A miraculous finish last week in Auburn's regular-season finale against No. 1 Alabama has granted the Tigers a berth in their second SEC Championship Game in four years.
Auburn fans are already preparing to book their tickets to the national title game in Pasadena, but what have quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense nervous is Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
Sam is by far the best defensive end Auburn will see this season. The fifth-year senior will look to wreak havoc against the option attack of the Tigers.
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
Sam leads a Mizzou defense that's allowing just 119 rushing yards per game this season—14th-lowest in the country.
Gus Malzahn's speed option and zone read have been the bread and butter for the Auburn offense this season. Sam will likely be the unblocked player on many option plays. His superior athleticism and tremendous instincts will prove cumbersome to the Tiger offense that will experience its worst rushing performance of the season.
Once Auburn's rushing attack is dismantled, Sam will be able to completely take over the game by doing what he does best—rushing the quarterback.
In 10 games this season, Sam has recorded 10.5 total sacks—ninth-highest in the NCAA among active pass-rushers.
His tenacious pass rush against a mediocre Auburn passing attack will prove to be a favorable situation for Mizzou. Such was the case in Auburn's sole loss to LSU, when the Tigers were not able to run the ball as effectively as usual.
Along with Auburn's close victory over Mississippi State, the LSU game was only one of two occasions in which Marshall was asked to throw the ball over 30 times. Both times, he threw two interceptions.
The Missouri offense is very opportunistic and able to capitalize off of these mistakes.
Marshall has been effective throwing the football in spots this season, mostly due to the ability of the run to set up the pass. If Missouri can make Marshall one-dimensional, as he was against LSU and Mississippi State, Mizzou will be in good shape.
For a secondary that's been porous when it comes to defending the pass, allowing 266 passing yards per game, the Missouri defense has registered 27 takeaways this season—11th-most in the NCAA.
Considering the passing yards allowed and takeaways displays just how crucial Missouri's pass rush really is. The secondary normally struggles unless opposing quarterbacks are forced into mistakes by the defensive line.
Michael Sam is the X-factor in this game. His performance will dictate Missouri's success.