The SEC Championship Game on Saturday in the Georgia Dome will be a tangle of Tigers—two surprising, Top Five BCS teams in No. 3 Auburn and fifth-ranked Missouri.
Head coach Gus Malzahn's Auburn team is coming off of a sensational 34-28 Iron Bowl victory over arch-rival and previous No. 1 Alabama, while Mizzou shut down reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in last week's 28-21 victory over Texas A&M.
Neither of these programs had winning records last season but have managed to carve out quick turnarounds to get to this stage, where the winner will secure a BCS berth.
Missouri and Auburn -a combined 8-16 (2-14 in conf) last season- set to face off in SEC title game. Crazy! Congrats to both schools.— Todd McShay (@McShay13) December 1, 2013
There is even an outside chance that the victor could go to the national championship game. Below is a closer look at the scenarios that would allow that to happen, along with predictions as to how this SEC clash will play out.
Note: Team statistics are courtesy of NCAA.com.
The stakes seldom get higher than this for a conference title showdown. Auburn's chances of playing for a national championship would certainly be bolstered by a win, which may even be enough to leapfrog BCS No. 2 Ohio State.
There is no guarantee the Buckeyes' undefeated record will be intact after their Big Ten title game against Michigan State, either. Since Auburn trails OSU by less than three one-hundredths of a point in the BCS, a quality win over No. 5 Mizzou may be enough regardless of whether the Buckeyes win or not.
Urban Meyer is familiar with the position Auburn is in from when his Florida team was on the national title bubble in 2006 before beating the Buckeyes 41-14 to capture the Coaches' Trophy:
For Missouri to sneak into the BCS Championship Game at the last moment, it would certainly need the Buckeyes or the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles to lose.
However, FSU dropping its ACC championship to Duke seems very unlikely, as impressive as the Blue Devils have been in their own resurgence in 2013.
Considering the pedestal Auburn is on after taking down the two-time reigning national champion Crimson Tide, it may prove more difficult to get up for this one. Plus, Missouri will be looking to prove the world wrong.
James Franklin Outplays Nick Marshall
The Missouri senior was not intimidated by his counterpart Manziel in the win over the Aggies, and he will continue to play exceptional football under center against Auburn's defense.
Although Franklin isn't quite the electric running threat Marshall is, he is a superior passer from the pocket who can also use his mobility to keep plays alive and open up shots down the field.
It also helps that Franklin has super sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham—a massive 6'6" target who can win any matchup. He has struggled with consistency but is coming off of a seven-catch, 93-yard performance against Texas A&M and should give the Auburn secondary fits in the red zone.
The same goes for Missouri's other big targets in 6'4" senior L'Damian Washington, who is tied with Green-Beckham for the team lead in touchdown catches with 10. Senior Marcus Lucas is also 6'5" and has 50 receptions this season.
Auburn has yielded just six passing touchdowns in that area this season, so having those receivers gives Missouri a big advantage to pair with a tough rushing attack spearheaded by Henry Josey.
Marshall thew for just 97 yards on 16 attempts in facing Alabama. Some of that was due to how much success Auburn had on the ground. Having said that, he is not consistent enough to make defenses pay as often with an extra safety in the box.
Missouri's Front Seven Will Stifle Auburn's Running Game
The combination of the fleet-footed Marshall and star running back Tre Mason is tough for any defense to stifle, but Missouri has the tools up front to do so.
Led by senior Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Mizzou can get pressure on even the most elusive quarterbacks (37 sacks this season) and use its athleticism to chase down running plays.
Sam and the rest of the Tigers front have the personnel to keep Marshall more contained in the pocket than he was in the Alabama game, which was part of what allowed Auburn to flourish so much.
Linebacker Kentrell Brothers is a sure tackler and is also dangerous in pass coverage, having intercepted three passes this year. His instincts on Mizzou's turnover-generating defense could lead to a major takeaway.
Those problems will be exacerbated by the balance of Missouri's offense, which puts up 252.6 yards passing and 236.9 yards rushing per contest, compared to its opponent's averages of 172.8 and 318.3 in those same categories, respectively.
Final Score: Missouri 27, Auburn 24
It's rarely wise to link games from uncommon opponents together, but in this case it is appropriate.
Which team's turnaround has been more impressive?
The only game Auburn lost this season was to LSU, a defense that forced Manziel into the worst game of his collegiate career.
LSU also took away Marshall on the ground and generated pressure, causing him to throw 33 times—his second-most attempts of the season. Marshall completed 17 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions and ran for 46 yards on 14 attempts in a 35-21 loss in Baton Rouge on Sept. 21.
If a dynamic playmaker like Manziel was unable to succeed against either defense, it does not bode well for Marshall to do so—even with a stud like Mason in the backfield alongside him.
A similar scenario to the LSU game could unfold, as the balanced offense of QB Zach Mettenberger and RB Jeremy Hill ran up 457 yards on Auburn.
Considering all this game entails, it will be very close—a slimmer margin than when Auburn played LSU. Missouri will find a way to prevail, though.