.
There won’t be many games played this season with as many productive running backs on the field. Consider the following: Each team has three running backs who have rushed for at least 500 yards — and that does not include the quarterbacks, who have a combined 1,334 yards rushing between them. Missouri’s top three backs are Henry Josey (951 yards, 6.2-yard average), Russell Hansbrough (624, 6.3) and Marcus Murphy (561, 6.9) while Auburn counters with Tre Mason (1,317, 5.6), Corey Grant (585, 9.8) and Cameron Artis-Payne (573, 6.5).
Key Player: James Franklin. QB. Missouri
Nick Marshall has made a tremendous transformation from defensive back at Georgia to junior college quarterback to leader of one of the top offenses in the SEC. But the guy taking snaps for the other team, fifth-year senior James Franklin, is also a dynamic playmaker. Franklin has completed at least 63 percent of his passing attempts in every game in which he’s played, and he has averaged 244 yards passing and 51.5 yards rushing with 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. His ability to make plays with his arm and his legs — to go along with an outstanding set of skill players — will put a ton of pressure on an Auburn defense that is allowing 414.3 yards per game.
Auburn went 7–1 in the SEC — no doubt a tremendous accomplishment — but this was far from a dominant team. Five of the Tigers’ seven league wins came by eight points or fewer, and they only outgained their eight SEC opponents by an average of 3.2 yards per game — a very low number for a team that won seven games. Obviously, Auburn deserves a ton of credit for its dramatic turnaround, but the numbers indicate that this team is fortunate to be playing for the SEC Championship.
Missouri, however, was the best team in the SEC East all season long. The Tigers’ only loss came at home to South Carolina in overtime in a game in which they led 17–0 entering the fourth quarter. Mizzou outgained its league opponents by 80.1 yards per game and won its seven SEC games by an average of 19.5 points. The schedule wasn’t as difficult as Auburn’s — Mizzou didn’t play Alabama or LSU — but this team was very good from wire-to-wire.
The key will be Auburn’s play on defense. Auburn will no doubt get its yards and find a way to put points on the board, but the concern for Gus Malzahn’s club will be on defense; can it do enough to slow down the diverse — and often explosive — Mizzou attack?
SEC Championship Game Predictions
Championship Game Prediction