Entering the 2013 college football season, four teams emerged as the favorites to appear in the SEC Championship Game. The Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs, LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies were the respected contenders, and the rest of the conference was viewed as a crop of dark horses.
After 14 weeks of action, it's the Auburn Tigers and Missouri Tigers that have emerged as the two teams in the SEC Championship. One year removed from a campaign in which both Auburn and Missouri missed out on bowl games, both teams are 11-1.
The question is: Which position battles will decide the Auburn versus Missouri clash?
James Franklin vs. Nick Marshall
The 2013 SEC Championship Game will ultimately come down to which quarterback can make plays late. The stars tasked with leading their respective teams are James Franklin of Missouri and Nick Marshall of Auburn.
Both players are capable of leading an explosive offensive charge, and neither will have an easy time against the opposing defense.
Franklin enters this game with season statistics of 1,952 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and three rushing scores. This comes during a season in which Franklin missed four games, including the Tigers' lone loss.
If there's one thing that you need to know about the senior quarterback, it's that he makes big plays on a consistent basis.
Marshall isn't the most prolific passer, but he has 11 touchdowns through the air and another 10 on the ground. He had three total scores against Alabama, including a 45-yard run and the game-tying pass.
You can trust Marshall to lead a dangerous option attack.
Franklin has out-dueled Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel in 2013, and he should give Marshall just as much trouble. With that being established, Auburn appears to be a team of destiny, securing improbable wins with every passing week.
Who's ready for an entertaining quarterback duel?
Henry Josey vs. Tre Mason
Auburn has a between-the-tackles menace in running back Tre Mason. Missouri has an explosive and shifty running back in Henry Josey.
Both of these men will be trusted with stepping up for top-tier production in the SEC Championship Game.
Mason has carried the ball 237 times for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns during the 2013 season. He torched Alabama for 164 yards and a touchdown and has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his previous nine outings.
Going up against Missouri's physical and swarming defense, Auburn will need Mason to be at his best.
Josey has overcome past injuries to run the ball 153 times for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns. Against Texas A&M, Josey closed out the regular season with 96 yards and a score on 13 carries to further establish his status as one of the nation's most dynamic players.
He has at least one rushing score in nine separate games, and that's a big number as Missouri competes with Auburn's elite rushing attack.
Neither Josey nor Mason have proven to be reliable receivers, which means that both will produce as run-oriented players. That gives the advantage to Mason, who is more of a physical runner than a big-play machine.
Just don't count Josey out as a candidate for a breakout performance.
Dee Ford vs. Michael Sam
If only one defensive player on both teams can be labeled as stars, it'd be the pass-rushers. Those players are Dee Ford of Auburn and Michael Sam of Missouri, who both have NFL futures.
Both teams are in need of a dominant pass rush with Franklin and Marshall serving as duel-threat playmakers. Fortunately, both Ford and Sam are physical and athletic enough to disrupt the run and get after the quarterback.
Whichever player is more successful in penetrating the offensive line will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this game.
Ford is more than capable of stepping up, especially after he sacked Johnny Manziel twice when Auburn played Texas A&M. That experience will prove to be valuable when he attempts to get after the elusive Franklin.
Sam, meanwhile, had registered 10.0 sacks entering Week 14, per Missouri's official website. He's a respected NFL prospect for that very reason, and he should be expected to impose his will against the Tigers.
Prepare for a battle of the teams that have quietly become the SEC's best.