Southeastern Conference Championship Game
Auburn Tigers vs. Missouri Tigers
Time/TV: 4 p.m./CBS
Records: Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC), Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Series record: Auburn and Missouri have met once before - in the 1973 Sun Bowl. Missouri won 34-17.
The two offenses featured in Saturday’s SEC Championship game show that there is more than one way for Tigers to skin defenses.
When it comes to producing yards and points, Auburn and Missouri are two of the more explosive teams in the league and almost identical statistically.
Mizzou averages 38.8 points to Auburn’s 38.6, and Auburn outgains Missouri by a 1.5 yards per game (491 to 489.5). Both generally try to go fast, but that’s where the similarities end.
Under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn has brought a level of rushing effectiveness not seen in the SEC since the days of the option veer and wishbone in the 1960s and ’70s. The Tigers lead the league in rushing with an average of 318.2 yards per game. That leads the conference’s next best team at running the ball — Missouri — by 81.3 yards per game.
“It’s not an easy offense to stop,” Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. “They do a lot of motion, so guys have to focus on looking at your keys. They can pull it out and run with the quarterback, sometimes (the quarterback will) raise up and pass it. It’s really a triple-threat offense, man.”
While Auburn is relatively one-dimensional on offense, Missouri is the epitome of balance. Coach Gary Pinkel’s Tigers move the ball with equal effectiveness whether on the ground (236.9 ypg) or through the air (252.6).
Both teams make it happen with extraordinary quarterback-tailback combinations. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who leads all SEC quarterbacks in rushing with 84 yards per game, and has 10 TDs, may be the best pure athlete in the league. He can run and pass and can hand off to junior running back Tre Mason, who leads the SEC in rushing, and ranks 19th nationally, at 109.8 yards per game. Mason has scored 18 touchdowns.
Missouri has a more refined and experienced playmaker in senior quarterback James Franklin, who missed three starts with a shoulder injury but is 8-0 on the season and has averaged 217 yards passing. He hands the ball to junior Henry Josey, who has averaged 79 yards rushing per game and has scored 13 TDs — after missing last season with a knee injury.
But Mizzou’s primary weapon is its receiving corps, which resembles a bunch of basketball forwards. Marcus Lucas (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 220) and L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205) have combined for 2,106 yards receiving and 22 TDs. And they know full well how to take advantage of shorter secondaries, such as the one they’ll face Saturday.
“Big, long and fast,” Malzahn noted. “They’re playmakers, and they definitely present a challenge.”
Neither team will blow you away with their defensive numbers. When it comes to allowing yards, both give up ground. Missouri (388.4 ypg) and Auburn (414.2) rank ninth and 10th in the 14-team league, respectively. But they’re both good at what is always the bottom line for defenses — keeping opponents out of the end zone. Mizzou has allowed only 19.2 points per game, which ranks second in the SEC; Auburn, 22.5, which ranks fifth.
Missouri features defensive end Michael Sam, who many feel may be the best defensive player in the SEC. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
Just behind Sam in conference stats is Auburn defensive end Dee Ford (8 sacks, 12 TFLs). Cornerback Chris Davis leads Auburn with 65 tackles.
The opposing coaches in Saturday’s game took radically different routes to get to this place in time.
Eight years ago, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was coaching high school ball in Springdale, Ark. On Saturday, he’ll lead the No.-3-ranked Tigers into the Georgia Dome with a chance to win an SEC championship in his first season as their head coach and his second season as a college head coach.
By contrast, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel has coached for 23 seasons, all on the college level. And while he won a lot of games and three Big 12 North Division titles in 13 seasons at Missouri, he has never led the Tigers to an overall conference title.
Asked about Malzahn’s enormous accomplishments — including a BCS championship as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010 — in such a relatively short period of time, Pinkel laughed.
“I’d say it’s pretty darn good. Are you kidding me?” said Pinkel, who has coached college ball since graduating from Kent State in 1973. “I went through kind of the traditional way, always coaching in college. … He’s done a phenomenal job, obviously. Obviously he’s very good at X’s and O’s, techniques, fundamentals. Obviously he can unite people, get players to play as a team, not as individuals. You can see that in the way they play.”
