NCAA Football Auburn Tigers

Auburn Tigers: 5 Keys to Winning SEC Championship Game

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Auburn's 5 Keys to Beating Missouri

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Get ready for the most unlikely SEC Championship Game in its 22-year existence. No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 Missouri won just two conference games between them in 2012. They were picked to finish fifth and sixth in their respective divisions, yet, here they are. It’s Tigers (West) vs. Tigers (East) for the SEC title and, with a little luck, a potential berth in the BCS championship game. It’s going to be very exciting to see two teams that are near mirror images of each other take the field in the Georgia Dome Saturday.

If you just used the word Tigers when describing either of these teams, it would be impossible to distinguish between Auburn and Missouri. They’re really that similar. The two are both 11-1 and rank near or next to each other in a number of statistical categories.

Auburn and Missouri are both very good offensively and have the ability to put points on the board. And each is much improved on defense this season. These teams might give up a lot of yards, but neither yields many points. All indications point to this being a very close game that could hinge on a few key matchups or a handful of big plays.

So, what does Auburn have to do to separate itself from Missouri? How can the Tigers (West) take control of the game and win their second SEC title in four seasons?

Here are Auburn's five keys to winning the SEC Championship Game.

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5. Land a Big Blow Early

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There’s a chance Auburn could be a bit deflated after the incredible Iron Bowl finish, but I wouldn’t count on either team not being ready to play for an SEC title. Still, if the Tigers (West) can hit a big play early, it would quell any fears about there being a post-Alabama letdown. In addition to galvanizing Auburn’s spirits, putting Missouri in an early hole could ramp up the level of doubt and anxiety on the Tigers’ (East) sideline.

Missouri has a history of letdowns in big games. If Auburn jumps out to an early lead, Missouri could fold as it has in the past and allow the Tigers (West) to run away with the SEC championship. The 2010 Auburn team’s 56-17 title game rout of South Carolina, another team historically prone to crumbling on a big stage, provides a perfect blueprint. Auburn jumped out to 21-7 first-quarter lead and the Gamecocks never recovered.

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4. Force the Issue on the Ground

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Missouri ranks second in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up just 119.1. But that stat is a bit misleading because the Tigers (East) have defended the third fewest rush attempts of any team in the league, partially a result of being ahead big in a lot of games and forcing opponents to throw it a ton.

Auburn has the most dynamic ground attack in the conference, with as many as five viable threats to run the ball. Even if Missouri is defending the run well early, Auburn should continue to force the Tigers (East) to chase its ball-carriers. Missouri hasn’t faced anything like this AU offense. Auburn averages a shade over 50 rush attempts per game. If the Tigers (West) stick to their guns, eventually some big plays are going to open up.

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3. No Fumbles

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Auburn’s offense has been nearly unstoppable this year, with an emphasis on the word “nearly.” One thing that has consistently stalled drives all season is poor ball security. The Tigers top two rushers, Tre Mason and Nick Marshall, have both had fumbling issues. In fact, each fumbled once against Alabama last week. Mason’s fumble was recovered by Alabama, giving the Crimson Tide the ball on a short field, which led to a touchdown.

No team has been able to stop Auburn’s rushing attack, and there’s no reason to think Missouri will have significantly more success than any of the Tigers’ (West) previous 12 opponents. So if Marshall and company can protect the football, Auburn should be able to move the ball and score.

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2. Big Plays on Special Teams

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Auburn is arguably more dangerous on special teams than any other team in the SEC. The Tigers have returned kickoffs, punts and even a field goal for a touchdown. Missouri ranks 11th in kickoff coverage and rank 11th in net yards per punt. Only two SEC teams have punted more than Missouri, meaning Auburn is likely to get a shot at returning a few punts Saturday. In game that features two eerily similar and evenly matched teams, a few big plays on special teams could tip the scale in Auburn’s favor.

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1. Blitz Often on Passing Downs

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Auburn’s defense is fourth in the SEC with 25 sacks. The Tigers (West) have several guys that get after the quarterback, which they should be able to do Saturday. Missouri is tied for ninth in the league, having given up 22 sacks this year. When Missouri is facing passing situations, look for Auburn to bring pressure for two reasons. Number one, Missouri hasn’t been great at protecting the quarterback. Number two, Auburn is outmatched on the perimeter by Missouri’s three big receivers.

If James Franklin has time, chances are he’ll complete a lot of throws against Auburn’s somewhat soft secondary. I expect the Tigers (West) to be tough against Missouri’s run game, forcing the Tigers (East) to throw often. Auburn gives up a lot of yards on first and second down, but the Tigers (West) get tough when they force third downs, ranking third in the league in opponents third down conversion percentage. But Missouri is fourth in the league in converting third downs. Auburn probably won’t win the game if they can’t pressure Franklin and get the Tigers (East) off the field on passing downs.