Missouri is playing for the SEC Championship in just their second season in the conference. PHOTO: USA Today Sports
When the season started most people immediately wrote in Alabama for another trip to the SEC Championship Game. From the SEC East, many expected Georgia or South Carolina to be their opponent. In the SEC West, Auburn was expected to battle for last place in that division with Arkansas while Missouri was expected to place anywhere from third to fifth in the East. Now that the dust has settled, we have the most unexpected SEC Championship Game of all-time as Auburn takes on Missouri for the right to go to the Sugar Bowl, or maybe more if Ohio State slips up against Michigan State this weekend.
How did Auburn get here?
It was only three years ago, in 2010, that the Auburn Tigers ran the table with Cam Newton at QB and Gus Malzahn as Offensive Coordinator and won the National Championship. In 2011 and 2012, something happened on the Plains and Auburn went a combined 11-14 and in 2012 they won exactly zero conference games. The players gave up on Gene Chizik. Chizik was let go and Auburn decided to bring back Gus Malzahn, this time as head coach after a one year sabbatical to coach the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
The talent never left Auburn (5th in recruiting rankings in 2011, 13th in 2012 and 11th in 2013) but there were big questions about the players on this roster and with certain positions. When I did my preview of Auburn the keys I laid out for them was finding a QB, finding some receivers and growing up on defense under new coordinator Ellis Johnson (who led Southern Mississippi to zero wins last year and was fired after one year as their head coach).
Auburn found it's man at QB in JUCO transfer, by way of Georgia, Nick Marshall. Marshall struggled early to adapt to the speed of the game at this level but by the end of the season he seemed to have the knack for making the big play. He finished the season with 1627 yards passing on 59.2% completions with 11 TD and 6 INT. Maybe more importantly was what he did with his legs as he finished with 922 yards rushing and 10 rushing TDs. Last year, Auburn only had one receiver, Emory Blake, who had more than 15 receptions. This year they had four (Sammie Coates with 32, Ricardo Louis with 25, Marcus Davis with 22 and Quan Bray with 20). But, Auburn made their bones this year running the football as they finished the season fifth in the Nation in yards per game with 318 (actually finishing ahead of triple option team Georgia Tech).
And the defense did grow up under Ellis Johnson. Auburn allowed 22 points per game this season which was a big improvement from the 28 that it allowed in 2012. They gained more turnovers, had more sacks, improved on third downs and improved greatly in the red zone. There wasn't a huge change in the defensive statistics but you could see on the field that this team was better and that they had a difference maker in DE Dee Ford.
This team started off slowly at the beginning of the season. They beat Wazzu by 7, Mississippi State by 4 and Ole Miss by 8. After six games they were 5-1 with their only loss being a 14 point road game against LSU where they got beat early but kept fighting.
The season changed when they went into College Station and pulled off a 4 point upset of then #7 Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies. After that game, this team started to believe that they could have a special season as they sat at 6-1 with FAU, Arkansas and Tennessee up next on the schedule. After sweeping those three games they stood at 9-1 and had climbed the polls to #7 where they hosted #25 ranked Georgia.
Auburn jumped out quick against Georgia and looked like they would cruise but the Dawgs turned the table on them and behind Aaron Murray, Georgia came roaring back to take a lead. Auburn was faced with a 4th and 18 and was down one point when the skies parted and the football God's intervened in the game. Nick Marshall threw a prayer that was then deflected by two Georgia defensive backs and it bounced right into Ricardo Louis's hands. He grabbed it and ran into the end zone untouched for a 73 yard TD. Without that play, Auburn doesn't make the SEC Championship Game.
Chris Davis returned a missed field goal for a touchdown to clinch the SEC West in wild fashion. Photo: USA Today Sports
If you thought you saw everything after the "Prayer at Jordan-Hare" you were wrong because there was a bigger miracle in two weeks in the Iron Bowl. Tied 28-28, Alabama's TJ Yeldon caught a pass and ran out of bounds as the clock expired to seemingly end the game. The review referee put one second back on the clock and Nick Saban (despite having his FG kicker miss three FGs earlier in the game) put in his back-up kicker to try a 57 yard FG for the win. The FG landed short and Auburn, who had put their punt returner into the game in case this happened, caught the FG and Chris Davis raced over 100 yards for the game winning return as time expired. For two games in a row, the Auburn Tigers somehow came up with game winning plays that could truly be called "miracles".
It took a lot for Auburn to get to the SEC Championship Game, but they feel like a team with a magic rabbit's foot in their pocket and playing with house money.
How did Missouri get here?
In 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M left the Big 12 and entered the big, bad SEC. When they entered the conference, I felt the Tigers had a chance to have a more immediate impact than their counterpart Texas A&M. In year one, the opposite was true. It was A&M that had the impact and Missouri was left licking it's wounds.
In 2012, the Tigers won just five games and for the first time since 2004, they were left out of a bowl game. They finished 2-6 in the conference with wins over lowly Kentucky and Tennessee.
Missouri was hampered by injuries in 2012 with QB James Franklin banged up all season and star RB Henry Josey missing the entire year. Missouri also had a lot of injuries along their OL which forced the Tigers to shuffle the line playing players out of position and before they were ready to contribute.
This off-season Gary Pinkel also made the difficult decision to replace OC/Recruiting Coordinator David Yost after 15 years with Pinkel. Officially Yost resigned for "personal reasons" but a few months later he resurfaced as the receivers coach for Washington State. Josh Henson, who has been with Mizzou since 2009, was promoted to Offensive Coordinator.
Missouri eased into the 2013 season by playing four out of conference games early and breezing to a 4-0 record. In their first conference game, they went into Nashville and soundly beat a Vanderbilt team that had beaten them the year before in Columbia.
Missouri headed into their toughest stretch of the season (Georgia, Florida, South Carolina) at 5-0 and relatively untested. They caught a banged up, but still ranked #7, Georgia team at the right time but in doing so they also sent a message by outplaying Georgia on the lines of scrimmage in route to a 15 point road victory in which the Tigers finished the game by making plays (whereas the year before it was Georgia that had finished the plays in the second half and won the game). The next week, Missouri went on to rout Florida 36-17 despite being without their starting QB James Franklin.
The worst game of the year for Missouri was the next week when they let Connor Shaw and South Carolina come from behind and beat them in 2OT in a game that Missouri should never have lost. Missouri was in full control of this game but back-up QB Maty Mauk and the offense just stalled in the second half and Shaw worked some mojo to get the Gamecocks back into the game and over the top.
Missouri rebounded and rolled against Tennessee and Kentucky to move to 9-1 with two difficult games left in Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Missouri went into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and picked off #24 Ole Miss 24-10 and this past weekend they beat a tough #19 Texas A&M team 28-21 to reserve their right to play for the SEC Championship. They key play in the A&M game was a 57 yard TD run by Henry Josey (out last season with an injury) with 3:34 left in the game.
Missouri did need a bit of luck to get to the game (as well as health), as did Auburn, but the Tigers played a lot more consistently this season and more importantly they played very well along the lines of scrimmage. The Tigers finished the season first in the SEC in sacks (35), tackles for loss (95) and turnovers gained (26). The Tigers quickly learned what they needed to improve to compete in the SEC and in one season they were able to bounce back from a bad 5-7 year to head to the SEC Championship Game.