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Auburn, Missouri Face Off in SEC Championship Saturday

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Five months ago, if you said that Auburn and Missouri would play for the SEC Championship, people would have looked at you like you were insane.

Just last year, the Auburn and Missouri programs were in disarray. Auburn arguably had the worst season in school history when they finished 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) and fired head coach Gene Chizik. Missouri played their first season in the SEC. It was embarrassing to say the least. They finished 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC) and much of the fan base called for firing the long-time head coach Gary Pinkel.

Fast forward the 2013 season. First-year Auburn head coach, Gus Malzahn, led the Tigers to an incredible upset over rival and number one Alabama, 34-28. The win gave Auburn the SEC Western Division Championship, it capped an amazing 11-1 (7-1) season, and a number 3 ranking. In their first year, Malzahn and his staff mounted one of the greatest turnarounds in SEC history.

On the same night, Mizzou was tasked with defeating the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies to clinch the SEC Eastern Division. And they did just that. The Tigers played relentlessly the entire game and capped off another improbable season in the SEC. The win gave Missouri a top 5 ranking and the SEC Eastern Division Championship.

Tomorrow, the Tigers play for the SEC Championship. Both have high powered offenses that can score points and solid defenses.

On the offensive side of the ball, the reason that both of these teams are able to run and pass on every team that they played starts with the offensive line. Auburn’s offensive line is third in the SEC in sacks allowed this season, only 15, and Mizzou is eighth with 22.

Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is the key to Auburn's potent rushing attack / Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is the key to Auburn’s potent rushing attack / Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Looking at the number of rushing plays that went ten or more yards, Auburn and Missouri both rank first and second in the conference in long rushing plays. Auburn leads the conference with a staggering 121 rushes that went for ten or more yards and Missouri is second with 91. Long runs aren’t possible without solid play on the offensive line.

Both rushing attacks are at the top of the SEC, but Auburn has the clear advantage running the ball. They rank fifth in the country, averaging 318.3 rushing yards per game. Junior Tre Mason leads the SEC in rushing with 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns. Auburn also has the SEC’s eighth leading rusher, their quarterback Nick Marshall. Marshall has 922 yards rushing and ten touchdowns.

Missouri is no slouch either, averaging 236.9 rushing yards a game, which is 18th best in the country. Junior running back Henry Josey is ninth in the SEC in rushing with 951 yards on 153 carries and 13 touchdowns.

Auburn has the advantage rushing the ball, but Missouri has a clear advantage through the air. Missouri played two quarterbacks this season since senior James Franklin was injured. Maty Mauk played in Franklin’s absence and the offense never missed a beat. Both quarterbacks led the Missouri passing attack to average 252.6 yards per game, which ranks 44th in the country.

That may not seem like much, but when compared to Auburn’s passing stats, it is. Marshall throws the ball when he needs to keep the defense honest. But he is much more effective running the option, which is a staple in Malzahn’s offense. Auburn only averages 172.8 passing yards per game, which puts them at 108th in the nation.

Missouri's James Franklin has been electric since his return / Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Missouri’s James Franklin has been electric since his return / Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Marshall had times when he struggled, but for the majority of the season he has been efficient through the air. He has completed 119 of his 201 passes on the season for 1627 yards, 11 touchdowns and just five interceptions. On the other side, Mizzou’s Franklin has completed 162 of his 242 passes for 1952 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Mauck hasn’t been as efficient but he’s not far behind. He completed 66 of his 129 passes for 1039 yards with ten touchdowns and two interceptions.

It doesn’t hurt that just about every Missouri receiver is comparable to the Jolly Green Giant. The Tigers’ three leading receivers are all at least 6’4 and weigh 205 pounds or more. Nobody was able to slow them down all year and it’s going to be extremely hard for the Auburn defensive backs to be the first.

L’Damian Washington (6’4″, 205 lbs.) leads the team in receiving with 824 yards on 44 receptions for ten touchdowns. Dorial Green-Beckham (6’6″, 225 lbs.) is second with 686 yards, 49 receptions and ten touchdowns. Marcus Lucas (6’5″, 220 lbs.) is third on the team with 596 yards, 50 receptions and two touchdowns. Mizzou will get their passing yards. It’s a question of whether the Auburn defensive backs can contain them enough.

Both defenses are going to need to play their best game of the year in order to come away with a win. Auburn may be fifth in the nation and lead the SEC in rushing, but Missouri’s defensive line has been wreaking havoc all season on opponent’s in the backfield. Mizzou ranks second in the SEC in rushing defense only giving up 119. 08 yards per game. While that is impressive and could help the Tigers slow down Auburn’s rushing attack, the team that ranks first in the SEC in rushing defense is Alabama, who gave up nearly 300 yards on the ground last week to Auburn.

Both passing defenses are atrocious. Auburn and Missouri rank 13th and 14th respectively in the SEC in passing defense. That is a massive advantage to the Missouri passing attack. Marshall has shown that he can throw the ball more than 20 times a game this year for Auburn. He threw for over 300 yards against a good Mississippi State secondary early in the season, so this could be a chance for Malzahn to showcase his passing ability should the running game stall.

Even though Missouri gives up 266.3 passing yards a game, they still lead the SEC in interceptions with 18. You could argue that the reason their passing defense was so poor statistically is because teams are playing from behind and begin throwing the ball a lot more. Even then though, if you’re giving up that many yards a game on average, something is wrong.

The defensive line was solid this year for both teams. Mizzou and Auburn both rank in the top four of the conference in sacks. Missouri ranks first with 37 sacks on the season and Auburn ranks fourth with 25. Both teams can get pressure on the quarterback, so look for some crucial plays from the big hog mollies on defense.

It’s not the Alabama/Florida-type of match-up that most are used to seeing in the SEC Championship game. This has potential to be an all-time great, because both teams are so evenly matched. The X factor in this game will be the Auburn secondary. If they are able to contain the Missouri wide receivers, then the Tigers should have their first SEC championship since 2010. But, if Franklin is able to pick and choose all game, it could end up in a shootout and Missouri will get it’s first SEC Championship as newcomers to the conference.

HottyToddy.com Prediction:

No. 3 Auburn-35

No. 5 Missouri-27

–Justin Taylor, Associate Editor, HottyToddy.com

–You can email Justin at justin.taylor@hottytoddy.com

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