Auburn and Missouri are eerily similar. Both teams finished 11-1 and 7-1 in the SEC. Both finished with five or less wins last year. Both teams rank inside the Top Five in the BCS. The two teams also, ironically enough, are named the Tigers.
But when the two Tigers teams face off for SEC supremacy, just a handful of players could determine which team goes on to play for a BCS bowl. With plenty on the line and just one game left before bowl season for both schools, these are the players who will make or break each team's chances in the Tiger Bowl.
The senior has been the ringleader for one of the best rushing defenses in the SEC. Sam finished the regular season as the team leader with 18 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Sam is one of six finalists for the Hendricks Award:
Looks like Mizzou's Michael Sam among six finalists for Hendricks Award for nation's best defensive end.— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) December 5, 2013
Given the fact that Missouri's defense has been able to contain the rush all season long—ranking second once again to Bama—it will need Michael Sam to escape blocks and put pressure on the Auburn backfield.
The 6'2", 255-pounder finished with with one more TFL and sack than he accumulated in his previous three years with Mizzou. If Missouri plans to contain Nick Marshall and Tre Mason, Sam and the entire defensive line will need to have a big game on one of the biggest stages.
Nick Marshall has been one of the biggest reasons for the huge turnaround Auburn has experienced this season. The junior is one of many dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC, but he has proven throughout the year that he ranks right up there with Johnny Manziel as the best at the position.
According to ESPN's QBR stat, which measures the total value of a quaterback as both a passer and rusher, Marshall has been the third-best quarterback in the country since Oct. 1:
Heisman candidate? Nick Marshall's adjusted Total QBR since Oct. 1 is 87.0, 3rd in FBS (Winston, Mariota) http://t.co/GVvEEhEw7m— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 3, 2013
Both quarterbacks are great at what they do, but Marshall has single-handedly willed the Tigers to wins on several occasions. In games against Top 25 opponents, Marshall has thrown for five touchdowns, rushed for seven and thrown just two interceptions—both picks came against LSU in Marshall's first road game behind center.
If Auburn plans to rush against Mizzou the same way it did against Alabama, it will almost certainly need Marshall to have another stellar game on Saturday.
Tre Mason and Henry Josey
Tre Mason has already eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second time in two years for Auburn. Mizzou's Henry Josey missed all of 2012 but needs just 49 yards to rush for 1,000 yards in 2011 and 2013. The two are both dynamic playmakers, and whoever ends up with the better night might just be on the winning side.
For Mason, it's tough sledding against a Mizzou defense that hasn't allowed a back to rush for over 100 yards in its last 10 games. But Chelsa Messinger of NBC 38 in Columbus, Ga. brings up an interesting point about Mason's last game:
Josey has been the workhorse for Mizzou all season with the junior rushing for 90 yards or more in his last three games. During that same stretch, Josey has also amassed five touchdowns and has rushed for just over eight yards per carry. While Mason is one of the best running backs in the SEC, Josey certainly deserves some consideration after not playing a single down just a year ago.
The benefit that both teams have is a quarterback who can both throw and run the ball with authority. Marshall and James Franklin must be contained at all times, leaving plenty of room for either to have breakout games.