Can you believe the SEC football season ends tomorrow? This season whizzed by like none before. That or this writer is just getting old.
With only one contest remaining — a surprise Tiger on Tiger battle in Atlanta — we’re going to go a little deeper with our game preview today. The SEC Championship Game deserves a little something extra… especially since it doesn’t look like the game will produce a BCS title game participant for the first time in eight years. We’ll show both AU and MU some love today.
So here goes, Auburn versus Missouri in an up-tempo clash in what will be Saturday’s highest-rated football game. Best of luck to both teams and both sets of fans. Your official MrSEC.com SEC title game preview begins now…
#3 Auburn (11-1) vs #5 Missouri (11-1) in Atlanta
TV: 4:00pm ET on CBS
Opening Line: MU -2
Current Line: AU -1.5
Common Opponents: Arkansas State (Missouri 41-19 win, Auburn 38-9 win), Georgia (Missouri 41-26 win, Auburn 43-38 win), Tennessee (Missouri 31-3 win, Auburn 55-23 win), Ole Miss (Missouri 24-10 win, Auburn 30-22 win), Texas A&M (Missouri 28-21 win, Auburn 45-41 win).
Average Score Vs Common Opponents: Missouri 33-16 average win, Auburn 42-27 average win
One To Watch: Missouri’s pass rush versus Nick Marshall. Auburn allowed just 15 sacks all season. That’s the third best number in the SEC. But Saturday they’ll face the league’s best unit at getting to the quarterback. Mizzou has wrung up 37 sacks on the season (about three per game). Michael Sam has 10.5 sacks by his lonesome while fellow D-linemen Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, and Shane Ray all have 4.5 or more. The black and gold Tigers can flat get after opposing signal-callers. But here’s the rub: Auburn’s quarterback ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing yards this season (922 yards on 140 carries). Gus Malzahn’s squad doesn’t throw the ball much, but when they do, MU’s pass rush will have to be controlled. The ends will have to be careful not to get too far upfield. The last thing Mizzou needs to do is create escape routes and running lanes for Marshall on those rare occasions when he is asked to put the ball in the air.
This And That:
1. Speaking of Auburn’s passing game, the Tigers are nowhere near balanced on offense. On the season they had what amounted to a 2-to-1 rush-to-pass ratio (3,819 yards on the ground versus 2,073 through the air). Ironically, the navy and orange Tigers’ most balanced performance (213 rushing yards versus 224 passing yards) came in their lone loss to LSU. Missouri, on the other hand, is the SEC’s most balanced offense. In 2013, Gary Pinkel’s Tigers have rushed for 2,843 yards and passed for 3,031. Being one-dimensional hasn’t hurt Auburn yet, but we’ll still give a slight edge to Mizzou for having two proven means of moving the football.
2. Which team is facing the bigger distraction this week? Pinkel had to come out on Thursday and shoot down rumors that he might leave Missouri for Washington. Meanwhile, Auburn’s players have been glad-handed and back-patted all week down on the Plains. Chris Davis — who won the Iron Bowl for AU with his last-second touchdown return — was given an ovation when he entered one of his classes this week. Missouri had the Pinkel thing, but the possible letdown for Auburn would seem to be a bigger factor on the ol’ psyche. Malzahn will have needed to do a great job of keeping his team focused after they won the state of Alabama’s own version of the Super Bowl.
3. Auburn has been on big stages before. Just three years ago this week the Cam Newton-led Tigers were whipping South Carolina for the SEC title and setting up a trip to Glendale, Arizona and a BCS title clash with Oregon. There are still some Tiger players — along with support staff, coaches, broadcasters, etc — that remember what it’s like to play in an SEC title game and in a national championship game. This is new stuff for Missouri. Pinkel took two previous teams to the Big 12 Championship Game, but his current squad wasn’t part of that show. And everyone involved in Mizzou’s traveling party will be experiencing the magnitude of an SEC title game for the first time. Auburn knows the Georgia Dome. Missouri does not. If one team has the jitters early on, it figures to be the Tigers from Columbia, not the ones from Auburn.
