Tigris a Tigris: SEC Championship Preview

Tigris+a+Tigris%3A+SEC+Championship+Preview

Josh Ripley

[heading]Improbable teams make title game: What you need to know[/heading][box title=”Opinion”][/box]After the conclusion of the 2012 College Football season, nobody could have dreamed where we are today.  Two teams that a year ago looked so lost, so overmatched that they were picked to finish fifth and sixth in their seven team divisions,  will be playing in Atlanta on Saturday to decide the winner of the most prestigious conference in college football.  The two Tigers,  Auburn and Missouri, were a combined 2-14 in the SEC a year ago,  Missouri 2-6, Auburn a whopping 0-8.

Auburn, a school that Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton had led to the BCS National Championship in 2010 fired the coach of that team, Gene Chizik, a mere two years after winning it all.  Missouri, a school whose move to the SEC was controversial and questioned by many, fell flat on its face in its first year in the new conference, missing a bowl game for the first time in 8 years under longtime head coach Gary Pinkel.  Pinkel, who had led the Mizzou football program to unprecedented heights in 2007 and 2008 came under fire for being too stubborn and unwilling and unable to adjust to a better more physical conference then the old Big 12.  As if support for Pinkel wasn’t already low enough, Missouri landed the worst recruiting class in the SEC and the fans wanted his head.

Fans storm the field after Missouri's win over Texas A&M last Saturday at Farout Field. The win put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn. Photo by Brett Stover
Fans storm the field after Missouri’s win over Texas A&M last Saturday at Farout Field. The win put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn.
Photo by Brett Stover

So what happened?  How have two of the worst teams in the SEC instantly become two of the best teams? For Auburn the simplest answer might be at the top.  After firing Chizik,  Auburn hired Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn to take the reigns.  Malzahn was the offensive coordinator for Auburn in their 2010 championship year.  Considered by many to be an offensive genius,  Malzahn was credited by many at the time for being the true mastermind behind the explosive Newton led offense.  This year he’s been busy proving there may be substance to the speculation, leading Auburn to an 11-1 record in his first season at the helm and penciling himself in as a finalist in virtually every coach of the year award.

While Malzahn doesn’t have Newton at his disposal this year he still has pretty good quarterback.  Nick Marshall, a former safety at the University of Georgia, has emerged as one of the more dynamic playmakers in the country this year,  A dual threat who forms a potent read option tandem with running back Tre Mason, Marshall has been instrumental in getting Auburn to this point.  He hooked up with wide receiver Robert Louis on a tipped ball touchdown with 25 seconds to go to beat Georgia 43-38 in a play that would be named “The Prayer in Jordan-Hare.”  A week ago he led Auburn back from 14 points down to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl.  A game that will forever be remembered for Chris Davis missed field goal return for a touchdown at the end of regulation to complete an improbable comeback.  A proven leader in clutch situations, Marshall will be tough to keep down throughout the game.

Perhaps more dangerous than Marshall is his backfield mate Mason.  The Auburn tailback has rushed for 18 touchdowns this year and over 1300 yards.  Under Malzahn’s option offense Marshall will read the defense and either hand to Mason, keep it himself, or drop back and throw.  Mason is the number one option and will surely get plenty carries Saturday.

While Auburn’s potent rushing attack is ranked fifth in the country, they are not as well known for their passing which is ranked 105th.  Despite this stat they are still dangerous through the air.  Marshall is a good thrower and he has some good targets in Louis and Sammie Coates who will challenge the Mizzou secondary.

Defensively Auburn is ranked 31st in the nation in giving up 22.5 points per game.  While they were able to hold down Alabama in the Iron Bowl,  Auburn’s secondary is suspect.  They surrendered 38 points to an injury depleted Georgia team and 41 to Texas A&M in a game where Aggie wide receiver Mike Evans scored four touchdowns.  This bodes well for Missouri as their three headed receiving threat, L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas are all big targets and should give Auburn’s defense major problems. Auburn is very strong offensively, especially on the ground, but show weaknesses in the defensive secondary that Missouri quarterback James Franklin should be able to exploit.  Their multiple miraculous wins this season have led them to be labeled as a “team of destiny”  so they will be tough to take down in a close game.

