ST. LOUIS — It has been a wild ride for the Missouri football team these last few months, but here we are in early December and the Tigers going to play Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
What?!? Who would have predicted this?
Not the media members who voted for the SEC preseason polls in July, that’s for sure.
Mizzou, coming off a 5-7 campaign a year ago, was picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the SEC East. Auburn, which went 3-9 in 2012 and fired its coach, was picked to finish fifth in the SEC West.
Missouri already has an SEC East Division championship but Gary Pinkel’s squad isn’t ready to stop there. These Tigers have answered the call down the stretch, including wins over ranked Ole Miss and Texas A&M the past two weeks, to earn their invite to Atlanta.
Here are three things to watch as No. 5 Mizzou (11-1, 7-1 SEC) meets No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) on Saturday at the Georgia Dome:
AUBURN’S RUN GAME
Tre Mason/John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
Mizzou and Auburn have a lot of similarities.
Mizzou is 15th among FBS schools in points per game (38.8) and 13th in points against (19.4), while Auburn is 18th in points per game (38.6) and 31st in points against (22.5).
While both squads have strong running games, Auburn has an edge — statistically-speaking. The West Division champs average 318.3 yards rushing per contest, which ranks first in the SEC and fifth among FBS schools.
“Their offensive scheme is really good,” Pinkel said. “Their quarterback is a great player. You have a quarterback like a Brad Smith-type athlete right there. They run forms of the triple option with the same principles as the wishbone in a lot of respects. They have a great offensive scheme, and they are very good at it. They have a talented tailback, and some other great players. They present a lot of problems. They have a lot of motioning, especially at the quarterback position. You aren’t going to stop them, instead you will have to contain them the best you can.”
Tre Mason, a 205-pound junior running back, leads Auburn with 1,317 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. Quarterback Nick Marshall has run for 922 yards and 10 scores. Corey Grant, a junior who transferred from Alabama, is averaging 9.8 yards per carry on 60 attempts.
Auburn is averaging 6.3 yards per carry as a team and has scored 39 rushing touchdowns.
“It’s a tough task,” Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner. “It’s a big challenge. They are very diverse and dynamic in what they do with the run. They don’t just line up and run. They can do so much stuff off of the run — quarterback keep, handoff to the wide receivers, zone-read, pop pass. There’s a lot of things that goes into that.”
RECEIVERS GIVE MIZZOU AN EDGE
DGB/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Missouri’s collection of physically imposing wide receivers has earned plenty of attention this season.
Even St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, whose son Trent is a junior reserve safety at Auburn, mentioned the size of Mizzou’s wide receivers when he was asked about the matchup this week.
L’Damian Washington, a 6-foot-4 redshirt senior, and Dorial Green-Beckham, a 6-5 sophomore, and 6-5 senior Marcus Lucas have led the Missouri receiving corps this season.
Washington has 44 catches for a team-high 824 yards, which ranks sixth in the SEC, and 10 touchdowns. Green-Beckham has 49 catches for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns. Lucas has a team-high 50 receptions, which ranks 10th in the SEC, to go along with 596 yards and two touchdowns.
“You feel like if you get one-on-one matchups you’re going to be able to win those matchups,” Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson said of his team’s size advantage on the perimeter. “It doesn’t concern you as much with man coverage and some of those things. People are going to commit to playing man coverage and stack the box on you and give you some problems in the run game, and when you get to that point you have to be able to win one-on-one on the edge. That’s the way it is. When you get into those situations you feel like you have some weapons to do that.”
Missouri is deep as well. Backups Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Jaleel Clark and Darius White have combined for 57 catches, 695 yards and three scores.
FOCUS ON THE RED ZONE
Auburn celebrates after touchdown/Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Auburn has a slight edge, statistically-speaking, in both red zone offense and red zone defense.
Auburn and Missouri rank third and fourth, respectively, in the SEC in red zone offense.
Auburn has scored on 88 percent of its red zone opportunities (44 of 50), with 35 touchdowns (29 rushing, six passing) and nine field goals in 10 tries.
Missouri, meanwhile, has scored on 87.5 percent of its chances in the red zone (49 of 56), with 40 touchdowns (24 rushing, 16 passing) and nine field goals in 13 attempts.
Defensively, Auburn also has a slight edge in red zone defense.
Auburn’s opponents have scored on 70.5 percent of their red zone opportunities (31 of 44), which ranks second in the SEC behind only Alabama (63.6). Auburn’s opponents have 21 touchdowns and 10 field goals in the red zone.
Missouri ranks fourth in the SEC in red zone defense, with its opponents having scored on 81.1 percent of their red zone chances (30 of 37) with 19 touchdowns and 11 field goals.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.