If there is one song that seems to sum up the recent wild ride the Auburn Tigers have taken the past few weeks, it may be Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. At least, the title of the song seems to be most appropriate to describe Auburn’s journey to the SEC Championship Game this weekend in Atlanta. Missouri hasn’t exactly had to rely on a power from above as much as Auburn, but they will be lining up on the other side of the field of Auburn this weekend after a similar one-year turnaround in SEC play.
For as similar as these two teams appear to be when you start to look at the numbers, Auburn and Missouri could not have had much different paths to Atlanta. Auburn’s season started with a breath of fresh air with the hiring of head coach Gus Malzahn, who took over for his former boss Gene Chizik. Malzahn was previously one of the hottest assistants in the game while helping to lead Auburn to a BCS championship a few years ago. He picked up some head coaching experience last year at Arkansas State before rejoining the Tigers. The optimism was high for Malzahn at Auburn, but even the most loyal of Auburn supporters would probably admit they didn’t quite see this coming. Auburn was ranked 118th in total offense a year ago, but Malzahn quickly helped improve that. The Tigers enter this weekend with the nation’s 15th best offense in total offense. Much of that is a credit to the incredible running game the Tigers have relied on.
The SEC’s top rushing offense is grinding up 318.25 yards per game on the ground, which should make for a great battle with Missouri. Missouri ranks second in the SEC in rushing defense, but Auburn ran for 218 yards and a touchdown against the SEC’s top rushing defense (Alabama) last weekend. As if stopping Tre Mason is not a tough enough task for Missouri, focus must also be given to quarterback Nick Marshall, who is a threat to throw and run any time. He may not have impressive passing numbers, but Marshall proved last weekend he has a good eye and an ability to wait for a play to develop. Doing that against Missouri will be a key for Auburn.
All this talk about Auburn though and you might be thinking Missouri is a complete afterthought. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Missouri’s turnaround this season has been just as surprising as Auburn’s to most. In their first year in the SEC, while Texas A&M was enjoying the national spotlight, Missouri was slugging through their initiation in the new conference with a 5-7 record. Gary Pinkell‘s team missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2004, which helped to validate the criticisms some seemed to have about Missouri’s place in the SEC. The tables were turned this season though, as Auburn ripped through the SEC East except for an overtime setback at home against South Carolina. These Tigers managed to do it with two different quarterbacks leading the offense without losing much of a step along the way.
James Franklin got things rolling with a 6-0 start under center, throwing 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions as Missouri set the bar high for the rest of the season. A shoulder injury to the starting quarterback in a big win at Georgia, which made it clear Missouri was a serious contender in the division as opposed to a pretender, put the fortune of the season in limbo, but Maty Mauk stepped in to keep the Missouri Tigers roaring.Mauk calmed the nerves of Missouri fans for the most part by avoiding mistakes, throwing 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions in Franklin’s absence. That was highlighted by a five-touchdown performance against Kentucky. Mauk was in command for Missouri’s only loss of the season, but if Franklin should happen to be taken out the Tigers know they have a competent replacement ready to jump right in. Whoever ends up playing quarterback at any given time for Missouri, they will have one of the top targets in the SEC in Dorial Green-Beckham, the receiver who shocked the college football world by committing to Missouri a few years ago. Green-Beckham commands plenty of attention, which opens up the field for the complimentary L’Damian Washington. The two receivers combined for 20 touchdowns this season, so Auburn will have their work cut out for them in the secondary.
It is often turnovers that become the difference of a game. If that is going to be the case for the SEC Championship Game, the Missouri Tigers figure to have the advantage. Missouri has a turnover margin of +15 entering the championship game, which looms large over +1 owned by Auburn. Will Auburn have to rely on some improbable sequence to pick up one more win and an SEC championship?
War Eagle, Auburn’s half way there.