Unlikely pair to square off in SEC title game - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Unlikely pair to square off in SEC title game

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Auburn running back Tre Mason (21) leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing and will help Auburn try to capture the SEC championship Saturday. (Source: Todd van Emst/Auburn University) Auburn running back Tre Mason (21) leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing and will help Auburn try to capture the SEC championship Saturday. (Source: Todd van Emst/Auburn University)
Henry Josey (20) is a big reason why Missouri has the SEC's second-best running game. (Source: Georgia Athletics) Henry Josey (20) is a big reason why Missouri has the SEC's second-best running game. (Source: Georgia Athletics)

(RNN) – Neither Auburn nor Missouri was expected to compete for a berth in the SEC Championship Game, much less earn one.

Neither team made a bowl game last season, and Auburn had a particularly remarkable turnaround from last year's 3-9 season in which it lost all eight conference games. Missouri last year won two SEC tilts over Kentucky and Tennessee but fell one win short of bowl eligibility.

The routes they took to their respective division championships were different, but their approach was the same.

Auburn is coming off back-to-back dramatic wins against its two biggest rivals, but coach Gus Malzahn said each game is independent of all others on the schedule, and Saturday in Atlanta will be no different.

"Playing for a championship, there's no time to relax," Malzahn said. "Each week, we present a challenge to our team. The team has risen to the challenge each time. The team has found a way to take it a week at a time, and that's what we have to do."

If Missouri coach Gary Pinkel hadn't spoken before Malzahn during the coaches' teleconference Sunday, you would think he just paraphrased his opponents' response in discussing his team.

"We're going to focus on Missouri," Pinkel said. "It's not about who we play, where we play, it's about how we play. We've never emphasized that more than this year. We have great respect for our opponent, but the bottom line is, it's about making plays. It's still about being able to focus and play your best game."

Both teams will be playing their third straight ranked opponent and their sixth overall.

Missouri (11-1, 7-1) has the second-best rushing attack in the SEC, averaging 236 yards per game. Auburn is first, averaging 318. Missouri has the defensive edge, however, ranking second in the conference by allowing 119 yards on the ground per game compared to Auburn's 157, which ranks eighth.

Auburn (11-1, 7-1) is coming off a 296-yard rushing performance against then-No. 1 Alabama, which was in the top five nationally against the run entering the Iron Bowl. The Tigers have two players – running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall – ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing.

That presents a different challenge from anything Missouri has seen this year, and Pinkel said his defense won't be able to afford mistakes that Auburn can exploit.

"Auburn is a great running team and has a scheme that causes a lot of nightmares," he said. "It's going to be about disciplined, physical, assignment football. Hopefully, we can get our scheme down and give our best efforts."

Missouri's defensive front, including end Michael Sam who leads the conference in sacks and tackles for loss, will play a key role in stopping Auburn's ground game.

"We play a lot of players on the defensive side to keep them fresh," Pinkel said. "Coming into the league, you know the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. If you're not good up front, it's hard to win at a high level."

Running back Henry Josey has been Missouri's go-to player all season. But dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and Missouri's trio of tall receivers – L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas – could cause the most trouble for an Auburn secondary ranked next-to-last in the SEC.

"Their receivers are big and long and fast; they're playmakers," Malzahn said. "They do both well – run the football well, throw the football well – and that's the toughest offense to stop most of the time. Our secondary will have to play very well against their receivers."

Missouri earned its berth by closing out the season with a 28-21 win over Texas A&M. They overcame their lone loss of the season to SEC East rival South Carolina.

Auburn needed late-game heroics against both Georgia and Alabama in its final two games. The one loss of the year came on the road to LSU.

This year's SEC championship game is a little different than in past years because the conference may not have a representative in the BCS championship game. Auburn is currently ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings and Missouri is No. 5.

The winner will get a strength of schedule boost from the game, but so will No. 2 Ohio State if it beats No. 10 Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game Saturday.

No. 1 Florida State will play No. 20 Duke on Saturday night, but the Seminoles (12-0) only need to win the game. They don't appear to be in danger of being passed over by the SEC champion. That is a possibility for the Buckeyes (12-0), thanks to a lack of top competition in the Big Ten this season.

Malzahn wouldn't discuss a potential BCS coup, saying only, "our league is the top league in college football."

Mizzou's coach wasn't so reserved. Being ranked lower, his team is in a more difficult position than Auburn, and Pinkel has the added perspective of having been a head coach in the Big XII prior to the school's transition to the SEC last season.

"With any one-loss team, hopefully (strength of schedule) will be taken into consideration," Pinkel said. "I've been in the Big XII, but it didn't take me being in the (SEC) to understand and respect the league. They should look at that and should take strong consideration due to strength of schedule. We're playing a great football team, and we'll see where it goes."

The only thing Auburn and Missouri can do is win the game in front of them and hope for help from Michigan State, Duke or people with votes in the polls that comprise the BCS ranking.

The SEC has won nine of the 15 BCS national championship games, including the last seven, and is one of only two conferences with multiple BCS championships (the Big XII has two). Additionally, the SEC is the only conference to have two teams in the game in the same year, which was also the only time an SEC team lost in the title game.

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