Picks, Predictions and Prognosis for the 2013 SEC Championship Game
Well, here we are. No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 3 Auburn for the SEC Championship in Atlanta. Just as we all predicted, right?
The magical run for one of the two Tigers will continue on Saturday night as they square off in one of the most surprising SEC Championship Game matchups since the game's inception in 1992.
Will Auburn's multidimensional rushing attack find success against the SEC's second-best rush defense, or will Missouri's wide receivers exploit mismatches in Auburn's secondary and make this game a laugher?
Picks, predictions and prognosis for the SEC Championship Game are in this slideshow.
2013 record: 94-17 (7-2 last week), 63-44-2 against the spread (6-3 last week)
All lines courtesy: Vegas Insider
Shootout? We'll Have a Shootout (Over/Under: 58)
With two of the top four offenses in the SEC squaring off in the Georgia Dome, along with the SEC's two worst pass defenses, the scoreboard should be lighting up inside the Georgia Dome.
Auburn's pass defense ranks next-to-last in the SEC (255.7 yards per game), which should allow Missouri's talented and tall wide receiving corps led by L'Damian Washington (6'4"), Dorial Green-Beckham (6'6") and Marcus Lucas (6'5") to have big days.
When you have power forwards playing wide receiver, you have a huge advantage. As long as Missouri's offensive line gives quarterback James Franklin time, he should have a solid day through the air.
The real intrigue is when Auburn has the ball. Head coach Gus Malzahn's team leads the SEC in rushing offense (318.25 YPG), while Missouri boasts the SEC's second-best rush defense (119.08 YPG). That shouldn't matter to Malzahn, though.
Tre Mason, Nick Marshall, Corey Grant and that Tigers offense rushed for 296 yards against Alabama and will have success against Missouri. Auburn's by-committee approach is easy to diagnose but nearly impossible to stop, and Missouri won't be able to stop it.
The matchups suggest points will be flying on Saturday afternoon.
Pressure and Depth
Championships are won with depth, and both of these teams have plenty of it up front on the defensive side of the ball.
Missouri leads the SEC with 37 sacks and 95 tackles for loss and features defensive end Michael Sam, who is a finalist for the Nagurski and Lombardi Awards. Auburn chimes in with 25 sacks and 80 tackles for loss. Both teams rotate eight players along the defensive line, which prevents them from wearing down as the game progresses.
"I think it's huge," Auburn defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. "With (defensive line) coach (Rodney) Garner, he told us in the spring, he said he's looking for 10 to 12 guys to come in and play a lot of snaps, and we know that."
"We know, one, we're in the best shape of our lives. And two, that Tuesday and Wednesday will be our days to work. Come Saturday, we'll be fresh and we'll be rotating, and guys will be able to feed off each other and make a lot of plays."
Pressure creates opportunities, which will be a big factor on Saturday night. Missouri's been taking advantage of opportunities all season, leading the SEC with 27 turnovers gained. That continuing, or Auburn flipping the script, could determine how this game pans out.
Henry Josey Will Lead All Rushers
While Auburn's dynamic rushing attack will dominate headlines leading up to the SEC Championship Game, it will be Missouri's Henry Josey who will lead all rushers on Saturday night.
The junior has burst back onto the scene after a devastating knee injury that kept him out all of last season, rushing for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns—including the game-winning and SEC East-clinching 57-yard scamper in the fourth quarter in the 28-21 win over Texas A&M last week.
"When he had that knee injury, it was not an 'athletic injury,' it was a 'car wreck injury,'" head coach Gary Pinkel said. "He had three surgeries."
"We're so proud of him here. Just such a great example of a young man with great ability who overcame all the odds, all the things that you have to do in order to get back to play your best."
Both offenses will spread around carries quite a bit, and Josey will lead all rushers when the night comes to a close thanks to a few big gains and constant space on the edge.
Familiarity Is Important
Not many people expected either Auburn or Missouri to be in this game, but the surroundings will certainly be more familiar to Auburn.
Including this SEC Championship Game, the Tigers will have played a game in the Georgia Dome in four straight seasons. They won the 2010 SEC Championship Game 56-17 over South Carolina and 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl 43-24 over Virginia. They lost the 2012 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game 26-19 to Clemson.
Aside from freshmen and transfers, essentially the entire Auburn roster knows what to expect on the big stage despite suffering through a 3-9 season last year.
Missouri, on the other hand, hasn't seen in an atmosphere quite like this.
Sure, winning on the road at Ole Miss late in the season is impressive—as was the midafternoon win at Georgia. But those don't really compare to the atmosphere once the bands get cranked up under the big top on "Championship Saturday."
After being an underdog early, Auburn has shifted to become a two-point favorite over Missouri out in the desert. Las Vegas is rarely wrong when it comes to this sort of thing.
Auburn briefly flirted with mixing up its offense when it called four straight pass plays to open the game against Tennessee on Nov. 9. Since that point, the Tigers have remained true to their identity, focusing on the ground game and keeping their opponents guessing with their multidimensional rushing attack.
That won't change.
"Well, at this point in the season, you got to have confidence in what you do," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "Our guys, I feel like they've improved each week. They're playing very physical. We're going to have to do that again this week."
Auburn will take a lead late in the fourth quarter, and its defense—which is only giving up 5.3 points per game in the fourth quarter this season—will get a key stop and leave the Georgia Dome as SEC champions.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Missouri 35
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.