Preview: Mizzou takes on Auburn for all the SEC marbles

Talk about an SEC surprise.

Just a year ago, the

Auburn Tigers won all of three games and fired their coach. Just a year

ago, the Missouri Tigers looked very much like a school that had no

business joining the mighty Southeastern

Conference.

Well, look at the matchup for Saturday’s

championship game.

Tigers vs.

Tigers.

“We’re playing a very good Missouri team

that’s very similar to us,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think

about both teams being very hungry. We were both kind of down at the

bottom at the start of the year. But we’ve improved. I feel like we’ve

improved each game. They would probably say the same

thing.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what Missouri coach

Gary Pinkel says.

“We just kept getting better,” he

said Sunday. “Our kids played hard every single game at a very high

level. I’ve been around a lot of good football teams, but I’ve rarely

been around a team like that, playing at the level they did on a

consistent basis.”

No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC)

earned its trip to Atlanta with one of the most remarkable victories in

college football history, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for

the winning touchdown on the final play to beat two-time defending

national champion Alabama 34-28. (Somehow, these Tigers managed to

surpass their previous Miracle on the Plains, the 2-week-old “Immaculate

Deflection” victory over Georgia.)

Meanwhile,

fifth-ranked Missouri (11-1, 7-1) locked up the SEC East by holding off

Texas A&M and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel

28-21 on Saturday, showing off a stout defense that helped push those

Tigers to the top of the division in a year when traditional powerhouses

Georgia and Florida were plagued by injuries and failed to meet

expectations.

What a change from Missouri’s debut

season in the SEC, when Pinkel’s team went 5-7 and won just two

conference games after moving over from the Big

12.

“I thought we would have a very good football

team,” he insisted. “But we could have been a very good football team

and not be sitting here 11-1, either.”

For all the

giddiness in Auburn and Missouri, their remarkable turnarounds could

actually work against the SEC extending its already unprecedented streak

of seven straight national titles. Formerly top-ranked Alabama slipped

to fourth in all three of the major polls, replaced at the top by

Florida State. The only other unbeaten team from a major conference,

Ohio State, moved up to second.

If the Seminoles

defeat surprising Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, as

expected, and Ohio State stays perfect with a victory over Michigan

State in the Big Ten championship game, those teams would likely meet

for the BCS title.

Auburn isn’t giving up, though,

already lobbying for a spot in Pasadena if it knocks off Missouri at the

Georgia Dome.

“I feel like we are destined to finish

very strong,” safety Jermaine Whitehead

said.

Missouri believe it deserves a shot at the

national title if it beats Auburn.

“Any one-loss team

in the SEC (should be considered) just because of the strength of

schedule,” Pinkel said. “Hopefully that will be taken into

consideration.”

Auburn’s 3-9 season led to the firing

of coach Gene Chizik two years after winning a national

championship.

Enter Malzahn, a former assistant at

Auburn.

“I knew we had some talent, but they had been

through a storm the year before,” he said. “I was really just focused

on getting our edge back, playing good Auburn football. I didn’t have

any expectations as far as number of wins. It was actually real simple:

Get our edge back, play together and improve each week. By the end of

the year, the goal was to be a pretty good football

team.”

That they are, though it took plenty of good

fortune to win the SEC West. There was a deflected 73-yard touchdown

pass on fourth-and-18 to beat Georgia in the final minute. Then came a

play that put that one to shame – Davis’ touchdown return from the back

of the end zone, after Alabama’s attempt at a game-winning 57-yard field

goal came up a few yards short.

Malzahn, though,

said it’s imperative that Auburn forget about the remarkable victory as

quickly as possible. It’s got to play another team known as the Tigers, a

team that also feels like it’s got destiny on its

side.

To show where his mind is, Malzahn hung around

the office late Saturday watching some Missouri

film.

“It was a great night, a great win for us as a

program and all that,” Malzahn said. “But we’ve got to put it behind us

now and move forward.”

Auburn limited the Tide to

seven points in the second half and its powerful rushing attack rolled

up 296 yards, led by Tre Mason (164, one TD) and quarterback Nick

Marshall (99 on 17 carries, one score). That formula could prove crucial

against Missouri, which is 17th in the FBS in total offense at 489.5

yards per game — two spots below Auburn at

491.0.

Quarterback James Franklin leads a

high-powered Missouri attack that features two receivers, L’Damian

Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham, with 10 touchdowns apiece. Four

Missouri players have rushed for more than 400 yards, with leading

rusher Henry Josey (951) piling up 13 TDs on the

ground.

Franklin was outstanding against the Aggies,

passing for 233 yards and two scores while running 18 times for 80

yards.

These teams will be meeting for only the

second time, the first being Missouri’s 34-17 victory in the 1973 Sun

Bowl.