Auburn and Missouri went a combined 2-14 in the SEC last season with Missouri claiming both of the conference victories, but what a difference a year can make as both teams now make up an unlikely SEC Championship Game. The two programs have combined to go 22-2 with a collective 14-2 mark in the toughest conference in the nation, and will meet Saturday at 3:00 pm CT in Atlanta, with the winner having a potential shot to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
If you predicted these two teams would be the matchup for this year’s game, I’d like you to pick out some lottery numbers for me, because this was completely unfathomable based on how each team looked last year and the overall strength of the conference.
Alabama thought they had a clear path to the conference title game after they got past Texas A&M and LSU earlier this year, but no one bothered telling Gus Malzahn, Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and Auburn that. The trio on the Plains has been one of the more compelling stories in all of college football in 2013. Auburn was picked by ESPN.com’s Edward Aschoff to finish fifth in the preseason and he had them as the ninth-best team in the conference.
Here’s a snippet of what Aschoff wrote about Auburn on August 26: “With Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson working with the defense, the Tigers have the recipe to be better in 2013 … Malzahn has said he’s very comfortable with junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who fits his offense perfectly.”
Aschoff nailed the recipe part and Marshall has been perfect operating Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but he stopped short of predicting any sort of greatness that would evoke memories of Cam Newton.
Auburn’s opponent on Saturday is an even bigger surprise as they conquered the east in their second season in the SEC after a five-win season that was riddled with injury and inconsistency. Some with an itchy trigger finger even speculated that Gary Pinkel was on the hot seat this year, but he has proved that talk to be complete nonsense with a well-balanced offense and stout defense.
Aschoff ranked Missouri as the No. 11 team in the conference in the preseason and with a fifth-place finish in the east. Here’s what Aschoff had to say about the fate of Pinkel’s outlook in 2013: “The offensive line is healthier, but communication issues in the spring really hurt the offense’s growth. The hope is that the talent at receiver lives up to its potential, while the defense has to make strides at linebacker and in the secondary.”
The defense has made considerable strides as Michael Sam may be the front-runner for SEC defensive player of the year, and they entered the season finale vs. A&M with the No. 15 scoring defense in the nation. The secondary that needed to make strides held Johnny Manziel to his fewest passing yard total this season with only 195.
As far as communication issues go, James Franklin has been an efficient dual-threat at quarterback and the team has yet to lose with him starting. Wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington have combined for 18 touchdowns and lived up to their hype, while Henry Josey’s return at running back balances out the No. 15 scoring offense.
Many had expected Auburn and Missouri to be better this year with the coaching change for the former and the latter being healthy, but no one could have envisioned an SEC Championship Game without the usual suspects. But make no mistake, these are the two best teams, they’ve proved it all season long and they are absolutely deserving of all the praise they’re getting.
It’s almost a shame one of them has to lose on Saturday.
Patrick’s a college football writer for Rant Sports and radio host on Sportstownchicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickASchmidt and Google and email him at SchmidtPatrick@gmail.com for media inquiries.