Prior to the season, there was no shortage of SEC Championship Game predictions. A tango of two Tigers featuring Auburn and Missouri was not among them. There were plenty of cases made for some variation of Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M from the West against the East’s Florida, Georgia or South Carolina.
It’s highly unlikely, even more so than the ending of the Auburn-Georgia game, that you’d find one person who predicted a tango of two Tigers for the SEC title. Both were coming off disappointing seasons in which they struggled mightily in league play, but Auburn and Missouri have grabbed the SEC tiger by the tail this year, putting together two of the biggest surprise seasons in the nation.
Of those teams picked as preseason favorites, the Gators, Bulldogs, Aggies and Tigers (LSU) are eliminated from contention. Entering last weekend, each Tigers team had two games against ranked opponents standing between them and an improbable berth in the SEC title game, and a potential chance to sneak into the BCS title picture.
While Missouri watched from home last week, Auburn knocked Georgia out of contention with a miracle 73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with just 25 seconds remaining. The Tigers (West) now have a home date with the No. 1 Crimson Tide in what will be one of the biggest Iron Bowls in series history – the winner takes the SEC West crown and goes to Atlanta.
Auburn will be at home this weekend, likely watching the Tigers (East) during leg one of their final two-game stretch at No. 24 Ole Miss. If Missouri wins that game, only a home date against No. 12 Texas A&M remains.
For both sets of Tigers, the plan from here is simple: win and you’re in. But there’s so much more to the story. Most importantly, the unlikelihood of it all, as both Tigers were picked to finish fifth or sixth in their respective divisions.
If Auburn wins the West, it would mark the biggest single-season turnaround to win a division title in SEC history. If they go on to win the conference title game, the Tigers would be the first team since Kentucky in 1975 to go from no league wins to SEC champion in one year.
Missouri is also in the midst of a huge turnaround. Though they weren’t quite as bad as Auburn (3-9, 0-8) last season, the Tigers finished 5-7 and only notched league wins against 2012 SEC East bottom-dwellers Kentucky and Tennessee. If not for a fourth-quarter meltdown leading to a 27-24 overtime loss to South Carolina, Missouri would be 10-0 and would have already clinched a spot in the SEC title game.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any FBS team with a better turnaround story than Auburn or Missouri. No one had these Tigers on their radar entering the season. Now, both have become the hunted, as each control their SEC destiny with two weeks left in the regular season. No one outside of the athletic complexes in Auburn, Ala. and Columbia, Mo. believed these teams would be where they are at this point.
Gus Malzahn and Gary Pinkel deserve every bit of the recognition they’re getting for the jobs they’ve done, and both these Tigers have earned their stripes this season. It’s no longer a question of can they — but will they? Will the SEC football season conclude with a tango of two Tigers?