(AP) – 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.