Umm, well, this was unexpected. Of the numerous combinations that most folks had in their head during the preseason for 2013 SEC Championship Game participants, Auburn and Missouri weren't anywhere near the top. Perhaps only an Arkansas-Kentucky pairing would have confused August College Football Fan more than the two teams that went 2-14 in the SEC last season.
And yet here we are. Los Tigres clinched their spots in next Saturday's game at the Georgia Dome by taking down arguably the two biggest pieces of in-conference royalty at the moment: Nick Saban and Johnny Manziel.
Auburn took out Alabama on Chris Davis' thrilling 100-yard (officially) touchdown return on a missed field goal as time expired, in what was one of the most thrilling finishes in college football history. I'm still not sure whether the Auburn police were able to clean up all the wreckage around town after the celebration. (Spoiler alert: Nope.)
Missouri's swarming defense forced Manziel into his second straight poor outing in its 28-21 win over the Aggies. Manziel, who so often makes the spectacular look ordinary, was consigned to check-down duty in the passing game and ineffectiveness on the ground. With one fell swoop, Missouri finished what LSU started and delivered the final blow to Manziel's Heisman hopes.
But Saturday is about far more than what these two teams did to get here. It's about how they did it and what a victory could mean for each program going forward. There was already some clamoring for one-loss Auburn to leapfrog undefeated Ohio State in the BCS standings, and that chatter will only continue for the victor of this contest.
With that in mind, let's check in on the biggest X-factor that could determine victory for both sides.
Missouri: Can the Tigers Make Nick Marshall Pass the Ball?
Nick Saban's biggest failure against Auburn—you know, behind the nonsensical decision to kick a 57-yard field goal with a freshman—was his inability to adjust well enough to stop the Tigers' running game. Auburn rushed for 296 yards against the Tide, the most any SEC opponent had put together in more than a half-decade.
Tre Mason became just the fifth player since 2008 to rush for a triple-digit total, and Nick Marshall wasn't far behind him with 99 yards. It was both a frustrating and wholly understandable performance from the Tide—the type Auburn has been causing all season. Gus Malzahn's vaunted option-heavy offense keeps things simple but kills opponents with consistency. Only the fine folks at Northern Illinois have picked up more yards on the ground this season than Auburn.
But stopping Marshall and Mason shouldn't be the goal. It should be containing them enough that Marshall has to throw more than he's comfortable, and that's a feat Missouri proved it could pull off this past week.
Facing one of the handful or so best running quarterbacks in college football in Manziel, Missouri stuffed him in every way possible. The defending Heisman winner was relentlessly attacked on option plays and designed runs, finishing with just 21 yards on 11 carries. Marshall is more athletic than Manziel and can get to the outside better, but Missouri rarely had to rush more than four down linemen, allowing linebackers to roam and play contain on the outside.
This is important, mainly because Marshall isn't a good passer. Where Manziel is a consistent threat to find Mike Evans down the field, Marshall's two most memorable passes of the season involved quite a bit of luck. The Miracle at Jordan-Hare was an interception that just bounced into Ricardo Louis' hands, and Marshall was centimeters from being across the line of scrimmage on his game-tying 39-yard pass to Sammie Coates in the fourth quarter against Alabama.
Malzahn's system is designed to hide the deficiencies of his quarterback. And that deficiency is that he can't throw the ball accurately with even the slightest bit of consistency.
In many ways, LSU highlighted the blueprint. Les Miles and Co. jumped out to an early lead, chose to play contain on Marshall rather than Mason, and wound up forcing Malzahn's offense into a series of empty yards.
It all sounds pretty easy, no? But as Alabama's talented unit proved, it's far easier said than done.
Auburn: Can Malzahn Make Sure His Team Avoids an Emotional Letdown?
Auburn's win over Alabama was dope. Like tell-your-grandchildren awesome. For some, that ending will be remembered in the same breath as the band rushing the field, Boise State's Statue of Liberty play and Doug Flutie's Hail Mary. It was the type of indescribable finish you had to be watching live to feel properly; any post-watching was but a mere facsimile.
A year after losing 49-0 to cap off perhaps the most embarrassing season in program history, Malzahn and Co. vanquished the nation's top-ranked team in a historically great fashion. The Auburn faithful celebrated long into the night, and deservedly so. No one expected Malzahn to make this much of an impact. Or, if he did, it certainly wouldn't come in the first year of his tenure.
It was supposed to be a process. And then Auburn completely blew that out of the water by scoring one of the best victories in program history.
Now one has to wonder what happens next. Auburn knows it's playing for a shot at the national championship game, but there was such a sense of accomplishment following that win you have to wonder whether some level of a letdown is upcoming.
I'm not a believer in week-to-week momentum for the most part, and it's questionable whether such a concept even exists, but if there is such a thing as a letdown, Auburn seems like a perfect case, no?
It doesn't necessarily mean that Auburn will lose. The team showed its resilience against Alabama and has done so at multiple other points through this season. Perhaps Malzahn, Marshall and Mason are the trio of destiny, and this will be the culmination of the greatest story in recent college football history.
Or maybe not. We just highlighted how critical it is for Auburn to stick around early, mainly to avoid foisting too much responsibility on Marshall's shoulders. If Auburn comes out a little flat and goes down two scores early, can it come back again?
We'll have to see. Either way, this unexpected matchup should be a good one.
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