Malzahn, 48, won big at Springdale High and acknowledges that his path is the one less taken, but said there are many other high school coaches who deserve a chance.
“First of all, I feel very humbled and very honored to be doing what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s a lot of really good high school coaches that could be doing the same thing. They just haven’t been given the opportunity. I’m just very blessed and thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity.”
Malzahn made the leap to college ball when Arkansas coach Houston Nutt hired him as offensive coordinator from Springdale in 2006. The Razorbacks also signed Malzahn’s quarterback at Springdale — Mitch Mustain.
HOME IN THE DOME
For Auburn, playing in the Georgia Dome is somewhat relatively old hat. The Tigers have played in the SEC Championship game four times.
Missouri, playing in only its second season in the SEC, never has. In fact, the Mizzou campus is 677 miles from the Dome — or about a 10-hour drive.
But coach Gary Pinkel doesn’t believe the distance will keep the Mizzou faithful from coming. He expects them to embrace the history of it.
“I would be disappointed if we didn’t get 20,000 Mizzou fans down there,” Pinkel said early in the week. “I know it’s a big stadium, but we already sold out (of) 16,000 tickets. We’ll get more than that. We’ll have a good group there.”
Participating teams are allocated 16,000 seats each for the 72,000-seat venue, which has averaged more than 74,000 annually for this event since coming to the Dome in 1994. But thousands more are sold on the free market.
Auburn is two hours from Atlanta, and the host city has the school’s biggest alumni base of any city. So the thinking is that it will be primarily an orange-and-blue crowd.
“I’d like for it to be a home atmosphere, but I don’t know,” coach Gus Malzahn said.
Said Pinkel: “It’s like anything else, whether it be on the road or at home, it’s how you play. Hopefully we can play our best game. Doesn’t mean we’ll win. If we play our best game we’ll have a chance to win. … I don’t care who’s in the stands, who’s not in the stands. I think it’s about being mature enough to play at a high level. Hopefully we can do that.”
Auburn is 2-2 in its previous trips to the Dome, winning the past two. The Tigers beat South Carolina 56-17 on the way to the 2010 BCS championship and defeated Tennessee 38-28 in 2004 when they also went undefeated. They lost to Florida in 2000 and Tennessee in 1997.
It’s well known that Auburn recruits Georgia and metro Atlanta hard. In fact, there are 25 Georgians on the Tigers’ roster. Conversely, there is one Georgian among Missouri’s scholarship players.
Eddie Printz Jr. grew up just a short drive up I-75 from the Dome. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback followed in the footsteps of Georgia’s Hutson Mason at Lassiter High, passing for 6,352 yards and 59 touchdowns his last two years. An AJC Super 11 selection in 2012, Printz enrolled at Missouri in January and is fourth on the Tigers’ depth chart.
Obviously Maty Mauk is the heir apparent at quarterback for Missouri. The redshirt freshman started three games in James Franklin’s absence this season. But it appears Printz will be in the mix for the backup spot. He impressed the Tigers’ coaching staff in the first scrimmage of the preseason. He completed 15 of 16 passes — or 93.8 percent — for 97 yards.
Missouri and Auburn have met once in their football programs’ long histories. They played at the end of the 1973 season in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Missouri won 34-17.
Most notable from that game was the last eight seconds of the first half. Auburn scored on a 17-yard, fourth-down pass with just eight seconds to play. Turns out that was enough time for Missouri’s John Mosely to return the ensuing kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown with no time left on the clock and give his team a commanding 28-10 lead.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
3 Common opponents between Auburn and Missouri — Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Both teams beat all three by almost identical aggregate margins, Auburn by 45 and Missouri by 47.
0 Conference championships won by Missouri since it has been in the Big 12 or SEC
74,346 Average SEC Championship game attendance in the Georgia Dome, which is supposed to seat 72,000.