As for Missouri nobody saw this coming either.  To many it seems like the same team that didn’t make a bowl game last year, and for the most part it is.  Pinkel, who was considered squarely on the hot seat before the start of the year,  is now in coach of the year discussions after leading the Tigers to an 11-1 mark.  In the offseason, offensive coordinator David Yost resigned and eventually took a job at Washington State.  After a nationwide search that centered around former Tennessee and now Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney,  Pinkel promoted co-offensive line coach Josh Henson to offensive coordinator, a very unpopular move by Missouri fans who wanted a big exterior hire.  That was then.  Now the Henson promotion looks like a stroke of genius.  The offense is humming this year in ways it was not in 2012.  A big reason for that is an offensive line that is finally healthy after being decimated by injuries a year ago.  Justin Britt, Max Copeland, Evan Boehm, Connor McGovern and Mitch Morse have amazingly transformed from one of the most porous offensive lines in the SEC to one of the best.
The extra time to throw has greatly benefited Franklin, a quarterback who went through a rough stretch in 2012.     Plagued by injury the whole year and criticized for refusing to take painkilling injections, Franklin along with Pinkel and Yost were seen as the scapegoats in a dreadful season.   This year Franklin has been a whole different player.  Finally healthy, the dual threat quarterback was playing as well as any in the conference and had led Mizzou to a 6-0 record before being injured yet again late in the game against Georgia.  Enter Maty Mauk.  The Freshman quarterback was thrown into the fire and performed admirably, posting a 3-1 record in Franklin’s absence.  Since Franklin has returned Mauk has been inserted for one series each game, but with his struggles on those drives and Franklin’s return to form I think it is very likely this is Franklin’s game from beginning to end.

One of the biggest reasons Franklin’s play has improved is due to the players he is throwing too.  Washington, Lucas and Green-Beckham are all towering and fast presences averaging a height of 6 foot 5 between the three of them.  Washington and Green-Beckham are tied for the team lead with 10 touchdown receptions apiece,  while Lucas leads the team with 50 receptions. This balanced and spread out passing attack has opened the door for the Mizzou running backs to do damage, most notably Henry Josey.  Josey, who tore three ligaments in his knee in 2011 against Texas,  has returned to football this year and picked up right where he left off, rushing for 13 touchdowns.  Josey is not the only running threat for Missouri.  Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy are also highly capable runners who will get their fair share of carries.

Defensively, Mizzou is 14th in the nation, only allowing 19.4 points per game.  They are led by defensive end Michael Sam, a finalist for the Lombardi award given to college football’s top lineman.  Sam leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss and will be a tough task for the Auburn offensive line.  The linebacking corps are led by hard hitting senior Andrew Wilson and the secondary features cornerback E.J. Gaines.  Gaines won the SEC defensive player of the year this week after he neutralized A&M’s Evans to 4 catches for 8 yards in Mizzou’s 28-21 victory.  Missouri’s one weakness defensively appears to be screen passes.  Mizzou was shredded by screen passes used by South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw when he led the Gamecocks back from 17 points down to hand Missouri their only defeat,  a 27-24 final.

Another question mark  for Mizzou is at placekicker.   Andrew Baggett has converted 57 of 60 extra points but he only has a 66 percent success rate on field goals, his most notable miss the game ender in double overtime of Missouri’s loss to South Carolina.  If the game comes down to a field goal it will not be a sure thing for Baggett.

This game between third ranked Auburn and 5th ranked Missouri is really a toss up.  Both teams have obvious strengths and some small weaknesses that could cost them.  The winner could still play for the BCS National Championship but would likely need either Michigan State to beat Ohio State or Duke to knock off Florida State.  The game will be hard fought but I think Missouri’s defense will be able to limit Auburn’s rushing attack enough to  allow its offense to outscore Auburn.  Auburn’s secondary struggled covering one stud wide receiver in Evans so I have a hard time imagining they will be able to contain three.  It will be a big game for Franklin who should have receivers running open all over the place. This should lead to lots of offensive fireworks that will just be enough to edge Malzahn’s high powered attack.

Missouri 31  Auburn 24

The SEC Championship Game will be played Saturday, December 7 at 3 pm CT from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.