4. Don’t forget about the backup quarterbacks going into this one. As we showed you earlier this week, 11 of the SEC’s 14 schools have had to change starters due to injury at least once this season. James Franklin missed the better part of four games with a shoulder injury. Marshall missed Auburn’s game with Western Carolina and then played only briefly against Florida Atlantic as he nursed a pair of different injuries. With Franklin and Marshall both sure to run tomorrow afternoon, both teams are just one hit away from needing to call on their second-stringers. In Mizzou’s case that’s Maty Mauk who started against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. He’s a dual-threat QB just like Franklin. Auburn backup Jeremy Johnson is a 6-5 pass-first kind of player. His experience came against those aforementioned creampuffs — WCU and FAU. In those two games Johnson attempted 41 passes while rushing just seven times. If both quarterbacks go out on Saturday, Missouri should be able to run their standard offense with Mauk. Auburn would likely dial back on the quarterback runs and pump up the aerial assault.
5. This week, we examined the speed of each SEC offense. Auburn and Missouri rank fourth and fifth, respectively, when it comes to going up-tempo. The three fastest offenses in the league — Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia — all played both AU and MU this season. So which defense did the best job of surviving those no-huddle attacks? Mizzou gave up 1,211 yards and 57 points to that triumvirate. But Auburn yielded a mind-blowing 1,598 yards and 101 points to A&M, UM and UGA. In terms of defending fast offenses like the two that will be on display tomorrow, the advantage goes to Missouri in a big way. That doesn’t mean Auburn won’t be able to move the ball at all. Malzahn’s offense involves more motion than anything Dave Steckel’s defense has seen this season. Missouri’s D is physical, but they’ll also need to play smart tomorrow.
6. Kick off a big SEC football game and those of us at MrSEC.com start counting turnovers. Our own six-season research project showed that turning the ball over just once in an SEC-versus-SEC matchup drops a team’s chances of winning from 72.5% (with zero turnovers) to 61.6% (with one giveaway). Looking at it from another angle, teams that finished an SEC contest plus-two in turnover margin won 80% of the time between 2007 and 2012. So who’s done a better job of protecting the ball this season? Missouri. By a country mile. In SEC games, Pinkel’s squad was plus-11 in turnovers. They were plus-14 overall. Malzahn’s team, however, was minus-one in league play and just plus-one overall. In another SEC-versus-SEC turnover study we posted this week, we showed you that MU forces a takeaway on defense once every 34.9 snaps. Auburn takes the ball away from a foe once every 53.2 plays. More impressive is the fact that Missouri turned the ball over just six times in eight conference game this season — just once every 94.3 snaps. Auburn had 12 turnovers in SEC action (one giveaway every 47.7 snaps). That’s yet another advantage for the East Division champs.
7. In several statistical categories, these squads are almost dead even. Scoring offense: MU 38.8 points per game, AU 38.6 points per game. Total offense in SEC games: AU 461.3 yards per game, MU 459.8 yards per game. Even red zone defense in conference play (allowing touchdowns from inside the 20), Auburn is second best in the conference (51.4% TDs) and Missouri is third best (52.1% TDs). But when it comes to other defensive stats, the advantage clearly goes to Pinkel’s team. Scoring defense in conference games: MU allowed 18.6 points per game, AU allowed 28.0. Rushing defense in league play: MU allowed just 120.7 yards per game (best in the SEC), while AU gave up 183.7 (9th in the SEC). Total defense in SEC play: MU allowed 378.9 yards per game while AU surrendered 458.1 yards per game.
Missouri’s Gotta Defend: Auburn’s special teams units. Davis beat Alabama with a 109-yard return. And that run wasn’t even part of AU’s regular special teams repertoire. The Tigers have four punt returns of 20+ yards (best in the SEC). They also have eight kickoff returns of 30+ yards. Mizzou can’t afford to let AU win the game with a big special teams play.
Auburn’s Gotta Defend: Missouri’s tall receivers. Auburn’s secondary has been scorched on occasion this year. They’ve allowed 44 passes of 20 or more yards, the worst mark in the SEC. They’re also worst in terms of 30+ yarders allowed (with 24) and 40+ yarders allowed (with 12). Now Ellis Johnson’s defense will have to cover L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205), Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 225) and Marcus Lucas (6-5, 220).
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